I’ve been prescribing antidepressant medicines for almost twenty years, but something entirely new happened to me this week.
I was seeing a man in follow-up after prescribing an antidepressant, Lexapro, to him last month. Years of a dysfunctional & unfullfilling marriage had resulted in increasing struggles with despair. He described sharp pains in his chest when waves of despair would suddenly come over him, and frequent crying and occasional contemplation of suicide despite pastoral counseling.
So far, not an unusual clinical picture, one that I see every week in a family practice office. But his visit this week took a sudden veer: he had taken himself off the Lexapro. I asked him, “Did it work?” And yes, it had: the despair, the crying spells, and the chest pains left within days. “So, did you have any side effects?” No, none at all, was the reply. Bewildered, I asked him why he had stopped the medicine. He answered, “I couldn’t cry anymore.” “But wasn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that what the medicine was supposed to help you with?” I countered.
“Well, I got more than what I bargained for,” he stated. He went on to explain that he started to realize he couldn’t shed tears anymore, any tears, even when he WANTED to. Listening to a sad song, agonizing in prayer, gripped by a moving worship hymn— all situations where he FELT like crying, where he WANTED to shed a tear, and yet he couldn’t anymore. He thought the medicine was robbing him of something, some part of his humanity, something important. He said it somehow felt wrong not to be even able to cry.
Strange, I thought. I have a tissue box in all my exam rooms; they get used almost every day. I have often quoted John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”) to my patients to give them permission to weep; that if the perfect God-man had shed tears of sorrow then there was certainly no sin in them weeping too. But I had never thought of being able to cry as something so fundamentally necessary to humanity living in a fallen world. I now realize that it is.
But his (and our) tears are only temporary. One famous prophecy in the Bible says that one day that God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). So within a few days off Lexapro my patient’s chest pains and despair returned. But he’s “happier”– he said it was worth the trade. And yes, he’s shedding tears again. At least for now.
This month’s edition of the devotional magazine Tabletalk is on the topic of grief. Because of the recent tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, Ligonier has put the main articles from this issue on their website here.
All of the articles are superb and tackle different aspects of grief, but the most personal is from R. C. Sproul Jr. simply entitled Hope. Here is a quote:
Whatever sorrow God calls me to go through, He calls me to go through for the express purpose of remolding me into the image of His Son. Every cancerous cell growing in my body, every deadly chemical that the nurses pour into my body to fight the cancer, all of it exists to make me more like Jesus.
That is gutsy grief, to be able to personally face tragedy and hardship in your life with a firm resolve to view it through the eyes of faith. Would we all be able to walk with God thusly.
When God allows trials to come into our lives, it often results in humility and brokenness.
That is a good thing. God can use brokenness. In fact, the parable of the seed and soils shows that God can do little with a soul until it is broken up—no seed will grow on the surface of hardened earth, it has to go deep into broken up soil.
Likewise, little growth of a soul will happen unless we are humble and broken before God.
But any farmer knows that plowing is not enough. A plowed field that is not immediately seeded will soon be full of weeds.
And so it is with us. When God plows, we must sow, or we will be filled with weeds. The man who unjustly loses his job will be broken, but will his broken soul grow the tares of bitterness anger revenge or despair, or will they grow patience, gratefulness, and joy? The woman whose husband leaves her? The teen who is scorned in school? The missionary who labors without any conversions for years?
In all of the brokenness that living in a fallen world entails, we must be careful to always be sowing the seeds of God’s truth in our broken hearts in order to have a garden that will one day be filled with fruit.
In 1982, a group of educators looked at hundreds of applications submitted to them from West Virginia science students. They looked at various qualifications, including achievements and test scores, and out of all of the applicants they chose two students. Two students they considered worthy enough to be called the best science students in the state. Those two students greatly rejoiced that they had been counted worthy, for they received the honor of attending the National Youth Science Camp on behalf of the state of West Virginia that year. Yes, I know the story, for I was one of the two.
I mention that story just to give a vivid contrast to another story of people being counted worthy:
When they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:40-42 NKJV)
These men had been counted worthy by a greater authority than a review board; they had been counted worthy by God Himself. And these men rejoiced that God had counted them worthy. But what honor did God bestow on them? What were they worthy enough for? The honor of being beaten and suffering shame for the name of Jesus.
Writer and speaker Voddie Baucham has called the response of the apostles in this passage “one of the most personally challenging truths in the Bible.” There is much in the Bible that cuts against the grain of our experience and common sense, but perhaps nothing more than God counting people worthy of suffering for the sake of Jesus. Just a few chapters later God announces that the apostle Paul “is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16 NKJV)
I don’t know about you, but my game plan of recruiting someone to be a follower of Jesus doesn’t usually include showing him the “many things he must suffer” for the name of Jesus.
This passage raises a lot of questions in my mind, many that I don’t have simple, pat answers to. What does God look for to count someone worthy of suffering? What grace brought the apostles to earnestly rejoice knowing that God had chosen them to suffer for the sake of Christ? What would be my honest response if God chose me worthy to suffer, really suffer, for His name? I don’t know everything about this whole business of suffering and joy, but I think that humbly and honestly looking to God for the answers is a worthy endeavor.
When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Luke 18:22-23 ESV)
The rich young ruler was sad. In fact, he was “very sad.” However, I did not realize how sad he really was until I found the only other place in the Bible where this Greek word form is used. Jesus uses the same word in the garden of Gethsemane:
Then Jesus said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38)
Think about this for a minute: The rich young ruler was in the same category of sorrow (in the Greek) at the thought of giving up his riches as Jesus was at the thought of going to the cross.
Why was this young man so distressed?
The answer is obvious: He loved money and he had lots of it. He cherished and valued his money above anything, even above his eternal soul, even above God.
Jesus gave him an opportunity, his “opportunity of a lifetime”—He told the young ruler the secret he had been searching for, He gave him the chance to have eternal life and walk with God. All he had to do was to walk away from the one thing that he had cherished most, the one thing that he had loved with all his heart.
He had the opportunity of a lifetime. And he chose to walk away.
But the young ruler wasn’t the only one in anguish of heart that day. In the next verse, Luke tells us that as the ruler walked away Jesus “looked at him with sadness”—yes, the same Greek word. Picture it: a man walking away from his Savior and eternal life because he couldn’t let go of some baubles that he could keep for only a few years, and Jesus deeply grieving because of the foolish man’s choice to embrace a lesser treasure than himself, to his own eternal dammnation.
This is exactly why Christ told us that the first and greatest commandment was that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37). Nothing should take the place of God in our heart; nothing should be before Him.
As we encounter Jesus, He will give us our own “opportunity of a lifetime”—He will tell us what we need to walk away from, He will show us what we are cherishing in our heart to the detriment of our love for Him. Whenever Jesus shows us what we must give up, it will be a time of anguish. May we choose the path of life, the path to give up whatever “riches” we hold in our heart or in our hands, and to wholeheartedly follow Jesus.