2014 was a dark year for me, by God’s grace and with a lot of support from my wife and kids I lived through an awful valley of depression. Thankfully, I am now doing OK, but the experience has caused me to reconsider some of what I read in the Bible in a new light. One such thing is the exhortation to not fear:
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV)
Do not fear or be in dread, the Lord your God goes with you. He will not leave or forsake you. For those of us who live in the ambiguity of faith and depression these are astonishing words.
An impossible command
Firstly, to be depressed and told not to fear or dread is an impossible thing. Fear, dread, anxiety are hallmark traits of this mental illness and those who are unwell cannot prevent these emotions and associated thoughts from occurring. Yet the Bible consistently commands us to do the impossible, for example:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (James 1:2 ESV)
Normal people do not consider it joy when things are going badly, they get upset, annoyed, grumpy and sad. Joy in such situations springs either from some sort of delusion or from a hope or goal which is unaffected by the current circumstances. The command to have joy or to rejoice is rife in the New Testament.
What is the point in commanding something that is humanly impossible to fulfill?
Moses, the prophets, the apostles and God Himself are well aware of our weaknesses and that while we might be willing in spirit to live a life of purity, holiness and discipleship, in the messiness of real life it is usually only a short time before we stumble and fail to live up to our high aspirations (see Mark 14:38). This is true for each of us as individuals and even on a national scale for historical Israel.
Failure in obedience to God to inevitable, but sometimes we are like Peter and cannot be told so have to experience it first hand. Then once we are faced with the shattering truth of our failure, inability and sin, we say to God, “don’t come near me, I am too sinful” (see Luke 5:8). At this point we are given the promise of God’s presence:
The LORD your God who goes with you.
The unshakeable promise
Like the kid facing a bully whose Dad says, “Don’t worry, I will come with you”, God promises to cross over the Jordan river into the land of Canaan with the Israelites to face their enemies.
Remember that this is the God who parted the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army, who opened the earth to swallow those who challenged His authorised spokesman, and faithfully provided food for the horde of Isrealites for 40 years in a desert. God is powerful, well worth having beside you in a fight.
How about when the ‘enemy’ is from within? When my fear is fueled by my own heart and mind? Power and strength are great but I am anxious that could crush me.
In Jesus we see much more of who God is than unlimited power, Isaiah says this about Him:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
In fact, to make it clear, Jesus also promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Whenever the same idea is repeated in the Bible it is to emphasise that it is important and can be trusted. Even in the depths of despair when it feels as if God has deserted me, I can trust that He determined long ago not to do so.
An unseeable promise
But I still do not see or sense God near me. This is not surprising when God is described in the Bible as “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) with Jesus telling us that, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).
What then did Jesus mean when He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” yet about a month later the disciples saw with their own eyes as He ascended into heaven?
God is spirit, and Jesus had previously told His disciples, Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you. (John 16:7 ASV). The Comforter, (also translated as ‘Helper’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Advocate’) is the Holy Spirit and this is the One who is promised to never leave us or forsake us.
As Spirit we cannot interact or sense God through our physical senses. However, we are not only physical beings, we have a spirit too and God gives life to our spirit through rebirth by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This means that my spirit can commune with the Holy Spirit who is always present.
I may not be able to feel it through my senses, but I can worship God, pray to Him, cry out to Him and be heard and helped by Him all in the realm of the spiritual no matter what my physical, mental or emotional state. He will not leave, He will not abandon me, and He can strengthen me by His Spirit. Fear and despair may come, but in my despair God’s power is undiminished and His resolve to be with me and strengthen me step by step, breath by breath through the darkness is backed by repeated promises through the Bible.