Bathing in Dirty Rivers
Experienced US pastor Ronald 'Dee' Vaughan speaks about the steps he had to take to deal with his depression and how he communicated this to his church in a sermon.
Bathing in Dirty Rivers
Read the story of Namann - 2 Kings 5:1-14 - read online
Naaman was a great man. He was, the scriptures tell us, a valiant soldier. He was a leader, commanding the armies of the nation of Aram. He was successful, leading his army to victory. His master, the King, held him in high regard. He was a great man, but he had a great problem. Underneath his armor and all his military regalia, Naaman’s body was rotting. He was a leper. His problem was taking his life away from him, a little at a time. He needed to be healed, but didn’t know any way that miracle could happen.
Naaman receives a message of hope from a very unlikely source. His wife’s servant girl, captured in a raid upon Israel, tells her mistress that Elisha, the prophet in her homeland, can cure Naaman. Feeling a surge of hope, Naaman asks the king’s permission to travel to a rival kingdom to seek help. The king sends him enthusiastically, with a letter requesting safe passage and a large gift of gratitude to give to the prophet for his healing work.
Naaman arrives in Israel and things begin to get complicated. The king of Israel thinks this request for healing is a trick intended to pick a fight and resume hostilities. Elisha gets word that the king is bent out of shape and offers to take this patient off of his hands. Don’t ask a politician to do a prophet’s work. When Naaman, military leader and hero of Aram, arrives at Elisha’s door, the prophet doesn’t come out to greet him. He doesn’t even welcome him into his home. Instead, he sends a message, by way of his servant, with instructions for Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times in order to be healed.
Now Naaman is angry. His search for healing isn’t going at all as he had expected. He thought Elisha would greet him face to face, call upon God, wave his hand over Naaman’s rotting flesh, and he would be cured. That’s not at all what happened. Elisha didn’t do anything for him. He merely sent word about what Naaman would have to do for himself. And when the message came, Naaman didn’t like the prescription. Elisha told him to bathe himself in the muddy murky waters of the Jordan River seven times. Naaman didn’t like the looks of the Jordan. He had better rivers back home, he believed. Why couldn’t he just bathe there? Naaman was so frustrated with the prophet’s advice that “he turned and went off in a rage.” He was walking away. He’d had enough of Elisha’s medical advice. He wasn’t going to immerse himself in any dirty river once, much less seven times, no matter what Elisha said.
The story might have ended very sadly right here, if not for the caring counsel of Naaman’s servants. They come to him and ask, “If Elisha had asked you to do some really hard thing, like sitting through a sermon series on leprosy, to get well, wouldn’t you do it? So why not do what he says? Swallow your pride and take a few dips in the Jordan. You just might get your life back.”
Naaman did get his life back, but not until he realized that he wasn’t too good to bathe in a dirty river. Healing required him to do some things he just didn’t want to do.
Depression is not an academic subject for me. Depression is the title of a very dark difficult chapter of my life. I, like Naaman, was a respected person whose life was rotting away underneath the armor of my pastoral persona. One of the promises I made to myself and to God was, that if I got out of that valley alive, I would try to use that experience to help others. What I’m sharing with you is one way I’m trying to keep that promise.
In order to defeat depression, I had to learn a tough but necessary lesson from Naaman. If you want to find the healing you need, you’ll have to learn it too.
Healing will require you to do some things you don’t want to do. You, like Naaman, will have to bathe in what appear to you to be some dirty rivers.
Naaman was told to bathe himself in the Jordan seven times. I want to tell you about seven tough steps you may have to take in order to defeat depression. I, like Naaman, resented and resisted every one of these. But, like Naaman, I had people in my life who urged me to see that getting my life back was more than worth a dip in a dirty river.
Admit to Yourself and Others That You Are Depressed
What do you first tell yourself and others when you sense something is wrong with you emotionally?
I’m just tired.
I’m letting work get to me.
I need a day off.
I’m not getting enough sleep.
I have a lot on my mind.
Sometimes these explanations of bad days are true. Other times we use words like these to avoid the truth that we are slipping into depression. What are the signs you need to recognize in yourself or others that signal depression?
Withdrawing from People
Sleeping Too Much or Too Little
Loss of Interest and Pleasure
Chronic Aches and Pains that have no medical explanation.
Sudden Weight Gain or Loss
Keeping these symptoms to yourself will only make things worse. As the Psalmist says,
(Psalm 32:3)When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
Your first dip in the healing river is to admit to yourself and others that you are depressed. Naming your struggle leads you to a second tough step.
Talk to Your Doctor
When I realized I was sick, I resisted telling my doctor. He was also my friend. I wondered if he would somehow think less of me. But the day I told him, “I’m not doing very well right now,” with tears falling off of my face, was the day I began my journey toward healing. Proverbs says,
(Proverbs 15:22) Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
Your doctor is one of the people you need on your team to defeat depression. What your doctor asks you to do may feel like another dip in a dirty river.
I have several people in my life who are diabetic. I have never once thought of saying to one of them,
“If you were a stronger person, you wouldn’t need that insulin.”
“If you would get things right with God, your blood sugar would be normal.”
I’m grateful that medicine puts my friends’ bodies back in balance and allows them to live more normal lives. So why do we beat ourselves up when the doctor asks us to take medicine for depression? When you need them, antidepressants do much the same thing as insulin. The medicine helps put your body back in balance so you can live a more normal life. It’s not dope. It’s not an escape. It’s a way to make your mind more normal while you heal. To many, medication seems like a dirty river, but it’s one that most people need to defeat depression.
The next dip in the river is the one I resisted the most.
Work with Depression Specialists
After a few weeks, my family doctor was wise enough to realize that he didn’t have the specialized training I needed to get better. So, very slowly and diplomatically, he said he wanted to refer me to a specialist. “A psychiatrist?” I shot back at him. Sensing my resistance to this step, my doctor began to describe a doctor he knew well who was a great listener, valued spiritual resources, and would, he was sure, connect well with me. I didn’t know if he was sending me to a new doctor or setting me up for a blind date! I agreed to go, but I didn’t want to go. I put off making an appointment. Finally, with my wife Linda’s increasingly insistent encouragement, I made an appointment and went to this new doctor’s office.
I learned a great deal about myself sitting in that psychiatrist’s waiting room. I was afraid an employee or another patient would recognize me and somehow my life would be ruined. God, the Master Teacher, proved to me that was not true by sending several people into that waiting room over my first few visits who knew me. I didn’t die. I learned that I’m not above needing help some times. I needed a specialist. I found one who was a faithful guide and became a cherished friend. He helped me reclaim my life.
Don’t do what Naaman almost did. Don’t walk away from the help you need. Take the plunge in that dirty river.
A specialist can help you with the right medicine, but they’ll ask you to take another difficult dip in the dirty healing river.
Face How You’re Living Your Life
Along with my doctor, I worked with a counselor to see what I could learn about myself and how to strengthen my health. One day, I told him how frustrated I was that, after several tries, no medicine had yet worked for me. He answered me with a word of great wisdom. He said,
“This is not just about finding the right medicine. This is about how you’re living your life.”
If you suffer with depression you don’t just need the right medicine. You need to free yourself from faulty thinking, self-defeating habits, an unhealthy lifestyle, lies about yourself, about God, about your life. No one wants to sign up for this class, but if depression puts you in it, you can learn a great deal if you will.
What you do with what you learn is the next dip in the river.
Put New Discoveries into Practice
At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that the wise person, the one whose life endures the storms, is the one who hears His words, then puts them into practice. A fool hears the truth but does nothing with it. Hearing without doing produces a life that collapses when tough times come. One of the most important questions you must answer in the journey toward healing is,
“What am I doing with what depression is teaching me?”
I’m eating a healthier diet.
I’m exercising regularly.
I’ve given up my job of controlling the world.
I’ve learned to say “no.”
I’ve stopped trying to fix people and started loving them.
I’ve stopped expecting anyone else to make me happy.
I’m investing time in people who bring out the best in me.
I’ve living with a new sense of purpose.
Let me name one final dip in the healing river.
Use What Pain Has Taught You to Help Others
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus tells Simon Peter that he is headed for a dark difficult time, a time when he will disappoint himself and deny Jesus. Then, only in Luke’s gospel, Jesus adds these words,
(Luke 22:32, CEB) “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”
Your greatest hurt can become your greatest ministry. When you come back from depression, you'll have wisdom, empathy, and compassion that can help others find healing. The gift of healing is truly yours when you use it to help others.
The river of healing from depression may seem strange and cold and dirty. But don’t walk away. Your life is worth the work. Step into the river.
Ronald "Dee" Vaughan is pastor of St. Andrews Baptist Church, Columbia, SC, USA. He is author of Seeing in the Dark: Biblical Meditations for People Dealing with Depression