“Dad!” Victoria said. “I do not want you to pour syrup on my pancake!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I want Mom to,” she said.
“Mom is getting ready for church,” I said. “It will be a little while before she’ll be downstairs to pour your syrup.”
Anna arrived on the scene. “I will let Anna spread peanut butter on my pancake and pour syrup on it,” Victoria said, like a queen giving a land grant to some faithful noble.
“OK,” Anna said.
As Anna began to spread the peanut butter, Victoria began to critique her effort. “You missed some spots!” Victoria said, referring to the peanut butter. Then, Anna poured the syrup. “Anna, none of the syrup stuck to the pancake,” Victoria wailed. “It is just in a puddle around it.”
So the distressing breakfast meal continued. Few of our children are “morning people.” They do tend to gain a little more positive outlook later in the day.
Even for short bursts, it is discouraging to deal with this sort of attitude. My mind works in strange ways and I began to ask myself what the appropriate way is to respond or encourage someone who is dealing with Depression.
Fortunately, I was teaching a Sunday School lesson from the second half of the Book of Ruth.
Naomi is one of the main characters in Ruth. She was a woman from Bethlehem who journeyed with her husband and two sons to Moab because of a famine that was ravaging Israel. There in Moab she buried her husband and sons. After about ten years, she returned to Israel with her son’s widow, Ruth.
Even though Naomi never came to my office for an evaluation to see if she met the DSM V (the psychiatric manual for mental illness) criteria for Major Depression, I feel pretty confident she would have met these criteria.
On her arrival back in her hometown, Naomi told the women there, “Do not call me Naomi [Pleasant]; call me Mara [Bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”
This was a time before counselors, antidepressants, and psychiatrists. I think it is instructive to read how Ruth responded to her depressed mother-in-law. Maybe we can learn how better to love friends and family who are dealing with mental anguish.
Ruth Accepted Naomi’s Suffering as Real
There is a real tendency to think you can change someone’s mental outlook simply by talking to them and sharing truth about their situation with them. Ruth could have said, “You know, Naomi, things aren’t so bad. God has given you a lot of blessings. In fact, some of our neighbors are a lot worse off than we are.”
This doesn’t work. When people are struggling with Depression, they “know” that there are people who are worse off than they are. In their heads, they know that God is good, but their heart is so full of tears that they can’t move off of that feeling.
I suppose I could keep in my office flip books of images from Concentration Camps or photos of malnourished children from the horn of Africa for people to look at to treat their depression, but that wouldn’t move their emotional meter.
When we respond in anger or condescension to people who are dealing with mental anguish, we only succeed in driving a wedge between us and them. We will not provide the healing that they desperately need.
Ruth Chose to be What Naomi Lacked
Ruth never told her mother-in-law, “I will take the place of the husband and sons you lost.” Ruth was wise enough to know that nothing could take the place of Elimelech or her deceased husband, but Naomi didn’t really need a replacement for these dead men. She needed something else.
On the way back from Moab, Naomi told Ruth and her other daughter-in-law, Orpah, to return to their families’ homes. Naomi had a number of reasons that she listed why they should leave her, but it all added up to her telling Ruth and Orpah that Naomi didn’t think she was worth staying with. Naomi had no future or value, why would they tie their lives to her?
When someone with depression tells you to go, they are actually giving you a plea to stay. “Tell me that I am worth staying with,” is the unsaid message. Ruth understood this and responded with her famous statement, “Intreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee…”
Depressed people fear loss and abandonment. They need to clearly hear from their friends and family not only that they will not be left alone. They need to hear that they are worth staying with.
Ruth Worked at the Relationship
Maybe Naomi worked at maintaining her relationship with Ruth, but it sure looks like Ruth was doing most of the heavy lifting. This is not surprising.
People who are dealing with depression do not initiate things. They hardly have energy to do the bare minimum of activities that are required of them each day. They will not pick up the phone and call friends and they definitely don’t schedule lunch dates.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t want contact. It simply means that their friends will need to be the ones to initiate it.
That’s what Ruth did and what we should do as well.
Ruth Continued to Include Naomi in her Life
Ruth didn’t know anyone in Bethlehem, when she arrived, except for Naomi. It wasn’t surprising that she spent most of her time with Naomi. Over time she met lots of other people, particularly the man she ended up marrying, Boaz.
Despite her new acquaintances, Ruth continued to include Naomi in her life. Depressed friends can be a bit draining to spend time with and so it is easy to neglect including them in our lives. That is the opposite of what they need from us.
By the end of the book, Naomi seems to have found joy again. This recovery happened because of a faithful friend and a God who used all of the events in Naomi’s life for good.
There are other things I could mention that aren’t found in Ruth. People need to be encouraged to seek treatment. Short term (or even long term) medication is far better than a lifetime of mental anguish.
We must not jump to the conclusion that there are sin issues in someone’s life. I am not sure why people are so quick to identify mental health issues as being divine punishment. Wouldn’t uncontrolled diabetes or severe COVID be just as likely to be the result of moral failures?
Perhaps the most important thing to learn from the story of Naomi is that God was always working in her life. When healing came, it was not the result of miraculous events, but rather through God’s use of human instruments.
In the same way, God will use us, as His instruments, to bring healing into the lives of suffering people, if we just let Him.