Have you ever walked through a valley of despair?  I think we’ve all known what it’s like to have something weighing on us, trying to pull us under and make us unproductive in the kingdom-life God has for us. As different as each of our painful places can be, God remains the same: bigger than our wounds and active in redeeming and rescuing us from the darkness trying to take over.

joy healing suffering depression

I’ve been walking through a valley this past spring and early summer, one where grief and isolation mixed to produce sadness that lingered long past its welcome and felt way too heavy to carry.

Though it wasn’t that long ago, that was then, and this is now: I’ve moved through to a place of lightness, and my joy has been returned to me. I’m grateful to God for lifting the shadow and for his mercy keeping me near him when my feelings, on the other hand, were out of control.

I missed blogging my usual seasonal “What I Learned” post in the spring mainly because I was too busy surviving my life at the end of the school year to really learn from it right then!

But with a little space from that intense time, God has graciously clarified some of what he’s teaching me about moving out of the valley of despair and into deeper, more solid joy – and how to hold onto it now.

1.) I must pay more careful attention to what feeds my emotional health and do the things God created me to enjoy.

The biggest practical lesson I’ve learned through this is that meaningful, fun interactions with people feed my emotional well-being more than I realized, and I’ve finally accepted that’s a need for me, understanding that God uniquely created me to thrive in friendship and relating to others. I’ve learned I’m not the introvert I thought I was! Wow, I had that wrong for years. Sure, some alone time is critical, but a season of prolonged solitude has not brought out the best in me.

Of course, this is a challenge moving somewhere new, since it obviously takes time to build friendships and find community, but now that I’ve seen how isolation drains my soul, I don’t want to go back to life without a healthy amount of friend-time! I’d been discouraged and weary of the “building” stage of being new, but I’m accepting this about me: I need people and friends, and I experience the joy of the Lord more when this is happening in my life! So people-time has to be a new priority on my calendar, and I’ve got to get back to building it.

2.) I can’t be so afraid of God’s gifts becoming idols that I run from embracing and enjoying his gifts.

Now that I’ve seen what it looks like to try to pour out my life from an empty cup (it’s NOT pretty!), I understand better the particular gifts from God that help fill me up and that resisting them is unwise. For the first 6 months of so after moving to Dallas, God kept showing me how I’d relied too much on people, and leaving my beloved community revealed where I’d let past friendships inform my identity and decision-making to the point that I wasn’t listening to the Lord as I should. It was conviction necessary to work through, but recently I’ve better understood that friendship and living in deep community aren’t the actual problems but rather that in those things my heart can stray. Now I get it: Relationships with people are gifts that pour energy into me, and I don’t need to downplay their importance. I need to receive the gifts God has for me there, continuing to pursue Jesus above all. 

I’ve been this way far too long: scared to enjoy the sweet parts of life for fear I’ll love the gifts more than the Giver. His presence is where joy is found (Psalm 16:11), but he’s big enough and his love just crazy enough that he’ll use all sorts of things in this world – laughter with friends, a good cup of coffee, sunshine by the pool – to draw me into his presence and show me his personal care for me. Why would I want to shield myself from the happiness God brings there? It’s very simple and may sound silly, but I’m finally learning happiness isn’t a bad thing to want.

3.) Prayer is my most powerful weapon.

This has been my biggest takeaway from The Armor of God Bible study by Priscilla Shirer that I’ve been going through with ladies at my church this summer. Our study has shown me how far I’d moved away from prayer as my primary go-to for challenges I face. Ephesians 6 is redirecting me to the discipline of laying my burdens at the feet of Jesus and watching him make possible what would be impossible in my own strength, and this latest valley clued me in to my desperation for his power. I’m re-learning how very real the spiritual battle is around me, and I’m not helped by pretending the enemy isn’t that active in my life.

By the way, I’m picky about Bible study workbooks I recommend, but this one has been massively helpful to me and is grounded in gospel truth.

4.) Victory comes in “breakthrough” moments of mercy in the midst of battle.

The word I keep using to describe what snapped me out of the dark place and returned my joy is “breakthrough,” and this is the first definition I came across for it:

“breakthrough” (n): a military movement or advance all the way through and beyond an enemy’s front-line defense.

I’m loving  Lauren Daigle’s worship song “Here’s My Heart” and I especially connect to the line that says, “You are light breaking through” because that’s exactly what I’ve been living. Having invested a lot of work towards this emotional healing, I can’t point to a magic step that immediately brought me out of the valley. But in God’s time, eventually his grace broke through in a way that really caught my attention, reached my soul, and tethered my heart to him in a new way. Passion for his mission flowed back in, worship filled me once again, and I found fresh joy in him. He allowed me to feel his presence more and embrace the gifts meant for restoring enjoyment in life and making known to me his love. Thank you, Jesus.

And if what I’m learning in the Armor of God study is true, then this is what it looks like to overcome the enemy: A concerted, repetitive effort to engage with the power of God (prayer activating each of the spiritual weapons he provides); a willingness to keep engaging in battle when it seems like only the tiniest amounts of ground are taken at a time; a continual advance against the territory the enemy has mistakenly assumed is his, small steps at a time towards taking it back; then a culminating moment of victory, where after multiple advances and setbacks and more advances, you discover you’ve broken into the enemy’s camp and the battle is won. Breakthrough.

This military picture perfectly portrays what my heart has been through lately: the intensity of BATTLE – during which I felt discouraged through most of it, the work of it overwhelming – and all at once, it was over. Just like that, a moment of MERCY, where the Spirit broke in and powerfully put the enemy in his place, relief and joy flooding my soul again.

This is not to say the winning is permanent. I know I may have to battle this again – and certainly will always be battling something – but I pray I’ll be better armed and ready for the next time, with a new testimony of his faithfulness fresh on my mind.

5.) Sometimes, in order for God to cultivate the healthiest fruit in us, he first takes us on a journey involving a close-up view and experience of life without that fruit.

Looking back, I believe God had in mind for me a deeper and fuller joy than I’ve known, and for him to cultivate it and for me to receive and appreciate it, I had to go through this valley of depression. I’m not saying he drew me into the pit, but I believe he only allows the enemy to tempt and discourage us with the things he plans to redeem for something better. There’s a purpose in the pain he allows and fruit on the other side. (Side note: see all of Job for this principle at play, also James 5:11.)

Counting on this sovereignty of God, I see where joy had to become a matter of battle, that I had to fight for it, in order to experience (and to even want) the miraculous, breakthrough victory. I had to feel desperate enough that I’d credit him with the deliverance and not fall into thinking I could manufacture the fruit of joy myself.

And isn’t it possible to shift perspective on our valleys if we focused on the fruit intended from it?

  • That maybe the reason you’re suffering depression is that there’s amazing JOY in store at the other end?
  • That you’re deep in sorrow because there’s a COMFORT intended just for you that God wants to ensure you experience?
  • That you’re battling anxiety because, in his loving plan for you, he has in mind for you to know incredible PEACE that moves you further into your CALLING?
  • That you’re raging in anger because he wants to lead you to a place of beautifully self-controlled CONTENTMENT, providing REST to your soul as you learn to let go of control and trust him?

What if all of that fruit is just right on the other side of your struggle, about to break through? How might that hopeful perspective cut through our weariness? I’m learning to reframe my struggles as pathways to the fruit He’s actively producing in me, and I want more faith to believe that his fruits are the best kind of gifts he could give me.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that the WHY of our pain can be wrapped up so simply; to be certain, God has countless reasons why he allows our suffering, and it’s his right to keep those as mysterious as he wants. I also definitely don’t believe our struggles are always there to reveal sin! I’m simply suggesting that they carry opportunities for growth and we’d be wise to examine our hearts accordingly and listen to any conviction the Spirit may bring.

For anyone hurting who may find that thought burdensome, I’ll say this: Maybe your heart just can’t get there right now; you’re caught in the middle of the battle and have no energy to seek the Lord’s purpose. Your story may be about God’s grace getting you through and the lessons and growth come later. There is a special grace for you in that place, and you don’t need to fear that brokenness. But I beg you to reach out to other godly people who do feel strong enough to pray you through, letting them carry the burden for you when you lack the drive to seek Jesus. Wait, and watch how God proves faithful on the other side.

Additionally, pain isn’t your punishment. I’m speaking to those whose souls are secure in Jesus. You can rest in the fact that Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, confident that because he made the atonement for our sins, we do not atone for ourselves by enduring suffering as a way to “pay for it.” We can, however, choose to see our hurting places as invitations to walk more closely with him, his Spirit carving away the things that hinder us from bearing fruit. I just want to trust his heart to always be working on me, developing fruitfulness through the struggles, and giving good things. It’s the perspective offering me hope, and I like living with hope!

6.) When in the valley, it helps to remember past stories of God’s deliverance.

It wasn’t a coincidence that back in the spring the girls at StoryCast asked me to share my story of God bringing healing to my heart after miscarriages. I prayed it would encourage whoever needed to hear a story of hope, but the act of writing it was also, no doubt, meant for me. In this latest fight for healing, I had to remember how he had graciously healed me in the past. It was necessary for me to put words around how he’d done it before as I clung in hope for him to do it again, this time in a different type of pain. Taking a cue from David in Psalm 105:5, I want to remember the wondrous works that he has done.”

joy isaiah depression hope

Before wrapping up, please know that my lessons learned here aren’t intended to be prescriptive for how to handle depression or grief or any other crippling emotional pain, and I’d hate to misrepresent and limit Jesus’ nature to heal in a million different ways! As varied as our struggles, so are the individual pathways he’s provided for our overcoming and the timing he employs. He is the same, and many of his principles for healing remain the same, but the methods often differ.

However, I’ll be bold on this: a valley isn’t meant to be walked alone, and for me, the investment towards healing was costly (in several ways). I’m grateful for the care and resources God provided to help me navigate this pain that hit so hard and suddenly. If anyone reading this needs extra support in a similar struggle, I’d love to pray for God’s provisions to care for your heart and mind during this time. Let me know if you have questions about accessing the right kind of help.