David, a Warrior after God’s Own Heart: Depressed?

Note: The first post in this series is available here.

US-Marines-Iraq_sm “I lost my faith in Iraq.”

This is a common mantra of many who have returned from our recent wars and have struggled to find God when they returned home.

I’m a chaplain with the VA medical center in Little Rock, but my work has taken me far from the walls of the hospital. Most of the time, I’m in a physical or virtual community, working with clergy, mental health providers, veteran service organizations, military support personnel, or just regular people who care. Building partnerships with and for veterans and their families has taught a clueless civilian like me a lot. The acronyms abound; PTSD, TBI, IEDs, MREs are everywhere, and so are the many struggles that veterans and their families face when reintegrating to a culture that is now foreign to them. But despite my “deployment” to the military world, I’m still a chaplain, and a Baptist one at that. My faith goes with me into this new world of sacrifice, suffering, and courage.

Stained_glass_swords_mdThis month we are focusing on Psalm 69 and King David as a warrior. By doing so, we seek to honor our men and women who have served in the military. Their struggles while returning home are mirrored in the ones David faced in his life. I will focus on the third verse of Psalm 69, but let’s start from the beginning of the psalm.

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.

David is in a bad place. He has been sinking in the miry depths, the floodwaters are rising over his head, and he can no longer get a foothold. He’s in trouble so he is calling out to God for help. In fact he has already been calling out to God. He says he’s been calling for God’s help so much that his throat is parched. Have you ever yelled so much at a basketball game or concert that you basically lost your voice? Your throat hurts and you can barely even speak. This is the picture that David is giving us of himself. Only he hasn’t been cheering for his kid’s soccer team or yelling at a Razorback game. (I’m from Arkansas, remember?) David has been yelling out to God for help. And it hasn’t been working.

There are 150 psalms and these psalms are chock-full of David’s cries to God. Like in Psalm 22, “My God My God, why hast Thou Forsaken me?” David’s screaming, “Where are you in my time of trouble?”, “I’m supposed to be a man after your own heart, but I’m fighting for my life and you are nowhere to be found!” Some of us are too prideful to call out for help. Not David. He wasn’t afraid to call on God, to ask for help. He did it all the time. He cried it and yelled it so much that he tells us in verse 3, “I’m worn out. My throat is parched.” He physically can’t cry out for help anymore.

Not only has David’s throat failed him, his eyes have failed him too. He has been looking for God, searching for God in the midst of all the mess he’s facing. He knew God would never leave him. Remember Psalm 23? “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Why? “For Thou art with me.” But knowing God is with you and being able to see or feel God with you are two very different things.

Have you ever been in an awful situation or season of life when you kept telling yourself, “God is with me in all this,” but no matter where you looked, you couldn’t see God? Sometimes we know God is with us but we just can’t see, hear, or feel God. Sometimes we are crying out to God for help and for deliverance but that deliverance doesn’t come. We keep crying to God to help us through these rough waters, even to keep us from drowning. We keep yelling for God to the point that we, like David, are worn out. Our throat is parched and we simply can’t cry for help anymore. At the time he wrote this psalm, David sounds like he’s done. Maybe you’ve been there too.

We don’t usually think about it, but there’s a good chance that David battled depression. He never left God and God certainly never left him, but David struggled. David experienced the grief of losing his best friend Jonathan, his baby with Bathsheba, his older son Absalom. He probably experienced the stress of being the king of God’s “chosen people” and the spiritual pressure of being called “a man after God’s own heart.” His desperate state in this psalm may have come from having been a warrior his whole life—David fought everything from lions as a young boy to corrupt kings hunting him through the hills to other nations’ armies trying to destroy him and his people. David may have just struggled in life like all of us do, but it’s likely that during the most difficult times of his life, David was also depressed.

David goes on in Psalm 69 to talk about all the enemies who are after him. As we’ve mentioned previously, our military service members return home and face huge obstacles as they try to reintegrate. It’s been said that veterans don’t come home from war, they come home with war. Their war wounds are often invisible and our warriors can, like David, become deeply depressed. We know that about 1 out of every 5 veterans experiences severe symptoms of PTSD or depression six months after they return home. Illnesses like PTSD and depression are real and can be devastating to the people who suffer from them as well as those who love these veterans.

As a church and community, we cannot ignore suffering people, nor can we just tell them to pray and have faith. We must be willing to help our veterans get the support and treatment they need. At the same time, these illnesses do have a spiritual component; they affect souls. Mental illness might have even lead King David of Israel—the man after God’s own heart—to say, “I’m tired of yelling out to you, God, and you not listening. My throat hurts and my eyes are tired of looking for you.” In my work with the VA and in the community, I’ve heard many veterans say they lost their soul, or their faith, in Iraq. One older veteran simply said, “Jesus and John Wayne died in Vietnam.”

Despite your efforts to be grateful, have faith, and “pull yourself out of it,” depression is a serious medical illness that, untreated, can drain us of the will to live. Suicide rates among Veterans are particularly high. In 2012, the VA released a report that said veterans are taking their own lives at an average rate of 22 per day. We’ve now lost more Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to suicide than to combat. These are our heroes, those who we send to risk their lives for us. This is just not right.

Fortunately, David knew what to do in the midst of his despair. He looked for help, kept crying out to God. He placed his trust in the One who made him, loved him, and had always been with him. Many veterans, like most of us, have a hard time reaching out for help. Whether it’s our pride, our self-sufficiency, or our embarrassment, we think we can soldier on by ourselves and get through it alone. This is where we need each other and where we need God. We need others to be honest with us, to listen to us, and to go with us to get the help and support we need. We also need God to help restore our souls and ourselves.

Maybe you can relate to where David is in this psalm. Maybe you are feeling the waters come up around you and you are about to despair. Maybe you love someone who is suffering from PTSD or depression. Maybe you have cried out to God until your throat hurts and looked for God till your eyes hurt. Hope and deliverance may already be on the way. But for now, realize you are not alone. There are others who’ve been where you are and they care about you. And there’s a God who, despite the silence you may have experienced, has promised to never leave you or forsake you. Amen.

Whether or not you are a veteran, if you are at a point where you know you need to talk to someone before it’s too late, I encourage you to call the Veterans Crisis Line, which has worked so well that it’s now a crisis line for anybody. The number is 1-800-273-8255. If you are a veteran, press 1. If you ever feel like you might be seriously considering hurting yourself, just call 911 and figure out the rest later. If you want to get connected with others who are helping veterans, or you’re a veteran looking for support, email us at vaclergypartnership@gmail.com.

Note: The third post in this series is available here.

Chaplain Steve Sullivan is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain and leads the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans. His interests are in classic rock and the intersection of spiritual and mental health, and pop culture and theology. Steve’s daughter Jenna is a CBF scholar at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Steve lives in Little Rock with his hyper lab, Sunny.

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  1. Amazing insight into the situation faced by so many of our soldiers.