I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression, by Todd A. Peperkorn. LC-MS World Relief and Human Care, 2009. 95 pages.
“It was Good Friday, but it was not good for me… I found myself contemplating my own death… Contemplating, planning, expecting to die, if not that day, then very soon” (8).
The opening paragraph of Peperkorn’s preface grabs the reader’s attention and sets the stage for his unstated, underlying thesis, namely: The disease of depression can strike any Christian, but pastors are especially susceptible. Treating depression often requires more than spiritual care. The next 79 pages give a detailed account of Peperkorn’s journey through “darkness visible” (64)—what he later describes as “an extreme turning inward upon the self” (67).
Peperkorn details his family history, his years at Seminary, his particular personality, and the challenges of early married life. He supplies some of the early warning signs that hindsight has clarified—“Sermons started to be recycled or borrowed” (17). “I began missing home and family events on purpose.” “Social withdrawal is a key mark of major depressive disorder” (36).
Over the next six chapters, Peperkorn uses his story to discuss medication, counseling, anxiety, and the stigma of depression. The personal account culminates with his time on disability leave and two chapters on the topic of suicide. The book concludes with a chapter describing rest as essential to his recovery: “It took that level of complete disengagement for me to be able to start over” (81). His work concludes with an epilogue as he looks back over his continuing struggle with depression. At the end of each chapter, the author provides helpful questions to foster further discussion on the subjects discussed in the chapter.
Two appendices offer advice for helping a loved one who suffers from depression and a list of suggested reading material. Dr. Harold Senkbeil also wrote an addendum encouraging pastors to seek out someone to be their personal pastor (92-95).
This short book provides a good glimpse into the hopelessness that a clinically depressed person tries to function with each day and the difficult journey of one afflicted by clinical depression, but this book is not intended to be a manual for Lutheran pastoral care of those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Instead Peperkorn takes the reader on a journey through his own personal struggles with the deep darkness and stigma of clinical depression, especially in his experience as a Lutheran pastor. Above all, he shares his story to show that there is hope for those lost in the darkness of depression—hope in their living, loving Savior Jesus.
The reader should be warned that due to the subject matter of this book, it is neither an easy nor a pleasant read. “Because depression is an extreme turning inward upon the self, it is a fertile ground for Satan to plant his chaff of doubt and despair” (67). Peperkorn demonstrates how insidious clinical depression can be as Satan uses it to separate a Christian from any desire to connect with God’s Word and Sacraments, let alone connect with their Savior. “[…] going to the Lord’s House to receive His gifts is not something pastors do well on the receiving end. I can hardly stand to listen to other people preach. It’s part of the arrogance that Satan uses to attack the Office […]” (68). “Praying disappeared for me. Praying the daily office (which we did regularly at our school) was impossible. I couldn’t do it […]” (69).
As often happens with cases of clinical depression, Peperkorn’s depression pushed him to the brink of despair and even unbelief. “[…] A disease of the mind is the perfect ground for Satan to plant his sick weeds of unbelief” (77). In spite of Peperkorn’s struggle with the darkness and despair of clinical depression, he began to find hope in the Savior who died and rose for him. Peperkorn spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of Baptism and remembering his Baptism as part of his treatment that pulled him back from the brink of despair and suicide.
There were a couple times when it seemed like Peperkorn was trying to say too much in too few words, potentially causing some confusion. For example, this reviewer would have liked to see further clarification of his point on the sin of suicide and Christ’s forgiveness discussed in the final two paragraphs on page 77. Further clarification would prevent giving the impression of a “once baptized, always saved” mindset, while providing a better understanding of how to deal with the sin of suicide and suicidal thoughts for a Christian suffering from clinical depression.
Is it a sin to consider such thoughts as suicide? This is one of the many questions of guilt that trouble the clinically depressed. Self-death is a sin, but it is only a sin. Jesus died for all our sins, even suicide or worse. We are often placed in impossible situations, where we sin if we do, and sin if we don’t. Even if external forces (extended illness, loss of work, etc.) put us in such a situation, sin is still sin. But more importantly, Jesus’ forgiveness is still forgiveness.
Christ came to take our death. We really died in the font, not when our body is laid to rest. This means that no matter what terrible thoughts you harbor in your soul, in the midst of your despair, Christ is there. You may not be able to see Him, feel Him, or touch Him, but He is there. You are washed in Baptism; you are cleansed in His name. You are His holy child, beloved in His sight. Yes, you suffer. It is painful. But suffer as the redeemed. For you will come out whole and undefiled in the end. (77)
As mentioned above, this book is not intended to be a manual for Lutheran pastoral care of the clinically depressed, but it will broaden a pastor’s perspective on the wider field of depression treatment, especially when it comes to the pastor’s own mental health. Additionally, Peperkorn highlights the special temptations of the pastoral office—particularly how the devil manipulates a pastor’s desire to be faithful. His experience highlights the necessity of taking time for vacation and for devoting unrestricted time to one’s personal devotions. Peperkorn’s summary statement bears repeating: “Simply focus on what it means to be a pastor, and let the rest go. You may find, in the end, that some things that seemed so crucial were never that important […]” (86).
This book is written by a pastor for pastors and worth a read, but a layperson may also find some encouragement in knowing that clinical depression isn’t exclusive to laypeople. Because this book is not intended to be a manual for Lutheran pastoral care to the clinically depressed, an impression one might get from the subtitle—A Lutheran View of Depression, perhaps a more suitable subtitle would be A Lutheran Pastor’s Journey through Depression. For that reason, this reviewer recommends Lyon’s Counseling at the Cross coupled with Deutschlander’s The Theology of the Cross to round out a truly Lutheran view of depression.
This book can be downloaded for free at http://lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=726&DocID=721.
The author of the book also has his online journal available at http://www.darkmyroad.org.