As surely as autumn follows summer, the approach of Christmas brings on the "holiday blues" for some, along with numerous well-meaning and contradictory suggestions about how to deal with them.
Savor every moment of the season, the experts urge, but don't nurse unrealistic expectations. Treasure memories of holidays gone by, but don't live in the past. Eat moderately, but don't beat up on yourself if you indulge.
Keep up with your exercise, but be sure to relax and take a break. Spend lots of time with family, but avoid those irritating relatives without feeling guilty. Decorate the house, but keep it simple. Cook up a storm; no, let others cook for a change.
Even for people who don't feel down over the holidays, it's enough to tempt you to call the whole thing off.
Seasonal blues eventually pass. Real depression, however, hangs on. You don't "snap out of it." Some form of depression afflicts about 19 million Americans every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Its severity ranges from mild to deadly. Its causes include physical or mental illness, chemical imbalances, persistent stress, loss of loved ones, alcohol and drug abuse, aging, loneliness and isolation. Its potential symptoms: sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, loss of appetite, fatigue, loss of interest in what you once enjoyed, insomnia or oversleeping, thoughts of suicide.
Health authorities rightly warn against instant diagnosis of depression and the aggressive marketing of anti-depressants -- particularly among women -- in our overly medicated Prozac Nation. "Doctors now want to medicate you for living your life," complains cultural columnist Maureen Dowd.
But that doesn't lessen the pain of those who suffer from the real thing. Christians aren't immune; I've encountered many faithful believers who've struggled with deep depression.
Another cause of depression (or quiet desperation) among Americans, I believe, is boredom. Not the minor sort of boredom that causes people to seek temporary diversion, but the deep, energy-sapping lack of purpose that permeates so many contemporary lives.
We think more possessions will make us happy, so we seek bigger cars and houses. We think exterior activity will compensate for the emptiness within, so we rush around doing things. When it doesn't work, we begin to despair. Our children tend to inherit these tendencies, as evidenced by the increasing rates of depression among school-age youth and college students.
Christians are quick to point out such purposelessness in secular society, but it also causes problems in the church.
We get bored with our routine, so we insist on a new program. We get tired of the old building, so we assume God is leading us to build a new one. We sit around and look at each other instead of reaching out to the lost, so we start sniping and backbiting. We lose sight of God's purpose.
In remarks to staff at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, speaker/author Beth Moore described the despair of people lost without Christ: "They feel purposeless. They don't have anything that would be worth dying for -- and therefore worth living for." They won't see any purpose in the lives of Christians, either, unless we live it among them.
God's primary purpose for us is quite simple: that we love Him, worship Him and lift up His saving name among all the peoples of the earth. "We may be tired at times .... but we have what the world is looking for," Moore said. "That we would pour our lives out for somebody else to know Him and to love Him, that is everything."
Try these five ways to capture or recapture God's purpose for your life:
1. Worship Him with all your heart -- not for any of His gifts, but for Himself alone. "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth" (Ps. 46:10).
2. Tell a lost person searching for purpose in life about Jesus.
3. Become a missionary "welcomer" to an international student, immigrant or refugee family in your community by helping, loving and sharing Christ with them.
4. Take a volunteer mission trip to walk among an unreached people group, then mobilize your church to help reach them with the gospel.
5. Give sacrificially this year to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions. Thousands of missionaries already living God's purposes need your participation. Many more ready and willing to go will never reach the field without it.