One of the most tragic effects of mental illness is the numbness—a complete inability to feel sensitive, nuanced things—and that includes the Holy Ghost. For me, this means I have to consciously choose to believe that God’s silence does not mean absence.
Existing in a glass tank full of water over my head—with only a drinking straw to breathe through. That’s the answer I gave when a therapist asked me to describe what my lifelong anxiety and depression feel like. It’s as if I can see the world around me and am expected to interact with it as normal, but everything takes far more effort than I can give. No one around me sees the water or my panicked struggle just to breathe, let alone understand my situation.
But recently, as I read Psalm 69, I felt seen and understood in a way I never quite had before. I was reading the passage from Robert Alter’s landmark translation of the Hebrew Bible—a modern translation that prioritizes preserving the literary style of the original Hebrew text, including its poetic rhythms and metaphors.1
As I read this version, it felt like the psalmist’s words had been poured out of my own soul as a writer who lived three thousand years ago gave voice to my innermost spiritual pleadings and struggles.
The psalmist’s metaphor of sinking in water is relatable to modern readers, and it reminded me of my own description of depression that I conveyed to my therapist.
Like many psalms, this one includes (1) a conflict, (2) a desperate wrestle with God, and (3) a resolution of faith. Below I share Alter’s translation with an explanation of how the psalm expresses my own experiences regarding mental illness.
1. The Conflict (verses 1–3)
Rescue me, God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away.
I am exhausted from my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God.
Imagine being caught in a river’s undertow, desperately attempting to get your footing, being sucked under the water and downstream, and frantically looking and screaming for help each time your head resurfaces. You don’t have the energy to fight anymore, and you feel you have no choice but to give in to the current.
It’s a metaphor that could describe many different trials, but when I read it that first time, it was mental illness that was on my mind. Each line echoed a different feeling I was experiencing at the time.
The critical need to be rescued—and immediately!—consumed my thoughts, and having tried everything else, I knew that the Lord was the only one who could save me. No matter how desperately or how often I tried to connect with heaven, nothing seemed to make any difference. I was exhausted, and my hope was slowly drowning.
2. The Wrestle (verses 16–18, 20, 29)
Answer me, LORD, for your kindness is good,
in Your great compassion turn to me.
And hide not Your face from Your servant,
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.
Come near me, redeem me. …
I hope for consolation, and there is none,
and for comforters, and do not find them. …
But I am lowly and hurting.
The wrestle is real. I fully believe God is there, but I often can’t feel Him in the depths of my mental and emotional despair.
One of the most tragic effects of mental illness is the numbness—a complete inability to feel sensitive, nuanced things—and that includes the Holy Ghost.
As a result, I feel abandoned at times. “I know You can help me,” I cry out, “so why don’t You? I’m doing everything I can. Why do you choose to make me go through this alone?”
I know I’m not the only person to experience this. Some of Heavenly Father’s most devoted children are prevented from feeling the Spirit because of depression or anxiety.
“Our sense of God’s love may be blunted by challenging circumstances and physical or mental illness,” taught Elder Dale G. Renlund. “Sometimes we may not feel His love, but it is always there. God’s love is perfect. Our ability to sense that love is not.”2
Please understand that not feeling God’s love does not mean that a person is broken or that He isn’t there! But how can I keep holding on to faith when the river is tossing me and I can’t find a breath of respite or hope?
3. The Resolution with Faith (verses 29–35)
Your rescue, O LORD, will protect me.
Let me praise God’s name in song
and let me extol Him in thanksgiving. …
those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
For the LORD listens to the needy, …
For God will rescue … and rebuild.
It appears that nothing about the psalmist’s situation has changed—he’s still sinking in the deep. But his mindset has changed. He turns to his faith in God.
Faith is the answer for the psalmist, and faith can be an important part of the answer for each of us. However, I would never say that the solution for those wrestling with not feeling God’s presence is to “just have faith”—that phrase minimizes the experience of those who are suffering and also the complexity of the issue.
In these verses, there is a declaration of faith, but it seems to be based on past experience: God has rescued me in the past, and I trust He will again in the future.
What follows is the psalmist’s resolution to act in faith. To praise God, express gratitude, seek the Lord, and never give up. When I don’t feel God and don’t feel my faith, I have the opportunity to consciously choose Him anyway. When the current is strong and His hand isn’t outstretched to pull me out of the water, I can choose to remember how He has been there for me in the past so that I can continue to trust Him today.3
When God Is Silent
During the Holocaust, a pious Jewish man in the Lithuanian Kovno ghetto couldn’t find it in himself to continue to pray. He, like countless others, contested, “Where is God in this ghetto? In Auschwitz?” A wise rabbi replied, “Though [our enemies] control our bodies they do not own our souls.” So where can God be found in our darkest hours? In the hearts of those who consciously choose to hold tight to Him.4
Similarly, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl expressed the power choice had on those in concentration camps. “In the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not the result of camp influences alone,” he wrote. Then, to make the concept more universally relatable, he explained that “fundamentally then, any man can, under [terrible] circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.”5
Could this mean that as long as I have the ability to exercise mental agency, I don’t have to fall victim to the seeming absence of God in my heart? It isn’t easy, and it certainly doesn’t remove the challenge of not feeling close to Him, but this idea empowers me to act instead of being acted upon.6
When the heavens feel closed, I can make a deliberate choice to not give up on God. I can intentionally remember how I’ve experienced His goodness in my life. I can voluntarily trust that He will guide me to the help I need.
I can consciously seek out other ways—besides feelings—through which I can recognize Him in my life. And like the psalmist, I can willingly cling to the faith that God will protect me from dangers that are too great for me, that He will rescue me in His way and time, and that He will pick up the pieces of my life and rebuild them into something even greater.
So during those days, months, or years that I can’t feel the Lord near, I dig deep and those are the things I try to do. When there are no recognizable reminders that Heavenly Father is present in my life, I consciously choose to believe that silent does not mean absent, always with the firm hope that one day, that belief will be proven true. And He’s never failed me yet.
▶ You may also like: How is Christ both ‘Jealous’ and ‘the God who sees me’? 5 Hebrew titles in the Old Testament explained
1. The Hebrew Bible: a Translation with Commentary (2019), 3:166–69. Dr. Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar, is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. His groundbreaking translation of the Hebrew Bible into English seeks to preserve the integrity and nuance of the original Hebrew.
2. “Your Divine Nature and Eternal Destiny,” general conference address, April 2022.
3. See 2 Nephi 4:19–23, 34–35.
4. See Jonathan Sacks, Pesach Haggadah, 29–31.
5. Man’s Search for Meaning (1959).
6. See 2 Nephi 2:26.