A Depression Observed, Part 4 – Error of Silence

(You are reading part four of a 12-part series. Visit noeldear.com to read all articles as we post them throughout December 2023.)

I said, “I will guard my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle as long as the wicked are in my presence.” I was speechless and quiet; I kept silent, even from speaking good, and my pain intensified. My heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. I spoke with my tongue. (Psalm 39:1–3)

David tells us that at the beginning of this struggle, he remained silent: "I was speechless and quiet; I kept silent, even from speaking good" (Psalm 39:2). David's silence, though, was a conflicted silence. In his silence, he struggled with his emotions.

David began the psalm by saying, "I will guard my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue. I will guard my mouth with a muzzle" (39:1). What was going on with David? Apparently, he had a strong desire to speak. The desire was so great that he had to guard and muzzle his mouth lest he sin. So, what kind of sin is this that David fears? From the fact that when David finally gives in and speaks, he directs his speech to the Lord, it seems to me that David held his tongue because he feared he would vent improper anger and frustration toward the Lord. David was mad. David felt wounded, forsaken, and abandoned. And as we will see further into Psalm 39, David blamed his pain on the Lord.

Moreover, David said he would continue his silence as long as the wicked were present. This reluctance to open his heart implies that David not only feared venting frustration toward the Lord, but also feared the ridicule and criticism of the world. If he spoke his heart and bared his soul, people would find fault, malign, and attack. That is always the case, especially when someone has a public role.

Then David said he would keep silent even from speaking good (39:3). We know that this speech that David is avoiding consists of prayer, praise, and worship because when he finally breaks his silence, he does so with prayer, praise, and worship. So, in David's final assertion of silence, he says that he cannot or will not even pray and praise the Lord for the good things, the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord in so many areas of David's life.

We find at least two kinds of silence in the Psalms. David presents a good silence and a bad silence. Psalm 37 instructs us to "be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for him" (37:7). And before David gets to the end of his Psalm 39 journey, he will embrace the spiritual discipline of waiting on the Lord (more on that later). Still, his silence, in the beginning, is all bad. It is poorly motivated. It produces painful effects. Moreover, David's silence toward the Lord directly intensified his emotional pain.

I kept silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)

The legendary preacher and leader, Charles Spurgeon, learned this same lesson in his struggle with depression. He wrote, "Silence is both an aggravation of the evil and a barrier against its cure."

Like David, I began my journey of despair with silence. And my silence came with the same ungodly motivations and the same unhelpful results. I did not want to speak to the Lord out of my frustration. I struggled to voice honest prayers because I did not want to verbalize anger, disappointment, or resentment toward the Lord. And I shared with David the fear of my struggles becoming fodder for public criticism. I was embarrassed about my weakness. I could not bear the subtle criticism and rebuke of others that would come in the form of trite advice and cliched counsel.

As David's silence contributed to his growing pain, he finally reached a point where he could no longer keep his pain on the inside. Look again at the passage...

I was speechless and quiet; I kept silent, even from speaking good, and my pain intensified. My heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. [Finally,] I spoke with my tongue!  (Psalm 39:2–3)

I added the word "finally," but it is clear from the context that David could hold his tongue no longer. It was as if he would speak or he would die.

He chose to speak. And healing began.

At the risk of oversharing, I need to speak. I need to speak to the world, and I need to speak to the Lord. I'll do the former in this post, and I'll teach you how to do the latter in the next. My story will not exactly parallel yours. However, sharing is cathartic. Perhaps some of my journey will align sufficiently with yours to help you walk this Psalm 39 path with me (and with David).

I warn against attempting to delve beyond the details to construct a fuller picture of my struggles or read other details into my story. That would miss the point of this exercise. My goal is that you would see how three things contributed to my malaise. While I am not an expert on depression, I imagine these same three icebergs shipwreck the lives of many people who otherwise love life and love the Lord.

What three icebergs were ripping holes in my hull? For me, the icebergs from hell were weakness, regret, and disappointment. These three things contributed to my despair, catalyzed my shame, and silenced my voice.


Until two years ago, I felt nearly one hundred percent in charge of my emotions. Of course, I experienced sadness, frustration, anger, disappointment, and other emotions, but everything remained in an even and manageable range. I didn't lose my temper. I never felt the sting of despair. No matter the situation, I could be positive, optimistic, and hopeful whenever I chose to be.

All of that changed two years ago. While I cannot fully explain what happened that day, I remember the day like it was yesterday. Wednesday, August 4, 2021, I lost control over my emotions, demeanor, and attitude. More details about that day would not likely answer any of your curious questions. It was just a day of inner change. The day before, I was as in control of my emotions as I am my right arm—the day after, I was a puddle of tears. Nothing had changed with my life situation, my family, my finances, my health, my ministry, my anything. But I lost all mental and emotional strength. Indirectly, I compared my experience to that of Jacob in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestled with God. God won. Jacob was changed. And he walked with a limp the rest of his days. On that fateful Wednesday morning, the Lord did something remarkable in me (which might one day be the subject of a sermon or a book), but he also left me with a limp.

Honestly, looking back on that event two very difficult years later, I do not think the Lord made me weak that day. Instead, the Lord revealed to me the weakness that has always been in me. I am weak. I am not fully in charge of my world, my family, the people around me, or even myself.

Please do not misunderstand what I am about to share... Though I would never have said it out loud or even to myself, I had convinced myself that I had no weakness. At least I had no weakness that I could not overcome with a little elbow grease. At that point in life, I had never lost a job, never had someone break-up with me, never failed to accomplish anything I tried to do... I had been hired for every job I ever pursued... Every youth group I had ever led and every church I had ever pastored grew and flourished... I was ahead of my peers in ministry status... I had never had a fight with my wife that lasted more than a day... I had never had a behavior problem with one of my kids... There was nowhere I wanted to go that I had not gone... There was nothing I wanted that I did not have... I had run a marathon, adopted a child, written a book, and earned a doctorate... I was captain of my domain, or so I had wrongly convinced myself.

The Lord knocked away all my false props. I fell hard. I was miserable, mad, frustrated, and hopeless. And I had no strength to climb out of my dark hole.

Nothing on the outside changed, but everything on the inside changed. All the medical tests and examinations declared that everything in me was normal, but every part of life felt like I was walking in three feet of water. It was hard. I was exhausted.

Before that day, I think I had probably gone decades without ever crying. Post-August 4, 2021... I cried every day for two years.

Before that day, I don't think I had lost my temper more than three times in three decades... Post-August 4, 2021, I was mad at everyone I knew... every day... for no good reason.

I had very little joy. I didn't laugh. All my smiles were fake. I had never felt so weak.

It is really hard for me to admit to my weakness, but as David said...

[when] I kept silent... my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)


If dealing with my weaknesses the last couple of years has been like climbing a mountain, then dealing with my regrets and failures has been like hiking to the moon. Now, I have always believed in extreme responsibility. When something does not go well, a leader (pastor, husband, parent, employee, employer, teacher, coach, administrator, man or woman of God) should always point his or her finger first at himself. I've always had a buck-stops-here outlook on life. I've given away dozens of the Willink and Babin book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win, because no book better explains what it means to take responsibility for your life and work. However, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. I fear I took this idea of responsibility too far because I came to the place where I felt crushing guilt for everything that went awry around me. Sure, some failures were clearly my fault, but some, maybe not as much. But the weight of guilt, regret, and disappointment was heavy.

I'll give you just a few examples that might have parallels in the lives of others.

My mom died recently. She had been ill with cancer for a while, and her death was not unexpected, but the end did not come as peacefully as we hoped. My mom's situation worsened, and she required hospital care. She was admitted into a hospital room that, due to the pandemic rules, could not have any visitors. My mom was alone for more than a week. Unable to communicate well on the phone and not fully understanding what was happening to her, she was frustrated and scared. There was nothing the family could do. I lived a full-day drive away and needed to return to my church for a Sunday service, so I left her city for a couple of days. During those two days, the doctors allowed my mom to go home. She was there for a few hours with my stepdad and my sister, and then she died. I did not make it back in time to see her.

That story is not remarkably different than the similar stories of millions. The difference is that I feel like every part of that story is my fault. I should have done more to find a way to visit her in the hospital. I should have done more to get her home before the very end. I should have been there when they did send her home! I let my mom down in her most critical hour. I am crushed with guilt and regret.

Intellectually, I know that guilt is not reasonable. There was nothing more I could have done. However, I have internalized that false guilt and struggled to let it go, and it has made me speechless before the Lord.

I kept silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)

Honestly, I don't know if my regrets have fed my despair or my despair has fed my regrets, but either way, the weight of regrets has been more than I can handle.

I regret the recent death of a close friend. He died from a stroke. And, while there is more to the story than would be helpful for this book, I can tell you that I am crushed with personal guilt over this situation. Even as I type these words into my computer, I see on my cell phone that his wife has texted me this morning to tell me she and her children have spent time praying for me today. I have such a knot of guilt in my gut as I see the text notification that I know there is no way I will be able to respond or likely even acknowledge her text.

Another long-time friend of mine has recently lost his marriage. I feel like I should have given better or more impassioned counsel. Years earlier, I was aware of cracks in the foundation. I should have done more way back then. I feel responsible for that failed marriage, and it tears me up. Maybe in my busyness, I wasn't available enough for my friend. Maybe I didn't pray enough for my friend and his wife.

And this guilt is not just associated with close friends. I feel the sting of guilt with every divorce where the husband or wife has some connection to me or my church. If I were only a better preacher... If only I prayed more for them. If only...

On top of those many specific burdens of guilt, I feel guilty that I am not a better student of God's word, not a better preacher and pastor, not a better husband and dad, not a better friend...

And my failures, both real and perceived, have until recently made me mute before the Lord.

I kept silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)


People make bad decisions all the time. That is not usually a source of much consternation in our lives. But occasionally, someone we care for, love, or respect will make a bad choice or engage in some unexpected behavior, and it can terribly upset our lives. The more we love or respect the one who lets us down, the more it hurts.

I have a few stories of disappointment connected to some people I dearly love and others I dearly respect. Though it would not be proper to share those stories in a public forum, the disappointment has played a significant part in my journey. I expect this is a common theme in the lives of those who struggle with depression. It is not so much that the actions and decisions of those around us cause our depression. Instead, I think it is the weight and significance we choose to place on those things. When we connect our mental and emotional health to the wise (or unwise) decisions of people close to us, we put ourselves in a precarious situation.

My disappointment, though, has not just been with people. I've been disappointed with the Lord. It is very hard for me to type those words. I gain the strength to do so because David often voiced the same sentiment in the Psalms. Theologically and practically, I know that any anger or disappointment with the Lord is wrongly assigned. The Lord has been so good to me. His unmerited favor covers all my sins. He is good, and he is always true to his word. Yet, there have been some things that haven't happened the way I expected them to happen, and these situations have thrown me. So, in the spirit of David's honesty about these kinds of things in Psalms, I'll share a little, and maybe some of you will identify.

As I mentioned, something happened to me a couple of years ago, and the Lord changed my life. The Lord showed me kindness, grace, and mercy on that day like I had never known. I am overwhelmed with thanksgiving to the Lord for what happened that day. However, that day, the Lord answered a prayer I had prayed nearly every day for thirty-five years. Now I struggle with thankfulness to the Lord for the providential blessing and my brokenheartedness and disappointment over all that has been lost because the Lord didn't do what he did thirty-five years earlier.

I kept silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)

Finally, the Lord makes a promise in the Bible about a particular area of life. The Bible says that if I do a certain thing, the Lord will do a certain thing. Well, honestly, I didn't necessarily do my part with as much faithfulness as I should have, but I tried. And now, it seems the second part may not happen, and my heart is crushed. The Lord has not failed to keep his promise, and I have not given up hope, but there are only a handful of things I want to say at the end of my life, and one of those is in grave jeopardy. I'm angry and disappointed about this. I'm not sure who is the focus of my anger. Some days I'm angry and disappointed at myself. Some days, I'm (wrongly) angry and disappointed at the Lord. Some days, the anger and disappointment in my heart is directed elsewhere. But, without question, I'm more angry and disappointed about this than any other thing in my fifty-five years of life.

Bottom Line

Here is the bottom line: I kept silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:3)

In a later post, I will talk about a formal definition of depression. We will learn which came first, the chicken or the egg: Are we depressed because of some hard things (such as weaknesses, regrets, or disappointments)? Or are those hard things front and center in our minds because we are depressed? Or perhaps depression is the result of something completely different that is missing in our focus.

Those are fundamental and critical questions, and we will get to them. However, to walk the Psalm 39 journey, we must start where we are. We must reject silence. David said, "I kept silent, and my pain intensified." For David, healing did not begin until silence ceased. The same has proven true for me. My healing began when I finally embraced the courage to share with others.


Pastor Noel