Book Review

“When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend”: A look at the struggle with depression

November 26, 2018

I sat on the edge of the bed, tears streaming down my cheeks, shoulders low with suffering. I was, once again, crumpled and bowed by depression. Two months prior to this episode, I watched my mother breath her final breath. Six months before that, I walked through the terminal of the Atlanta airport, blood still fresh on my boots from my tour in Iraq. I saw a lot of people die there.

Although these realities exasperated my depression, they were not the cause of it. I’ve struggled with depression since childhood. Maybe my depression is the result of the horrific abuse I suffered growing up with a drug-addicted mother; maybe it’s the result of a hormone imbalance in my brain; maybe it has something to do with a mosquito-born virus I contracted in the jungles of Peru during my time on the mission field. Maybe it’s all of the above. Or none of the above (169).

I don’t write this review as an expert on mental illness, but as a fellow caretaker of that “black dog” called depression. I’m sure that a pastor who has never experienced deep depression could review this book well enough, but I hope that my experience walking the same dark roads as the author of When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend might allow me to both recognize the potency of his story as well as gently critique it.

When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend (WDSMCF) is a book by Mark Meynell, who is a speaker, trainer, and blogger, as well as director for Langham Preaching, a part of Langham Partnership.

Meynell writes early in the book of his struggles with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Quite ingeniously, Meynell uses the illustration of a “cave dweller” throughout WDSMCF to paint a picture of his experience with these conditions. The image powerfully pictures what life is like for a sufferer of depression: isolation, darkness, dread, and hopelessness.

As such, WDSMCF is “series of reflections” on Meynell’s experience of suffering life inside the cave of depression in particular, and mental illness in general (xix). One almost wonders if a better title for the book might have been Letters from Inside the Cave; the image is striking.

The aim of the WDSMCF is two-fold: 1) To help Meynell figure out his own experiences in the cave, and; 2) To help others better understand the experience of mental illness. The second aim of the book is where we find its great utility.

Help for those who love the “cave dwellers”

I’m certain that anyone living in the cave of depression and anxiety will find WDSMCF helpful on a number of levels. The breadth of helpful illustrations and analogies alone, for example, allow sufferers to better grasp their own often complex, and confusing, experiences (55, 56, 60, 105-106, 145, 156).  But such illustrations may also be incredibly helpful to someone seeking to understand and enter into the suffering of his or her loved ones who may be struggling with mental illness. Meynell’s skill and experience as a preacher seeps through the pores of the pages of WDSMCF as he offers one helpful illustration after another, from the “phantom guilt” of the depressed mind (56) to the previously discussed analogy of the dark, dank cave used to describe the experience of mental illness (145).

Asking the right questions

But there is more help for those who are seeking to serve loved ones struggling with mental illness. Chapter seven offers some thoughtful questions for family and friends struggling to figure out what to ask someone in the throes of depression. Ask them questions like, “Does [God] have a track record of reliability?” and, “Has God revealed himself as sufficiently trustworthy?” (138). As someone who has asked the members of his congregation these same kinds of questions, I can assure you that they are battle-tested and genuinely helpful.

It is not uncommon for friends and family of those suffering with mental illness to find themselves at a loss for words when the time is right to speak. Rather than being like Job’s friends, Meynell offers family and friends a nonexhaustive list of helpful questions to help them communicate with those in the cave:

These kinds of open-ended questions probe, but they do so gently, leaving the sufferer free to communicate without any undue burden to perform or answer “correctly.” They allow the sufferer to describe, rather than rushing to diagnose or answer as a form of performance (157).

Shame, fear, grace, and the gospel

The best way to care for a person struggling with mental illness is to try and begin to understand the spiritual and emotional realities of their hearts. Meynell is particularly helpful in this regard in his treatment of the difference between shame and fear in chapter five. Meynell has spent a good amount of time reading “a sizeable list of books” on the subject (73) so that the reader doesn’t have to. Family and friends can avoid a stack of books and simply read a short chapter on the matter, freeing them up to spend more time loving and less time reading.

In the same chapter, Meynell excels in showing the reader how a biblically robust understanding of grace is the only true hope for those who wrestle with the black dog trying to escape the leash (66-69, 76). He does a particularly good job of highlighting how grace heals guilt and shame in different ways (85). The kind of counseling that he recommends is shaped by the cross. It’s not an afterthought for those in the cave; it is their only comfort and hope.

A critique and a question(s)

How do you critique someone’s experience? It’s certainly possible, but is it helpful? I’d like to try and shy away from critiquing any aspect or description of the experience of the sufferer, and instead focus on some of the advice given to the sufferer, as well as those who help the cave dwellers.

Unhelpful help

Superlatives can be dangerous. I’m sure Meynell would agree with me. For example: “Depression is always the result of sin.” The superlative nature of that statement renders it unhelpful, particularly because it’s untrue. With that in mind, I was concerned to see Meynell endorse the following statement from writer and actor Stephen Fry: “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why” [emphasis mine, 158]. Never?

This tiny critique may seem nitpicky, but the language that Meynell uses in support of the quote is strong. He says that Fry is “absolutely right.” I’m not sure that I agree. While there may be times when the depressed person is so lost in the blackness of the cave that to ask such a question would not only be unhelpful, but also cruel, there are other times when asking “why” might be the correct thing to do. What if someone is depressed because of some hidden sin that they refuse to deal with? What if there is some physiological issue that should be addressed? As someone who has experienced these exact situations play out in counseling, I can assure you that there is indeed a time to ask why.

Unanswered questions

Meynell is not afraid to talk about how the church, in general, and Christians, in particular, have failed those who live in the cave. After finishing WDSMCF, I felt compelled to ask, “What has the church done right?” Aside from a single paragraph (145), Meynell doesn’t have much to say about the role of the church in the life of the cave dweller. This is, in my mind, one of the greatest weaknesses of the book.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m a local church pastor, but I am genuinely surprised that Meynell, a former pastor himself, doesn’t have more to say about this. He says that, “more than anything in the world, loved ones are the key to survival” for the cave dweller (152). I agree. And outside of the nuclear family, if you have an intact one, the local church is where we should feel most loved. Often times our brothers and sisters in the church are closer to us than our wives, parents, or even children (Mark 3:33-35).

Final question

Meynell asks the question, in so many words, if a man with severe and/or chronic anxiety and depression is fit for pastoral ministry (165). The question of fitness for gospel labor seems framed in the language of general “ministry” early in the discussion (149), but then transitions clearly into a discussion about the pastorate in particular (150, 165, 167).

So, “how might we understand the relationship between the pastor and the black dog?” Meynell doesn’t give a direct answer. Half jokingly, he wonders if “mental health challenges” should be a prerequisite for the ministry. After all, “it is not so different from employing an amputee or someone allergic to gluten” (166). Colleagues should simply make adjustments and allowances, “just as should always be the case when appointing someone different from the team’s majority culture.”

I’m not so sure I agree.

Meynell himself admits, just a paragraph later, that he finally reached a “point of no return” in his own ministry experience. When it comes to the question, “Should a church appoint someone with mental health challenges to their staff?” (165), he offers no final verdict, and perhaps muddies the waters of the matter along the way.

Much of the Meynell’s discussion about whether or not someone with “chronic mental illness” (169) can serve in pastoral ministry focuses on how mental illness might affect the work culture of the ministry. Team culture, colleagues, and job descriptions are the words that stuck out to me. But what about the sheep? That’s my main concern.

A shepherd is supposed to care for his sheep. That’s the whole reason God appoints men to the work of shepherding (Acts 20:28). Can a person who is perpetually wrestling with severe bouts of anxiety and depression (i.e. chronic mental illness) adequately care for the flock? I think the answer is no.

That’s not to say that our “own experiences of pain [can’t] help someone” else in theirs (172). Of course they can! I have no doubt that struggles with depression can make someone “a better pastor” (173). I agree that “no pastor is perfect.” And I also believe that we need more pastors who are willing to be weak (177). But is there a point where the shepherd must lay down his crook and enter into the fold with the rest of the sheep to be cared for, if only for a time?

Perhaps the day may come when I find myself wondering if my own black dog has led me down a path that moves me away from ministry. Maybe on that day I’ll look back on this question and answer it differently.


WDSMCF is a good resource to offer someone who wants to know what it’s like to live in the cave. I’ll be keeping a few extra copies on hand for such an occasion. I’m thankful that Meynell has opened the windows of his experience for me to learn from, and I look forward to the day when the Lord Jesus finally pulls us out of the cave forever.

Sean DeMars

Sean Demars is one of the pastors of 6th Avenue Church of God in Decatur, Al. He has a wife and two daughters, two dogs, and about thirty five sheep. Most importantly, he has been reconciled to God, and will one day get to go and be with Him forever.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24