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Writing to women in a busy, do-it-all culture, husband-and-wife team Shona and David Murray offer practical tips for avoiding and recovering from exhaustion, depression, and anxiety—centered on grace.
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About the Author
David Murray (DMin, Reformation International Theological Seminary) is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and the pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Jesus on Every Page.
Shona Murray is a mother of five children and has homeschooled for fifteen years. She is a medical doctor and worked as a family practitioner in Scotland until she moved to the United States with her husband, David.
Read an Excerpt
I was a crumpled heap. The billows of mental pain buffeted me, leaving me barely able to breathe. I agonized over how a life that had been so full of happiness, so full of God's blessing, could become so helpless and hopeless. For five months I had fought hard against the possibility of depression. After all, part of my job as a family doctor was to help patients recover from depression. Why was I now hearing my story in their stories? Why was I so afraid to see myself in their stories?
"Only the weak get overwhelmed and burn out. Only Christians who have bad genes or have experienced a real tragedy get depression. Ordinary Christians like me don't. I must be an apostate who is depressed because God has left me. There's no hope for me. No one and nothing can fix me. Even if they could, I don't want to live without God. Yet I don't know who he is anymore. I don't know where he is. I don't see him anywhere. Why did he leave me? Will he ever rescue me? Or will I die in despair?"
My mind spun like this, minute after minute, day after day, tortured by terrifying thoughts of God and my own tragic destiny. Until one day in March 2003 I spoke these words to my husband David through waves of tears: "I am a ship smashed against the rocks. My life is over!" Something gripped him at that moment that set us both on a course that would change our lives, a course that would eventually refresh my life and teach me how to embrace a grace-paced life in a world of overwhelming demands.
In the months leading up to my shipwreck, I had become utterly exhausted and had completely lost my appetite. I simply had no desire to eat. One evening I tried to rest and read a book when suddenly, from nowhere, I felt a terror within, as if something awful was about to happen. My heart was pounding for no apparent reason, and I couldn't make it calm down. Over subsequent weeks I had several of these fearful episodes.
I was very sad and would cry for no obvious reason. Loneliness enveloped me even when I was surrounded by those who loved me. I became obsessional in my thoughts, sometimes inexplicably mulling over sad events for hours. The terror episodes came closer together so that I was constantly terrified. My heart would pound away, sometimes for hours. Distraction seemed the best policy, so I just kept myself busy in an attempt to run away from these strange and terrible sensations, but also because there was so much to be done.
By now my enthusiasm had gone. Diaper changes, meals, groceries, mothering two lively little boys, caring for a busy toddler, and another baby on the way became scary prospects. I dreaded the mornings, and I wanted to hide under the covers; but a strong sense of the needs of others kept me going and going and going. Weeks went by when I could hardly sleep, and I cried a lot more. Nothing interested me. I felt I was a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad daughter, and a bad Christian. Guilt over a myriad of tasks not done — or poorly done by my standards — suffocated me. And despite running at top speed, the finish line was never in sight.
Concentrating on my devotions became increasingly difficult, and I felt that the Lord was far away. Mental exhaustion had me in its grip. One particular night as I tried to pray and kept losing track of what I was thinking or saying, I began to feel that I was falling off a cliff; I fell deeper and deeper, and there was no bottom. My whole emotional world fell apart. Through the night, I struggled between sleep and wakefulness. The most terrifying images and thoughts of God poured into my mind like an unstoppable fountain. I would respond with verses of well-known psalms, which I repeated over and over in a desperate attempt to hang on to God and his promises. I cried and cried to the Lord, but the darkness of despair descended. Like a tiny boat lost in a convulsing storm, having lost its rudder, my mind was broken, my emotions crippled, and the waves of despair plunged me down without mercy.
During this dark season I would sleep with exhaustion, but then awaken in an instant several minutes later, unable to stop the rage of mental torment. I concluded that the Lord had given me over to the Devil, that I could not be a Christian, and all that remained was for me to fall into hell. Long before my alarm clock went off each morning, I awoke suddenly like a startled bird. While the rest of the house slept, I had to get up, to get away from this pain. Waves of tormenting thoughts crashed on the shores of my heart: "What's going to happen to my children on the way to eternity? Who will bring them up? What a tragedy of immeasurable consequences; a mother who lost her mind and her soul. They will have to live with that. What about David, my poor husband, who sees that something is terribly wrong with me but can't fathom it? What will happen to the baby I am carrying, for whom I feel no emotional connection?"
Reality versus Unreality
I tried to focus on verses of comfort from my Bible, with a ferocious intensity, but in so doing I became more and more obsessional. I turned all the Bible's encouragements against myself and applied all its condemnations to myself. Adding to my mental exhaustion, I scoured books that I thought might rescue me from these dark depths: books such as Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan; The Christian in Complete Armour by William Gurnall; and Spiritual Depression by Martin Lloyd-Jones. I gleaned some truth from these books that kept some hope alive, but it was all too intense and exhausting.
There were glimpses of reality but only occasionally and momentarily. Surely the Lord said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5). He stilled the storm for the disciples. He would never cast away any who truly seek him. What were the last twenty-five years of my Christian life all about? He never saves and then lets go. That was my daily debate. Yet just as soon as I grabbed reality, delusional thoughts, subjective feelings, and deceitful unreality would crush all hope.
The beautiful sunshine and the singing of the spring birds were an agony. The beauty of the night sky and the array of stars, which testified of a faithful Creator, only served to break my heart yet further. I thought back to my childhood, when I would often sit outside my home in the Scottish Highlands looking heavenward and singing the words of Psalm 8:3-4:
When I look up unto the heavens,
But now, instead of that free and happy childhood, life was over. I had lost the Lord — if I ever had him. He was gone forever. All hope was gone.
As a family doctor, I had treated many people in similar situations, and if I had heard my story in the consulting room, I would have objectively diagnosed: "Mentally broken and severely depressed." However, the subjective side of me — much more persuasive and persistent — convinced me that my problem was spiritual, a lack of spiritual will or trust. If only I could have greater faith in God, then everything would be okay. After all, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). But I was in the eye of the storm, weakened and disorientated, which is not the best place to make accurate assessments.
Eventually, when I finally crashed on the rocks in March 2003, David and I decided to call in my father, an experienced pastor of fifty years who would surely be able to find my spiritual problem. However, when he heard my story, he was convinced that it was not so much a spiritual problem as a mental and physical problem with spiritual consequences. He said that due to many factors, including burnout and long-term stress, my body was run down and my mind was broken. The normal physical and mental processes were disrupted, and, as a result, the most precious thing in my life was profoundly affected — my relationship with the Lord. That was a massive turning point for David and me, and it led to God opening the door to a wonderful recovery and a beautiful refreshing of my life that I want to share with you in the rest of this book.
Although your story may not be as serious or severe as mine, my subsequent experience of meeting and counseling other women has convinced me that many Christian women are trying to do what almost destroyed me; that is, run overwhelming lives at an unsustainable and miserable pace. Although not all of you will end up crumpled on the ground, feeling close to death like I did, many of you are suffering somewhere on the spectrum:
stressed -> anxious -> overwhelmed -> burned out -> sad -> depressed -> suicidal
By God's grace my race did not end there, and yours need not either. Come with me to Refresh Gym and learn with me how to embrace a grace-paced life in a world of overwhelming demands.
Usually when we visit a new gym, we want to immediately jump on all the fancy machines and get pumping. But the first station in Refresh Gym has no fitness equipment. Rather, it is a detailed personal examination to identify our weaknesses. In the past, I didn't appreciate how important this was.
When I moved from Scotland to the US ten years ago, I came across the fitness-fanatic phenomenon on an entirely different scale. Every American town and city seemed to boast multiple fitness wonderlands with lycra-clad, ear-budded ladies pumping the iron, sweating buckets, and downing shakes — not yummy milkshakes, but protein shakes. Gym names like Elite Fitness and Planet Fitness conjured up in my mind some surreal world where everyone was Jillian Michaels — superhealthy, superslim, superpretty, and never tired.
But David and I eventually succumbed to the marketing hype and signed up for two beautiful bodies. We had one brief complimentary session with a personal trainer, which amounted to little more than getting a photocopied sheet of identical exercises. No questions, no examination, no analysis of where we were weak or had particular problems. And off we went, pumping the iron and looking forward to big muscles (David) and losing a little weight (me) in just a few easy sessions. But nothing happened — not one muscle gained, not one pound lost. Pretty soon it fizzled out — apart from that nasty two-year contract.
Six years later we tried again, this time in a different gym, and this time it began with a detailed question-and-answer session and a test for injuries and weaknesses. David was even wired up to a computer that measured various physical factors and printed out a complicated bunch of graphs and tables to show him what he needed to work on. Recently, when I signed up my fourteen-year-old diabetic daughter, Joni, for an exercise program, the trainer spent the whole first session, and some of the second, just talking — asking multiple questions and making assessments — while everyone else in the gym was busy doing. I could see Joni's frustration, but I now understood how important this was to help identify problems and weaknesses, with a view to producing a fitness plan uniquely tailored to each individual's needs and for their maximum benefit.
That's why the first station in Refresh Gym is called "Reality Check" — it strips away our defenses and pretenses and makes us face up to reality. This examination will reveal our needs, highlight danger signs, help us identify problems and weaknesses, connect issues that we had not realized were related, and motivate us to tackle the other nine stations in the gym. So let's stop, get wired up to some diagnostics, and assess the damage our pace has been causing to various aspects of our lives. Not all of them will apply to you, but take a note of the ones that do, and I'll tell you how to interpret them later.
Many women find it helpful to actually write out or tick off these signs and symptoms. Not only can it be personally cathartic; it makes it more objective and gives a baseline for comparing changes for better or worse in the future. Another way to get the most out of the following checklist is to go through it with your husband or a close friend, as it can be difficult to accurately assess ourselves. As my friend Sarah explained:
I have struggled off and on with depression/anxiety to varying degrees in my life, and in the darker times there was a part of me that knew objectively that it was what it was, but the lies in your head are so strong when the darkness is there, even if you can see it, you don't believe it.
Physical Warning Signs
Just as running too fast round the track will eventually result in physical problems, so running the race of life at too fast a pace will have physical consequences. Over 70 percent of Americans experience stress-induced symptoms such as headaches, stomach cramps, sore joints, back pain, ulcers, breathlessness, bad skin, an irritable bowel, chest pain, and palpitations. I certainly had some of these symptoms, and I also remember many female patients who came to me with multiple and varied bodily pains for which no physical explanation could be found, no matter how many tests and scans they had. Their lives were simply too fast and full for their bodies and minds. It's called "burnout" for a reason: all the stress causes chronic inflammation, a sort of fire in our cells that burns all the hotter, further, and longer the more fuel we add to it with our hectic lifestyles.
Feeling tired, exhausted, and lethargic all the time are early warning signs that should be heeded. Although sleep would seem to be the obvious cure, I found that I had difficulty getting to sleep. I woke up frequently. I was unable to get back to sleep, and, therefore, no matter how many hours I spent in bed, I was never rested or refreshed. Others may find that they can do nothing but sleep. As one woman told me, "Generally, when I'm stressed or anxious, I feel like I can't get enough sleep. I think it can be both physical need and emotional — as in, I'd rather stay in bed than face the day."
Weight gain through overeating, irregular eating, unhealthy eating, constant snacking, and lack of vigorous exercise should also concern us. For others it may be weight loss through loss of appetite and skipping meals.
Mental Warning Signs
The next area to examine is our thought life. Remember how difficult I found it to concentrate on anything? Maybe you too are reading the same verses over and over during your devotional time but struggling to remember what you read. It's hard even to write your grocery list or prioritize your to-do list. You end up just staring at your iPad or notebook. Or perhaps you have a plan, but you let yourself be constantly sidetracked by interruptions and indecision and never get to the store or to the first item on your to-do list. The clinic appointment you wanted to change now has to wait till tomorrow because the office is closed. The chicken is still in the freezer, so it's Plan B for supper. You are late again for that coffee date with your friend and having to rush in the car. You can't decide what to do next — empty the trash, make your bed, start supper, feed the dog, check email, or go to the shop. You are forgetting things you used to remember easily. Appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, names, and deadlines are now slipping your mind with scary regularity. You write your grocery list, then leave it at home. You spend endless hours second-guessing your choices and decisions.
Or perhaps, like me, you spend hours and hours obsessing about the same thing. It's like a repeating voicemail that you simply can't switch off. Most of your thoughts are negative. You dwell on the bad, the sad, and can't see the glad. Bad news, bad people, and always, "I'm a bad Christian." You are pessimistic about your church, your family, your job, and the nation. You are becoming hypercritical of yourself and others. One young mother told me her nightmare with obsessive thoughts:
My family got sick right after our recent move. After that, I had obsessive thoughts about my children throwing up. I couldn't get it out of my head. Was somebody about to throw up? What was that weird noise the baby made? Is he about to throw up? I'd go in to get the kids after naps, half expecting to find them sick even though there was no reason to think that would be so. And I couldn't get the image out of my head. Multiple times a day I either pictured my children throwing up or a part of me expected them to start throwing up.
Excerpted from "Refresh"
Copyright © 2017 Shona Murray.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Station 1 Reality Check 19
Station 2 Replay 35
Station 3 Rest 51
Station 4 Re-Create 67
Station 5 Relax 79
Station 6 Rethink 101
Station 7 Reduce 117
Station 8 Refuel 137
Station 9 Relate 153
Station 10 Resurrection 171
General Index 191
Scripture Index 197
What People are Saying About This
“We live in a culture that constantly demands more of women. Young women are not exempt from this pressure. In fact, this is the time—in our teens and twenties—when we’re just beginning to fall prey to the increasing stress of school, social media, smartphones, relationships, work, and busyness. We’re barely out of childhood and already feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, depressed, drowned, and burned out. That’s why we need the joyful refreshment of the gospel of grace. And that’s exactly what Shona and David Murray deliver in Refresh. They write warmly, empathetically, biblically, and practically. I will be applying the wisdom of this book to my own life and eagerly recommending it to the young women I know!”
—Jaquelle Crowe, lead writer and editor in chief, TheRebelution.com; contributor, The Gospel Coalition; author, This Changes Everything
“I have searched high and low for a book that helps me deal with stress-related illness in a God-honoring way. I have stacks of books that either overspiritualize depression and stress-induced illness, or overmedicalize it. I struggle with balance, and I need help. To the rescue comes Refresh, a book that meets you where you are, preaching neither overspiritualized idealism nor worldly fatalism. Read this book and give it to friends. It will change the way you see God’s providence in your emotional suffering and physical weakness, and it will encourage you on a path of self-care that honors the Lord and enables you to serve your family of God for the long haul.”
—Rosaria Butterfield, former professor of English, Syracuse University; author, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
“Shona’s transparency and gentle coaching throughout this book provide the perfect context for the encouragement that Refresh will be to many women who have experienced burnout, or are on the verge of burnout. As a counselor and a woman who has experienced burnout, I appreciated the holistic approach to both the causes of burnout and its treatment. The Murrays fully address both body and soul in their book, which will leave you refreshed, renewed, and ready to lead others alongside streams of living water flowing from the Great Shepherd of our souls.”
—Heather Nelson, biblical counselor; author, Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame
“Burnout and exhaustion are not solely a female issue, but as a woman I can attest to experiencing these very things in recent years. The demands on our time are many and coming from all directions. How will we use our time? How will we find balance? How will we maintain our walk with the Lord in the midst of so much? Shona and David Murray understand these pressures and speak directly to them in this book. Drawing on her own experience of depression and burnout (and experience as a medical doctor), Shona has a winsome and practical approach to the balance and rest we all crave (yet struggle to find). If you are desperate for relief, you will find encouragement in Refresh.”
—Courtney Reissig, author, The Accidental Feminist and Glory in the Ordinary
“Reading Refresh in a bone-weary season of my life was like having a life-giving conversation with a couple of grace-filled friends who have been there themselves and were able to encourage me with practical, biblical wisdom.”
—Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author; Bible teacher; host, Revive Our Hearts