Book Review: When Darkness Seems my Closest Friend

I was given a copy of this book by my former employer to review – I hope that this hasn’t clouded my reflections, but think it is important to say.

When Darkness Seems my closest friend book review

Ever since this book was announced or in genesis, I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Mark Meynell is a great pastor and author – whose recent book A Wilderness of Mirrors was one of my favourites last year. I’ve appreciated his careful analysis of culture, theology and bible – and also been grateful to him for being his honest self, even when that isn’t what Christian culture is comfortable with. This book, though, is far more personal. Mark has long been open about his struggles with mental health issues – particularly anxiety and depression. That, and a love of U2, is something I share with Mark, and so I was glad to read this book.

This book opens with something familiar to probably everyone, the notion of a mask we put on to get through different situations. This is just one of a number of powerful images that Mark uses to provoke our thoughts towards the reality and the misery of depression. This leads into the first part of the book ‘Deeper into the darkness’. Blending biblical reflection (including some powerful observations on passages that at first glance are familiar), personal story, and a good pairing of common sense and humble hope, this part of the book is difficult but essential reading. The reader is carefully guided through what it feels like to suffer depression. As a sufferer – or, in Mark’s words, ‘a fellow cave-dweller’ – this was a deeply healing section. The author patiently described feelings and situations that echoed and resonated with my own experience. I’d be interested to see what friends and family of those grappling with depression would make of this section. The first part of this book closes with an excellent chapter on suicide – noting both those in the Bible who took their own lives, and those who did not but perhaps longed for death. (For a longer reflection on Suicide and the Sovereignty of God, you might like to read a five-part series I did…)

The second part of the book, ‘Venturing towards the light’, is beautiful too. In three chapters – longer than the six from the first part – Mark offers some directions out of the darkness. Writing from a place of suffering for over 20 years, this has real authenticity, without being falsely victorious. The most powerful part of this, for me, is the brilliantly blunt way that Mark writes. He skewers a number of common misconceptions – and this makes this part of the book particularly helpful for those seeking to love people around them grappling with depression. In the final chapter, Mark addresses ‘Ministry’, which he’s hinted at throughout. This is a very helpful chapter, and in my opinion joins John Stott’s chapter on being a young leader in Challenges of Christian Leadership in my very limited list of things that are essential reading for Christian leaders. Mark challenges us about our perceptions of how leaders should live and how they should be – echoing the words and lives of Paul and Jesus.

Ultimately, the strength of Mark’s writing – both on life with depression generally, and models for doing ministry more specifically – lie in his invitation to the crack of light. He closes the book with a poignant reflection about a friend from a previous church with a seriously painful situation. Drawing together the threads running through the book of pain, presence, direction and daring to trust Christ, he writes with realistic hope of the goal of life in Christ. This ultimate perspective – running through the book but finding beautifully full expression in the closing words – is vital.

 

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