Rico Villanueva, Langham Partnership’s regional commissioning editor for Asia, shares how studying the psalms of lament have helped him with his bouts of depression
I come from the Philippines, a country in the western Pacific Ocean, which is made up of more than 7,000 islands. My nation was colonised by the Spanish for more than 300 years. It is why I have a Spanish name, and why over 85 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic. However, identifying as a Christian is not the same as accepting Jesus in your heart.
On the outside, many Filipinos behave like Catholics: they go to Mass and Confession, they count their rosary beads and they pray to Mary, but on the inside, some still do not know Jesus. Termed “split-level Christianity” by Jesuit priest Jaime Bulatao, this co-existence of conflicting thought-and-behaviour systems within the same person is an example to us of what can happen when you bring the cross in one hand and a sword in the other.
Though shallow faith is widespread, thankfully many Filipinos remain open to Christ. He is our karamay, a Filipino word meaning “one with those who suffer”. It was why I was drawn to him as a teenager, the image of Jesus on the cross as a suffering servant.
Despite our intimate cultural and historical understanding of suffering, stigma towards those suffering from mental illnesses remains rampant. Even today, people think there is something wrong with you if you admit to feeling depressed. And so, it was not until years later that I finally realised why I had been drawn to Jesus.
Depression can come in many forms. I noticed that there were times, especially during the Christmas season, when I wished I hadn’t been born. I suffered from long bouts of low mood. Whatever I did and wherever I went, it felt as if darkness were hanging over me. To me, Jesus was a light. Somehow, he believed in me far more than I was able to believe in myself.
By this point, I was teaching in a seminary and, like a moth to a flame, I was keen to undertake further study. I was introduced to Langham Partnership, a UK charity which aims to deepen Christians’ faith by equipping, training and resourcing indigenous leaders around the world, and went to the UK as part of their Langham Scholars programme to complete my PhD on the biblical psalms of lament.
The adjustments, stress and difficulties of living in a foreign land with my family eventually took their toll, and I struggled with a particularly strong bout of depression. But the support from my wife and Langham, along with my research on the psalms of lament, helped me get through this period.
One of the key messages of the lamenting psalms, which make up over a third of the book of Psalms, is that it is OK not to be OK. I eventually realised that I did not have to be perfect, healed or even feel ‘OK’ to come to God. God accepts us as we are, but I had to learn to accept myself, which I found incredibly difficult as a Filipino man.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
After I graduated, I was invited to be part of the Scholar Care Coordinators for current Langham scholars in Asia. As I had benefited a lot from my own pastoral care coordinator, I jumped at the opportunity to give something back. And a few years later, I was invited to become Langham Literature’s regional commissioning editor for Asia, encouraging and supporting Asian writers to develop theology books in their own languages to help deepen the faith of disciples in their nations.
We live in a fast-paced world, but depth cannot be rushed. It took Langham three years to support me in my PhD, and another three years for continued training. It took me far longer to accept and overcome my depression. The results cannot be measured in numbers alone, but by the lives that are continuing to be transformed through our teaching, writing and preaching.
Are you looking for a way to change lives and impact communities with the gospel? This year, Langham is inviting people across the UK to get involved through its ‘Magnify’ campaign. Visit Langham’s Magnify website to learn more about local ‘Magnify’ events happening where you are.
Federico G Villanueva, PhD, serves as the regional commissioning editor for Langham Publishing and scholar care coordinator of current Asian Langham scholars. He is author of several books, including The Uncertainty of a Hearing: A Study of the Sudden Change of Mood in the Psalms of Lament and It’s OK to be Not OK: Preaching the Lament Psalms. He teaches part-time at the Asia Graduate School of Theology and Loyola School of Theology in Manila.