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THE CHRISTIAN AND

DEPRESSION

Rev Rodney A. Gray
Christmas time is a happy time of the year. And yet it also proves to be a very depressing time of
the year for many people. The commercialism and materialism of our generation tend to raise
peoples' expectations to unrealistic, and often sinful, heights, only to be dashed against the rocks of
disappointment and despair. People who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord of all must ask themselves,
When I look around at all of the materialism and excess that is associated with Christmas today, is
the world following the lead of the church or is the church following the lead of the world? Is there
more of Christianity in the world, or is there more of the world in Christianity? Which is exerting
the greater influence on the other, godliness or ungodliness; spirituality or materialism; the
kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world? It is a common problem for Christians to become
caught up in the whirlwind of activity which they know very well has little or nothing to do with
Christ and the gospel. If indeed they are real Christians, they will discover that either one or the
other of two things will happen to them. If they are materially prosperous and are able to keep pace
with the demands of worldly pursuits, they will feel guilty about feverishly chasing after vanity. If
on the other hand they are not able to stay in the running because of financial constraints, they will
feel deprived, envious and resentful because of it. In both cases, these people are on their way to a
more serious spiritual problem, the problem of depression. It is a good time of year for us to
consider this in connection with our study of problems in the Christian life. Again I emphasize that
our approach here is not a psychological, medical or sociological one, but a pastoral one. We look
at this as a spiritual problem, and we look for wisdom and understanding in the Bible to know how
to deal with it.

What is a definition of depression?

In order to come to some measure of agreement on just what it is we are talking about in this study,
we must say something about what depression is and what it is not. This is one of those words we
use commonly to refer to all kinds of things, so it is important to settle on a working definition for
the purpose of this study, which deals with the Christian and depression, or depression in the
Christian life. A student might use the word "depressed" to tell you how he feels about doing badly
on an exam. A housewife may say that she is depressed because she can't seem to make ends meet
with the household budget. You might have described yourself as depressed after a long, hard day
in which it seemed that nothing went right. Maybe you are "down in the dumps," or you "have the
blues," or you are "full of gloom and doom." All of us experience these mood changes, and all of us
become discouraged, dejected, downcast and despondent from time to time. Our gracious Lord
was tempted in all the ways that we are, yet without sin. His identifying with us in the weakness of
our humanity must have included discouragement, such as when His disciples left Him, or when
people refused to believe Him in spite of the mighty works He did, or when His teaching was
misrepresented. In II Corinthians 4:8 and 9, the apostle Paul testified to this: "We are hard pressed
on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck
down, but not destroyed." He used the same word for "despair" in 1:8 as he was describing the
hardships which had hindered his going to Corinth. "We were under great pressure, far beyond our
ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of
death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."
The word for "despair" means that you can see no way out. There is, from your point of view, no
hope, no way of escape, no way of resolving the problem. It means that the situation is impossible
and you might just as well give up. Paul was simply saying that, even though he was discouraged
by various problems and circumstances, and at times he wondered whether it would be the end for
him, still he did not descend to the level of giving up. The apostle Peter writes that "now for a little
while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials" (I Peter 1:6). The truth is that it is the
normal experience of God's people to be "down" from time to time. All of us know what it is to be
discouraged or defeated about one thing or another. This is why the Scriptures have so many ways
of reminding us of the joy of the Lord, the joy of His salvation, the joyfulness that should fill our
hearts even when we are down. "In this you greatly rejoice, though now, etc." "Rejoice in the Lord
always, and again I say, Rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4). Paul and his companions were "sorrowful, yet
always rejoicing" (II Corinthians 6:10). "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all
circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (I Thessalonians 5:16-18).

But what I need to clarify here is that all of what I have been talking about thus far is not
depression in the sense that I want to define it and deal with it. These are all descriptions of
persons who are perhaps discouraged, perhaps disappointed, perhaps disillusioned, perhaps
dejected. These are all descriptions of persons who are definitely "down," not "up." And yet they
are also descriptions of persons who are "down," but not "out." You can be in any of these states or
all of them and still not be depressed. We need to be careful to distinguish between being "down,"
and being depressed. Whenever we get down, we do not necessarily have to become depressed.
Many people talk themselves into depression because they think it is the unavoidable result of
unhappy circumstances in their lives. Or, they have been led to believe that depression is a disease
that has invaded their personality, like cancer invades the body, and they have no control over it or
responsibility for it. But, as we shall see, depression is not an invisible virus that takes over the
defenseless, unsuspecting victim. It is the result of a sinful response to circumstances. Note
carefully here: it is not that the circumstances themselves are necessarily sinful, though they may
be; it is our handling of them in a sinful way that leads to depression. So, when we ask the
question, What is depression?, we soon realize that it is one of those things that is more easily
described than defined. A person suffering from depression is a person who is not functioning.
This is a person who is not fulfilling his normal, routine responsibilities; he has lost all interest in
doing anything; he lets everything go; he withdraws from people and relationships; he says he has
"given up" and in many cases he has frequent thoughts about ending his life. The depressed person
indulges in a great deal of self-pity, and his whole outlook is based on how he feels. He doesn't feel
like doing this, and he just can't do that. Such a person is not only "down," he is "down and out."

The depression we are concerned about in this study is a spiritual problem, but it can be illustrated
from the physical world. I would not be surprised if, when I mention the word "depression," at
least some of us are thinking about what has come to be known as the Great Depression in the
modern history of our nation and the world. In the economic catastrophe of October, 1929, over 16
million shares in the nation's leading corporations were dumped on the market at the New York
Stock Exchange. The panic and confusion that followed almost brought the country to a standstill.
Banks, railroads and factories closed. The number of men and women out of work would soar to
12 million. Homeless and hungry people were everywhere. Millions who had become accustomed
to prosperity, security and the good life, suddenly lost everything. There were no jobs and no
money to be had. Many people believed that it was all due to events and processes beyond human
control. They thought it was an unavoidable part of life in a nation on the move. President Hoover
tried to calm the peoples' worst fears by reminding them that there had been fifteen such declines in
our history so far, and the thing to do was to just wait it out. But it did not go away by itself. This
was the Great Depression. It brought progress, prosperity and growth to a grinding halt. And
depression as a spiritual problem has the same effect in your life. You become a person who ceases
to function and you are convinced there is nothing you can do about it.

What are the dynamics of depression?

In this section we are concerned to know how depression works. We want to try to understand how
people become depressed. What causes it, or what are some factors that contribute to it?

Depression may result from sin. Sin and disobedience to the will of God may eventually lead to
depression. The principle is that if you do wrong, you will feel wrong. Please understand that we
are not saying that sin is the only cause of depression, and that all depression is the direct result of a
life of sin. Nor are we arguing that every time you commit an act of sin, it plunges you into a sea of
deep depression such as we have described it. What we are saying is that sin is one possible and
common cause of depression, particularly in the lives of God's people, and that it will lead to
depression if we do not handle it in God's way. A helpful example of this is found in the life of
Cain in Genesis 4. The problem here is that God has looked favorably on Abel's offering, while He
did not look with favor on Cain's offering. The Scripture tells us, "So Cain was very angry, and his
face was downcast." The Lord then questioned Cain about this and let him know that this was the
wrong response. Cain had evidently presented an unacceptable offering, and now he is about to
make matters worse by his anger and self-pity over God's rejection of it. We must assume that
Cain's action was regarded by God as sinful from the start, because it was not an act of faith. The
Book of Hebrews indicates that the problem was not with Cain's offering, but with Cain himself. It
stresses the fact that Abel was a man of faith, and that the offering he presented to the Lord was an
expression of that faith. "He was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his
offerings" (Hebrews 11:4). Cain did not believe God, and attempted to serve Him in unbelief. His
offering was an expression of self-reliance and self-righteousness. The Lord instructs him that, if
he will do what is right, he will be accepted (literally, "lifted up"). But if he continues to do wrong,
sin will gain the mastery over him. Cain chose to complicate the problem by handling it sinfully,
and finally murdered his own brother. The principle we want to derive from this account is that
Cain plunged himself into a downward spiral of despair when he refused to deal with sin God's
way. Sin gained the victory over him.

Depression may result from the situation. Sometimes it is not sin that provides the occasion for
this problem, but it is a situation or a combination of circumstances which we fail to deal with
according to the Word of God. For example, sickness can lead to depression, whether it is our own
sickness or that of a loved one. It makes us vulnerable to sinful responses especially when it is
prolonged or chronic illness, or when it involves a great deal of pain and suffering. Financial
problems, losses and setbacks may also provide occasions for depression to set in. The loss of a job
or personal failure in some enterprise may lead to depression. Depression may also beset us
because of not dealing correctly with loneliness, grief and the disruption of relationships.
Christians are also susceptible to depression when others disappoint us, criticize us or fail to
appreciate us.

Elijah was a man with feelings just like our own, James 5:17 reminds us. He had strengths and
weaknesses, and though he was truly a great man of God, he was, after all, only a man. In I Kings
19 there is the account of Elijah in his weakness, when he was dealing wrongly with the situation in
which he found himself. He had just come through the great events on Mount Carmel, when the
Lord God of Israel proved Himself to be the only true and living God, and hundreds of prophets
who spoke in the name of false gods suffered a horrible defeat. Now Jezebel, who had done so
much to promote the interests of idolatry in Israel, has taken an oath that she will see Elijah dead
within twenty-four hours. The next thing we know, Elijah is afraid and running for his life. He
went a whole day's journey into the desert, came to a broom tree and sat down under it, praying that
God would take his life. "I have had enough," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my
ancestors." Later on he complained: "I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The
Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death
with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me." An interesting thing
happens after this. The Lord begins to give Elijah work to do. At just the time when Elijah has
given up, feels defeated, and is convinced that he cannot go on, God hands out some assignments.
He tells Elijah to get moving, to anoint two kings and one prophet, and to realize that He had seven
thousand people in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

Elijah was responding to the situation in the wrong way. He was in danger of sliding into the trap
of depression, so that he was not even willing to face up to his normal responsibilities. He was not
functioning as the prophet the Lord God of Israel had called him to be. So God is giving Elijah
direction here that, if heeded, will reverse the downward spiral of depression. To his credit, and by
the grace of God, Elijah, the man of faith, obeyed God in spite of his feelings to the contrary.

Depression may result from the system. The problem in view here is accepting and acting
according to a system of values that is contrary to the will of God. We might think of the example
of Jonah, the prophet God sent to preach against the ancient city of Nineveh. The population
repented and turned to God under the preaching of his simple message. But Jonah brought them
God's word only after God disciplined him with the great fish because he refused to go to Nineveh
in the first place. Jonah had a different agenda for the Ninevites than God did. And when they
repented and believed God, from the greatest to the least, Jonah was not pleased. In fact, he was
offended. The Scripture tells us that "Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry." We read
further Jonah's prayer to God: "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why
I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to
anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away
my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (4:2,3). When Christians try to live on the basis of
the world's system of values, goals or priorities, they soon discover that it is like Jonah being
disappointed when God's way prevails. It is like David trying to walk and fight in King Saul's
armor. It becomes evident that you cannot be serious about your commitment to Jesus Christ and
His Lordship, and at the same time pursue a lifestyle that amounts to a denial of Christ and the
gospel. We probably will have to admit that the way we usually try to deal with this problem is to
simply ignore the teachings and commandments of Christ that don't fit into our agenda. Like
Jonah, we try to push our own system of values ahead of God's. But many of us are at various
levels of danger in terms of spiritual depression because we have embraced a system of worldly
values that we find we cannot achieve. It may be the goal of making a lot of money; being
successful, popular or powerful; or having intelligence, charm and beauty like somebody in the
imaginary world of the movies. It might be something like adopting a certain political or social
agenda that we assume is God's program, and we are devastated when someone points out to us that
God might think differently than we do. The Christmas shopping season is a depressing time for
many Christians, because they are trying to operate on the basis of a value system that the world
has handed them.

Why are we defeated by depression?

Depression will overcome us when we fail to bear in mind all that we have already said about the
nature and possible causes of this problem. Remember that the depressed person has stopped
performing his normal chores and activities. He has even lost interest in hobbies and recreation
which he used to consider important. He has come to the conclusion that there is no point in going
on in life. We suggested that depression may result from sinful activity, a situation in life, or a
system of values, any of which we fail to deal with in obedience to God's word. Increased sin leads
to increased guilt, and increased guilt leads to increased depression. It is a downward, spiraling
process into a bottomless pit of despair. Why do we fail to reverse this downward progression, and
thus fall into depression?

It is especially at this point that the mind of God and the mind of man are likely to clash. Our
entire approach to the problem of depression in the Christian life has set us upon a collision course
with human wisdom from the very start. And it is here, on the question of how to defeat it, that the
collision is going to happen if it hasn't already occurred. Some of our most serious mistakes are
made at this point. Instead of following the wisdom of God, we embrace the conventional wisdom
of the day - whatever is fashionable in the mind of man - and we end up doing more harm than
good. For example, there is the idea that what we need to do is to "explore" the problem.
Exploration implies that no one has ever been there before; it is uncharted territory; you have little
or no idea where you are going; and you don't have much assurance about how you are going to
find your way home. You just want to "boldly go where no man has ever gone before." The
problem with this approach is that it usually makes the problem grow larger instead of smaller. It
tends to discover things that were not a problem before. The process of exploring the problem goes
on and on without giving the depressed person any hope.

Then there is the notion that what we need to do is to help the person "get in touch with his true
feelings." The difficulty here is that, if the person is truly depressed, he is already in touch with his
true feelings! In fact, that is his problem. He has given in to his feelings, and he is in closer touch
with them than he should be. The more we try to keep him in touch with his feelings, the less likely
will we be able to help him in a lasting way.

Another false approach to depression in the Christian life is the one that insists that what this
person needs now is "support." Being supportive implies that the person is now helpless and
incapable of doing anything for himself. It also suggests that the person is not responsible. The
concept of support somehow insinuates that the depressed person deserves a free ride, at least for
the time being, because he has become the unwitting victim of circumstances beyond his control.
Therefore, what we need to do is just listen to him say whatever he wants to say, and never insist
that he do anything that he doesn't want to do. We may also suggest, as part of our approach, that
he get together with other people who feel the same way he does (a "support group") so that he can
commiserate with them. While there may be a place for some sort of support in our dealings with
depressed people, it is decidedly not the Bible's primary concern with the problem.

And then there is the rather natural tendency we all have to "minimize" the problem. The depressed
person goes to great lengths to describe how horribly things have been going in his life. Our
response is, "Things really can't be that bad!" He may talk about what a bad person he is, or how
worthless he is, or how sinfully negligent and irresponsible he has behaved. Our response is, "Oh
come now, no one can possibly be that bad!" Do you see the problem here? In this approach,
though our intentions are good, we are not offering any real help or hope. We are telling this person
that we simply do not believe him. What this amounts to is accusing a depressed person to be a
liar, too. We should be encouraging him to tell the truth about himself and about his problems,
because concealing it will always make matters worse. These are some of the ways we can help
depression get the best of people.
Some parting thoughts

On the positive side, what can we do to defeat depression? What are some guidelines that we
should observe as we proceed? There are many ways of formulating answers to these questions, so
we simply suggest four basic principles here. They form an acrostic for the word "S T O P," and
they are as follows:

Speak with biblical language. One of the most apparent symptoms of depression is the tendency
to use the language of hopelessness and despair. Depressed people say "I can't" all the time.
"Can't" is really the key word in the language of depression. "I just can't deal with this problem." "I
can't go to work today." "I can't deal with the kids." "I can't handle the housework." "I can't face
other people." "I can't be any different than I am." "I can't take it any more!" For Christians, this is
entirely unbiblical language, and we need to learn to speak biblically. The apostle Paul said, "I can
do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). He confided in the believers
in Corinth about how he had pleaded with the Lord to take away from him a certain thorn in his
flesh, a messenger of Satan which tormented him. "But he said to me, `My grace is sufficient for
you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly abut my
weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in
weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am
strong" (II Corinthians 12:7-10). Depressed people need to be reminded of these principles of
biblical truth and urged to begin once again to speak accordingly. This will help them to look
outside of themselves and their weakness to Christ and His strength. The language of the believer
is, "I can ...through Christ."

Think productive thoughts. This is another very positive step we may take to defeat depression.
Our thinking is all wrong, and we can take steps to correct it. Depressed people are thinking about
themselves and their problems. They brood and indulge in self-pity. They feel sorry for themselves
and expect everyone else to pity them. If there is a problem with sin, they are failing to realize that
God has only one formula for dealing with sin: repentance, confession and forgiveness. If the
problem is that they have responded to the situation in an ungodly manner, the problem is still sin.
If the problem is that they have tried to follow an ungodly system of values or priorities, the
problem is still sin. Depressed persons need to repent and ask God's forgiveness for their sins, and
to go on doing that immediately whenever they realize they have sinned. They need to think
biblically about sin. Then also they must follow the counsel of Philippians 4:8 when it comes to
their thought life. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or
praiseworthy -- think about such things." Some people have gone so far as to develop an actual list
of things to think about whenever they are feeling down. The point is to replace negative,
unproductive thoughts with positive, productive thoughts. Depressed people are people whose
minds are often not full of the Scriptures, and it is useful to be able to take out a prepared list of
promises and instructions from the Word of God to get our thoughts back on track. We need to be
reminded of all of the ways God has blessed us, and we need to be challenged with all that He has
called us to do.

Obey God regardless of how you feel. When we allow ourselves to come under the dominating
spell of depression, we are living according to our feelings more than anything else. We give up on
our responsibilities because we simply don't "feel" like doing anything that we are supposed to do.
We become more and more wrapped up in our feelings. "I just don't feel like doing the ironing." "I
don't feel like meeting people." "I don't feel like having company." "I don't feel like being in
church." "I don't feel like going to work." "I don't feel like taking care of my personal appearance."
"I don't feel like doing anything for anybody." All of this is the language of people who are saying
that they are not going to obey God because they don't feel like it! And the point is that we need to
obey God regardless of how we feel. The commandments of God are not conditioned upon how we
feel at any given time. You are not required to be a loving and faithful wife or husband only when
you feel like it. You are not commanded to be a devoted and loyal member of the church body only
when you feel like it. Your obligation to love God and the neighbor transcends your fickled
feelings, and you must obey God regardless of your feelings. If you are depressed, you need to not
only think this way, but act this way, and fulfill your responsibilities no matter what your feelings
tell you to the contrary. Maintain those daily devotions, even if you don't feel like it. Be a vital,
functioning, helpful part of a gospel church, even if you don't feel like it. Decide on some goals,
and work to attain them, even if you don't feel like it. Take care of your daily chores, and don't
allow things to pile up, even if you don't feel like it. And remember our principle, that if you do
right, you will feel right. Find ways of serving others, and do it. If you are a believer, you have
one or more spiritual gifts, whether you are depressed or not. Discover that gift; develop that gift;
deploy that gift for the edification of the body and the good of others outside the body. Take care of
yourself physically and plan to have some fun, whether you feel like it or not. "Develop close
friendships with godly people who will stimulate, exhort, rebuke, support, encourage and challenge
you" (Wayne Mack). In short, turn to any page in the New Testament, and obey what God says
regardless of how you feel at the moment.

Pray without having a pity-party. Certainly, we ought always to pray, at all times, in all places
and about everything. But depressed people are prone to turn prayer times into pity-parties. They
are really not praying in any biblical sense. They are simply rehearsing their problems over and
over, telling themselves how hopeless and meaningless their lives are. They are talking to
themselves rather than to the Lord. The more they do that, the worse will be their condition.
Prayer is directed to God, not to ourselves. Prayer should be mostly about God and not about us.
In the prayer that our Lord taught His disciples, the priority items are God, His kingdom and His
will. Even under the best of conditions, most of us spend far too little time with these great themes.
But only after these do the matters that concern our needs come into the picture. In any case, when
we do get to the things that concern our own lives, our prayers should be full of praise and gratitude
for what God has done for us. They should be full of supplication and intercession for other
people. It should also be our purpose to confess our sins, and ask God's forgiveness for our self-
pity and self-centeredness. We must pray that God will deliver us from this sinful pattern of
behavior and from our inactivity, and demonstrate the sufficiency of His grace and power in our
weakness. In short, our prayers must be consistent with everything else we are going to do, in our
speaking, thinking and obeying. Lonely people may become depressed, but depressed people are
sure to become lonely. So get with someone, pray with someone, become accountable to someone.
Seek out a brother or sister who will help you to get close to God. But most important of all, get
close to God.

December 9 and 16, 1990