feeling depression as a christian

Depression is an epidemic, it seems.

On most Sunday afternoons, I am no fun. I sleep, avoid conversations, and sit in the dark watching football or movies. My body is exhausted, my spirit is grumpy, and my mind is trapped in the dark “if only” loop. Coming off of the adrenaline rush of preaching, I feel strikingly sure that I failed God in some major way. I missed something significant. Alistair Begg named it for me once, “The Elijah Syndrome”. Many pastors share the emotional journey of Elijah from the miracle atop Mt. Carmel to the depths of despair in the desert, all in one day (1 Kings 19). My beloved wife pushes a plate of food under my nose, hugs me, and moves on. I just grunt. She knows that by Monday afternoon I’ll be my jovial, optimistic self again.

We all have days when we are blue and low in spirit. We all go through times when our hearts are heavy, and life looks bleak. Our sports team loses, a job review goes badly, we fail a test, we get a ticket, we lose a friend. This is the universal condition of human sadness and disappointment. It is tied to the ups and downs of life in a broken world. And it touches us all–but it moves on. Joy comes in the morning. A new day. Another chance.

But sometimes the sadness doesn’t lift. It doesn’t move on. Sometimes the dark mood moves into the spare bedroom; joy and happiness are boxed and packed away in the basement. This is something different. It is called depression.

According to the National Institute of Health, 7% of Americans have at least one major depressive incident in a year. This represents about 16 million Americans. The highest age group was young adults, where almost 14 % had a yearly major depression. One in three college students has suffered from significant depression. And over half of all Americans suffer from repeated, moderate-to-severe depression.This cost us $42 billion in health care costs, about half of the mental health dollars spent each year. And another $40 billion is lost in productivity and work. Globally, 350 million people are seriously depressed. We might as well find a dark cave and crawl into it. We are a depressed world.

 

What is depression, exactly?

Life can be discouraging. But depression is far more than our reaction to bad times or our physical exhaustion. The symptoms don’t always look the same, but many people experience real depression as significant sadness, loneliness, anger, moodiness, and irritability. It often comes with a difficulty in making decisions, an increase sense of guilt, and a growing inactivity. If there have been marked changes in mood, appetite, sleep cycle, energy levels and outlook on life, there may be some level of depression in a person. And it lasts for a while–maybe a week, or a month, or more. If it doesn’t lift on Monday, Pastor, beware.sad-woman-free-stock

What is it, then? First, depression is not a spiritual disorder. It is not necessarily about moral weakness. Forget that sermon you heard about “stop sinning and you’ll feel good again.” It’s not really true for those with depression. Sure, sin has consequences, and can make us discouraged. Guilt comes with wilful disobedience, and lifts when we confess, surrender to God’s healing, and change our behavior. But depression is not a choice. You cannot simply try to feel better. Nor is it necessarily a lack of faith. You cannot pray your way out of depression.
It’s not all in your head. But it is in your brain.
depression-brain
Brain research scans from the Mayo Clinic Depression Study.

While situations, interactions, and loss impact how we feel, depression is primarily rooted in brain chemistry and genetics. In the last twenty years, many studies have offered insights into the biology behind depression. We have discovered that in some individuals, the specific brain chemicals necessary to maintain emotional optimism and balance are not present in sufficient levels. Collectively, these studies reveal that in times of crisis and stress, some people’s brains do not have the biological ability to recover as quickly. As a result, a person’s emotions can slide downward or dampen. Depression can set in. Long-term, this impacts the part of the brain that controls our moods, creating a new “emotional baseline”, built on discouragement, darkness, and depression. (For more detailed information, you might look at this in-depth Harvard article.)

There is a spiritual side of depression, too. Christians get depressed.

But what about you and I? We’re Christians. We have Jesus in our hearts. We can read the end of the Book, and we know we win. We hear sermons on joy.  We sing hymns and praise choruses. We listen to Christian radio. We even wear happy socks. We shouldn’t ever be depressed, right? Wrong.

If you are caught in a prolonged period of sadness, you may recognize spiritual depression: a growing distrust of God, a resentment of others,  a shadowy season of doubting, complaining, worrying, and hopelessness. Sometimes it feels as though you’re in an inescapable pit.

Have you ever felt depressed? You’re not alone.

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous pastor of London’s Westminster Chapel, published a book in 1965 entitled, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. It became an instant Christian best seller, and one of the most widely read books he ever wrote. The only conceivable reason it has been so popular is that so many people, including Christians, are depressed and looking for solutions. He comments,

“I [write] partly for the sake of those who are in this condition, in order that they may be delivered from this unhappiness, this disquiet, this lack of ease, this tension, this troubled state…It is very sad to contemplate the fact that there are Christian people who live the greater part of their lives in this world in such a condition. It does not mean that they are not Christians, but it does mean that they are missing a great deal, missing so much that it is important that we should inquire into the whole condition of spiritual depression.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a best-seller on his own depression. As did Charles Haddon Surgeon. Author and Pastor John Piper wrote a Christian bestseller on depression. Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, and Kay Arthur each wrote a book on depression.  Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, suffered several years of severe depression as she served the poor in India. Christian singers Bono, Shiela Walsh, Tina Cambell, and rapper Lecrae all have all come out publicly as suffering from depression. Good Christians with depression.

 

Depression in the Bible

Depression is a human trait, it seems. I’ve recently been reflecting on Psalm 42. Written as a song, it has this repeated chorus:

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”

Or as in one contemporary version: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?” Not exactly Hillsong or Chris Tomlin material.

As he writes this Psalm, David is feeling depression. Honestly, David would have been a strong candidate for Prozac and therapy. He shows bouts of depression in Psalms 6, 13, 18, 23, 25, 27, 31, 32, 34, 37, 38, 39,40, 42, 43, 46, 51, 55, 62, 63, 69, 71, 73, 77, 84, 86, 90, 91, 94, 95, 103, 104, 107, 110, 116, 118, 121, 123-124, 130, 138, 139, 141-143, 146-147. Wow.

But it’s not just David. Depression is a common thing in the Bible. Lot’s of people in the pages of Scripture show moderate to major depressive episodes. I put together a quick list of those who felt melancholy or discouragement:

  • Abraham (Genesis 15)
  • Jonah (Jonah 4)
  • Job (Book of Job)
  • Moses (Ex 32)
  • Isaiah (Isaiah 38, 41)
  • Elijah (1 Kings 19)
  • King Saul (I Samuel 16:14-23, etc.)
  • Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2)
  • Jeremiah (Book of Jeremiah)
  • Solomon (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs 12:25, Song of Solomon 2)
  • Paul (2 Corinthians 1:8)

These people did not suffer as a result of their moral weakness or sin. They were faithful servants of God, even if they had their weaknesses. But they were also simply caught in the human condition of pain and loss. Their lives were filled, at one point or another, with significant pressures, wounds, and stress. As a result, they became “sick at heart.”

Many scholars also suggest that Jesus felt some depression. He felt overwhelmed at the multitude of humanity’s sin he bore on the cross, at the loss of intimacy this led to with his Father, and at the tragic sinfulness of the world. They site passages like the “man of sorrows” parts of Isaiah 53, Luke 22:41-44, Matthew 26:38, Mark 13:34, John 11:35. As well, Hebrews 4:15 tells us Jesus experienced everything we have faced, including the struggles of every temptation. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” Certainly, the struggle of depression is included here. Bottom line: Jesus gets it.

 

Hope.

So, if you ever feel depressed, you’re in good company.

  • Admit the truth. “I am struggling with depression right now.”
  • Stop beating yourself up. Take a deep breath, and know you are pretty normal. You are valuable just as you are.
  • Know that you are not broken beyond fixing. There is hope for depression. God, therapy, and medicine really can help. I promise.
  • If you have someone who lives under a cloud in your life, cut them some slack. Love on them anyway. Offer grace and loyalty.
  • Be thankful that God works in and uses people who struggle emotionally.

David’s answer to his depression in Psalm 42?

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God — soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God.
–Psalm 42:5, Message

So, practically, what can we do when we’re spiritually or emotionally depressed? That’s for the next post, on “Climbing from depression to hope.”

depression1-hope

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6 comments

  1. What a well written and GREAT article! Thanks for taking the time and thought to write it. I will definitely be sharing it with my friends!

  2. I was surprised to see Ps 103 in the list where David showed bouts of depression. As someone who was clinically depressed and suicidal for 25 years, this is one of my favorite Psalms I read to remind myself of the real Truth and Hope I have — all those benefits from a compassionate, gracious and loving God. I remember at age 52 thanking God that I had now lived more of my life NOT depressed compared to the years of depression. What a great & wonderful God, King Jesus, we have!

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