When I was in my late teens and early twenties I started struggling a little bit with anxiety. That anxiety became especially severe one summer, and persisted to various degrees over the following years. At times that anxiety turned into bouts of depression.
The nature of my anxieties changed slightly in my thirties, as I began to struggle to keep certain thoughts out of my mind. When I found out that my grandmother had suffered severe mental health issues, I began to wonder if my anxiety had a medical root.
So, at a time when my thoughts seemed unmanageable, I went to the doctor. In God’s kindness there happened to be both a couple of General Practitioners and a Psychiatrist in the church where I was working. Rosie could see that I was struggling, gave me some tablets and arranged for Stephen, the psychiatrist, to visit me that night.
Stephen heard what I was saying and immediately diagnosed the problem. He described my thoughts as being ridiculous, resistant, repetitive and repulsive to me. He said that I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He told me to take two months off work, prescribed some special tablets and recommended that I take a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is much better than it used to be. The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy taught me how to understand my thoughts, and I still take tablets every day.
We are going to look at the issue and depression and anxiety, from a Christian viewpoint, by answering a number of questions.
- What causes depression?
Ed Welch writes, ‘Depression is a form of suffering that can’t be reduced to one universal cause. Many factors may cause depression, and often more than one of these factors is at work in the depressed person.’
Depression can be the result of other people. People hurt us in a variety of ways. Many victims of abuse struggle with mental health issues in later life. Many people carry the wounds caused by an unloving parent, a harsh teacher or a school bully.
Depression is the result of living in a fallen world. The book of Genesis teaches that, because of human rebellion, God has subjected humankind to decay and death. Our bodies ache and deteriorate, and we are prone to physical and mental illness.
Sometimes we are the cause of our depression. For example, anger is a notorious cause of depression. We can’t expect a joyous life if we are critical, bitter and unforgiving.
False beliefs can be a factor. If you think you are of no value, you will be prone to feeling depressed. If you believe that God does not love you, you will suffer from morbid fears.
Satan is a factor in depression. Not in a wacky sense, but in the fact that he will remind you of past guilt, tempt you towards bitterness and seek to implant in you doubts about the goodness of God.
In Psalm 32, David links a time of depression to God’s discipline. He refused to face up to his sin, after his adultery with Bathsheba. So God’s hand was heavy upon him until he acknowledged his guilt. Never assume that someone’s depression is God’s discipline, but always examine your heart to see if God might be drawing attention to issues he wants to deal with you.
Finally, there is a sense in which God stands behind all our depression. After all God rules over all that takes place in the universe. Enemies may wound us but God could shut their mouths. Similarly, our brain chemistry is not beyond his control.
- Is it unspiritual to be depressed?
Is it unspiritual to be depressed, after all the fruit of the Holy Spirit includes joy?
The first response to this question is to point out that there are many godly people who have passed through times of immense sorrow. The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, struggled with depression throughout his life. What seems to have ignited this was a specific tragedy.
Spurgeon was preaching to a huge congregation—of over twelve thousand people, at the Exeter Hall in London—when someone yelled, “Fire!” In the chaos that ensured seven people were killed, and Spurgeon was inconsolable. Other factors contributed to his depressions, including his struggles with gout and his concern for those he pastored.
He exclaimed that there are dungeons beneath the Castle of Despair, and that he had often been in them. ‘I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for,’ he recounted on one occasion.
In the book of Psalms, we often hear the psalmists crying out to God in despair. ‘All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.’ These laments are given to us by God, in part, to help us express our pain.
We must also remember that Jesus was a man of sorrows familiar with grief. Spurgeon wrote, ‘No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of the heart, for Jesus Christ our Lord once said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” There was no sin in Him, and consequently none in his depression.’
However, I must give you one warning: in your depression do not sin! Depression does present us with particular temptations. Most obviously, depression tempts us towards self-pity. Indeed, some people try to find comfort in wrong ways like over-eating, overworking and alcohol abuse.
But, what about the fact that one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is joy? Am I less spiritual when I am depressed? I put this question to a friend of mine, who is a lecturer in a leading evangelical theological college. He replied, ‘I guess joy is not simply an emotion. And so someone with depression can still (though it would be harder) rejoice – have confidence in the Lord.’ He then says that Psalm 31:7-9 might be worth looking at:
“I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.”
Here we seem to see an example of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10).
Ed Welch writes, ‘Joy is not the opposite of depression. It is deeper than depression. Therefore, you can experience both.’
Joan Singleton lectures in pastoral care in the Irish Bible Institute. At one stage, when she was depressed, she wondered if her depression inhibited her witness as a Christian. Then she realised the powerful testimony in the fact that she was still hanging on to God and believing his truth, even though her life was filled with pain.
- What about anxiety, isn’t it wrong to worry?
I am not disputing that worry can be a real sin, but I think that anxiety can have many roots, some of which are not sinful.
I see a parallel between anxiety and doubt. On certain occasions Jesus rebuked the disciples for their doubt, because it revealed a stubborn refusal to accept the truth. Yet in the letter of Jude we read that we are to ‘be merciful to those who doubt.’ Those to whom Jude was referring doubted, not because they stubbornly refused to believe, but because false teachers had infiltrated the church and upset their faith. There is doubt that deserves a rebuke and doubt that needs gentle pastoral support. Similarly, there is anxiety that deserves a rebuke and anxiety that needs gentle pastoral support.
Sinful anxiety is rooted in a failure to trust God or in the fact that we have made peripheral things too important in our lives. David Powlison observes that, ‘if what you most value can be taken away or destroyed, then you have set yourself up for anxiety.’ However, not all anxiety is condemned in Scripture. For example, the apostle Paul experienced anxiety related to caring for the health of Christian churches (2 Cor. 11:28). In many of the psalms, God gives us words to express our anxiety.
When our anxiety has roots in a distorted view of God, we need to be gently instructed in the truth of his gentleness and grace. We are told to cast our anxieties on the Lord, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7), but some people need help in coming to understand that he really does care for them. The person with an anxiety disorder may not even be fully aware as to why they are so anxious. Their worries may have more to do with imbalances in brain chemistry than the actual issues they are focusing on. It would simply be too harsh to tell them just to stop worrying.
- Is it okay to take anti-depressants?
John Piper was asked the following question from a listener: ‘What do you think of Christians taking anti-depressants—I have been on them, and have been accused of not relying on God?’
In his answer, Piper takes a drink from a bottle of water and then asks, ‘was that sip a failure to rely on God?’ After all, God could simply keep his throat miraculously moist! Piper’s point is that God has given certain means to provide for our physical well-being, and these are to be taken with thanksgiving.
He then explains that he has reached the conclusion that there are profoundly physical dimensions to our mental conditions. Since that is the case physical means can be used to help people out of their depression—just as medications are gratefully received in the treatment of many other illnesses.
- How can we deal with our depression?
Have faith in Christ
Do you remember the ad that the British Humanist Association placed on the side of buses in England—‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’? Actually, people tend to enjoy life more with God rather than without him.
Professor Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, comments that: ‘The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.
Compare the Christian gospel with society’s teaching on self-esteem and ask yourself, ‘which has more potential to help the depressed person?’
Society tells us to seek our value by searching for the hero inside ourselves. The problem is, when I examine my life I see many things that could make me feel ashamed. Self-esteem is a poor foundation to build our sense of worth upon.
The gospel tells me that I am a flawed and rebellious person who is loved by a kind and forgiving creator. This creator has given each of us intrinsic worth, making us in his image. This God cares for us so much that he sent his Son to die for our guilt. This God treats me, not as I deserve, but according to his loving-kindness! Now I can examine my life, see things I wish were not there and be secure in the fact that my relationship with him is not about earning his favour but living in the light of his undeserved, unmerited and unearned grace. In fact, because of his grace in my life, I can delight in the fact that he is in the process of changing me and transforming into the likeness of Jesus.
Grow in your confidence in the character of God
One of the cruel things about depression is that when we are depressed we are vulnerable to believing lies. We must combat these lies with the truth. What many sensitive people need is to realise that God is a loving Father who always seeks the good of his children. Ed Welch writes, ‘Just think what it would be like to be certain that the God of this universe loved you. That alone would probably change the contours of depression.’
We mentioned the importance of seeking to deal with any known sin. We need to ask the Lord honestly to search our hearts (Psalm 139:23-24). But never forget that God is compassionate and gracious. Even when he disciplines us, he does so as a loving Father who has our best interests at heart (Hebrews 12:6).
Look after your body
The apostle Paul told his young disciple Timothy that bodily training is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8). We must not ignore the connection between the body and the soul. John Piper copes with his proneness towards a low mood through regular exercise.
Pray the Psalms
A great source of comfort can come from the psalms. In the psalms we see every sort of human emotion, including depression. You may only be able to identify with the sorrow in them at the beginning—but take comfort, for these are spiritual people whose sorrow matters enough to God that he records them in his word. Hopefully, after time, as you cry out to God you will experience the progress towards confidence that occurs in many of the psalms.
Put your faith into practice
It is always important for us to put our faith into practice. You may need times of rest, but be careful that this does not slip into inertia. Indeed, there is healing power in doing things for others for the glory of God. Listen to the healing words of Isaiah (58:10):
“and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.”
When Doctor Elijah Chila was doing a question and answer session with us at Café Church he reminded us of the need to talk. I always encourage depressed people to talk to a doctor. We also need to be able to talk about our feelings to family and friends. Find gracious and loving people that you can share your burdens with.
- What about those living with someone who has depression?
The book, Dealing with Depression, by Sarah Collins and Jayne Haynes, includes the story of Andy, a pastor whose wife suffers from depression. He says that the following things have been helpful for him.
Be real about what is happening. There will be a sense of loss. Your spouse may become withdrawn, and so you receive less warmth in your life. They may have less energy and be less fun. You may need to take on board extra responsibilities at home. Andy says that it can be lonely living with a depressed person. The relationship may feel emotionally one-sided.
But, he warns, resist the temptation of simply trying to fix your spouse’s problems. It is more important to be genuine in your sympathy and listening.
Andy says that you have to ensure that you look after yourself and don’t get burned out. Exercise, take breaks, do fun things (and don’t feel guilt about having some fun just because they can’t share your mood).
Find someone that you can share your feelings with, but be careful not to look for too much care from someone of the opposite sex (in case you develop an emotionally inappropriate relationship).
Above all, Andy says, seek God in your situation. ‘A loss in any area of your life opens a door for more of him. More direct reliance on him … It is hard to read this, I know, but it really is a chance to know Jesus better.’
- How can the church help those with depression?
According to psychologist, Deborah Serani, “when I was struggling with my own depression, the most healing moments came when someone I loved simply sat with me while I cried, or wordlessly held my hand, or spoke warmly to me.’
Remember that small gestures help
Maybe you are uncomfortable about the fact that you don’t know what to say, you can support in other ways. You can write a card, cook a meal, send a text or offer other forms of practical support.
Don’t just fire verses at them
Many years ago a friend of mine suffered a breakdown. One of the things that upset her, during this difficult time, was people who would fire Bible verses at her. She knew that ‘God works all things for the good of those who love him.’ But it was unhelpful when people, who hadn’t the love to listen and engage with how she really felt, pawned her off with a verse. Brian Borgman writes, ‘it is a dangerous physician who throws a few Bible verses at those who are depressed and tells them just to have faith.’
Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’
Similarly, in the last church I worked in, a person came to me and shared how painful they found it when someone belittled their suffering with the words, ‘I know how you feel.’ She doubted that they knew how she felt. Even if you have also suffered from depression, you cannot really know how their depression is affecting them, unless you take the time to listen and find out. We actually banned our pastoral team from using the phrase ‘I know how you feel.’
Don’t tell them to ‘snap out of it’
Someone with depression shared with me their frustration with people telling them to ‘snap out of it’. If only they could, they would love to!
Model the kindness of God
Depressed people need to know that God is good and kind. People draw many conclusions about God’s nature from watching those who claim to know him. Someone paid tribute to a man I used to know saying, ‘he influenced me in the beauty of godliness.’ People saw God in his life and what they saw showed them that God was good, loving and kind.
Create communities of grace
If churches are to be helpful towards those who are depressed then they need to be communities that are infused with grace. It is a tragedy when people are fearful about being vulnerable because of what critics and gossips will say. It is an outright denial of the gospel when you think that you always have to pretend you are strong.
Be a genuine friend
The proverbs teach, ‘a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity’ (17:17). That friendship is best shown in listening carefully and being there in bad times as well as good. A good friend will challenge the depressed person about some of their false beliefs about God and self.
Conclusion: The fellowship of suffering
Before I finish, I want to remind you that depression has a variety of causes, often at work in any one person, and therefore needs a variety of cures. I have been helped in my struggles with depression and anxiety by medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, time off work, Christians who reflected the grace of God and a supportive family. I would have to say, that through all my anxieties God is at work humbling me, helping me to lean on him more, causing me to seek to understand him more and giving me a little bit more empathy for others.
I want to finish with some wise words from Bible commentator J. B. Phillips. He wrote in a letter:
“These periods of spiritual dryness which every saint has known are the very times when your need of God is greatest. To worship him may or may not bring back the lost ‘feeling’, but your contact with God in prayer and praise will strengthen you spiritually whether you feel it or not … Times of spiritual apathy are the very times when we can do most to prove our love for God, and I have no doubt we bring most joy to his heart when we defy our feelings and act in spite of them.”
Used with permission. For more blog posts by Paul Ritchie check out his blog: To Whom It May Concern.