A few thoughts on Christians and depression:
Christians and depression. Some think the two can never go together, but I beg to differ. Let me say at the outset that I am not speaking as a psychiatrist or psychologist or counsellor or pastor – I am none of those things. And there is such a thing as clinically diagnosed depression – but that is not my main focus here.
What I want to do in this article is briefly discuss three things: one, I offer a quick biographical note; two, I highlight the truth that this is a rather common experience of believers; and three, I conclude with some quotes from a classic book on this subject.
As to my own life, some of you may know I have been going through a bit of a rough patch over the past few weeks. Various things have contributed to this, including a heap of home repair expenses all coming at once, problems with upcoming ministry trips, and various other issues. Indeed, in the middle of writing this piece my computer crashed, the internet went down, and I was left with a few more blues!
Hmm, when it rains it pours. Each one of these things by itself is bearable, but as you may know, when a whole bunch of things arise at the same time, it can seem overwhelming, and one can easily become despondent and depressed. And if you are of a more melancholic temperament (as I am) normal periods of depression or discouragement can sometimes come to a head.
We are all different of course. Some believers seem to be ever joyous, happy-clappy types. They are sanguine in personality, and tend to think everyone should always be upbeat and positive with a permanent smile on the face. Of course melancholic types tend to find such people to be all rather frightening!
Coming to Christ will not necessarily take away all aspects of our temperament and personality. Sure, sinful aspects of who we are should be dealt with and overcome, but it is possible that God has made each person as they are, and within limits, we need to accept each other as they are.
So our particular bent as a person may predispose us to latch on to some parts of Scripture or theologies more than others. For example, I tend to strongly relate to the lament psalms, the book of Lamentations, the book of Job, and the prophets – especially the weeping prophet Jeremiah.
Those with much more cheery and upbeat personalities may well drift to things like the Positive Confession teachings. They may well insist that we must never be negative or say anything negative, but just accentuate the positive and have our best life now. I have offered some critiques of this elsewhere, eg: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/
But as always, biblical balance is what is needed here. We are indeed to have the joy of the Lord. It is a fruit of the Spirit. We certainly should rejoice in the things of God. But we also need to be realistic about sin and evil in the world. And there is a fully biblical place in the life of the believer for crying out to God, protesting injustice, and offering our honest concerns, hurts and complaints to God.
Secondly, it needs to be pointed out that not only does depression afflict many believers in various degrees, but many of the past great saints of God have battled with depression. As you study church history and read Christian biographies, you will discover that many great men and women of God have had to deal with this.
Certainly the remarkable English preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) knew all about this, afflicted with major periods of depression throughout his years of ministry. Given that I have discussed this matter before, let me simply offer part of an earlier article on this:
Spurgeon struggled with deep bouts of depression for much of his life. And much of it may be attributable to a horrific experience he had to endure when he was still very young and relatively new to the ministry. It happened on the evening of October 19, 1856.
His preaching was attracting such large followings that ever newer, bigger venues were needed. Spurgeon preached at a new meeting place that evening with some 10,000 people within and another 10,000 outside: the Surrey Gardens Music Hall. Malicious cries of “fire” all of a sudden rang out, and a panic and stampede ensued.
When it was all over seven people had died and another 28 were seriously injured. The grief and sorrow over the tragedy at Surrey Gardens when he is a mere 22 years old stayed with him throughout his ministry. And like many others, his life was constantly assailed by vocal critics, opponents and enemies.
He constantly had to deal with ugly criticism, abuse and derision, often from other church leaders. Newspapers and church papers often printed malicious attacks on him and vexatious slander about him. As he wrote in 1857, “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”
All this added to his constant despondency and depression. Often he found himself weeping like a baby. He spoke much of his psychological suffering, knowing that he was able to give comfort to others in the same boat. billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/03/spurgeon-and-suffering/
Lastly, let me turn to an older classic on the subject, penned by the great Welsh expository preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981): Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures. Published in 1965, it is actually a collection of twenty-one sermons he delivered on consecutive Sunday mornings in 1954 at Westminster Chapel in London.
He had been a medical doctor before becoming a minister, so his earlier training came in handy as he discussed this matter. While the entire volume is well worth reading, let me whet your appetite by pulling out a few quotes. He notes early on that temperament can play a part in all this. He rightly states that when it comes to salvation, temperament means nothing. But in the outworking of our faith, it does play a role:
“For the fact of the matter is that though we are all Christians together, we are all different, and the problems and the difficulties, the perplexities and the trials that we are likely to meet are in a large measure determined by the difference of temperament and of type. We are all in the same fight, of course, as we share the same common salvation, and have the same common central need. But the manifestations of the trouble vary from case to case and from person to person. There is nothing more futile, when dealing with this condition, than to act on the assumption that all Christians are identical in every respect. They are not, and they are not even meant to be.”
“Some of us by nature, and by the very type to which we belong, are more given to this spiritual disease called spiritual depression than others. We belong to the same company as Jeremiah, and John the Baptist and Paul and Luther and many others. A great company! Yes, but you cannot belong to it without being unusually subject to this particular type of trial.”
And physical considerations must be considered: “You cannot isolate the spiritual from the physical for we are body, mind and spirit. The greatest and the best Christians when they are physically weak are more prone to an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time and there are great illustrations of this in the Scriptures.”
Where the Positive Confession folks go astray is to put all the emphasis on thinking positive thoughts, and even claiming that we can create our own reality simply by the words we speak. But there is some biblical truth to be found in this: we do have to discern what voices we are heeding, and seek to base our lives on the truths of God. Says Lloyd-Jones:
“I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us! Do you realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’.”
But care is needed in this:
“We all agree that we should examine ourselves, but we also agree that introspection and morbidity are bad. But what is the difference between examining oneself and becoming introspective? I suggest that we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end of our life. We are meant to examine ourselves periodically, but if we are always doing it, always, as it were, putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it, that is introspection.”
As to actually dealing with depression, he reminds us that ultimately it all comes back to knowing God and his Word: “Spiritual depression or unhappiness in the Christian life is very often due to our failure to realize the greatness of the gospel.” He goes into more detail on this here:
“In other words, the great antidote to spiritual depression is the knowledge of Biblical doctrine, Christian doctrine. Not having the feelings worked up in meetings, but knowing the principles of the faith, knowing and understanding the doctrines. That is the Biblical way, that is Christ’s own way as it is also the way of the apostles. The antidote to depression is to have a knowledge of Him, and you get that in His Word. You must take the trouble to learn it. It is difficult work, but you have to study it and give yourself to it. The tragedy of the hour, it seems to me, is that people are far too dependent for their happiness upon meetings. This has been the trouble for many years in the Christian Church, and that is why so many are miserable. Their knowledge of the Truth is defective.”
And all this is not about working things up within ourselves – a sort of mind-over-matter approach: “To rejoice is a command, yes, but there is all the difference in the world between rejoicing and being happy. You cannot make yourself happy, but you can make yourself rejoice, in the sense that you will always rejoice in the Lord. Happiness is something within ourselves, rejoicing is ‘in the Lord’.”
More could be shared from this important book, but hopefully I have gotten you interested enough to get the book and read it for yourselves. Depression is certainly a very common reality among God’s people. However, much of it can be dealt with when we seek to apply biblical truths to our lives.
At the very least, we need to recognise that those struggling with depression are not to be rejected or attacked or ridiculed, but prayed for and counselled. Depression is a reality for many believers, and we need God’s grace as we deal with it – whether in our own lives or that of others.
(Australians can find this book here: www.koorong.com/product/spiritual-depression-its-causes-and-cures-martyn-lloyd_0551031654 )