Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression and it is the leading cause of disability and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease (World Health Organisation Feb 2018).
How many of those 300 million people are committed Christians? I don’t know, but from experience, I would say that depression is almost as much a problem for the church as it is for the world. And it is a problem because it robs believers of their joy, diminishes their quality of life, negatively effects their Christian witness, and if left unchecked can debilitate.
Sadly, many Christians deny that a Christian can be depressed, so the best place to start a discussion of this condition is (as always) the Bible. I will focus on two Psalms and one particular phrase that links Psalm 42 and 43 together as it appears twice in Psalm 42 and once in Psalm 43:
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.
King David certainly suffered from depression as attested to in several of the psalms he penned. Moreover, he wasn’t alone among biblical characters. Consider Elijah’s cry, “I have had enough Lord, he said. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4); and Jonah’s, “Now O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3). Then there was Job, Moses, Jeremiah, and… Jesus. I am a little reluctant to say that the Lord Jesus experienced depression, but Isaiah prophesied of Him as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3), and He did utter the words; “my soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).
So, if you are suffering from depression then take heart for you are in good company.
However, good company or not, depression still needs to be addressed, and this phrase from the two Psalms (42 & 43) gives us some guidance on how to do this.
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” The words that identify the condition are ‘downcast’ and ‘disturbed’, but the key word to note is ‘why’.
The first thing we need to do is to attempt to answer the question ‘Why am I feeling so down?’
Of course, anyone who has experienced depression more than a few times will know that answering such a question is hard because it requires the emotional energy and will that seems to have leaked out of our toes.
Most Christian medical doctors, such as Meier and Minirth cite repressed anger and guilt as the primary causes of depression, and they are most probably correct, in most cases. We need to confess guilt or it will soon drag us down into despondency. Sometimes feelings of guilt are false in that we are not guilty of any wrongdoing yet we feel culpable. To resolve this we will probably need to go to the person we think we have offended, and talk it through. Jesus pointed to this when He said; “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). If you have simply imagined the offence then the chances are that you and he or she will have a lovely chat and you will feel all the better for it.
Repressed anger is the second major cause of depression yet it is not enough simply to say that we should purposefully express our anger in a reasonable way to the object of our anger. It is, of course, true that if we bottle up our feelings of anger then they either cause us to become downhearted or they erupt at inopportune moments. We explode over something inconsequential and then wonder why we overreacted so. However, to get to the root cause of anger we need to dig deeper because my understanding is that hurt lies behind much anger. Somewhere, at some time, we were deeply hurt and we have never dealt with this by forgiving the offender. Then something happens that subconsciously evokes that hurtful experience and we react defensively with an inappropriate outburst of anger, and that in turn often triggers depression. So we need to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the pain that lies deep in our past and then forgive and ask God to forgive us our previous failure to forgive those who have offended us (Luke 11:4).
Having identified why we are downcast and made the appropriate responses as much as we are able to do, we need to turn to God and express our hope in Him for our mental wellbeing. David wrote, ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’ The best way to express this is to praise God for who He is, for His forgiveness, and for His ability to lift up our heads from the gloom of depression to the sunshine of His countenance. When I was a newly reborn Christian, the church my wife and I attended used to love to sing a song that started, ‘my glory and the lifter of my head’. It was based on Psalm 3 verse 3 and 4, which read, ‘But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. To the LORD I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill’ (NIV).
Depression is as real for Christians as for anyone else, but our first response should be to put our hope in the Lord our God. To take counsel from His written Word, to ask why we are feeling downcast and then to respond accordingly. I am aware that some people can have an inherited predisposition towards melancholy and that sometimes circumstances beyond our control can drag us down. However, if depression is allowed to take hold for too long it can leech vital chemicals needed for mental equilibrium from the brain, and then we might well need a prescription from a medical practitioner. I remember the shock many expressed when we asked a well-respected minister to preach on the subject of depression and he introduced his address with the words, “I have just one word for you… Prozac”. Perhaps this is a valid ‘word’ for those who have a physiological condition or long-term problem, but the first word should usually be ‘trust’; trust in God, the prescription He has given in His Word, the Bible, and our relationship with the Lord Jesus.