I suspect that the strangeness of the past year may have brought some of us to a state of mild depression. Sudden change, isolation, and multiple losses of various kinds are among the triggers that cause us to be depressed, and we have certainly experienced these. Some of us may feel guilty about it because we have been taught that depression is based on a lack of faith and is therefore “sin”. The potential effect of depression on our witness to the world also goes against some current evangelical culture. This presently assumes that we must always be upbeat and happy-happy with a beatific smile on our faces, and so we may feel guilty if we do not reflect this artificial “joy”. However, this is nowhere found in the Bible. People in the Bible were real: they ran the gamut of every human emotion and were able to find God through each of them.
To have perfect faith at all times is a wonderful goal, but unrealistic in the face of our old (human) nature. We are learning, growing beings and God knows and understands our struggles. I think “sin” is a poor understanding of the many reasons for depression. Sin is something you choose to do or allow in your life; it is something over which you have a degree of control. Certainly there are times when our sin and our resulting guilt do make us depressed, and it needs to be dealt with on that basis. However, depression is not always something we can control. Depression can run the gamut from a mild sadness to a terrible illness which paralyzes us. While it is usually a sign of anger turned inward, or a natural response to loss of various kinds, depression may also result from a physical problem.
Depression is experienced at some time in their lives by almost everyone. Our salvation does not automatically bring immediate and perfect emotional wholeness to us. Our walk with Christ is meant to take us toward that goal, but in the meantime, we are all learning and changing… We will have moments when we are challenged by depression. We can let it drag us downward, or we can let it bring us closer to Him as we seek His strength to endure. Since we do not always have control over depression, it seems to me that it is not so much “sin” as a specific kind of trial which God allows in the course of training us toward trusting Him.
What has brought about this idea that depression is sin, and should never be found in the life of a believer? I think it comes primarily from a legalistic misunderstanding of the references to being joyful in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. However, being joyful in the Lord is not the same as always being happy-happy. I have found that it is often in my depression that I am most grateful for the presence of the Lord. It is to Him I cling in order to get through the day. Being joyful in Him is a deep spiritual understanding. Being “happy” is an earthly, transient thing dependent on circumstances. They are not the same. We can deeply trust in Him, but this does not take away the human emotions of sadness, loss, sorrow, and so on. These are simply a part of being human, and to pretend that we are above these is foolishness. The Lord wasn’t above them.
We need to remind ourselves about the character of Christ. He was not a man who remained disassociated and remote. He didn’t float above His circumstances, unfeeling. He was a man of passion and deep sensitivity and caring. He wept when His friend died, although He could restore him to life. He was angry enough to throw the money changers from the Temple. He despised the hypocrisy of the legalistic Pharisees whom He labeled “whited sepulchers” because they looked pure on the outside and housed death in the interior of their souls. He felt sorrow as He looked out over Jerusalem and knew that they had not understood Him. It is hard for me to believe that such a Man, Who has felt everything we have felt, did not, at times, also experience depression. It is too common a human experience for Him not to need to know how we feel so that He could be our comfort through it. He knew where to go if He experienced it, however, and sometimes we forget and let it overwhelm us without going to the Source of relief.
There are many depressives in the Bible. David was depressed over and over as he struggled with his humanity; he poured out these feelings in what have become some of the most beloved words in the Bible: the Psalms. In spite of all his emotional highs and lows, he was known as a man whom God loved. I think this is because he was unusually open with God, and trusted Him with the reality of all he was: good, bad, and indifferent. He looked to God for his help and that is what God desires. Elijah, that strong man of God, struggled with self-pity and succumbed to depression, but even so, God sent help to him and continued to use him. Job certainly felt depressed, and eventually looked to God for answers and relief. There are hints of depression in some of Paul’s letters, but he refused to let that keep him from continuing to take the Gospel of Christ forward in every situation. This is good for us to remember. Depression is something through which we can maneuver and still continue to serve God. It may slow us down, but it can be survived through the mercy and strength of God. It helps to know we are not alone.
Being depressed is a trial of endurance, trust, and courage. Each day we wake up feeling as if there is no strength in our bodies; we find the least exertion to be overwhelming. Our minds are unfocused; we have a hard time making decisions. We feel sad, and our emotions may be close to the surface so that they are easily overwhelmed; or, instead, we may feel totally numb. We feel unseen and unheard, and lonely even in the middle of a crowd. These are not feelings we can control at will, any more than we can control the symptoms of chickenpox or the flu. We can keep them from overwhelming us by committing our thoughts and feelings into God’s care. There is no guarantee that He will immediately relieve them, but He can use them to draw us ever closer to Him as we find the strength in Him just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This may be all we are able to do, but it keeps us moving until we can get through it and the depression eventually lifts.
There are often real physical conditions such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, and other hormonal imbalances and conditions which may bring on depression, but when properly diagnosed may be corrected. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to get a little more exercise: no small feat when you can barely get yourself out of bed. Sometimes depression runs in families, which makes one wonder if there is a genetic component in some cases. We do need to make sure there is no physical problem involved if depression is chronic.
To those of us who suffer from periodic depression, I have found that even though it may be the only thing I can force myself to do each day, I need to speak with the Lord and read at least a small portion of His Word. It keeps my mind focused in the right direction. Trusting God, I have found that although life with depression may be difficult, it is not impossible. He gives the strength and drive I need to do those things which are necessary until the depression begins to lift and I am myself again.
Finally, I have learned not to let others beat me down and make me feel guilty. God knows who I am, and He understands that under stress I may succumb to depression for a time. He also knows that it brings me closer and closer to Him as I turn to Him for strength and comfort, and to the realization, once again, of how dependent I am on Him for everything. We need to accept ourselves as God made us, and open our minds and hearts to the fact of our total dependency on God for growth as well as everything else. He may use many different stimuli, and He doesn’t make mistakes. We can be faithful servants of God through our depression, with His help.
“You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God, I can scale a wall. As for God, His way is perfect; the Word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who will take refuge in Him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the rock except our God? It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.” (Psalm18:28-32 NIV)