(By Ruth Potter)
Faith and depression. There are some who think that these two realities are mutually exclusive - if you have faith, you won’t experience depression, and if you are depressed, you are failing to have faith in God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Let’s look together at this topic because Christians are not exempt from the experience of pain, sadness, and depression.
Clinical depression is a mental, emotional, and physiological condition that is experienced by 5-10% of the population in their lifetime. Rates of depression are higher in young people ages fifteen to twenty-four as well as seniors. And since the beginning of the pandemic, the incidence of depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders has increased and overall mental health has decreased in response to multiple stresses.
So the experience of depression may affect you personally, and it likely affects someone you know and care about. It’s important to emphasize that if you struggle with depression, you may feel alone, yet you are truly not alone.
As a Christian community, how we respond to those who struggle with depression significantly impacts their ability to heal. Many Christians repress or deny feelings and may believe that it’s unspiritual or sinful to experience the more difficult emotions like anger, sadness, or depression. We may believe that trusting Jesus means we should be happy all the time, and then wonder why it’s not so.
Our beliefs are important because they can induce shame and discouragement when they are misplaced. Studies have demonstrated that religious beliefs can lead to worsening depression or, alternatively, can play a role in the prevention and resolution of symptoms. So, let’s talk about what the Bible has to say about depression.
You may have a hard time finding the word depression in the Bible, yet descriptively we know the symptoms of depression are ancient.
The Bible vividly tells the story of mankind’s pain, including mental and emotional pain. David’s laments, Elijah despairing of his life, Job struggling to understand and make meaning of his suffering, and Jonah struggling to understand his difficult calling and God’s outlandish mercy toward Nineveh, all seemed to have significant seasons of depression. And Jesus’ physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross is not minimized in the Bible.
Isaiah 53:3 describes the coming Messiah saying, “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” I sometimes wonder about what it meant for Jesus to leave the celestial beauty of heaven and, without senses that were dulled by sin, come into the world he created which was horribly marred by the fall, sin, and grief.
He chose to feel the pain of humanity, and because of his deep eternal love, made a way of redemption and hope. Jesus knows human suffering and he comes alongside us when we experience pain, grief, and depression to bring hope and healing. Because of His cross and resurrection, He is both sufferer and King, bringing both compassion and hope in our distress.
Life in a fallen world is challenging and some seem to have heavier burdens than others. For those struggling with depression, the pain can feel overwhelming, exceeding the ability to cope.
Charles Spurgeon was a renowned nineteenth-century English preacher who, following a traumatic experience, had a lifelong struggle with depression. The young twenty-two-year-old was preaching at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, in 1856, with over ten thousand in attendance, when a prankster yelled, “Fire!” Although there was no fire, in the panic to leave the building, seven people were trampled to death, and twenty-eight others were seriously injured.
Spurgeon was devastated, feeling responsible for the tragedy. Following this traumatic event, Spurgeon had recurring periods of melancholy and depression as well as times of great joy. Ultimately, his faith in God was strengthened and he was able to connect with people in his humanity; he had a great sense of humor, a hearty laugh, and also times of low mood and sadness.
Spurgeon left the church the gift of sermons that are rich in grace for those with physical, mental, and emotional struggles. Spurgeon taught that Jesus not only identifies with us through suffering, but to be Christ-like we need to bear His yoke and suffer with Him. He is with us not because of our strength, but our deep need. He is present in the fire, and He will bring us through!
Clinical depression, often called major depressive disorder, is characterized by a persistent, more than two-week-long sad mood, or hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities or pleasure. Common symptoms may include feelings of worthlessness, loss of energy, sleeping too much or too little, decreased or increased appetite, as well as difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions.
Although depression is common in men and women, statistically it is twice as common in women. This may be due in part to the hormonal changes with puberty, premenstrual cycle, pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, and menopause. Changing hormones and stresses associated with all those life experiences can impact mood. And once depression occurs, there is a high risk of recurrence, because brain chemistry and pathways are impacted.
Other risk factors for depression include traumatic life events, abuse, interpersonal conflict, chronic disease, chronic pain, genetic predisposition, family history, sensitive personality, persistent negative thoughts, and there may also be a spiritual component. Sometimes depression is an unconscious protective response by those who are overwhelmed by life stressors and not able to cope with the pain and stress of life.
Satan is merciless and he can attack the vulnerable, including young people experiencing biological and developmental changes, those who are experiencing chronic health struggles or overwhelming situations, trauma, grief, and our elderly population. In spiritual warfare, we need to stand on the promises of God. We are weak, but Jesus, He fights for us!
So, how can we reflect Christ-like compassion and grace for those who are experiencing depression? Listening attentively and non-judgmentally in love is vital. We all need to feel heard and understood in our unique experiences. Then, once we feel heard, and not judged, there may be openness for gentle and gracious words of reassurance.
We may need to be reassured that we are unchangeably connected to Christ and that his unconditional love does not change with our shifting emotions. His promise is to be with us, whatever the struggle. Support is vital because the severity and length of depression can be impacted by the level of support offered.
My desire, my prayer, is that we reflect and demonstrate Christ-like compassion for others and ourselves as we journey through challenging times and emotions. May God bless you, your families, and especially those struggling with depression. God is with us and His resurrection power and presence are our hope.