One of the most common mental health dilemmas among Christians is represented by this question: “Am I really a Christian if I get depressed?” Many born again believers are haunted by the fact that their depressed mental and emotional state does not seem to match their view of what a Christian should be. As a result, they struggle with intense feelings of discouragement and despair in spite of having committed their lives to Christ. In addition, their spiritual life suffers because they hold a misconception that real Christians shouldn’t get depressed. Thus they not only struggle with negative emotions but question their faith as well.
The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between depression and being a Christian. Are they mutually exclusive entities or can depression be a part of the life experience of a Christian?
Nature Of Depression
The presence of depression as a prominent mental health ailment globally has been statistically validated. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 127 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Recent predictions stipulate that one in five Americans can expect to suffer some form of depression in their lifetime, and statistics indicate that one in 20 Americans experience a depressive disorder each year. Statistics such as these have led health care officials to call depression the predominant mental health problem of our time. That declaration, however, does not mean that depression is a recent phenomenon. Depression is described in documents as far back as ancient Egypt, and in the writings of the first Greek physicians. Abraham Lincoln once wrote the following lines to his law partner: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall be better, I cannot tell. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.”
Such is the experience of depression. It is an affective condition that has many faces, but can be distinguished from normal emotional responses by symptoms that persist over a period of time, and/or by symptoms whose severity is out of proportion to their causes (if such can be determined). Negative emotional reactions to losses, disappointments or undesirable circumstances may be quite intense and varied but tend to lessen and pass with time. Clinical depression, however, may last for weeks, months, or years, and can be triggered by stressful events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or accidents. Depression may also be precipitated by situations or events that keep recurring without resolution; by personality factors that prompt a pessimistic attitude toward living; by perceptual tendencies that consistently process events negatively; and by internal or biological factors such as chemical imbalance (endogenous depression). Depression may also emerge without any apparent cause.
Symptoms Of Depression
Nine classic symptoms of depression are:
1) depressed mood for most of the day;
2) disturbed appetite or weight change;
3) disturbed sleep;
4) psychomotor retardation or agitation;
5) loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities;
6) fatigue or energy loss;
7) feelings of worthlessness and/or excessive, inappropriate guilt;
8) difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly; and
9) morbid or suicidal thoughts/actions
Three types of symptoms may indicate the presence of depression:
1) mood disturbance (enduring feeling of sadness, guilt and hopelessness);
2) disturbance of biological functioning (sleep loss, appetite change, weight gain or loss, loss of sexual desire, and fatigue); and
3) thought disturbance (morbid preoccupations, mind racing, or even hallucinations).
Seriously depressed persons lack the ability to enjoy anything. Complications of depression include alcohol and substance abuse (both legal and illegal) and suicide. Depression may also result from or result in loneliness and isolation and can be the product of complications related to aging. Depression can be experienced in many different forms.
Chronic Depression has long term, continuous features that can produce a definite personality pattern characterized by low response to (or even withdrawal from) people or events, and lack of spontaneity. Acute Depression is recognized by symptoms that are intense, aggravated and that come on rapidly. Episodic Depression may be either bi-polar (where emotions cycle between manic highs and depressive lows) or uni-polar (fluctuation between normal and depressed feelings). Depression can affect any age, but is most prevalent in persons between 25 and 60.
Treatment for depression typically involves the use of psychotropic drugs, psychotherapy (cognitive-behavioral talk therapy) or a combination of both. Since depression’s causes are not easily determined, treatment for clinical and biological (endogenous) depression is often similar. In addition, consistent exercise and diet modification also prove helpful.
Biblical Examples Of Depression
Scripture is replete with examples of the kinds of depression described above. Saul suffered from an “evil spirit from God” which made him brood and become violent (1 Sam. 16:14-23). His condition appears to have been episodic and uni-polar since David’s music therapy (playing the harp) could restore him to a normal emotional state – “He would feel better” – but could not prevent the mood from returning. Jonah suffered from the bi-polar version as he quickly moved from “greatly displeased and angry” to “extremely happy” to wanting to die again – all in the course of responding to God’s continuous grace (Jon. 4:1-9). Upon hearing of Joseph’s fate, Jacob went into a chronic depression in which he “refused to be comforted” (Gen. 37:35). David experienced acute depression in response to the death of his first-born son by Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:15-22). Judas suffered from acute depression resulting in a sense of hopelessness, unrepentant guilt and remorse that led to suicide (Mt. 27:3-5).
The Biblical Solution For Depression
These examples demonstrate that regardless of one’s faith, depression is documented in Scripture as part and parcel of human experience. Psalm 77 gives a biblical view of the experience, antidote and resolution of depression. Verses 1-9 capture the utter hopelessness and despair of being so depressed that even God seems unavailable to comfort, help, strengthen or sustain. The writer feels totally immobilized. Verses 10-12 present the antidote to depression. The psalmist calls to mind the “works of the Lord.” That focus draws attention to God rather than his depressed condition and results in a conviction that God’s power is sufficient to overcome all obstacles. The resulting cure for depression is affirmed in verses 13-20. As the writer gets caught up in God’s awesome deeds, even though God’s “footprints” are not seen, his own troubles diminish.
The most compassionate treatment of depression emerges from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In Luke 13:10-13 Jesus provided a distinct example of the treatment of emotional problems when he responded to the needs of a woman suffering from chronic depression (“crippled by a spirit for 18 years”) as well as a physical deformity (“she was bent over and could not straighten out at all”). First, I believe he relieved her depression: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he dealt with her physical problem: “He put His hands on her; and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” He used words to deal with her emotional disorder and touch to deal with her physical ailment.
In this incident Christ modeled His concern for the whole person, the emotional part as well as the physical and spiritual parts. His perfect understanding of the emotional barriers in our lives, including depression, make Him a responsive intercessor on our behalf (Heb. 4:15).
So what about the answer to that troublesome question? Real Christians can and do get depressed and suffer from depression. Being depressed is not a reflection of whether one is a Christian, but rather is simply another aspect of how vulnerable we are as humans. Negative emotions are a part of that vulnerability (Gen. 3:17). As is true with all our human frailties, the Bible is quite clear as to our resources for coping and overcoming depression. First, there is the Word of God given to us for guidance, instruction and encouragement (2 Tim. 3:16). Reading the Bible enables us to fill the prescription for overcoming our depression given in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Secondly, we have an intercessor in Jesus who is thoroughly acquainted with and sympathetic to our feelings (Heb. 4:15). Third, we have the Spirit who prays for us when we are so depressed we are unable to do so ourselves. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rom. 8:26). Finally, as Christians we are endowed with a new nature that has within its character the complete antidote for depression (2 Cor. 5: 17).
Mental health professionals agree that the most effective treatments for depression are medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy which maintains that mental discipline (cognition) combined with constructive action (behavior) will overcome depression (affect). This should not come as a surprise to Christians because the Bible long ago prescribed that very approach. Colossians 3:1-2 directs us to set our hearts and minds “on things above” rather than on our depression. In doing so we nurture our new nature and clothe ourselves with resources and traits that combat any invitations to depression that our old nature presents (Col. 3:5-14). The result of this effort is that “the peace of Christ (will) rule in your hearts,” and “the word of Christ (will) dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:15-16). In such a state you will not only be assured you are a Christian but will also have the resources for coping with and overcoming depression.
by James P. Trotzer, Ph.D.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.