Depression; a biblical approach pt. 1

This week we're starting a new two part series on how a Christian should respond to depression. We are grateful to Kip' Chelashaw for taking the time to write these articles for us. Please feel free to leave a comment or question for discussion.
‘Although my joy is greater than most, my depression is such as few have an idea’

‘Fits of depression come over most of us’
                                                                    Quotes by C.H. Spurgeon

Setting the scene

A few years ago, a friend of mine started showing signs of extreme exhaustion. I would visit him at his digs and discover that he’d been spending an inordinate amount of time in bed. One late afternoon in my mild frustration at his apparent laziness, I asked him why he was so tired. Initially, he fobbed me off saying that the he’d been incredibly busy recently. As we continued to converse, the truth came out.

He confessed that he’d been miserable for weeks and couldn’t fully explain what was going on.
He mostly felt low and didn’t really feel like he had the desire to do much in life: an ongoing Monday morning feeling! His sleeping too seemed to struggle. Often it would take him a couple of hours to sleep and once he would then frequently awake in the early hours of the morning unable to go back to sleep. The result was a sense of perennial tiredness and a desire to stay in bed all day.

Over the next few weeks, my friend repeatedly shared that everything felt like an effort and even little tasks like replying to personal e-mails seemed to overwhelm him. He was frequently tearful and at times he couldn’t stop crying. At his worst, he shared a sense of wanting to run way, of wishing he’d never been born, of wishing that his life would soon come to an end! These dark thoughts added to a powerful sense of guilt which at times seemed visibly overwhelming. As a Christian, should he not be full of joy? As a Christian, should he call out to God/his friends for help? And yet in all this, my friend shared that God often seemed distant. He also felt that most of his friends and his local church would not really understand what he was going through especially as he himself didn’t fully comprehend his feelings. How are we to respond, when faced with these ever common situations?

First a definition: What is depression?

Depression has been described as a disturbance in mood characterised by varying degrees of sadness, disappointment, loneliness, hopelessness, self-doubt, and guilt. Such low feelings can be momentary and mild or can be quite intense and last for long periods of time. Those experiencing severe depression, may experience extreme fluctuations in moods or even a desire for complete withdrawal from daily routine and/or the outside world.

What causes depression?

Most Christian pastors and counsellors now recognise the complexity pertaining to depression and acknowledge the difficulty in pinpointing a particular factor which causes it. In other words there is no single cause of depression and people develop it for different reasons. In his book Christian Counselling: A Comprehensive Guide, Gary Collins lists seven major categories of causes for depression including past experiences, current circumstances and one’s personality. For the sake of brevity, I will mention what I consider to be the four main causes of depression.

1) Biological/physical causes

Depression often has a physical basis. At the simplest level, lack of sleep, insufficient exercise, the side effects of drugs, physical illnesses, or improper diet can all lead to depression. More complicated biological causes include chemical imbalances in the brain, brain tumours and glandular disorders.

2) Social causes

This occurs when we receive a steady diet of discouraging words or encounter repetitive manipulative actions from those who are supposed to love us. Included under this category are disordered family relationships (e.g. where there is physical or sexual abuse) and contexts where children are brought up with absent parents (e.g. in single parent households)

3) Extreme change in situation

Suppose that while out at sea, a young person has a terrible accident and becomes paralysed from their neck downwards – how shall they handle this? When something similar happened to the renowned Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada, she struggled for a long time with depression and frequently contemplated suicide. A similar example is the feeling experienced when someone loses a spouse through sudden illness or an accident. The unexpected loss and extreme change of situation can trigger intense feelings of sadness and propel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

4) Human sin

At one level all our woe stems from human sin (Genesis 3:14-19; Romans 5:12). There are, however, specific instances where sin promotes depression. One such example is unrighteous anger. If we are deeply hurt and allow our feelings to fester, forgetting Scripture’s admonition to have an “expiry date” to put anger away (Ephesians 4:26), this will often lead to frustration, resentment, self-pity and melancholy which can fuel depression. Another way by which sin can foster depression is when it is left unconfessed. If, for example, someone feels jealous and knows that it is wrong and feels guilty about it, during those times before they confess their sin, they may feel emotionally down and mentally unsettled.

How to help those struggling with depression

By loving them

This is an obvious point but one that is easy to overlook. In the West where many of us have become accustomed to the quick solutions offered to everyday problems (instant loans, instant travel, instant communications), we could be lulled into thinking that all life’s problems, including depression, can also be overcome by the instant approach. This is, however, completely antithetical to the notion of love, which is embodied in patient sacrificial commitment to another. Our being loving to the depressed person is manifested in spending time with them (and for them) by, for example, cooking meals for them, regularly phoning and visiting, going on long walks, patiently listening to the same struggles and doubts being told to you. Such an attitude of patient loving care can be quite a help particularly when it is difficult to ascertain what has brought about someone’s depression. Rather than spending time like Job’s hopeless comforters speculating on the primal cause of someone’s suffering, it would be better “to share with the Lord’s people who are in need, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn” (Romans 12:13-15).

By appealing to the mind

Although the Bible nowhere specifically addresses the issue of depression, it contains many passages which speak to situations very similar to those experienced by those who are depressed, especially in the Psalms (see e.g. Psalms 38, 42, 43 and 77). One of the striking features contained of such passages is the appeal made to the mind, inviting a reconsideration of a particular scenario. One of the clearest places to see such exhortation is in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. While this letter was written when Paul was in prison, the letter abounds with joy. Thus in spite of his danger and discomfort, Paul overflowed with joy. What was the secret of this joy? The secret is found in Paul’s focus on

words related to the mental faculties: mind (6 times); think (5 times); consider (1 time) and remember (1 time). In other words, one key secret of Christian joy is found in the way the believer thinks – our attitudes. Or, as David puts it in Psalm 1 as we think, so we are. All this means that while we must ask those struggling with depression how they feel, our care for them must also engage the mind. Practically this will mean inviting the depressed person to think through the truthfulness (or not) of particular statements e.g. when they say “my life is rubbish”. A good Christian friend will prayerfully seek an opportunity to explore the ways in which an individual’s life is not rubbish e.g. by helping them consider all the good things that they are thankful for (Ephesians 5:19-20; Colossians 3:15-17).

By imitating Christ

One of the best questions I encountered whilst at theological college was: ‘if suffering is a vital tool of God’s in bringing you to maturity, what are we meant to do when everything is going swimmingly?’ A good way to use those times when everything is going ok is to prepare yourself for future suffering. Scripture says that man is born to trouble as sparks fly upwards (Job 5:7) which means that in this life we will all have troubles and one very good way to prepare for this is by acquainting yourself with the one person who handled suffering well: Jesus Christ. Although he was ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3) he nevertheless endured suffering joyfully (Hebrews 12:2). Familiarising yourself with such joyful fortitude will provide you with the resources and inspiration you need when facing your own trials and, it will also help you be an example and encouragement to others in their struggles.

Overall then, a Christian approach to depression is to remember that, at root, it is a form of suffering. An important response therefore when dealing with depression is to emulate our Saviour in his response to suffering. We emulate Christ in praying for the alleviation of suffering (John 17:11, 15); in seeking to offer words of encouragement (Matthew 11:28-30; John 14:1-3); in recognizing that, while depressed feelings are to be openly acknowledged it is the Father’s will which we must ultimately submit to (Matthew 26:36-44).

Next time we’ll think about some practical steps to take when in the midst of depression

Guest article by Kip' Chelashaw

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