When I came to Christ during college in the winter of 1998, the months following my conversion were a time of spiritual bliss. The glory of God was visible everywhere, Jesus Christ was precious, God’s people were a delight, and personal holiness was a new passion.
In his mysterious providence, however, God soon led me into a season of spiritual agony.
Although I was at a school known for its vibrant community and biblical fidelity, my tendency toward intense introspection and a growing concern over personal sin conspired to create the perfect storm. Only two years after I stepped on to campus, I opted for a semester off because I was convinced I had committed the unpardonable sin. I was in a spiritual tailspin that would last the next few years.
In his kindness, after approximately five years of intense struggle, God gradually drew me out of the mire. Often during this season I asked the Lord for immediate restoration, but that was not his plan. Instead, it became increasingly clear that God was teaching me a few vital lessons for the sake my stability in the faith. If you find yourself in a similar season, please receive these gentle yet earnest exhortations.
(1) Remain in the Bible
When the blackness of spiritual depression is heavy upon your soul, you may not sense a hearty appetite for Scripture, but you must sit yourself at the table anyway. While intentional Bible reading is not the only means God will use to lift the veil, it is indispensible, and it must be used together with other means. Remember that David, who more than once cried out to God in mind-numbing despair also confessed that God’s word “restores the soul” (Psalm 19:7). To pursue a way out of your spiritual woes apart from Scripture will either lead to greater trouble or set you on a trajectory of unstable experientialism. Remain in the Bible.
(2) Stay in the Church
While walking through the thick haze of spiritual depression I remember a brother who shared similar struggles informing me that he was planning a multi-week solo hike to get alone with God. Although it sounded good at the time, I can say with confidence today that this brother’s plan was wrongheaded and dangerous. Although time alone with Jesus is essential, our Savior does not intend to remedy our troubles by removing us from the community of believers. Rather, he has given our brothers and sisters and pastors for our joy and to help us persevere in the faith (Phil. 1:27; Heb. 3:12-15). Stay in the church.
(3) Immerse Yourself in the Gospel
When I say immerse yourself in the gospel, I mean primarily two things. First, do what you can to ground your mind and heart in the doctrine of justification. Dive into books like The Cross-Centered Life by CJ Mahaney or The God Who Justifies by James White. Read until you are convinced that your right standing with God is based on Christ’s righteousness alone and that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Your spiritual troubles are likely to remain to the degree that you are not resting in this foundational truth.
Secondly, seek to understand the doctrine of indwelling sin. When I was first converted, the depth and pervasiveness of my sin often staggered me. Colossians 3:1-11 and some solid counsel from John Owen, however, brought lasting comfort to my soul. The truth I needed to hear was this: regeneration provides me with a new power to fight sin, not an instantaneous eradication of all my inward corruption. If you are unclear on this particular truth, you will be tossed to and fro by temptation and your many sinful inclinations.
(4) Seek Means, Not Just Breakthroughs
While I don’t think it is not wrong to ask God for immediate breakthroughs of light into our spiritual darkness, I am convinced it is far better to seek means of gradual restoration. This approach is preferred because the constant desire for existential breakthroughs can unseat us from sure rock of Scripture and draw us away from the disciplines that God typically uses to grow and sustain our faith. Most often God will use the unheralded means of adequate sleep, exercise, a reasonable diet, regular worship and fellowship, Bible reading, good books, time outdoors, faithfulness in our responsibilities, and profitable ministry to pull us out of the throes of spiritual depression.
(5) Pursue Obedience, Not Just Introspection
Those who tend toward spiritual depression are often those who ruminate incessantly over the condition of their hearts. Some self-examination is good and biblical (2 Corinthians 13:5), but if we are not careful, self-examination can turn into morbid introspection where we relentlessly appraise our motives and evaluate our affections. And, although our introspection may appear super-spiritual, it might become a substitute for obedience. Instead of deleting that troublesome iPhone app and confessing your sin to a trusted friend, you look inside and ask, “Am I really repentant over that recent indulgence in pornography?” But God grants assurance not through introspection, but through obedience. As you actively repent from known sin, you will find far more assurance and relief from depression than if you merely look inward for conclusive evidence that you really love Jesus.
(6) Keep Working
There were many times during my struggle when I was convinced that time alone reading Scripture, praying, and pouring over books was the sole answer to my misery. Because of this, I often approached work as a hindrance to my spiritual health instead of what it really was: a God-given means of renewal and stability. I would even ask my employer to grant me early leave from my workday so I could retreat to my home, close the door, and ponder over the Puritans. It wasn’t until I was forced into work situations that didn’t allow withdrawals into my theological fantasyland that I started to see some break in the clouds. That I found significant help in the simple means of a profitable workday is no coincidence, however. God made us to work, and he intends that we find much physical and spiritual refreshment in attending diligently to our responsibilities.
(7) Fulfill Your Ministry
The weight of spiritual depression will often tempt us to fold in on ourselves. The remedy to our plight, however, is not more turning inward, but turning outward: first with faith to Jesus and the gospel, then to others in good works. You might feel that you are unqualified to serve in ministry in light of your own spiritual troubles. But let your pastor make these decisions as you submit to his leadership, and commit to fulfill your ministry. God has given you a spiritual gift to use for the good of the church (1 Corinthians 12:7) and you might be surprised by how the consistent use of your gift will set you on the path toward renewed joy and steadiness in the faith (see Paul’s description of the faithful deacon in 1 Timothy 3:13).
(8) Don’t Stop Moving
Those of us who tend toward spiritual depression may begin look for a remedy that removes the need for further action on our part. We may also conclude that the slowness of our recovery is reason for more despair. But both of these tendencies obscure the truth that our Christian life is best likened to a marathon. Occasionally we may sense that we’ve hit our stride, but often we will enter stretches where the weight of our burden is enough to bring us to a crawl. But continue we must, for God has set along our course all the refreshment we need to remain in the race. Don’t stop moving.
Derek J. Brown (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is adjunct professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastoral assistant at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley. You can visit his blog at DerekJamesBrown.com.