by Ed Welch
Never has so much been crammed into one word. Depression feels terrifying—your world is dark, heavy, painful. Some days you think that physical pain might be easier to endure; at least the pain would be localized. Instead, depression goes to your very soul, corrupting everything in its path. Dead but walking is one way to describe it. You feel numb, but you still remember when you actually felt something. Somehow that makes it harder to bear.
You aren’t alone, of course. Depression affects as much as 25% of the population. But statistics offer little comfort. In fact, a depressive spin on them can make you feel worse: You wonder why so many people are depressed, and you’re afraid that means there is no solution to the problem. Yet there is another perspective. God tells us that he cares about one wandering sheep in a hundred (Matthew 18:10–14) and counts the hairs on individual heads. If he has this much compassion for a solitary, lost individual, he certainly cares for you and such a large group of suffering people. You may not understand how he cares for you, but you can be certain that he is.
SUFFERING MAKES US AWARE OF GOD
You are suffering, and suffering brings God into view. That’s the way it always happens. The soldier who escapes from a treacherous battle will instinctively thank God. The stock broker who just lost a fortune might instinctively curse him. When hardships come we either cry out to God for help, shake our fist at him, or do both. There is actually a picture of this in the Bible: throughout history God has taken his people out into the wilderness, and you are certainly in the wilderness.
The journey in the wilderness is intended, in part, to reveal what is in our hearts, and to teach us to trust God in both good times and hard times. Why does he do this? To show us those things that are most important. Don’t forget that God takes his children into the wilderness. He even led his only Son into the wilderness. We shouldn’t be surprised if he takes us there as well.
While you are in the wilderness what are you seeing in your own heart? How are you relating to God? Do you avoid him? Ignore him? Get angry at him? Do you act as though he is very far away and too busy with everything else to attend to your suffering? Are you frustrated that God is powerful enough to end your suffering but he hasn’t? In your depression, let God reveal your heart. You might find spiritual issues that contribute to or even cause your depression.
WHICH PATH WILL YOU CHOOSE?
You are on one of two roads: faith or isolated independence. On the road of faith you are seeking and following God. You are calling out to him. You don’t understand what is happening, but you have not lost sight of how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assure you that he is good. You feel like you are walking in the dark, but in your best moments you are putting one foot in front of the other as an expression of your trust in God. Whether you know it or not you are being heroic. On this path, although you are suffering, you are still able to notice and marvel that God’s Spirit is empowering you to trust him through darkness and pain.
The other path is the more common one, even among Christians. Even if you believe that God has revealed himself to you in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. You don’t feel as though you are consciously avoiding God. You are just trying to survive. But if you look closely you will notice that you are pushing God away. Look at the tell-tale signs:
- You have no hope, even though Scripture, God’s words to you, offers hope on almost every page. Here’s just one example, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21–23).
- You think life is meaningless, even though you are a servant of the King and every small step of obedience resonates throughout eternity. This is God’s purpose for you today, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
- You think God doesn’t care, even though Scripture makes it clear that we run from God, not vice versa. Listen to what God says to you, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).
- In other words, in many areas of life, you simply do not believe what God says.
Practical Strategies for Change
Depression tries to tell us what is true and what isn’t. For example, it says that you will never feel any different, and you can’t continue to live in such a condition. It says that God doesn’t care, and no one loves you. It tries to persuade you that nothing matters. Know, however, that depression lies! You have to tell it the truth, rather than listen to its interpretation of life.
Do you remember times when you were grouchy and everything in the world looked horrible? Or you had PMS and it colored your interpretation of other people? Our emotions are loud, but they do not tell the whole story.
TURN TO GOD AND LISTEN
Turn toward God, and instead of listening to your depression, listen to what he says about himself. The center of his message to you is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, became the Son of Man. He obeyed the Father perfectly, emptied himself, and became your servant. He died to give you life. Now he is the King, and through his death he brings you into his kingdom. Here on earth the kingdom of heaven is riddled with suffering, but we know the King is with us and our suffering is only for a short while. We also know that the King takes our suffering, which seems senseless, and makes it profitable in his kingdom. Read all of Romans 8 and pay special attention to these words, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28–29).
This is God’s message to you. Beg for grace and mercy so you can hear it over the din of your depression.
The Spirit of God speaks most clearly to you in the Bible, so take the small step of opening it and reading it. If you can’t, ask someone else to read it to you. Ask God to speak to you through his words in the Bible. Ask a friend to talk to you about the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Any friend who knows that good news would love to talk about it.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Read about Jesus’ suffering in Isaiah 53 and Mark 14. How does it help you to know that Jesus is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?
- Use the Psalms to help you talk to God about your heart. Make Psalm 86 and Psalm 88 your personal prayers to God.
- Be alert to spiritual warfare. Depressed people are very vulnerable to Satan’s claim that God is not good. Jesus’ death on the cross proves God’s love for you. It’s the only weapon powerful enough to stand against Satan’s lies (Romans 5:6–8; 1 John 4:9–10).
- Don’t think your case in unique. Read Hebrews 11 and 12. Many have walked this path before you, and God did not fail them.
- Remember your purpose for living (Matthew 22:37–39; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 5:6).
- Learn about persevering and enduring (Romans 5:3; Hebrews 12:1; James 1:2-4).
Gradually a new goal will come into view. Without doubt you will still want depression to be gone, but you will also develop a vision of walking humbly with your God even in the midst of pain. When you read Scripture, you will find that many people have walked the same path.
CONSIDER THE SPIRITUAL CAUSES OF YOUR DEPRESSION
Next, consider some of the spiritual issues that might play a part in your depression. There is no one cause of depression, but there are some common paths that provoke a depressive spiral. Identifying these in your life may help you move out of depression and avoid it in the future.
Depression rarely appears overnight. When you look closely, you usually find that it crept up on you gradually. Take a closer look at its progression. Personal problems that are left spiritually unattended can, in susceptible people, lead to depression. Do you see any of these things in your life?
- If you made someone besides God the center of your life, and you lose him or her, you will feel isolated and without purpose. Can you see how this can give way to depression? You made another person your reason for living and now, without him or her, you feel hopeless and unable to go on. You may not realize it, but the Bible tell us that this is idol worship—you are worshipping what God created instead of him.
- If you feel like you failed in the eyes of other people, and your success and the opinions of others is of critical importance, you can slip into depression. Can you see the spiritual roots? Your success and the opinions of others have become your gods, they are more important to you than serving Christ.
- If you feel like you did something very wrong, and you want to manage your sin apart from the cross of Jesus, depression is inevitable. We always want to believe that we can do something—like feeling really bad for our sins—but that is just pride. We actually think that we can pay God back, but this attitude minimizes the beauty of the cross and Jesus’ full payment for sin.
- If you are angry and don’t practice forgiveness, you can easily slide into depression. The simple formula is sadness + anger = depression. What makes us angry shows us what we love and what rights we hold dear. Unforgiveness shows us that we are not willing to trust God to bind up our broken hearts and to judge justly. Deal with your sadness and anger by pouring your heart out to God. Use the psalms as your prayers. Ask for faith so that you can trust God to be your defender and your helper.
Even students of depression who reject the Bible acknowledge that anger, resentment, and jealousy can contribute to the beginnings of depression. So take a hard look. Look for sin patterns you can confess. This is hard, but it is not depressing. If punishment was on the other side of confession, it would be foolish to follow such a path. But get to the gospel of Jesus and on the other side you will find full forgiveness, love, hope, and joy. They are yours for the asking. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
TAKE ONE STEP AT A TIME
Now, take one small step at a time. Granted, it seems impossible. How can you live without feelings? Without them you have no drive, no motivation. Could you imagine walking without any feeling in your legs? It would be impossible. Or would it? Perhaps you could walk if you practiced in front of a large mirror and watched your legs moving. One step, wobble, another step. It would all be very mechanical but it could be done.
People have learned to take one step at a time in the midst of depression. It doesn’t seem natural, though other people won’t notice either the awkwardness or the heroism involved. The trek begins with one step, then another. Remember, you are not alone. Many people have taken this journey ahead of you.
As you walk, you will find that you must tap into every resource you have ever learned about persevering through hardship. It will involve lots of moment by moment choices: take one minute at a time, read one short Bible passage, ask for help, try to care about someone else, move outside yourself, ask someone how they are doing, and so on.
When in doubt, confess your unbelief, trust in Jesus, and look for someone to love. A wise depressed person once said, “The reason I get up—after years of depression—is that I want to love one other person.”
GUIDELINES FOR MEDICATION
The severe pain of depression makes you welcome anything that can bring relief. For some people, medication brings relief from some symptoms. Most family physicians are qualified to prescribe appropriate medications. If you prefer a specialist, get a recommendation for a psychiatrist, and ask these questions of your doctor and pharmacist:
- How long will it take before it is effective?
- What are some of the common side effects?
- And, if your physician is prescribing two medications, will it be difficult to determine which medication is effective?
From a Christian perspective, the choice to take medication is a wisdom issue. It is rarely a matter of right or wrong. Instead, the question to ask is, “What is best and wise?” Wise people seek counsel (your physicians should be part of the group that counsels you). Wise people approach decisions prayerfully. They don’t put their hope in people or medicine but in the Lord. They recognize that medication is a blessing, when it helps, but recognize its limits.
Medication can change physical symptoms, but not spiritual ones. It might give sleep, offer physical energy, allow you to see in color, and alleviate the physical feeling of depression. But it won’t answer your spiritual doubts, fears, frustrations, or failures. If you choose to take medication, please consider letting a wise and trusted person from your church walk come along side of you. They can remind you that God is good, that you can find power to know God’s love and love others, and, yes, that joy is possible, even during depression.
DEALING WITH SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
Before you were depressed, you could not imagine dreaming of suicide. But when depression descends, you notice a passing thought about death, then another, and another until death acts like a stalker.
Remember, depression doesn’t tell the whole truth. It says you are all alone, no one loves you, God doesn’t care, you will never feel any different, and you cannot go on another day. Even your spouse and children don’t seem like a reason to stay alive when depression is at its worst. Your mind tells you, “Everyone will be better off without me.” But this is a lie—they will not be better off without you.
Because you aren’t working with all the facts, keep it simple. Death is not your call to make. God is the giver and taker of life. As long as he gives you life, he has purposes for you. One purpose that is always right in front of you is to love another person. Begin with that purpose and then get help from a friend or a pastor. Depression says you are alone and you should act that way. But that is not true. God is with you and he calls you to reach out to someone who will listen, care, and pray for you.
PERSEVERE IN HOPE
Will your depression go away? Perhaps. If you follow these suggestions, your depression will, at least, be changed. But to guarantee that you will be depression-free is like guaranteeing that you will never have suffering in your life. The cross of Christ is a sign to us that we will share in the sufferings of Jesus rather than be free of all hardships.
Your hope rests on something much deeper than the alleviation of pain. Depression can’t rob you of hope because your hope is in a person, and that person, Jesus, is alive and with you. The apostle Paul put his suffering on a scale and found that it was out-weighed by all the benefits he had in Christ. Of course, that kind of hope and vision doesn’t come overnight, but it does come. Set your sights high. You can set a course where you say “Amen” with Paul.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at CCEF. He has counseled for over twenty-five years and has written many articles, booklets, and books including When People Are Big and God Is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame It on the Brain?; Depression: A Stubborn Darkness; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction; and Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest.