Can "Real" Christians Be Depressed?

Until I got it, I never understood it. Our culture’s flippant use of the word makes it easy to think that depression must simply be prolonged sadness. But, clinical depression is more than a long case of the blues; it actually interferes with normal daily functioning. Sufferers face diminished interest or pleasure in activities, significant appetite changes, insomnia or hypersomnia, and the inability to concentrate or focus. Depressives are plagued with persistent and unshakable feelings of guilt and worthlessness that are frequently accompanied by suicidal thoughts or a belief that life is not worth living.

My favorite indie rock hero, Conor Oberst, explains it so well in “A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not” when he sings: You would settle for anything that would make your brain slow down or stop/ Break this circle of thoughts you chase before they catch back up with you/ Try to find some source of light, try to name one thing you like/ You used to have such a longer list, and light—you never had to look for it/ But now it’s so easy to second-guess everything you do/ This feeling used to pass, but it seems like it’s every day, seems like it’s every night now.

Even though the clinical depression has only been medically categorized and developed in the last few decades, the characters who populate our Scriptures were no strangers to it. In the book named for him, Job despairs: “I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water. What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come to be. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead, only trouble comes …. I will never again experience pleasure ... I would rather die of strangulation than go on and on like this. I hate my life” (Job 3:23-26, 7:11, 15-16, NLT).

King David was depressed. In the opening verses of Psalm 13 he writes, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” And David’s son Solomon wrote, “I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).

We can finally explain this disorder biologically; doctors have come to believe that clinical depression is caused by an imbalance of several chemicals in the brain, namely serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Yet, we still have a tendency to see it as a personal or spiritual disorder. We hear about people with depression and think that they must just be lazy or unmotivated or self-pitying. Even seeing that biblical heroes might have been depressed doesn’t shake our instinct that real Christians just don’t get depressed. We explain those passages away and insist that Christians shouldn’t be depressed, because true joy is found in Jesus.

Unfortunately, the spiritual joy of salvation that comes with knowing Jesus does not always precipitate earthly health or happiness. Christians still get ill, and depression is a sickness—perhaps one of the most insidious ones. Depression inspires a worthlessness that undermines the love and mercy of God. Many Christians who suffer from depression find that their affliction makes it more difficult for them to go to church, pray or engage in acts of charity. The direction of causality here is crucial—depression causes spiritual withdrawal, not the other way around.

Some still say that depression is a result of sin in the depressive person’s life and they may be partially right. Guilt and shame can develop and persist because of secret or unconfessed sins in a person’s life and these perpetual feelings can trigger a depressive episode. This doesn’t mean that “eliminating” sin will cure depression, because sin will always be with us. We are all sinners and we all disobey God’s will all the time—otherwise, what’s the point of grace? As Paul writes in Romans, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:22-23). We are all, as Martin Luther would say, fully justified and yet fully sinners. An emphasis on the sin component of depression is basically blaming the victim.

Here it is helpful to look at depression the way we look at cancer. Some cancers are partially caused by the actions of the victim—they might have smoked cigarettes or suntanned too much. Yet there are many who have never taken even a drag off a smoke and those who use SPF 45 sun block and still get cancer. Carcinogens are all around us, and they are somewhat indiscriminate in their selection of victims. Similarly, sin is all around us. Dr. Fred Lee, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a teaching fellow at Harvard University, put it this way, “The mortality rate of all people—believers and not—is 100 percent, because this is a fallen world. Sin begets disease, too, in the same way it begets death. From that perspective disease is our fault—in the sense that we are a fallen race. However, it is not directly the fault of the individual.”

A much more prevalent sin component of depression is the act of being sinned against. Experiences in our lives deeply scar us—something as simple as a popular kid making fun of our clothes or something as horrific as ongoing physical or sexual abuse. Perpetually being sinned against creates young men and women who believe that they deserve their sad state of fate, that they really aren’t good enough, and that no one, not even God, could possibly love them. Medical studies show that repeated traumatic experiences can permanently lower mood-regulating brain chemicals. This is the legacy of sin that exists in the lives of all of us.

Depression should be treated and can be put into remission through a course of psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy and/or antidepressant medication, supplemented by healthy doses of prayer within a loving Christian community. It is nonsensical to tell a depressed person that if he only read his Bible more or had better quiet times, his depression would surely be lifted. That would be like telling a diabetic that faith alone will regulate her insulin levels. Faith alone gives eternal salvation, but in the meantime, God has given us resources by which to make our temporal existences more palatable. Depression is certainly healed by the grace of God, sometimes directly and miraculously, but more often through the tools of His servants, like pharmacists, therapists, pastors and friends.

 

37 Comments

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Joe commented…

I definitely DO NOT agree that psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy are answers to clinical depression.
Hearing from Christians (and non Chrstians) who have that training, they saw no fruit in it whatsoever. It makes people worse, generally.

But Charles H Spurgeon was clinically depressed. He was arguably the greatest preacher of all time and he had to spend weeks at a time in bed because they had no diagnosis or medication back then. Anyone who's taking flack for having depression, Spurgeon is definitely a good example for gently showing other believers that it's a physical affliction.
Have hope that we will one day be freed from these bodies! And do your best to fight for Christ and truth while you're here on this earth! God can and will use you, powerfully.

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Tears In Christ commented…

If you are really a Christian and depressed, then you truly have an amazingfaith so strong that it beats many other "fairweather" Christians, who would give up on their belief if they hit mental rock bottom. I'm depressed daily, I have periods of snapping out of it, but it's short lived - I slip back down there and hit the bottom. I'm a Christian who has such a strong faith in Jesus it brings me to tears. I don't "believe" - I "know" He is the truth. Your depression as a Christian is often a result of actually seeing the evil in our world every day. You want God to click His fingers and just end it all so we can finally have paradise. You see unbelievers mocking God, other religions going against Christ to the point of death, loved ones (wives, children, husbands, parents, friends) who aren't saved who are slowly walking to hell and will not believe you. You pray, but you get no answers. I know. I'm right down there daily with you. Remember Jesus cried at people's tears over Lazarus, Jesus wept over Jerusalem walking to hell without repenting, Jesus groaned in his Spirit over various things. Don't deny this very realhuman-yet-given-from-God emotion we have.
You cantake heart in the truth that you must have an amazingly powerful faith in you to walk this double life, this thin line at is Christian and "depressed sufferer". Truly, if you are a believer and you have eyes in this dirty world, you probably SHOULD be depressed. Now there's a thought. You are blessed, because your eyes are truly opened to it all and youare suffering for Christ - because YOU ARE SUFFERING DUE TO KNOWING THE TRUTH OF GOD AND SIN. See how that works? That's the greatest suffering a human can take.

Kristi Mooney

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Kristi Mooney replied to 's comment

I totally agree with what you've said.I'm 37 years old and from the age of 4 years old until well into my twenty's, I was a victim of physical ,emotional ,and sexual abuse. I use to pray to God sometimes all night in the middle of a field begging him to take me from this horrible place that i don't fit into. I ask God one day,"why me?".God answered :"Just because".That may not make since to most people but it made perfect since to me. I was lost for many years ,everyone i was supposed to trust had hurt me and/or allowed me to be hurt by someone else.Yes, I was lost,alone,a helpless victim in this evil world,I tried to kill myself numerous times, almost succeeding more than once. Do you know why i am still here? Not because anyone in this world cared to help me ,but because God loves me,and through the hardest times of my life Jesus carried me.I don't know how I have always known that all the bad stuff happening to me was not the work of God but the work of the devil. I don't exactly know why ,but when God answered my question of why with just because, I just knew I had some special purpose. Just because meant to me that even though i dont know or understand why , God has a plan in mind for me,And i trust God ,i may not understand him but i trust him because he truly loves me.I am truly blessed by the horrible experiences i have had ,(look at what Jesus had to go through). I have been told by some women at my church that i have a faith that they can only wish they had,Yet i have been so depressed lately I haven't been able to do anything ,i feel worthless and alone, i even start at times feeling like somehow i have failed God,it's at that time I open my front door and tell the devil to get out of my head and out of my home and then i shut the door knowing that i have not failed God.

Jennifer Elbel

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Jennifer Elbel replied to Kristi Mooney's comment

Tears in Christ and Kristi Mooney, how blessed I am today to read and understand your comments. Of the countless books, articles, prayers, medications and counselors in my life don't compare to your simple words of truth. I'm grateful and thankful beyond measure. God will bless you richly for reaching me. Thank you!

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Travis commented…

Yes we as Christians will feel sorrow for the rest of the world, yes we will be saddened by family members who are walking to hell, yes we will see the extent of evil in this world BUT we as Christians have been given the most beautiful gift that has ever been given. We are forgiven even though we are evil just like the rest of the world. We have done nothing to deserve this gift of spending eternity worshiping our savior Jesus Christ and forever residing in his presence. We will fully see the extent of his grace and glory forever. So yes be saddened by the condition of this world but ALWAYS remember the great treasure that has been given to you, be glad and rejoice in it.

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friend of God commented…

As a Christian who experiences ongoing depression this article was very comforting. I felt like somehow these feelings were my own fault, for not loving God enough, not praying enough, not doing my part as a Christian. I wondered how I could call myself a good Christian and be this down all the time.It's so hard, you want someone to help you deal with these overwhelming feelings but you also don't want anyone to see your pain. Talking about it with friends and fellow Christians isn't always helpful either, especially if they have never experienced Depression, they don't know how to help except offer advice or ignore what you're going through, you feel alone. The only thing that has helped me continue is the comfort of Christ, and reading those parts of the Bible where God's people have experienced Depression, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms. I can only keep praying and trusting God that my pain is part of my journey as a Christian, and that one day I can comfort another person experiencing Depression.

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jean commented…

Christian can become depressed and slide away from God...
i became depressed due to many things in my life 5 years ago..

family problems, study drop out, ministry burnouts...
i cannot concentrate, lost interest in things i have passion for...etc. etc..
we are flesh not god himself.. so we aint perfect... we as christian will also become depressed sometime in our lives..

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