There is a lot of material out there geared toward trying to describe the nature of depression, especially when a Christian experiences it.
Everyone gets sad. Everyone experiences grief from some kind of suffering. However, what about those experiencing it over longer periods of time? Why are they still dragging their feet?
This issue is a labyrinth, so moving from generalities to specificities would take a lot of time and patience, and a combination of education and experience.
I do not speak here as one who is completely objective. Rather, I speak as someone who experiences this “labyrinth” daily. Even more confusingly (to some, anyway), I experience it as a Christian ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:21 ; Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Romans 8:1,2). How could someone who is a Christian experience depression? For many of us (including myself at times) it doesn’t seem right. So you can imagine how a Christian who experiences depression could add layers to their suffering by questioning the integrity of their own faith. “I’m depressed because I’m depressed and I’m a Christian!” gets added into the mix of causes. That’s been my experience, anyway! Has it been yours?
It’s been good for me to be surrounded by godly influences, so that when I’m not thinking straight, they can speak loving truths gently into my fractured frame of reference. With the help of a few of my own mentors, and a range of biblical counseling sources; I’ve been trying to arrange my own thinking accordingly.
As someone who is under the influence of depression, I can testify that it’s hard to think clearly. I would imagine it’s same with any given believer. In Christ, we have all been given the same Spirit that unites us all into fellowship with Him. On the other hand, “there is a variety of gifts, ministries, and effects (or operations/activities)” (1 Cor 12:4-7). I think this passage could very well account for the variety of personalities in the Church. It may be why one believer may be of a different “constitution” than another, even though they both have genuine Spirit-wrought faith. I’ve seen this encouraging insight in C.H. Spurgeon (whom also suffered from depression):
“Some minds appear to have a gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality. Of them it may be said, “Melancholy marked [them] for her own”; fine minds withal and ruled by noblest principles, but yet they are most prone to forget the silver lining and to remember only the cloud. These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s career of special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of service.”
Charles Morton, a 17th century nonconformist minister and educator, has also provided me with insight with regard to the differences among personalities. In “The Spirit Of A Man” he writes of “four special faculties, or acts of mind”. It is the fourth faculty that is most relevant here:
‘Spirit’ is Lastly taken for some qualifications, or inclinations of the mind as united to the body, and conformed much thereunto. This is the product of nature, acquisition and circumstances of life, all which concur to form the genius, temper, or disposition of man. Each man hath something peculiar to himself in this respect [emphasis mine]; as he has in the features of his countenance, stature, shape, meen or carriage of his Body, whereby he is distinguished from any other. So, if we ask, [What Spirit is he of?] we mean, of what temper, inclination or genius? How disposed? How qualified? And the true answers will be as various, as men; of whom one man is (by nature, acquisition, or both) of a sober, grave Spirit. Another of a quick, active, chearful Spirit. Another of a weak, timorous, careful; Some are gentiel, generous, courteous, open hearted; others churlish, clownish, surly, rough, close and reserved, &c. All these Spi∣rit are viciated by corrupt nature; and may by the Spirit of Grace be so sanctified, as to render men serviceable, tho’ in a different way, and of good acceptance both with God and man. (pg 14-15)
I think it may be helpful to take a “sufferer/sinner/saint, simultaneously” paradigm (as proposed by Dr. Michael Emlet), with the recognition that sin is our central problem.
My struggles with depression (and anxiety) can be somewhat traced to my heavy tendency toward introspection. Introspection is the process of self-examination. It is “thinking about thinking”. There is a sense in which the Christian should examine themselves (2 Corinthians 13:5; Lam 3:40); though in my own experience it can quickly morph into a neurotic exercise of self-sufficiency. Without the boundaries of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word of God, and the communion of other believers, it can quickly transform into a trust in my own abilities to locate the source of the problem and lift myself up by my own “cognitive bootstraps”. Sometimes I need to repent from my own religious scrupulosity.
Catastrophizing is one particular manifestation. This pattern of thinking takes the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take any event and predict a negative outcome of that event. Given the negative outcome, a catastrophe will be sure to follow. (A common test-case this in Scripture is 1 Kings 19.) Catastrophizing is usually more geared toward the future. It is a virtuous ability when used by the godly to avoid problems that could arise from a course of action. It is good to know the consequences of the behavior of ourselves and others. However it can become a vice when we forget that we are not like God and do not know the future, yet continue to think as if we do. This can fuel depression and anxiety, and you can understand why. We were not created to know every possible outcome for any given event. Though we are tempted to say with Job; “For what I fear comes upon me, And what I dread befalls me. “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, And I am not at rest, but turmoil comes.” (Job 3:25)
Another pattern of thought for this depressive introspection has it’s eye on the past-present. This is memory-rehearsal. This happens when we replay our memories on the big-screens in our heads, and analyze everything that went wrong, and how we could have done better. It isn’t always sinful, in that it can be useful for us to biblically analyze our faults and sins, and take action to “put them off” in the newness of life given to us by the power of the gospel. However, I can become overwhelmed with unnecessary burden when I don’t take all of my past failures and sins to the cross of Christ, where he became my curse. “He will not always accuse” (Psalm 103:9) “Nor will I always be angry” thus says the LORD (Isaiah 57:15-16) “His anger lasts only a moment” (Psalm 3o:5). We should not harbor anger against our neighbors or ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). I don’t easily forget and forgive my sins (or the sins of others for that matter), but the Lord says that He does (Isaiah 43:25). The constant rehearsal of my faults and the faults of others can often be due to my unwillingness to forgive. So, “‘Vengeance is Mine’ says the Lord” (Deu 32:35; Lev 19:18; Romans 12:19) is a call to peace for my troubled heart.
The central issue of my depression is the untrustworthiness of my emotional states. Generally speaking, it is out of sync with the reality of the situation. To the people who say “well yes, feelings are no guide to truth”, let it be known that I agree. However, let me state that the problem is elsewhere.
The problem is this; that one can be in agreement with any truth, whatsoever, but the emotions (or desires) continually demand that you go another direction. The problem with depression is that you can know something to be true, yet go a very long time without feeling something to be true.
I will call it the principle of cognitive dissonance (PCD):
Someone = S
Proposition = P
Mind = M
Emotions = E
1. S believes P with M
2. S disbelieves P with E
3. P is true.
I think that the problem of sin causes everyone to experience this disturbance to one degree or another. However, it seems that this struggle is magnified in depression. In my experience it has lead to seasons where I distrust my emotions so much, that I experience emotional numbness (to some degree).
Dr. Edward Welch, a christian counselor who is also a licensed neuropsychologist, provides an encouragement to people who have this experience:
“Depression demands another way to live (Hebrews 11:1)….Even though I’ve been a believer for decades, I still live by how I feel. Depressed people encounter feelings and say, ‘why bother, there’s nothing good.’ These feelings demand a radical call to live by faith, rather than by sight. When a depressed person lives by sight, everything is dark.”
Could it be that the Christian’s faith goes beyond the dark and thick smog of the emotional interpretation? I think the Word of God speaks directly to that (Psa 22:1; Psalm 31:11, Psalm 38:11, Job 19:13, Lam 3:1-2) . It is a struggle to remember that faith can “speak the hard things from our hearts to the Lord.” We don’t have to ignore our feelings or pretend that they aren’t there, because God isn’t surprised by them. He speaks to them!
I think the biggest struggle here (at least for me) is the way I relate to others in spite of my emotions. I am required to love others, in spite of this ongoing war in my heart. Even with the ongoing emotional burnout, I am called to think the best of others (1 Cor 13:4-8). My failure in all of these areas drives me to question the genuineness of my faith. Again, this introspection only leads to more depression.
But scripture acknowledges these differing seasons and experiences among the the psalmist(s) where “lover and friend” are far (Psalm 88:1), where they are the “object of dread among the closest friends (Psalm 31:11), where “friends and companions avoid [them] because of [their] wounds” (Psalm 38:11)
I think the ambiguity of the nature of the experience in question provides a welcome to every sufferer in the LORD (2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10). In the my experience, it’s all too easy to read scorn, ridicule, anger, and/or dread into family, friends, and neighbors when in fact they do not feel that way about you at all. Due to the constant strain of stress, your emotions begin shaping the way you think, and the feelings resemble facts. Sadness, bitterness, and anger become the lens from which you read things.
Faith in Christ, in light of this, is going to Him to interpret those experiences in light of His own interpretation, because I’ve heard His Word (Rom 10:12-13,17). Repentance takes the painful “limp” of walking contrary to the imperatives of those loud emotional experiences (Eph 2:8-10). Grace is God’s pursuit of us and rescue from that dungeon of despair (Lam 3:22).
In conclusion, remembering how God addresses my depression and anxiety, whether it be sin or suffering, does not erase my experience of it. I’ve asked the Lord more than just three times to take it away. To which He answers, “My grace is sufficient to you”. Depression/anxiety may be my thorn for life, left with me by the providential hand of God as mercy to keep me from being more of an egotistical jerk than I already am. It may be there to deflate me from being too easily arrogant (which is very easy for me).
These two verses in “God Moves in Mysterious Ways” have been very comforting to me. They were penned by William Cowper, who experienced a few breaks with reality in his own life:
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”