Perpetual darkness. A cloud that never lifts, but that follows you around pouring rain on you when everyone else is standing in the sunshine. Nothingness. No hope, no joy, no desire, no goodness, no values, no interest…for you. Everyone is happy but you are alone in your misery. Sleep is a blessing, as close to death as one can get without actually dying. These are the inescapable thoughts and feelings of one who is depressed.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In 2015, 6.7 % of adults experienced at least one major depressive episode1. That is approximately 1 in 20 adults. David Murray has cited evidence that this could be as high as 1 in 5 people2. In Canada, 10% of people experience a mood disorder some time in their life.3 While prevalence statistics may vary depending on where one looks, one thing is clear. Depression is common.
In the Christian community, depression is also very common though people may not want to admit it. There is a stigma associated with depression, especially in the Christian community. Depression is complex, not readily apparent and is pervasive in that it affects all areas of a person’s life. This means that it is not easily diagnosed and treated. Causes of depression in a person’s life may be many and hopelessly intertwined. Without a clear cause or clear, identifiable sin, it is often easiest to attribute depression to a Christian’s general lack of faith. What this does, however, is make one question or doubt their faith with no real remedy for their situation.
Another factor that contributes to the stigma of depression is that “the joy of the Lord” is the Christian’s strength (Nehemiah 8:10). It is joy in God that enabled Jesus Christ to endure the agony of the cross (Heb. 12:2). It is also, however, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) which means that it is Spirit produced. Here we have to consider the sovereignty of God. People experience the fruit of the Spirit in different ways and to different degrees as the Spirit sees fit. Yet we often attribute a lack of joy solely to the person experiencing it which causes a person to feel deficient and makes them want to keep their lack of joy hidden.
Finally, there may often be a poor understanding of the redemptive purposes of suffering among Christians. Suffering tests our faith and makes us hope in Christ (James 1:2-4). Suffering is used for our good (Romans 8:28), which is ultimately the formation of Christ-like character. When we misunderstand the God-ordained role of suffering in the believer’s life we are left without a category in which to place the suffering of the depressed believer.
As one who struggles with depression in spite of genuine faith, I have come to see the silver lining in it and am able to thank God for it. While depression is difficult, my depression like no other thing in my life has caused me to focus my hope on seeing Christ, either in death or at his return, when I shall be made like him (1 John 3:2). It has caused me to long for a life that I have not found in this world which helps decrease the hold this world has on me. It has driven me to Christ in prayer, trusting him to hang on to me when I feel my world is coming apart. I know that God has a purpose even for my depression and that the end result will be good. This is not to say that one shouldn’t fight depression, that it isn’t difficult, and that there is no help for it. It is to say that it can be accepted, though painful, as coming from the hand of God for a purpose as he sees fit.
Depression is something that needs to be uncovered in the Christian church, not so that people can be exposed as sub-par, but so that the stigma of depression can be set aside and people may know that they are not alone. You see, if the stigma continues, if depression is seen as having no place in the Christian life, then the depressed Christian will continue to suffer alone, thinking that there is something wrong with their faith. As a result they doubt their salvation. No one in the church should feel alone as it is a place where people should feel encouraged and built up (1 Thess. 5:11). It is a body, knit together (Col. 2:2,19), which means that when one part of the body hurts others identify with their pain (Rom. 12:15).
If depression is going to be uncovered in the church, it will take courageous people to start a discussion and to provide teaching on the subject. People often think they know what it’s like to be depressed. Everyone is sad at times, aren’t they? Well, yes they are, but that isn’t depression. It will require people who can either empathize or who are navigating depression in spite of a sincere faith, who understand depression and the help available. Some resources that I have found helpful are:
- Christians Get Depressed Too, by David P. Murray
- Depression. Looking Up from the Sudden Darkness, by Edward T. Welch
- Spurgeon’s Sorrows. Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression, by Zack Eswine.
When I taught on depression at my church, the response was encouraging, yet sobering. Many people thanked me for raising the issue, saying that they had never heard teaching on depression before. This I found encouraging. There were a number of people, though, who admitted to being depressed. This I found sobering. How many people are there in our churches who are suffering silently, who need to know that they are not alone?
Paul Toews is a father of 4 girls. He was born in Winnipeg. He and his wife Melody live in Calgary, Alberta. By occupation, Paul is an elementary teacher. He also serves as a pastor at Calvary Grace Church. Paul has struggled, not only with his own depression, but with helping care for others who are depressed including many who are close to him. He thanks God that he can comfort others with the help and comfort he, himself has received (2 Cor. 1:4).
1 National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Major Depression Among Adults. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/major-depression-among-adults.shtml
2 Murray, D. P. (2010). Christians Get Depressed Too. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Book, p.3
3 Canadian Mental Health Association Calgary. (n.d.). Depression & Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved December 30, 2016, from http://cmha.calgary.ab.ca/mental-health/understanding-mental-illness/depression-bipolar-disorder/