Light in the Darkness of Depression
Depression is not something many Christians are comfortable talking about, but it is something I believe the Church needs to talk and think about more carefully if we are to serve one another and bear one another’s burdens as we are called to do (Gal. 5:13; 6:2). There are a lot of Christians throughout the world who are suffering from depression to one degree or another. Many of these believers are afraid to talk to their brothers and sisters in Christ about it. Some are embarrassed because they’ve been given the impression that good Christians are supposed to be in something like a constant state of euphoria all the time. Others are afraid to mention it because they’ve been told that if they are ever depressed, it is only because of some sin they’ve committed and refused to confess. Whatever the reason may be, the reluctance many of our brothers and sisters have to talk about it leads only to deeper depression and despair.
Thankfully, there are godly Christian leaders who are making it easier for people to talk about this issue. David Murray, for example, has written a book titled Christians Get Depressed Too. If you are a believer who is depressed and who has been reluctant to talk about it to anyone, please read this book.
Murray makes a helpful and necessary distinction when he observes that all depression is connected to sin in the sense that depression would not exist if we did not live in a fallen world. Just as heart disease or diabetes would not exist in an unfallen world, depression would not exist in an unfallen world. People can get diseases through no immediate fault of their own. However, as Murray observes, just as heart disease or diabetes can also be the result of a series of individual sinful choices over time, so too depression can be the result of sinful choices. It is important, therefore, to discern whether a given case of depression is caused by specific sinful choices or is simply connected to life in a fallen and sinful world. Depression might be the result of specific sinful choices, but it also might be a physical problem (like childhood cancer) that a person has because they live in a fallen world.
Because I think it is helpful for believers who are dealing with depression to know they are not alone, perhaps my own experience is worth recounting. When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I began to develop extremely severe depression. I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I knew was that I had an almost overwhelming sense of darkness and profound sadness 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. I thought about death continually and not in an edifying way (I was not yet a Christian).
When I became a Christian after graduating high school, I finally experienced true joy and peace, and I assumed the depression would be gone. I was wrong. Even after becoming a Christian, I would be hit by waves of overwhelming sadness that would last days or weeks. It seemed to come out of the blue, and it was frustrating. I’ve tried to explain the feeling to people who have never had depression, and it’s very difficult. The best way I can describe it is to ask someone to imagine that feeling they get when they receive a phone call in the middle of the night informing them that a loved one has died. Now imagine having that feeling when no one called you and having it last for weeks on end with no let up.
When I was about 30, my wife convinced me to go talk to a doctor about the depression to see if there were any physical causes. The doctor was, how shall I say, not particularly helpful. When he asked me what was wrong, I told him. His response, in a nutshell, amounted to this: "Stop being a wimp. Stop wasting my time. Deal with it." I never talked to another doctor about it. I dealt with those constant waves of depression for another twenty years.
So, what happened at the end of those twenty years? I work for a Christian ministry that has a large annual conference. At those conferences, I have the wonderful privilege of talking to people from all over the country and all over the world. One problem, however, is that almost every year, I would catch a cold or flu because of all the handshaking. A few years ago, as our conference approached, I decided that I was going to make an attempt to avoid getting sick. I decided to take a dose of Vitamin C every day during the conference and every day for a week after the conference to boost my immune system and see whether it would prevent me catching a cold.
About a week after the conference, I noticed something unusual. It dawned on me that several days had passed without a wave of depression hitting me. I told my wife about it, and after some discussion, I realized that the only thing I had been doing differently was taking a dose of Vitamin C every day. I decided to try an experiment. I would continue taking the Vitamin C every day and see what happened. Weeks passed. Then a month. Then six months. Then a year. No waves of depression. I had not gone more than a few days for 35 years without getting hit by one of these waves, and now I had gone a year without any. After doing some research, I found out that for some people, a Vitamin C deficiency can be a cause of depression. Apparently, that was the case with me. I’ve continued taking a Vitamin C supplement every day, and I have no longer had to deal with those waves of severe depression that hit me constantly from the age of 13 or 14 until the age of 50.
I say all of this, not because Vitamin C is the magic cure for all cases of depression (It may help some people, but according to what I’ve read, a Vitamin C deficiency is believed to be the cause of depression in a relatively small number of people). I say all of this because there often are physical causes for depression, causes that can be treated. For decades, I was embarrassed to talk about my own depression, and it turns out all I needed was a glass of orange juice. It is important to know that there can be physical causes for depression because numerous Christians have been driven deeper into despair because they were told that the only cause of their depression is some specific sin they committed. If they have depression, they simply need to repent. Again, that may be the case, but it is not necessarily the case.
The common idea among Christians that depression can only have a spiritual cause has always struck me as odd because most Christians are well aware that changes to the brain can have serious effects on emotions and behavior. People who have had serious brain injuries in accidents or in war often have dramatic changes in their emotions and behavior. Prescription drugs (and illegal drugs) can have side-effects on the brain and thus impact emotions and behavior. People whose brains are impacted by dementia often manifest radical emotional and personality changes. But when was the last time you saw a pastor or counselor tell an elderly person suffering from dementia that all they need to do is repent? No one would do that to someone with dementia, but it happens all the time with depression, as if depression cannot possibly be connected with some kind of problem with the brain.
Problems with neurotransmitters and other parts of the brain can and do occur just as problems with any other part of the body can and do occur, and anything that affects the brain can affect emotions and behavior. We live in a fallen world, so this should not come as a surprise to Christians. We need to take care that we do not adopt some kind of quasi-gnostic view of the human body.
In short, if you are dealing with depression (or know someone who is dealing with it), there might be one cause, and there might be more than one. It may have a purely physical cause. It may be caused by sin. It may have a combination of several causes. Talk to your pastor. Talk to a doctor. If the first doctor you talk to is as unhelpful as mine was, find another one. Don’t do what I did and spend decades having to deal with those symptoms. Try to find the causes.
For those who have never experienced depression, I would simply urge you not to dismiss those who have experienced it and still do. The only thing more frustrating than dealing with the symptoms of depression is having your fellow Christians not believe you. We are called to bear one another's burdens, and that requires some kindness and compassion.
Even if the causes are discovered and treated effectively, however, there is another important thing to remember. Those who discover and effectively treat the causes of depression should not assume that this will do away with all sadness and suffering. That is not possible while we live in this fallen world. In this fallen world, there will be suffering. If we are believers, however, we can know that God brings suffering into our lives for a reason. As Paul writes:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3–5).
For those who have the false impression that the Christian life is going to be one constant emotional high, I would strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the Psalms. The Psalms represent every possible emotion known to man – from the highest joys to the deepest laments. The Psalms provide us with inspired words to pray when we are experiencing those same feelings. They teach us how to pray when we are joyful. They teach us how to pray when we are sorrowful. They teach us how to sing no matter what. If all of our Christian songs express only one emotion, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that is the only emotion appropriate for a Christian to have. The Psalms express all of them.
Consider Psalm 42, for example. In this Psalm David cries out that his tears have been his food (v. 3). But note the way he speaks to himself:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar. (Psalm 42:5–6)
David knows his soul is cast down and in turmoil because of the circumstances around him, so he speaks to himself. He reminds himself to hope in God. He remembers his God and his salvation.
We have to do the same. We have to remind ourselves of God and the gift of salvation He has graciously given us. When we are sorrowful, we need to come to the Man of Sorrows. When we are weary and heavy laden, we need to come to Christ. He gives us rest. And we need to remind ourselves that sorrow will not last forever. One day He is going to wipe away every tear, and there will be no more mourning, no more crying, and no more pain for those who belong to Him.
There is not only light at the end of the tunnel, there is light in the tunnel. That Light is Jesus Christ. If you belong to Him, know that He loves you infinitely more than any person on earth loves you, and you do not walk through the valley alone.