A Look at Depression Through the Lens of Scripture
(December 1997 – Volume 3, Issue 10)
The man sitting before me would not respond to my questions. He sat, motionless, staring at the floor. That he had been under a great deal of stress was a fact known to all who loved him, but that he was this close to the “edge” surprised us all. Soon he would find himself on the psych ward of a local hospital, medicated and undergoing both individual and group counseling. Unfortunately his life would never be the same. He had come to this state of deep (what some would call “clinical”) depression because of unbiblical and sinful choices that he had been making in his life. Even though he would overcome his depression, the counseling he received reinforced and validated these choices. He would ultimately leave his wife and child, drop out of the church and pursue his ungodly lifestyle.
Marital problems are the number one reason that people seek counseling in the United States. Depression is a close second. Financial difficulties are the main reason that people give as the source of their depression.We can understand why this is so, with the amount of debt that many carry today, but often this is only the tip of the iceberg. As a matter of fact, our financial problems may be a good indicator that many other aspects of our lives are out of control — all of which may be leading us to depression.
We all have days when we feel gloomy, down, bored or wiped out. We may call this feeling a mild form of depression, but discouragement is perhaps a better term. To expect to live in this world without occasional disenchantment and gloominess is totally unrealistic. Virtually every major character of Scripture had down, unhappy or sad moments, including Jesus Christ. Just a quick reading of Psalms, Jeremiah or Ecclesiastes tells us that there is much about life, even the life of the godly, that is depressing to the point of tears, sorrow and confusion. Yet, God never apologizes for this. Rather, He informs us that He uses these very things to mature us into the image of His Son (James 1:2-4; Rom. 8:28,29 and Rom. 5:3-5). The perfect life of consistent happiness and fulfillment — free of all the effects of sin — awaits us in eternity. The emptiness, sorrows and incompleteness of this life are direct results of the principle of sin in this world. Even so, God uses these trials as a means of keeping us from becoming too comfortable in our present condition. The result is that, like Abraham, we too “look forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). So, while we have great peace in Christ — and many wonderful and beautiful things in this life to enjoy — it is certainly unbiblical to expect to be (as the song goes).
However, while we can expect to be occasionally discouraged, many people battle with deep depression. We may define depression as: “That debilitating mood, feeling or air of hopelessness which results in a ceasing of the handling of life.” Such a person will at least partially shut down; that is, he will cease to function in many areas. A depressed person may want to sleep all the time (or at least lie on the couch all day); he may cry easily; he may stop going to work or doing necessary tasks around the house; he may stop eating or eat constantly; he will feel that life is hopeless, etc. It is the purpose of this study paper to deal with the causes of depression, the results of depression and finally, how to deal with it God’s way!
The Causes of Depression
It is important to recognize that depression is not the problem in and of itself; it is a response or reaction to something else. For that reason, Scripture says almost nothing about depression per se. However, it has much to say about the root causes of depression.
The Bible teaches that depression is not caused by the circumstances of our lives, but rather by our unbiblical reactions to those circumstances (with the exception of certain physical problems and brain disorders which we will deal with in a moment). This can be proven both biblically and by observation. Examples, such as the difference between the way Judas and Peter handled their sins, abound in Scripture. In everyday life we see people become bitter and constantly depressed over a crippling accident; then we see people like Joni Erickson Tada who ultimately are able to use such a situation as a stepping stone to growth — the difference is in the reactions.
Unfortunately, the depressed person has usually not made one unbiblical response to his problems, instead he has usually made a whole series of them, thus complicating the recovery process. Inappropriate thinking results in irresponsible behavior, which increases depression, which in turn stimulates more inappropriate thinking. . . (“His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin.” Prov. 5:22).
In other words, depression often stems from a downward cycle in which we begin with a problem, react to it in a sinful way, causing a complication of the problem which is met by an additional sinful response, etc. As we will see later, this cycle must be stopped and an upward cycle of biblical responses must be started.
Some of the General Causes of Depression
Some may suffer from depression as a result of brain damage or some other type of disease. Others may have been diagnosed with a chemical imbalance, and while we must leave room for this possibility, we do not believe that it is nearly as common as many people think. The chemical imbalance theory has reached fad proportions at present with the result that the leading method of therapy for depressed people is drugs. When a person is diagnosed as having a chemical imbalance, he should ask this question (suggested by Dr. Bob Smith, a Christian physician who is also heavily involved in biblical counseling): “Which chemical and how far out of balance is it?” In most cases the answer will be, “We don’t know.” Such an answer from the medical community should certainly give the believer much to consider.
Instead of teaching people how to handle their problems, too often we simply cover these problems up with drugs. For an interesting article on depression from a secular point of view see U.S. News and World Report, March 5, 1990, “Beating Depression,” pp48-56. This article devotes itself to “a new generation of drugs (that) allows a sophistication and flexibility in treatment that was not possible in the past.”
While the use of drugs to treat depression may be the best the unsaved world can offer, fortunately the Christian has other resources. With this in mind, it certainly would be wise to use drugs as a last resort, not the first resort. We should begin by carefully examining the thoughts and actions in our lives that might be at the root of our problem. E. Fuller Torrey (a research psychiatrist, who would not agree with our position on psychology) nevertheless, admits that about 5% of those who come to a psychiatrist are people with organic or brain disease, about 75% are people with problems with living, and the other 20% will require closer examination to make a final judgment (How to Counsel from Scripture, p4). Having said all of this, we would still recommend a thorough physical examination for a person who struggles with deep depression.
Physical and/ or emotional fatigue as well as poor eating habits may also be a factor. In I Kings 19 Elijah’s primary cause of depression appears to have been because of fatigue, etc. God’s initial therapy for Elijah was food and sleep (verses 5-8). Later God helped Elijah get his eyes off himself and on to God (who revealed His sovereignty, verses 11 and 13). Then, He had Elijah take a realistic look at life (verse 18), and finally He got His prophet to once again get involved in ministry (verses 15-19). The whole process took several weeks.
The example of Elijah is one the depressed person should study, for — like this great man of God — depressed people are often focusing on themselves instead of God and others. This focus is often distorted further by fatigue and poor diet. The remedy is often a refocusing of our attention, as well as rest and proper eating habits.
Psalms 32, 38 and 51 all describe the depressions of a guilty man. (Note Psalms 32:3-5: “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to Thee, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;’ and Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.”) Some believe that the number one cause of depression is unresolved guilt. Often this guilt may stem from sins of years ago in which God’s forgiveness has either never been sought or accepted. If guilt is not resolved by confession of sin (I John 1:9), depression is the natural result. Christians should not expect to willfully practice sin without facing consequences, one of which may be depression.
An Unbiblical Perspective on Life
In Psalm 73 Asaph was depressed over the prosperity of the wicked. He felt that he had lived righteously in vain while the ungodly had life on easy street. (Ps. 73:12,13: “Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my hands in innocence.”) It was not until he saw life from God’s point of view (the biblical perspective) that he was able to pull out of his depression. (Ps. 73:16,17: “When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.”) In a world of confusion an unbiblical perspective on life has to be one of the major causes of depression.
Living by the Wrong Priorities
Ask almost any Christian what the priorities are in his life and he will say: God, family and work (and in that order). Yet in many cases our priorities are controlled by the “tyranny of the urgent” — whatever makes the most noise in our lives gets the most attention.
As a result, we may find our time dominated by working, running the kids around, keeping up the house, furthering our education or developing our hobbies, etc. While these are all good and necessary things it often leaves us precious little time to spend with God or family. The day will inevitably come when our cisterns will run dry(Jere. 2:13, “For my people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water”), and we will face “burnout,” “midlife crisis,” the “seven year itch,” or whatever. Sadly, we probably will not even know the true core of the problem.
However, the actual problem is plain and simple: unbiblical living. We may have committed no grave sin, but we have ignored the “Spring of Living Water” for so long that we are finally paying the price.
It may be legalism or mysticism or perfectionism — whatever it is — we are examining our lives by the wrong standard. God’s standard is that we are to be a growing believer (Heb. 5:11; II Pet. 1:5-8 and II Pet. 3:18). We are not perfect, and God knows that; it should be our goal to grow in Him.
We are called to be others-centered (Phil. 2:3,4 and Acts 20:35) and God-centered (Matt. 6:33). Everything in our society contradicts this by telling us that we need to be self-centered. We are being told that we are to be concerned about our self-image, we are to love ourselves, we are to be self-confident and self-assertive, we are to look out for ourselves — and on and on.
Yet, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, that is, we are to lose ourselves for His sake (Luke 9:23,24); we are told to put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3); we are told that it is a sign of our evil times that men are lovers of themselves (II Tim 3:2). Is it any wonder that people who are doing the exact opposite of what Scriptures tell them to do are having problems coping with life?
The Results of Depression
There are, no doubt, other causes for depression, but most of them would fall under one of the general categories previously cited. Now we want to mention some of the results of depression — the experiences you are likely to have when you are depressed.
Before we get into that, it would be helpful to point out that even though we may be depressed, we are still held accountable for our actions. For example, Paul had a legitimate physical problem in II Corinthians 12 which was not his fault. Since he felt sick and perhaps suffered greatly with his disease, surely he had the right to be a little irritable and depressed — but that was not the case at all! (II Cor. 12:9,10: “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”) Obviously problems and pain do not give us the right to behave sinfully!
So, although a person may not be held liable for the initial problem, he is responsible for handling his life God’s way. When he fails to react biblically, but instead becomes resentful, full of self-pity, or anger, the consequence may be depression.
Scripture gives some vivid descriptions of depressed people:
- Gloom and pessimism (Ps. 32:3)
- Apathy and fatigue (Ps. 32:4)
- Hopelessness (Ps. 38:2-4 and 10)
- Physical problems — backaches, headaches, etc. (Ps. 38:5-8)
- Withdrawal — often blaming others (Ps. 38:11; 55:6-8)
- Feelings and knowledge of guilt (Ps 51:3).
- Sleeplessness — or restless sleep (Ps 42:2, 3)
- Loss of productivity (I Kings 19:3-5)
- Thoughts of death or suicide (I Kings 19:4).
How To Deal With Depression
We will now look at some Scriptural and practical actions that we can take to help us overcome depression, depending upon the cause.
Christ will not be manipulated; He must never be sought for any other reason than for Himself. However, one of the precious benefits of becoming a child of God is the forgiveness of sin (Rom. 5:1-11). As we saw earlier, often depression is a result of unresolved guilt; salvation removes that guilt.
Reprogram our thinking
To a large degree, our feelings follow our thinking. A depressed person would be wise to keep a journal of his thoughts when he is down. Those thoughts that lead to depression should be faced honestly and replaced by a biblical thought life (Phil. 4:8 and Rom. 12:2). For example, a person depressed as a result of self-pity must be truthful enough to recognize this attitude as sinful. The thoughts of self-pity must be confessed and replaced with thoughts that honor God and agree with Scripture (e.g. Rom. 8:28 and James 1:2-4).
Deal with sinful behavior
We should check out all factors (incidents, etc.) and/or life patterns that have led to our reactions to the initial problems. We should then find the biblical action and by God’s strength begin to replace those sinful reactions with biblical ones by applying the put off – put on principle of Eph. 4:22-24.
Reach out to others
Depressed persons tend to become self-absorbed; in turn, the depression intensifies. Therefore, one of the best things that a depressed person can do is to become concerned about others (Phil. 2:4).
Do not misunderstand; we are not teaching a technique for overcoming depression so much as we are encouraging individuals to come back to a biblical outlook on life. When we forget about ourselves and focus on others, we please God. As a side benefit a depressed person may very well find his or her spirit lifted.
Focus on behavior, not feelings
You don’t do what you do because you feel a certain way; rather, you feel the way you feel because of what you do and think (Phil. 4:6-9). Note the example of Cain (Gen. 4:5-8).
Focus on a specific plan of action
Develop a plan of attack against the sinful tendencies of the human heart that would surrender to feelings rather than follow the path of Christian responsibility. Make an actual list of the options and steps that can be taken to resolve the situation.
Grow in fellowship
Withdrawing and being alone is one of the worst things depressed individuals can do, because withdrawal reinforces depression and self absorption. We should attempt to be with those who can lift us up and encourage us as we seek to do the same for them (Gal. 6;1ff and Heb. 10:24,25). We are not advising the manipulation of people to meet our needs, but we are wise to understand that God has given us fellow believers to encourage us, as we reach out to them.
Be careful with introspection
Although insight is essential in overcoming depression, insight can become unhealthy when it goes beyond healthy insight and evaluation into morbid introspection (I Cor. 4:3-5).
Stop trying to get even
Vengeance and other forms of anger may cause depression (Rom. 12:14-21 and Eph. 4:26,27).
Accept responsibility for depression
Shifting the blame to others will never help. Even when we have been wronged by others, depression will not be caused by the wrong done, but by our sinful reactions.
Realize that there is hope
When we say that most depression is a result of unbiblical and sinful reactions to problems, it sounds unloving and harsh. Actually the opposite is true. When we realize that it is our reactions that are causing the depression, we can then deal with those reactions God’s way. This realization gives us hope that, by God’s help, a solution is possible (Phil. 4:13).
Deal with guilt
Even in the believer’s life there may be unresolved guilt. If so, we need to seek and accept God’s forgiveness (I John 1:9). By the way, nowhere in Scripture are we told to forgive ourselves; we have no authority to do so. Rather, only God can forgive sins; therefore, it is our responsibility to take Him at His word and recognize His forgiveness when we have confessed our sins.
Take care of our bodies
We are not purely spiritual creatures no matter how close to God we become. Therefore, we must take care of our bodies. Proper sleep, food, rest, relaxation and exercise are all helpful in combating depression. (Again, note the example of Elijah in I Kings 19.)