Down But Not Out

When I teach Public Speaking I encourage my students to begin their speeches right away. Specifically, I tell them that in a 5-7 minute presentation, it’s more important to start with an engaging attention getter and well-thought introduction than to talk about loosely-related points such as how they came up with the topics of their speeches.

I stand by what I’ve taught my students, but I’m about to break my own rule and talk a bit about the nature of this post and why I’m writing it BEFORE I begin to make my point. I ask my former students’ forgiveness for this hypocritical moment.

I’m writing about depression today, and I chose to write about it because I’ve had a rough time with it over the last few days (and off-and-on for the last ten years). I had two or three other faith-related ideas for posts, but no other topic seemed natural or appropriate in light of what my life has been like for the last 48 hours.

We write what we know, after all.

So, with that explanation out of the way, let’s begin. Start the speech

Churches are sometimes uncomfortable with the discussion of depression and other disorders of the brain. There are a number of reasons for this, including the larger cultural narrative that depression is “all in your head” or is just “sadness,” but I believe there’s a larger reason that churches might shy away from the issue:

The presence of depression in a believer could make God seem small.

That is, if it’s just an issue of the brain - and not a disease in the blood stream or heart or liver - then why doesn’t God simply take it away? Shouldn’t we be able to pray away the problems of the mind? Are people who experience such issues simply unable to cope with the common human emotion of sadness?

But such questions ultimately aren’t helpful. Noted New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote: “I often point out to students that they come to a university not to learn the answers but to discover the right questions.”

Thus, what are the right questions when it comes to understanding the intersection of depression and faith in God? Or more specifically, how should we understand depression in born-again Christians?

First of all, it’s necessary to recognize that clinical depression is real. It’s as real as cancer, HIV, bruises, the flu, and the lowly common cold. To read more about the reality of depression as well as its symptoms, click here

But beyond the discussion of depression’s legitimacy as an illness, we have to consider what it means for a Christian to deal with it on a routine basis. I’ve assembled a list from my decade-long experience with depression that I hope is helpful to other believers:

1. Don’t ignore it. Seek the help of a doctor or professional counselor/therapist. Attempting to downplay it or write it off as a bad season or personal weakness will only make you feel worse. Part of depression is a lack of energy and interest in the things that traditionally have interested you. Thus, pretending not to be depressed won’t really help, as you’ll detach further from the important things in life (God, your family, your friends). It’s best to face it and see a medical professional.

2. Pray and study the Bible. As noted in point one, it’s easy to pull away from God during the worst moments of depression, as it can feel like He doesn’t care. But your weakest moments might be when God will speak to you more deeply than ever before. The Bible includes many examples of God being with His children during their times of frailty and mental anguish. Indeed, these messages are some of the most reassuring in the Bible. For example:

David wrote in Psalm 34:18 (NIV), “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Jesus says in Matthew 28:20 (NIV) that, “(...) surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Isaiah 41:9-10 (NIV) includes these powerful words, “(...) I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.”

3. Understand that you have a unique ability to help others going through depression or prolonged grief or uncertainty. A major aspect of being human is the desire to feel known and understood, and that desire becomes even greater when experiencing a seldomly-discussed disorder of the brain. So we have to love each other and express that love by listening and empathizing. Jesus talks about this in John 15:12-13 (NIV), stating, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” If we never talk and relate to each other on deeper issues in our lives, then we’re denying the opportunity to grow in God’s love and to help others grow. Indeed, we’re called to do it.

I’ll end by noting that I felt comfortable writing this post largely because of years of seeking God’s help while also seeking healthy relationships and the counsel of trained professionals. Perhaps more importantly, though, I felt comfortable writing this post because Embrace Church is led by a pastor who encourages open, honest dialogue about issues that actually affect today’s world. We are who we are at Embrace, and we love each other as we are.