The depressed Christian. Can these two words even exist in the same sentence? And if they can, is it nothing more than an oxymoron? Or is it a salient reality?
Oxymoron or Reality?
The reality? Nearly one in 10 adults report feelings of depression in the United States. Depression may be a result of many other factors; however, symptoms under the umbrella of depression are undeniably a common reality. A common reality that I will not ignorantly and naively assume that Christians do not face. To me, the question of the depressed Christian is more about addressing and unpacking myths, more than it is about arguing whether a depressed Christian should exist.
The Bible and Depression
Depression does not mean you love God less, it doesn't mean that your belief in God is void, and it doesn't mean that you are a weak Christian. Christ was empathetic as He was a healer. He had to meet the woman at the well on personal level, before offering her a "well that never runs dry" (See John chapter 4). Jesus lived a life in between Him being born in a manger and Him dying on the cross. If we want to model Christ, then I think we need to pay special attention to how He interacted with people.
Additionally, depression was common for a number of people highlighted in the Bible. Consider the prophet Elijah when he PRAYED that he die after learning that Queen Jezebel would do everything in her power to see Elijah killed (1 Kings 19:1-4). Consider Job, a man known for his unwavering devotion to God. The book of Job ends in triumph; yet, readers are fully aware of Job's anguish and depression. Consider David, "the man after God's own heart," what about his depression? David's psalms/poems highlight his sadness and depression in the midst of depending on God (see Psalm 31).
Just as important, when Elijah prayed for his death, God didn't respond back by saying, "Have you lost your mind, do you not know who I am?" No, God allowed Elijah to eat and rest, and then strengthened him to complete his mission. When Job lost everything, his friends aided in Job's anguish and depression by falsely assuming that unresolved sin was the cause for Job's misfortune. Consider Job's powerful words to his friend Bildad,
"How long will you torture me?
How long will you try to crush me with your words?
You have insulted me ten times.
You should be ashamed of treating me so badly.
Even if I have sinned, that is my concern, not yours.
You think you're better than I am,
using my humiliation as evidence of my sin..."
(Job 19:2-5 NLT)
The sad reality, is that much of our responses in light of someone's depression can be just as insensitive as the responses by Job's friend, which will be addressed later.
Don't get me wrong, spiritually speaking, I believe the enemy is well-intentioned on destroying our minds, and some battles are definitely spiritual in nature. It is for that reason, I think we have to move from myth to knowledge in regards to depression and mental health.
Doorways to Depression
Depression has many doorways. It can enter through trauma, loss of a loved one (death, divorce, separation) rejection, etc. Depression is common; yet it is individualized. What may be a cause for depression for one person, may not be a cause for another person. Depression also may look different for different people. For some men, depression may appear as anger or rage. Anger is oftentimes a secondary emotion with it's roots in sadness. Or depression may come in the form of being overly irritated or anxious. It is not necessarily a "one size fits all" situation. Not to mention, there are numerous coping mechanisms born out of depression.
How Christians Should Respond to Depression
Like a sore left untreated, the body of Christ can make feelings of shame grow even more infected. Telling someone that they shouldn't feel depressed is like telling someone to not get tired after not getting sleep for 24 hours, or telling someone not to sweat if it is hot and humid outside. It can just sound, flat-out insensitive. Depressed feelings are not a choice. It may become a choice to combat feelings of sadness and depression, but depression is not chosen by people. No one wakes up deciding to lose motivation for things they once loved, no one wakes up deciding to find everyday tasks such as getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, and picking out clothes as draining and overwhelming. No one decides to feel lethargic most of the day. No one decides to feel worthless and hopeless.
Dr. Brene Brown, a leader in studies regarding human connection once stated that "empathy is feeling with people, and it is avoiding phrases such, "at least," it is a choice (see "Brene Brown on Empathy- YouTube). She is right, empathy is a choice. Empathy is choosing to look within yourself to identify a part of yourself that can understand what another person is feeling or experiencing. Empathy is choosing to get under the rain clouds with another person. And you may have to sit with them under the rain clouds and get wet with them instead of instantly telling them to "look on the bright side."
Many times those who are depressed just want to be seen, heard and understood. As a Christian I know that there is value in prayer; however, I also realize how statements such as "just pray about it," can be demoralizing more than it is helpful. To the person who is depressed the statement may communicate to them that you are not really concerned or empathetic to their feelings. Furthermore, I realize that sometimes "just pray about it," is said with best intentions, or may be said because someone truly doesn't know what to say or do. In those situations my suggestion is to stop and actually pray with them! I think we in the body of Christ forget that even believers need to come to Christ daily, hourly, moment by moment. We sometimes have a tendency to give empathy when evangelizing, but display condemnation when other believers show any sign of what we perceive as "spiritual weakness."
Good teachers know when to offer their students support, apart from a lecture.
If I have a chronic, physical pain, wisdom and discernment would probably tell me to go see a doctor. As a matter of fact, many of us would pray that the doctor operates in clarity and wisdom. However, what if the pain isn't physical, but mental? Can we acknowledge that there are professionals who are more knowledgeable about our mental health, just like there are professionals who know more about our physical health? What if we encouraged those around us to go see a counselor? What if we prayed for the counselors to operate in clarity and wisdom? If we really get technical, sometimes emotional pain can open the door to physical pain, but I digress. I hope you get my point.
To the people who know individuals dealing with depression, be empathetic. Don't cause more room for shame. Loving like Christ, involves understanding like Him. Be mindful and be gracious in your words. Remember that good teachers know when to support their students, and not lecture their students.
To the individuals who are experiencing depression, take courage. Be free from shame. Your feelings now, do not have to be your feelings forever. If you need help, ask for it, and don't fell "less than" for needing it. Take solace and comfort in these words by Christ,
"Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world."
(John 16:33 NLT).