(Reposted from my other blog, from February 2016.) This issue came up recently when I was talking with some women from church. Someone had read off a list of sins and it included depression. And one of the women asked the rest of us what we thought about that. As someone who struggles with depressed feelings a lot, it got me really wondering if it’s right to call it “sin.”
Of course, the word depression doesn’t appear in the Bible, so this issue requires some conjecture, some outside-the-box thinking. But my first reaction to this question was: “Calling it a sin isn’t going to help anyone who is struggling with it. You can’t just say, ‘You are sinning and you need to stop it,’ and expect that someone is going to be able to go, “Oh, you’re right. I’ll stop being depressed and start feeling joyful.’”
It doesn’t happen that way. And it may actually be more harmful to talk like that. In some ways, I think calling depression a sin is irresponsible. It will only add to the pain and self-loathing someone feels instead of helping at all. And it will just make them want to pull back and suffer in silence.
When I was a happy, shiny, exuberant, young Christian, we talked about this kind of thing once. And my thinking was that depression was a sin, of sorts. Because you were not “having joy in the Lord” like a “good Christian” is supposed to. And you were choosing to look at all the negatives about yourself and your life instead of focusing on Christ’s love for you and on your trust in Him to carry you through life. You were more focused on yourself than on God, making your pain and heartache an idol. And that is sin. A kind of pride, acting like your view of yourself has more weight than God’s view of you.
I’m not saying that I now think that view is wrong. There is a lot of Bible truth in it. But as I have gotten older and experienced more losses and heartache, I have come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black-and-white issue. And it is irresponsible, insensitive, and uncompassionate to simply say “depression is a sin,” as though it’s in the same realm as other sins people commit and can stop anytime, such as stealing, lying, cheating, having an affair, etc. (And it doesn’t take into account hormonal or chemical imbalances, a history of family mental illness, different personalities, broken families and broken hearts, and what people might be doing to work through it.)
Oftentimes, depression isn’t something you choose to do; it’s something that happens to you, even though you don’t want it and maybe did nothing to cause it. And it takes a lot more than “stop sinning and be joyful” to work through it.
To me, that is exactly the kind of “pat answer” or simplistic, judgmental Christian notion that I have been shedding over the years as God has broken me in many ways, stripped me of my own cocky, confident wisdom and ideas of how everything “should be.” It’s the kind of thing someone would say who has never struggled with real gut-wrenching depression but who is passing judgment on someone who has. Or someone who has successfully gotten through it and is looking down smugly on those who are having a harder time getting through it. (In fact, maybe we could add “uncompassionate, simplistic judgmentalism” to that list of sins. Because even though those words are not in the Bible, the idea is there, especially when you look at the Pharisees.)
The way I see it (remember this is just my opinion and you don’t have to agree) is that we cannot simply say “depression is a sin.” It needs to be explored and unpacked more. What do we mean when we say “depression”? What is the depressed person doing in response to the depression? Are they fighting against it in godly ways or wallowing in it, clinging to it as part of their identity so they can have an excuse for why they are the way they are? It’s not the “being heartbroken” part that is a sin; it’s the “what are you doing in response to the depression” part that makes all the difference.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, depression is “a state of excessive sadness or hopelessness, often with physical symptoms.” Is it a sin to be excessively sad for any stretch of time?
Let’s say you were abused as a child, sent into foster care, never knew a warm, loving home, and never had anyone make you feel like you mattered or were worth something. (This is a hypothetical story, not my story.) And then, as you got older, you would see everyone else getting together with their families for the holidays and having a good, loving time. And it made you feel excessively sad for awhile. It made you depressed regularly throughout the year. Is it wise and right for anyone to say, “It’s a sin to let yourself get sad like that”?
I don’t think it’s the sadness that is the sin. We will all feel sad. We will all struggle with negative feelings about ourselves. Some a lot more than others, especially if you did not have the warm, loving families and upbringing that other people had. But sadness is a feeling. And feelings are neither sinful or not sinful; they just “are.”
“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
It’s not feeling angry that is a sin; it’s what you do with the anger that makes it sin or not. And I think it’s the same with sadness, with depression.
I think when people call depression a sin, what they mean is that to hopelessly wallow in depression is a sin, to give yourself over to it is a sin, to embrace it is a sin.
But there is a difference between struggling with depression and settling into depression.
While there are short times that I might settle into depression (giving myself over to it for a day or two, or even a whole lot longer), for the most part I struggle with depression. (And I am not talking about severe clinical depression here, but more of intense sadness and ache. If you struggle severely with depression to the point where you cannot function and are thinking of harming yourself, you need to seek professional help! And remember that we are all human. We all need help sometimes. We take our turns being the helper or the helpee, so don’t be ashamed when it’s your turn to be helped. Someday, it will be your turn to help someone else. And most likely, the best help you can give will come from the struggles you went through. So no shame! Only growth!)
Settling into depression is wallowing in it without taking any godly steps to fight it. It’s making depression your heart’s home. It’s choosing to put down your spiritual weapons and to agree with Satan about all the negative things about yourself and your life. It’s agreeing with him about all the ways God has been unfair to you and with the idea that God couldn’t really love you, care about you, handle your problems or make anything good out of your pain. It’s choosing to let go of your faith in God because life is just too hard and discouraging and you don’t think you can trust Him anymore. It’s trading in hope for hopelessness. And if sin is “missing God’s mark” then, yes, this is sin. It’s missing the mark, what God wants for your life and your faith. If we choose to let go of God and to cling to our feelings instead, then we are living in sin.
But, as I see it, struggling with depression is not a sin. Struggling with depression is choosing to battle against it, even if the battle is long and hard. Even if it’s a daily uphill climb, full of setbacks and obstacles. Quite honestly, isn’t that just life anyway.
I have been struggling with depression for a long time as I have had to deal with shattered dreams and hopes and relationships over the years. And I can pinpoint when my struggle with depression started. I was eighteen and sitting on the floor in my bedroom, reading some letters that my biological father sent me when I was in my early teens. And it dawned on me that I never got to go to a “daddy-daughter” dance. And that’s when it hit me that I never really had a “daddy.” And suddenly an ache entered my heart that wasn’t there before. (Actually, the ache that I had denied and stuffed down for so long finally came to the surface.)
My biological father and my mom divorced when I was about two years old. And I virtually never saw him, maybe once every three years or so from when I first “met” him at fifteen years old. I’ve gotten a couple letters from him over the years, but I never got birthday cards, Christmas presents, emotional support, comforting hugs. I never got to hear from him (or any of my two ex-step-dads who vanished or current step-dad), “You are amazing. I love you. You are so special. That’s my girl. I’m here for you.” And my bio-father never really cared to know me. I’ve never revealed much about myself to him in the handful of visits we’ve had over my lifetime, and he’s never really asked. He died about eight months ago. I felt nothing. And that's sad.
I have never known what it feels like to belong to or matter to a father.
And this (along with quite a few other trials and heartaches) causes my heart to ache. Regularly. At holiday times. Or when I see other families enjoying each other’s company. (I am so happy for them, always glad to see families who are doing it right. But it still stabs my heart a little.) Or when I really need support or encouragement, someone to help hold me up when I have no strength to stand. (I am so thankful for my husband, but sometimes you really need a dad.)
It really messes with your self-view when your own biological father had basically nothing to do with you, when you don’t feel like you have a place in your own family where you fit in or matter or belong. When you don’t have family to turn to, to lean on. (Thank God for my husband and children and one or two close friends!) I’ve always felt like I was on the outside of everything, looking in. I just don’t fit inside with everyone else.
But I have worked hard over the years with God's help to get through all of this - to examine my heart and mind for what needs to change, to change what I can, to embrace what I can't, and to always try to bring it back to God's love and truth. And it's been quite a long, painful journey. Painful, yet rewarding!
Yet my heart still aches regularly for a dad to really love me and value me. Is that sinful? I don’t think so. And I don’t think we ever outgrow the desire for a parent to love us, to lean on, to hold us up and make us feel like we matter. So I don’t think this ache will go away anytime soon.
I know that struggling with depression (to one degree or another) will probably always be a part of my journey. For me, it comes back to family history. I can’t change my history. I am not responsible for what happened. But I do have to learn to live with it, to do the best I can and be the best I can in spite of it. And instead of wallowing in my sadness over it, I have to regularly hand it over to God and trust Him to make something beautiful out of it, despite the constant ache that is in my heart. I have to be deliberate about fending off Satan’s fiery arrows every day. But this isn’t always easy to do. It is a long process and daily battle sometimes.
Saul vs. Job vs. Job’s Friends
Let’s look for a moment at a couple people from the Bible.
In 1 Samuel 18 and up, we read how King Saul gives himself over to negative thoughts and feelings. To jealousy and fears. He broods over them. He nurses these feelings until they consume him. He had everything he could want, but he took his focus off of God and put it on his feelings, on all that was bothering him about his life, about David. And losing his focus eventually led to his demise. That was an unhealthy way to deal with his feelings. It was destructive and it was sin.
But then there was Job, who was a righteous man. He did nothing to deserve the tragedies that God allowed Satan to bring into his life. He lost everything, but eventually found a more pure faith. And it had to do with how he responded to the pain. Let’s look at what Job did in response to these horrible circumstances.
First, even in his extreme anguish, he humbly threw himself before God’s “God-ness.”
“”Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)
Despite the incredible loss and pain, he threw himself at God.
And then for a short time, he sits there with his friends in silence. Job wallows for a little while, unable to pick himself up, to make himself “happy.” There is a sense of “I can’t go on yet. I need to sit here and process this.” And I don’t think we can accuse Job of sinning here. Life has knocked him down hard, taken the wind out of him, and he needs to process, to let it all sink in, to sort it out, to come to grips with what has happened and how it has affected him. He is stunned. And all he can do in his stunned state is sit there in the ashes and scratch at his wounds with broken pottery, reevaluating what he knows of God and of life and of himself. I’m sure he had a lot to think about.
[I have recently gotten to a point like this (again) – where I can’t seem to pray and I don’t know what to do or how to make things better or how to enjoy life anymore or how to even want anything anymore. I am almost afraid to want anything, to hope that things will be different. Because it feels like when I hope for things and when I work for change, I crash and burn in a flaming heap. My heart and spirit get broken over and over again. And after years and years of this, I am tired. I am done!
And like Job, all I want to do now (spiritually) is sit before the Lord in silence, in brokenness. I don’t want anything else and I don’t want to do anything else, other than just be broken before Him for a time. I want to be still in my spirit. Quiet. To let my silence and my brokenness be my prayer. I want to pray nothing other than “Thank You for all the blessings You have already given us. Help me be content with life as it is. Give me only what You want me to have because I don’t know what I need anymore. Help me do my best in my daily job and to not worry about anything else. And regardless of the trials, I believe in You, I trust You, and I love You.”
Maybe I am in a kind of deep depression and discouragement. I don’t know. Maybe I’m giving up. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have tried and tried to make things better . . . and I have failed. And I am tired of trying. I am tired of thinking that I know what I need. I am tired of wanting. I am tired of waiting for things to be better. I am tired of being tired. I’m just . . . tired!
And so for now, I am going to simply sit in “Job silence” for a while - until it’s time to get up, dust myself off, roll up my sleeves, and get back to it. There will be a time for that eventually. But now is the time for spiritual silence and stillness, for doing nothing more than counting blessings and praising God and learning to say, “It is well with my soul!”
You know, I tend to get all upset with myself when I get into these funks, like there’s something majorly wrong with me and like I have to get out of it as soon as possible. And in some ways, these efforts to claw my way out of the “depression” only make it worse, making me feel like more of a failure.
But maybe it doesn’t need to be so distressing. Maybe it’s just a part of life, of being human.
So I’m going to do it differently this time. I am not going to be distressed that I am in a funk. I’m not going to worry about being some super-human, spiritual giant who can “fix it all,” who is a shining example of what a “good Christian” is supposed to be. I’m just going to be okay with being human. I’m just going to let this funk happen and let it pass, waiting at the feet of God until it does.
And even though it might look like utter despair, I think it’s okay. I think there are times when wallowing in the dust is all we can do. But as long as we are wallowing in the dust at the feet of God, it’s okay. And I’m okay. Because I trust in a good, loving, sovereign God.]
Anyway, back to Job’s story. In his despair, he sat there in complete silence for days.
But what did his friends do, in their efforts to help? They go into all these pat-answers of how Job went wrong and what he should do and how God operates. They act like they have it all figured out and that if Job can just see it and do it their way then things would be better. Their wise, godly, loving support basically includes pearls-of-wisdom (paraphrased) such as these:
1. Who are you to be so discouraged about what God is doing in your life!?! (Hmm, sounds a bit like, “You are sinning by letting yourself be so depressed. Be joyful because God is in control.”)
2. You must be living in hidden sin and so you got what you deserved because God wouldn’t do this to a righteous man.
3. Your kids got what they deserved!
4. You have no idea what you are talking about.
5. You are putting your faith in the wrong thing, not in God, and this is what happens to people who put their faith in the wrong thing.
6. God is using this to teach you a lesson, to mold you and make you a better person. So you should accept it as a blessing.
7. If you would just listen to this wise, godly advice that God personally revealed to us, you would get back into God’s good graces and everything would be better again.
8. You need to be rebuked for the things you cry out against our mysterious, holy God. Who do you think you are!?!
9. What has happened to you to make you so angry, to make you say such things about God? (Umm . . . DUH!)
10. You need to set aside this anger and extol His work, praise Him, for He is magnificent and far beyond our understanding.
11. Basically, Job . . . you are doing it all wrong!
They seem to have such godly-sounding advice for people who have never gone through that kind of pain before. Great friends, huh! I mean, it really did sound wise and godly. There was a lot of truth in it. And they were defending God’s character and actions against Job, who (in their judgment) was saying things that no wise, good Christian should say. And this only further confirmed for them the idea that Job was in sin and being punished, which gave them more ammunition against him and made them “more righteous” by comparison.
But Job doesn’t buy all that nonsense. He knows he did nothing to deserve what happened. And he still has too much wrestling with himself, his faith, and his God to just spring back up again and get on with life yet. It’s not time to get up off the ground yet. He is still processing. It takes time. Yet I can just hear his friends saying, “You are in sin. Just get up and be joyful.”
It might look like Job is wallowing just like Saul was, giving himself over to depression. But unlike Saul who turned from God, who let go of God and grabbed onto his negative feelings instead, Job turns to God. Job is struggling with faith issues and negative views of himself and of God. But what makes all the difference here is that Job brings them to God, he lays it all out before Him in prayer. He holds nothing back, even if it sounds ugly and harsh and self-righteous and untrusting. He cries out to God in transparency, giving vent to thoughts and feelings (paraphrased) such as these:
1. Cursed be the day I was born!
2. Cursed be my life!
3. I long to die!
4. I have no strength left to hope.
5. God Himself has taken aim at me with poisonous arrows.
6. I don’t think God is listening to my cries and pleas. In fact, I think He would just multiply my wounds for no reason.
7. I did nothing to deserve this!
While Job’s friends were busy teaching Job a lesson and defending God with righteous-sounding arguments, Job was doing this: “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free reign to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1) Job was not concerned with sounding like a “nice Christian.” He was pouring his heart out honestly. But the thing is, he was not just talking to his friends about his bitterness; he was talking to God about it. His friends were busy talking about God, but Job was talking to God!
1. Even when I am resting, You terrify me with visions and dreams.
2. What is man that You think of him, examine him, and test him?
3. Why won’t You look away from me and leave me alone for a moment?
4. What have I done to You? Why am I Your target?
5. You shaped me and made me. Why would You now destroy me?
6. Why didn’t You just let me die at birth?
7. Hear my cries, Lord, and answer me! Why do You hide from me and consider me Your enemy?
All throughout Job’s replies to his friends, he speaks to God, too. And he doesn’t polish it up. He is in intense pain, and he speaks out of his intense pain. He doesn’t try to talk himself out of it. He doesn’t say, “Well, it’s a sin to be angry, depressed, and to lash out at God, so I better stop and accept what has happened and just be happy.” No, he gives full vent to his fears, doubts, thoughts, feelings, and pain. Sometimes, you have to go through this. There is no way out sometimes – no way to acceptance - but through crying out honestly to God!
To be fair, there was a lot of truth and wisdom in what his friends said. It sounded like inspirational sermons you might hear at church. But the problem was . . . they had no idea what they were talking about in this particular situation. They had all these fancy, godly-sounding arguments and they thought they were speaking up for God, but they had no idea what they were talking about. They did not stop to consider Job’s particular circumstances. They simply applied their pat-answers and blanket-statements and judgments to a situation they didn’t truly understand. In their pious, self-inflated ignorance, they passed judgment on what Job was going through and how he was going through it. And in comparison, Job looked like he was less godly, less righteous-sounding.
Surely a good Christian wouldn’t talk like that. A good Christian would humbly and compliantly submit to what God allows into his life, accepting it in thankfulness and finding “joy in the Lord” because He is God and we are not. A good Christian would not let themselves get so depressed and upset and angry at God!
But let’s look at what God says, after the friends have defended Him and given all their wise advice and after Job has wallowed in his pain for awhile and poured out all his bitterness to the Lord.
The first thing God does, in Job 38, is put Job in his place. He reminds him that He is God and that Job is not, that He has created all things and holds all things in His hands and that there is no way that a simple human could compare to Him. Yet I happen to think that, even as God is saying this, it’s not in anger at Job. I think that while God has to correct Job and put him in his place, there is a sense of admiration and tenderness for Job - because Job was willing to pour himself out honestly before the Lord, whereas the friends simply spoke about God in haughty, “we know better” ways.
And what does God say about the difference between bitterly-honest Job and his pious, lofty, God-defending friends?
I think it’s interesting to note that God spends a lot of time talking to Job, correcting him, reminding him of who He really is. But He barely speaks to the friends. Here they thought they were so righteous and knew God so well and were protecting God’s character from Job’s outcries, yet God barely bothers to respond to them.
And even then, the only thing He really has to say to them is in Job 42 when God turns to Eliphaz and says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” And He doesn’t just say it once; He says it twice. And then He asks Job to pray for them so that God does not deal with them according to their folly.
Although the friends had all sorts of godly-sounding, God-defending arguments meant to shame Job into becoming a more proper Christian, they did not speak rightly of God. It’s not that there was no truth in what they said; it’s that they were not applying the right truth in the right places. They were using truth to shame and judge Job, instead of having compassion on him and considering his particular circumstances.
And on top of that, their one main message – that Job must be getting what he deserved because God would not allow such trials into a righteous person’s life – was not correct. In this main argument, they were not speaking rightly of God, for God did indeed allow incredible loss and pain into a righteous man’s life. And I think that’s why Job spent so much time wallowing and processing. His views of God and life and faith and himself were shattered, and he needed time to sort it all out, to assimilate this new information about God, the fact that He would allow such pain into an innocent man’s life.
While Job sought to figure this all out and to examine his view of God and life and faith, his friends simply kept defending their preconceived assumption that God doesn’t do this kind of thing to righteous people.
And why couldn’t they concede the point that Job was righteous and yet still experienced these losses?
I think it’s because if it could happen to Job, it could happen to them. And they would much rather believe that as long as they behaved properly, these things would never happen to them. In their minds, God was like a formula for success. And as long as they followed the formula, things would always go well for them. They simply couldn’t accept the idea that God is more wildly mysterious and uncontrollable than they think He is, that He cannot be manipulated.
I’m also going to speculate that all their fancy arguments to defend God and accuse Job were meant to earn God’s good graces. Like the scared kids on the playground who join the bully’s side . . . as long as they show their allegiance to the “bully,” He won’t come after them. They were probably terrified to see what happened to Job. And it probably shook their view of God, too, and made them feel vulnerable. And so they had to keep accusing Job of wrong-doing because they did not want to believe that this kind of thing could happen to godly people.
Isn’t this something all of us deal with? Isn’t this often what’s behind our faith struggles and depression and fears? We want to think that our obedience and godly living will earn us the easy, pain-free life. We have expectations of God and how He works and how He rewards us. And heartache and tragedies blow our expectations and assumptions out of the water. It shakes us to the core. Because not only do we have to face the pain, but now we have to reevaluate how we see God and life and faith and ourselves.
But as we do this, as we wallow in the dust and scrape at our wounds and process what’s happened and evaluate what it’s teaching us, our simplistic “pat answers” and faulty expectations and childish assumptions are replaced with a clearer, more accurate view of Him. And as we see Him more clearly, our faith grows. A faith not based on misconceptions but on hard – and sometimes painful and confusing – truths.
Job was willing to let his assumptions and misconceptions be changed. He was willing to begin seeing God for who He really is – a God who does not have to do things the way we think He should and who does not have to answer to us, but a God that can be trusted anyway.
But the friends were not willing to have their simple view of God-as-a-formula changed. It would make them feel vulnerable and not-in-control. And as God said, they did not “speak rightly of Him.”
As much as we might hate it, God is not a formula and bad things do happen to godly people. Job had to process this, to get through the confusion and pain and anger, to get to the point of seeing God for the wild, mysterious God that He is.
And maybe that is exactly the point of the trials sometimes: to humble us, to get us to understand God better, to purify our faith, and (as we see in the interaction between God and Satan in the very beginning of Job) to force us to decide if we will believe in Him and cling to Him no matter what comes our way (as Job did) or if we will cling instead to our misconceptions, assumptions, and expectations of Him (as Job’s friends did).
As Job shows us, sometimes there is a time to vent to God, to wrestle with Him over our fears and doubts and pains, to struggle with our expectations, misconceptions, and assumptions. Instead of worrying about the “proper” way to respond, Job basically called God out, saying, “Let’s get in the ring, God. You and me. Gloves off! Bring it!”
Did you ever see Forest Gump? It’s been a long time since I have, but there’s this part where Lieutenant Dan rails at God from the boat, fist waving in the air, shouting all sorts of angry things at Him. And I don’t remember exactly what he said. I just remember that it was with an attitude of “I’m angry with You. Let’s get it all out in the open now! We’re getting in the ring, gloves off! Bring it on, God! It’s You and me! Let’s do this!”
And I used to think, How horrible and disrespecting toward God. God must hate that! Lieutenant Dan would earn himself some serious punishment with that kind of displeasing, impolite outburst.
But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about God and learned to be more transparent with Him and let Him into the sealed-off parts of my heart, I now realize, Lieutenant Dan is doing it right! That’s what pleases God more than quietly shrinking away from Him, hiding the hurt parts of our heart in order to be “pleasing” to Him, nursing our wounds in private. He’d rather have us rail at Him in all honesty than pull back in a false form of trust and humility. He wants us to wrestle with Him if wrestling is what will create a deeper relationship and stronger faith, to give it our all, to cling to the very end, to passionately throw ourselves at Him and not let go until He blesses us.
I think wrestling with God is something we will all have to do at some point in our lives. In the trials and heartaches and unanswered prayers and unfulfilled dreams and shattered hopes and the failures and doubts and fears and questions. It’s okay to wrestle with Him. To grab on and say, “I won’t let go until You bless me, either with an answer or with wisdom or with peace and joy in You alone.” He’d rather us grab on and cling to Him, even when we are angry or in pain, than have us turn from Him and grab on to something else.
We will wrestle with Him for different reasons throughout our lives. I definitely have. But if we cling long enough, we will be blessed. Either with the answer we want or with the grace and peace that comes from Him to accept the one we don’t. And sometimes the greatest blessing that comes from wrestling with Him is just having been near Him, having been in His presence, letting Him walk with us through our hard time and yet learning to find our joy in Him and not our circumstances.
Among others things, wrestling with Him helps us . . .
- learn that He is God and we are not, and to be okay with that
- put down burdens that we were never meant to carry
- learn to need Him; not just want Him, but really, desperately need Him
- understand what it means to “walk by faith, not by sight”
- learn to recognize and listen to that “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit
- let go of the control we desperately cling to and to cling to Him instead, in trust and reliance
- root out self-sufficiency, pride, expectations, misconceptions, demonic footholds, selfishness, laziness, lukewarm-ness, weak areas, ungodliness, hidden sins, etc.
- learn to rest in Him and to wait on Him and to be faithful no matter what
- become more honest and transparent with Him and with ourselves
- uncover any lies we might be living or believing
- learn to accept God’s forgiveness and to forgive others
- learn to see Him as He really is and ourselves as we really are
- open our eyes to other people’s hurts and needs
- prioritize our lives and goals as He wants us to
- live with eternity in mind
- get back on the path He wants us on
- learn humility and obedience and to seek righteousness
- trust His love, and learn to love others and let ourselves be loved
- learn genuine thankfulness and contentment
- learn to praise in the pain, to find our joy in Him, and to learn that His grace is sufficient
- to rely on God’s Word and prayer and Jesus’ name
- make peace with the life we have and the things we don’t understand and the unclear future
- grow through the trials instead of just whining about them
- learn to hold things loosely so that we can allow Him to do whatever He wants with what we have
- lighten up and not take things so seriously
- learn what grace really is and how much we need it and how to extend it to others. (I have never really understood and loved the word “grace” so much, not until I broke so bad. And now, I want to share it with others, too.)
Job poured himself out honestly to the Lord. Job wrestled with God. And even though Job said things that were harsh-sounding and not very “godly,” God still says that Job spoke rightly of Him. And it’s not that everything Job said was true, because God took time to correct Job’s misconceptions. It’s that Job got real with God! He didn’t stuff his feelings and put on a polished, Christian, “joy in the Lord” smile. He didn’t let his misconceptions cloud his view of God. He chose to let his view of God be corrected. And he brought the broken parts of his heart to God, instead of just talking about God like his friends did. Job drew near to God! And so God drew near to Job! Even though it meant that first God had to set Job straight.
It’s not the pain and heartache that is sin. It’s what you do with it.
Like King Saul, do you turn away from God and grab onto the pain, letting it shape your life and your self-views? Like Job’s friends, do you throw around “truth” as a way to judge how other people are doing in their walks with the Lord or cling to your misconceptions because accepting the truth would be too scary?
Or like Job, do you turn to God and bring Him all the pain and ache that is in your heart, choosing to draw near to Him even when you have doubts and fears? Do you let God purify your faith by correcting your misconceptions, faulty assumptions, and off-base expectations?
King Saul settled. Job’s friends scolded and shamed. But Job struggled.
And struggling is not sinful. It’s part of the process, of trying to work through the pain in your heart, your negative self-views, your doubts and fears about God. In fact, it is healthy. If you do not work through these things, they become stumbling blocks in your heart and faith, walls in your relationship with others, with yourself, and with God.
Maybe sometimes, depression is not much more than “adjustment disorder.” It’s the struggle to learn to adjust to your life instead of expecting life to adjust to you. It’s the struggle to learn to trust God when things go wrong instead of demanding your way.
[And some of us will never be able to get to a point of being "super happy" all the time. And I don’t necessarily think that should be our goal. Because, like it was with Job, some kinds of pain change us forever. And we will face reminders all throughout our lives of things we lost, ways we hurt, people we ache for, unmet longings, broken dreams. But God-willing, it will become like an old, healed scar. It might be a little tender when it's poked or bumped, but we can get on with living a full life without it hurting so much and getting in the way everyday. And sometimes, that has to be good enough. If you can’t have the life you want, live the life you’ve got, letting God’s love, help, grace, and mercy carry you through. Is there really any other way?]
It’s easy to turn away from God and to lose yourself in your bitterness when things don’t go your way, like Saul. And like Job’s friends, it’s easy to judge, scold, and point fingers at how someone else is doing on their spiritual journey. But it’s hard – so hard – to get real with God like Job did. To take off the “happy” mask, put away the “proper Christian etiquette,” ignore the criticism and judgments, and to get into the ring with God and lay it all out there honestly. But sometimes, it’s the only way to adjust, to maintain and to mature your faith in the midst of pain you wish you didn’t have.
Part of the Journey
Jesus went through a period in the Garden of Gethsemane where He was in extreme anguish, so much so that it caused Him to sweat blood. Would we say that He was in sin to feel so badly, to be so upset, to want something different? Was it sin to appear like He didn’t trust the Father with His life, like He didn’t trust His love and goodness?
No! It’s not the feelings that are harmful, it’s what you do with them. And Jesus poured out His pain to the Father. And I think He knew that it was the only way to get to the point where He could say and really mean “Not my will but Yours be done.”
There is a need for and wisdom in working through the pain and heartache instead of just plastering on a “good, polished, Christian smile,” acting like it’s all okay because “God is in control and He loves me, loves me, loves me.” (And remember that Jesus drew near to the hurting. He had compassion on the brokenhearted. He even cried for Martha and Mary when He saw the pain they were in after Lazarus died. His heart hurt for them. Never did He scold anyone whose heart was broken or who reached out to Him in their pain.)
Many times, we need to struggle through those hard, dark, emotional times in order to get to the point of truly accepting God’s Will for our lives, accepting what He has allowed into our lives and figuring out how to glorify Him anyway.
Jesus knew this. Job knew this. But Job’s “wise, godly, righteous-sounding” friends did not. They did not see the benefit of wrestling with the pain and wrestling with God. They had their pat-answers about something they never experienced.
There may be times in our lives when we cannot pick ourselves up off the floor, when our views of life and ourselves and God have been shattered and we need time to process and work through the pain and doubts and fears and heartache. Some of us might go through only a season of this, and some might go through it regularly. Some might work through it quickly, and some might deal with it in a more chronic, slow, long-term way. But the key is to draw closer to God in humility through the pain, instead of pulling away from Him and embracing your feelings instead.
Recently, a friend was telling me about a relative of hers who is stuck. He is stuck in an “I am the victim” mentality. And his depression over this and over things that have gone wrong in his life have become part of his identity. Not only does he use it gain attention and sympathy and to retreat from life, but he uses it as an excuse for every unhealthy thing he is driven to do. And he uses it as a way to manipulate others. He puts expectations on them to do things his way; and then when they don’t, he gets upset and blames them and makes them feel guilty. He is oversensitive about what others say and do, even when it has nothing to do with him, and he reads into everything, always making it about him and how he is wronged and how nothing goes right for him. And yet, he refuses to let go of this “victim” self-view and to see it from any other angle. He has made his depression and “victim-ness” a major part of his identity. He has defined himself and his life according to it. Over the years, he has nursed this view, brooded over it, and learned to use it, to find some sort of power in it. And he won’t let go of it. He refuses to grow out of it, which would involve taking some responsibility for who he has become, for how he is living his life, and for doing the hard soul-searching work to change it. He’d rather be stuck!
If you are wallowing in it like Saul or embracing it like my friend’s relative then you are on a destructive path. If you are pulling away from God and from healing, refusing to let go of your emotions and your depression because it is your identity, then you are headed for trouble. Emotions are just emotions. And if we do not rule them, they rule us. If we give them free reign to run our lives, we will never truly heal or grow in necessary healthy ways.
But if, in your wallowing, you are drawing nearer to God, even honestly laying out your pain and fears before Him, you are on a path to healing. It may be slow, but it is sure.
Consider the Psalms. (I never much liked the Psalms until I faced depression.) Over and over again, the authors honestly pour out their pain and doubts and fears. But after they do this, they remember God’s character and promises. They feel the pain and heartache and despair, but they call on God’s truth and love to encourage them.
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5-6)
“I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping.” (Psalm 6:6-8)
“Hear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. . . . Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you. Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my cry for mercy.” (Psalm 86:1-6)
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? . . . But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13: 1-2, 5-6)
Does singing God’s praises – does having joy in the Lord – mean that we have to deny our pain, buck up and “be happy”? No. All throughout the Psalms the pain comes first, wrestling with the hard stuff comes first. But the authors don’t get stuck there. They let that pain propel them into God’s arms. They basically preach God’s truth to themselves, reminding themselves of who God is and what He has done.
Yet for Psalm after Psalm, they still face these dark thoughts. Over and over again. There is a bit of wallowing there. But it is not a hopeless kind of wallowing. It is the kind where they get very real about what’s inside of them and they let the pain push them into God’s arms and God’s truth. Depression is either a temporary stop on the road to true joy in the Lord or it’s just a stop, a tar pit of hopelessness that you can’t get out of. And the direction you are facing – toward God or away from God – will determine if you are headed to joy or to hopelessness.
Even Paul, who learned to sing hymns while in chains in prison, found himself despairing at least once. Yet he did not give himself over to it completely. He let that despair drive him closer to God, to help him learn to rely on God more and not on things in this life or world.
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered . . . We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we even despaired of life. Indeed, in our hearts, we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
Are you . . .?
Are you ignoring the pain inside, running from it or stuffing it down so you don’t have to face it? You can’t overcome what you won’t face.
Are you nursing your wounds in private, keeping your real thoughts and feelings hidden from God so you don’t “offend” Him or so that you don’t look less-Christianly to others? He can’t heal what you won’t be honest with Him about.
Are you trying to work through your pain yourself, in your own power, wisdom, and strength? He can’t fix the broken things you refuse to give Him.
Are you clinging to your misconceptions, assumptions, and expectations about God, refusing to let them be challenged and corrected? If so, you have a shaky, unstable faith, based on half-truths and things you wish were true.
Are you clinging to negative emotions, letting them rule you, using them as an excuse to be irresponsible, to be stuck, to disengage from life and from others, to not praise Him, to not do your daily job to the best of your ability, or as an excuse for why you are the way you are? You know, the “it’s just who I am” excuse?
Are you engaging in destructive behaviors when you are depressed: drinking, drugs, loss of self-control, harmful daydreaming, berating yourself over and over again, comparing your life to other people’s lives?
Or. . .
Are you willing to do the hard work of facing the pain and heartache, working through it with God’s help, and letting God heal it? Are you bringing Him all the doubts, fears, thoughts and feelings inside of you?
Are you clinging to Him, scouring His Word for what He really says about you and your life and Himself, letting His truth replace the lies and heal the wounds and letting Him purify your faith by correcting your faulty views??
Even in your sadness, are you still engaging in life and with others, getting up every day and being faithfully obedient, doing your best to do your best for His glory in the jobs He placed in your path today?
Are you looking for the blessings, finding things to praise Him for? You won’t find the blessings if you are intent on looking for all the negative things.
Are you careful to not engage in destructive or harmful things when you are depressed? To protect your heart and mind from Satan’s fiery arrows? Do you recognize spiritual attacks as spiritual attacks, and treat them as such?
In your depression and sadness and heartache, are you griping against Him about all that is wrong, like the Israelites in the desert? Or are you talking to Him about all that is wrong and all your hurts, like Job and Jesus and the authors of the Psalms?
The answers to these questions will help you know if you are in sin or not! If you are handling the depression in unhealthy ways or healthy ways!
Joy in the Lord
There will be pain to work through in life. There will be heartaches to face, brokenness to deal with, disappointments to learn to embrace and live with. There will be a need to learn to praise God in the pain and heartache. And there will be a time to wallow in and wrestle with our fears, doubts, shattered heart, shattered faith, and with ourselves and our God. But when it’s time to wallow . . . wallow before the Lord, wallow with the Lord. It’s the only way to work through it all and get to the point of saying, “Whether You give or take away, blessed be Your name. And not my will, but Yours be done!”
And I think for some of us, it’s the only way to finding true joy in the Lord. Denying heartache, stuffing down “unacceptable” thoughts and feelings, polishing up your “good Christian” mask, and applying your simplistic pat-answers will only bring you a false kind of joy. The kind that you drum up to make it look like everything is okay. But it is just a band-aid on a deep, infected wound. And it might just stunt your spiritual growth. (And it might just be that you are mistaking happiness for joy!)
But I think true joy in the Lord does not mean that you have to be “happy” and carefree, that you have to deny your pain and heartache and doubts and fears. And it isn’t something you can get simply by saying, “I think I’ll stop being sad and start being joyful now!” True joy in the Lord does not mean a lack of pain and sadness. True joy means finding your strength and worth and value and comfort in the Lord, especially when you hurt and are sad and in pain.
You can only know true joy when you have known true pain. You can only know true joy when you have reached the bottom and found that God is there waiting for you, that He is faithful, even in the dark times. You can only know true joy in Him when you have been stripped of the things that bring temporary joy and fulfillment, when you have had to grab His hand in faith and say, “Things are really bad right now, but I still trust You and believe in You.”
And this kind of joy is not a happy-go-lucky, la-di-da, I-can’t-stop-smiling kind of joy. (That’s happiness!) It is a joy that reaches deeper than that, that settles deep into the most broken parts of your heart, applying God’s healing and love and truth to the hurting wounds. And oftentimes, it takes pain to get there. This joy is not about skipping and humming all through your day; it’s about learning to carry on through the hard times in His strength and in His peace. It’s learning to praise Him even when you hurt and to say “It is well with my soul” even when it’s not well in your day, in your life, or in your emotions.
It’s a joy that can find contentment in the worst of circumstances. Not because you are “happy” but because God is there and He is at work and He will make something good out of all the messes. It is a joy that comes after wrestling with yourself, with faith, and with God. And like Jacob who wrestled all night with God, it is a joy that leaves you with a limp. It’s a broken, bittersweet hallelujah!
And I guess, I’d rather have that kind of deep, battle-tested, fire-purified joy than a naïve, la-di-da kind that makes me feel happy but that hasn’t stood the test of time and trials. And I think that all of us, at some point, will find our joy and our faith being refined by going through the furnace of trials, of fire. To purify it. To strip us of all the false ideas we have, all of our pat-answers, all the ways we judge other people’s spiritual progress, and all of the things outside of God that we cling to and find our fulfillment and our value in.
Many of us will find ourselves someday stripped of everything we had faith in and of all confidence in ourselves. We will be sitting in the dust like Job, scraping at our wounds with broken pottery, wrestling through our doubts, fears, and faith, wondering what happened to us and how we got to where we are. We will find ourselves wallowing, depressed, on the ground, unable to get up again until we make one decision: “Will I turn away from God because of this trial or turn toward God? Can I say, ‘Though You slay me, I will trust You still. Blessed be Your name! Your will be done!’”
It is through the trials, through the perseverance, that we can get to the point of being able to say and really mean those things. And it is then that our faith becomes unshakable and our joy becomes genuine and complete.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Notice that it doesn’t say “be happy.” I don’t see anything here that says it’s a sin to be sad or upset. It says “consider it pure joy.” Basically, he’s saying no matter the trials or heartache, count it as a blessing because it will grow your faith. It’s not a command to change our emotions as much as it’s a command to change our thinking.
“. . . but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Once again, “rejoice” is not a feeling. It is an action. This is saying that even if you are not feeling happy or joyful, you can still rejoice – praise God – because your mind knows that these trials will teach you how to persevere. And learning to persevere through hard times will grow your godly character. And godly character will bring you true hope because you will have found your strength in God and His love for you, instead of in yourself or anything this life offers.
The interesting part to me is that hope comes at the end of this list. True hope is not necessarily what gives you the strength to get through the trials, as many of us seem to think. It’s the reward for persevering through them and letting them grow your faith.
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
Sometimes praise is a sacrifice, something that hurts and that we don’t want to do. But praise is an action, not a feeling. It’s what we do because of who God is, because of what Jesus has done for us, not because life is peachy and we are happy and fulfilled with earthly goodness. And I think praising God, even in the pain, is for the health of our spiritual relationship and our hearts and minds and for spiritual protection. And we can do it, even when we don’t feel like it. If you start keeping a list a things you are thankful for, it is amazing what it does to your outlook on life and on God.
My Personal Plan of Attack
Like I said, I might have some days when I get stuck in depression, when I unhealthily wallow in it like, “Woe is me,” blowing up balloons and throwing confetti, thoroughly immersed in my own little pity-party. But most days, I tackle it head-on like this:
1. I have to read my Bible every day. It’s the only way to get through it with your faith intact. You have to be abiding in Him, letting His truths deep into your heart and getting to know Him as He really is in the Word. If we view Him out of our own misconceptions and expectations, we will miss the mark every time and our faith will suffer. Depression is a spiritual battle and you have to be covered in God’s truth and immersed in the Lord to battle it effectively. And, if you want to, write down the verses that speak most to you and post them where you can see them. And then use them as a sword to battle the negative thoughts that pop into your head.
And when you read the Bible, do not look for more rules to follow or try to discover more ways you are failing in your Christian walk. Focus mainly on discovering how much God loves you. His love is more healing than any “rule” you can follow. And this is where your journey to healing needs to start – getting to know how much God loves you and values you. I think Satan messes up a lot of us just by keeping us from knowing how much God loves us.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)
2. I have to pray all day long. And what I mean by “pray” is “talk to Him.” When negative thoughts or fears or doubts pop into my mind, I talk to Him about them like I would a friend. I tell Him what I am thinking, feeling, and struggling with, and I ask His help in learning to see things the way He does. I ask Him to replace fears and pain with His truth, healing, and peace. I tell Him that I have no joy of my own and I need His. I admit that that I can’t do it in my own strength, that I am faltering and need Him to carry me. And sometimes, I just say, “Lord, help. Please, just help.” Or if I don’t even have the energy or heart to make up my own words, I repeat the Lord’s prayer. And when I can’t pray anything for myself because I’ve lost hope that things will change, I pray for others. I pray that God blesses them with the things I want for me. Then instead of being envious, I can be thankful that God answered my prayer when they are delighting in the blessings.
And as I already mentioned, we need to be praising Him for whatever we can praise Him for. It helps keep our focus where it’s supposed to be, helps us to remember just how blessed we really are, and helps keep evil away. (Evil thrives on and is attracted to negativity.) And learn and repeat this phrase if you can’t say anything else, “I trust You, Lord, regardless of my circumstances. I trust You.” (And if you don’t trust Him, ask Him to show you why.)
And pray for insight to know where this depression is coming from, what is feeding it, and what you should do about it. God is willing to guide us and help us, but so often we don’t ask for His help because we are ashamed and because we feel like this is our burden to bear alone. But it’s not. He is waiting to help shoulder that burden, if you will let Him.
And ask God daily to send His heavenly angels to surround and protect you and your heart, to keep evil away. And learn to recognize spiritual attacks as spiritual attacks. You cannot fight spiritual battles in your own strength, with earthly weapons. If the thoughts and guilt that plague you are from the enemy, you cannot battle it without facing the enemy. And you cannot face the enemy without the Lord.
3. I have to write things out, such as on this blog. It helps me to get it out of my head and to find ways and areas where I can apply God’s truth to what I am thinking and feeling. Basically, I preach God’s Word and truth to myself every day, and I write it down. It helps me to read it later, to see the journey that I have been on and the good that has come out of it. The lessons I have learned. It doesn’t seem so dark and depressing when I see where I have been and what it has taught me and how I have grown because of it. In fact, even though it is hard and circumstances may not change, it strengthens my faith. It might not take away the pain, but it shows how good has come out of it.
4. I have to be deliberate about counting my blessings, even the blessings in disguise. Such as “I am thankful I wasn’t hugged much as a child or told ‘I love you’ because it has made me more conscientious about hugging my own children and telling them ‘I love you’ every day.” (My family was a good family, we just weren’t touchy-feeling.)
I have a notebook where I write these blessings, even the smallest of them such as seeing the first cardinal of the year. When you are in the storms of life, you have to keep your eyes wide open and praise God for any and every thing you can find to praise Him for.
(Personally, I think praising God out loud, thanking Him for whatever you can thank Him for, also helps to keep evil away. Demons thrive on negative emotions. They are “welcome mats” for them. But praising God repels them and puts a hedge of protection around you.)
5. Part of praising God is keeping godly and encouraging music on the radio. If I am left alone with my thoughts for too long, they go to dark places. So I like to have good, inspiring Christian music on (and sometimes, it’s just good non-Christian music, to be honest). It helps to keep my thoughts from straying into dark places.
But be careful what you listen to. Listening to depressing music over and over again will only make you more depressed. So as much as I love, say, Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock” (I really love this song!), it doesn’t help me to listen to it when I am feeling really down and lonely. But their “Feelin’ Groovy” is much more upbeat.
Can I make a music recommendation here for when you are losing faith, when you’re barely hanging on and want to despair of life? Get all of albums that you find from The City Harmonic. They are INCREDIBLE! Seriously incredible!!! Absolutely majestic! (You can find links to some of my favorite City Harmonic songs in the right side-bar, under "some of the songs that have helped me the most.")
I ordered their first album not too long ago. And after listening to it once, every fiber in my being went, “I must order ALL of their albums NOW!” And I did. And I was not disappointed!
I love Jeremy Riddle and The Newsboys, too (and the phenomenal version of “The Sound of Silence” from Disturbed. It’s not Christian but it deserves being mentioned because it’s amazing! So powerful! And it’s even better during a snowstorm!), but nothing has touched my heart and restored my faith as much as the City Harmonic.
Every song just speaks so deeply to life, to pain and fear and heartache, to the times that we are weak and barely able to stand, to the faithful and the faithless. I am often brought to tears – good tears – while listening to them. They make my heart feel like praising even when it’s hurting. Buy their albums and listen regularly. It will help you hang on when you’d rather give up. (Have I mentioned that they’re incredible!?!)
[Another suggestion: Google “inspirational Youtube videos” or “Youtube restore my faith in humanity” videos. I have never really watched anything on Youtube, except that Dover police officer singing along with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” while on patrol. So enjoyable! (But make sure it’s the official “Dover Police DashCam Confessional (Shake it Off)” one, not the knock-offs.), but I was so down and discouraged about life and people the other day that I decided to see what kind of heart-warming videos I could find.
And I found one in particular that just reduced me to tears (good tears!) and, seriously, restored my faith in people. Life didn’t seem so dark anymore. Google “Youtube faith in humanity restored, the ultimate tribute by kevzete.” It’s about 25 minutes long, but it’s worth every minute. One of the best things I’ve ever seen. It’s just so great to be reminded that there are still people like this out there in the world. [Update: This video has recently been removed. Sad, sad, sad.]
It might even be good to watch it once a month or week or whatever helps you. I’ve seen it twice so far and cried both times. If you’re depressed or discouraged, you’re probably crying already anyway. May as well cry for a good reason.
Side note: I think that if we really thought about it, we would realize that sometimes our “losing faith in God” is really more about “losing faith in other people.” We have a tendency to act like God is responsible for when life goes wrong or people let us down or hurt us or don’t do what they said they would do. But while God does speak to people’s consciences and call them to do the right thing, He doesn’t force them to do the right thing. So it’s not His fault when they do the wrong thing. And while He does intervene at times, He oftentimes doesn’t prevent the bad from happening. He allows life to happen and He allows people to do what they will. But He does promise to make something good of it eventually. I am learning to try to not hold God responsible for mankind’s faults, but to have faith in Him that He will use it for good. Even if it hurts in the meantime.]
6. Have a good hobby or keep busy in some way, even just making sure you do what you are supposed to do each day. It does no good to sit around and mope and let things fall apart around you. Clean something, take a class in something, cook something, exercise, garden. Do something to better yourself and your surroundings and your life. It won’t make everything all better, but you will feel a little better to see that you accomplished something instead of just sitting there and moping.
7. Likewise, open your windows and let the light in. And get outside regularly, even if it’s just taking daily walks. Siting in your house alone all day, keeping your misery company, isn’t going to help. You need to be outside in God’s creation. It’s healing and encouraging and makes things seem less dark.
8. If possible, talk to someone about what you are going through. Sometimes, just saying the words, “I am struggling with depression” helps to take away some of the power and hold it has over you. I don’t know exactly why, but it does.
(And seek professional help if you need it. If a counselor or pastor or medication would help, it would be a shame to refuse to get that help, continuing your downward spiral into hopelessness without grabbing onto the available life-jackets. Don't be ashamed of needing help. Just thank God that it's available. Someday, you'll be stronger and you will be a help to someone else. But now it's your turn to let others help you! That's okay. It's normal. You are normal. We all hurt sometimes and we all need help sometimes. It's what makes us human!)
(And seek professional help if you need it. If a counselor or pastor or medication would help, it would be a shame to refuse to get that help, continuing your downward spiral into hopelessness without grabbing onto the available life-jackets. Don't be ashamed of needing help. Just thank God that it's available. Someday, you'll be stronger and you will be a help to someone else. But now it's your turn to let others help you! That's okay. It's normal. You are normal. We all hurt sometimes and we all need help sometimes. It's what makes us human!)
When I go through my dark times, I don’t like to let people know. I don’t want to bring them down, to burden them with my sadness. And I don’t want them to feel like they have to do anything about it, to show me special attention or help cheer me up. So I plaster on a nice, happy, encourage-others smile, even when my heart aches and breaks.
But for some reason, when this friend asked us if we thought depression was a sin, I felt compelled to finally say out loud, “I struggle with depression often, and it takes a lot to work through it every day. Joy doesn’t come easily to me. I have to scrape through dried-up, parched ground with my bare hands to find every little bit of joy that I can find and then I have to cling to it for dear life.”
When I went home that night, I thought, Oh no! Did I just share that out-loud. What are they going to think of me? I have just ruined any chance at real friendships with them because they are going to see me as faulty and a risk. They are going to view me differently now. And I have worked so hard to seem godly, wise, and pulled-together. Why did I share that out loud?
I guess I shared with them honestly because I know that when someone calls something a “sin,” it’s easy to fall in line. It’s easy to agree because no one wants to look like they don’t recognize sin, like they are somehow disagreeing and calling something “not sin” that others clearly call “sin.” Like Job’s friends, it’s easy to spout off and sound so godly and wise about things we haven’t struggle through before, to pass judgment on how good other Christians are doing in their struggles when we haven’t been in their shoes, especially when we are talking about vague ideas that don’t have a face attached to them.
But I really believe this issue is more complex than that. And I guess I wanted to swim upstream, to put a person’s face on “depression,” to cause them to stop and think before jumping on board and making blanket-statements like “depression is sin.” This is not a clear-cut issue, nor does the Bible ever say “depression and extreme sadness are sins.” That’s why I spoke up. (And for the record, there are a lot of areas where it is clear in the Bible whether it is sin or not. But this is not one of those areas!)
One thing I noticed after I shared my struggle with them was that things didn’t seem so dark anymore. I think that trying to hide our feelings and polish ourselves up only gives these hidden feelings more power. Because it takes energy to hold them down and to cover them up and to keep smiling when we want to cry. And this energy is exhausting and only makes us feel worse. But saying it out loud sets us free to a degree. It makes it seem less threatening, less controlling. And maybe that’s it . . . maybe opening up about it is a way of taking control of it instead of letting it have control of you.
9. Lighten up about whatever you can lighten up about. Find things to laugh about. Not everything is that dark every day unless you let it be that way. Find the bright spots, the things that make you smile. I have a little, solar-powered, dancing frog. And he dances perfectly to George Ezra’s “Budapest.” Sometimes, I will put on that song just so I can watch the frog dance to it. It makes me smile every time because he looks so happy, just dancing away there to some fun music. And I love to watch the birds at my bird-feeders or get down close to my flowers and watch a bee fly among them, looking for pollen. It’s soothing to my soul. When the problems seem so big and overwhelming, narrow your focus down to one simple thing. Enjoy one tiny moment! Marvel at one tiny wonder! There is still beauty and goodness and delight in the itty-bitty and mundane things that we overlook every day!
10. Also, it may be wise to consider why you are depressed. Think about what depresses you or if there are any negative self-thoughts behind your depression, such as “I am worthless.” If you notice a pattern or a trigger, pray over it and ask God to help you figure out when these thoughts or feelings first started.
Oftentimes, depression is a sign that there is something inside of you that needs to be addressed or dealt with or made right again. Did some wound in your childhood cause you to feel like you are unlovable and lead to your depression? Sometimes, simply identifying when these feelings and thoughts started helps you to see more clearly and to replace the lies with God’s truth. Did some sin, bitterness, or unforgiving attitude get you off-track with God, leading to depression? Don’t just wallow; make it right. If God reveals a way for you to make it right, do it. Or else you are responsible for lingering in depression and sin.
Are you depressed because you are not getting all the toys you want, because others have more, because God isn’t moving as fast as you’d like Him to, because He said “no” to a prayer request and you are unable to accept it, or because you are not getting the recognition or attention or success you crave? In cases like these, your own expectations about life and what you “deserve” are helping cause your depression. And you need to own up to that and bring it before God.
But maybe it’s that you did nothing to cause your depression. Maybe you had a terrible childhood. Or you try and try to make friends but no one responds. Or you have a chronic health condition or have experienced great loss or have been greatly taken advantage of. And your view of yourself and your faith in people has been shattered, and you are not even sure you can trust God anymore or that He cares. You didn’t do anything to cause the pain, but you are stuck in it. In these cases, you need to draw near to God and immerse yourself in Him and His truth. Because you cannot be expected to dig yourself out of this kind of pain on your own. It is far too great of a burden for you to carry alone and you need to fall on God. And if it’s possible, on other Christians.
And you need to be careful where your thoughts go. Your feelings will follow your thoughts, which is why it is so important to set your mind of godly things and godly truths and to stop unhealthy thoughts before they take root. It is one thing to be honest with God about your pain; it is another thing to nurse your pain and negative thoughts until they become so big that they consume you. Confess them to God immediately and ask Him to replace them with godly thinking.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2)
I’m sure there are more ways we can work through depression. But these are just some of the things I have to do regularly as I wrestle with depression. It is a battle. And I have to be active in it. In fact, the spiritual life is a battle, no matter what your struggle is. Are you in it? Or are you sitting on the sidelines, trying to comfortably live a happy little life with little regard for the spiritual battle that is raging all around you?
Don’t let anyone tell you that “depression is a sin.” That is a blanket statement that isn’t always accurate and that doesn’t help anyway. (However, it is sin if sin has led to your depression, if you sin while depressed, and if you have turned from God and embraced your feelings or Satan’s lies instead.) Some of us will always struggle with depression and sadness and heartache, with pain that we didn’t cause but that we have to deal with. But that doesn’t mean you are sinning. It means you are human and you hurt. And God knows this! It’s not a surprise to Him that we are human!
Settling into depression involves turning away from God and the help He offers, but struggling with depression as a Christian means turning toward Him, running to Him with your hurts, asking His help, waiting before Him in humility, engaging in the spiritual battle that is all around us, getting to know Him as He really is, and finding joy in Him instead of in what this life offers. And you can hardly call that “sin”!
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:17-18)
“Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him, . . .” (Job 13:15)
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
[And if you know someone who is depressed, may I offer some advice?
Don’t pass judgment on them. You are not in their shoes. Don’t tell them that they’re sinning or that they’re being a “bad Christian” or that their faith is weak or that they should just stop it (and this goes for those who struggle with anxiety, too). If they feel the need to get professional help or medication, don’t discourage them. Don’t tell them it’s a sin. Don’t add to their pain or make them feel worse - unless you are trying to kill their soul more or to make them commit suicide.
If what you want to say is going to make them feel worse (or if you’re just trying to show off how smart you are or to make yourself look more godly and “faithful,” like a “better Christian”), then just keep your mouth shut. They don’t need that kind of smug, heartless help. The kind that wants to correct and teach, but doesn’t want to come alongside them in their pain. (Sorry if this is a little firm, but I have heard of far too many Christians who say the wrong things in a judgmental, condescending spirit, and it’s making my blood boil!)
In fact, oftentimes just listening is the best thing you can do. Be there for them in their pain. Make them feel heard, important, valued. Let them know that it’s okay to be human and to hurt and to need help. Tell them a little of your struggles so that they don’t feel so alone (but only in a real, vulnerable, humble way, not in an “I’ll show you how well I handle the trials” way).
Give them flowers instead of lectures. Share Bible verses or encouraging songs with them. Help out in practical ways, if you see a need. Make them a dinner and bring it over. Drive them somewhere if they need it. Shovel their driveway or rake their yard. Be Jesus’ loving arms reaching out to them in compassion. Pray and ask God how you can help.
Whatever you do, don’t share their struggles with others. Be a safe place for them to be open and real. Pray for them. And offer to pray for them while you are with them. I know this can be uncomfortable, but a friend did this for me once when I couldn’t pray for myself. And I’m sure it was scary for her, but I found such encouragement and peace in her words, in her faith, when my own was so fragile and broken.
Listen way more than you talk. Hug them. And when you do offer guidance, do it gently, with encouragement and a desire to be there for them. Don’t offer “simplistic, judgmental” tips or “pat answers” - as though there is a “one size fits all” answer that is so clear to you but they just can’t see it. Don’t talk down to them or make them feel stupid. Most likely, they have tried many ways – more than you’ll ever know - to get through the pain, over a long stretch of time … and they don’t need someone to come in and act like they are so much smarter and can fix it easily.
Remember, we are all human and we all hurt. And we will all take our turns needing help and giving help. Imagine how you want someone to help you in your darkest moments. And do that for the hurting person. Someday, it will be your turn. So be compassionate, gentle, and supportive. And keep them in prayer. At the heart of it, depression is a spiritual battle, as all earthly battles really are. Cover them in prayer. Intercede for them, until they have the strength to stand again. And let them know you love them and are there for them!]