This series aims to promote awareness of the nature and reality of depression, encourage those who are battling depression, and equip those who want to help someone who is struggling. This post is part 1 in the series. Stay tuned for a new post each week, and find the rest of the series here.
Depression is one of the most pervasive mental illnesses of our time. Whether you are struggling with depression yourself or know someone who is, depression has likely impacted your life in some form.
Why, then, do most Christians not talk about depression? Why are those struggling with depression who are in communities of faith relegated to whispered conversations in the church lobby? Why do those surrounded by their spiritual family feel compelled to take the discussion off site to the safety of a coffee shop or a friend’s apartment?
Or when we do say something, it’s along the lines of such inane comments as “Cheer up,” “Just make up your mind to be happy,” “How can you be sad when Jesus loves you?” or (my personal favorite) “Well, bless your heart.” Statements such as these are defense mechanisms that stop the conversation before it begins. They say more about the speaker’s discomfort, unwillingness, or inability to enter into the pain and reality of the situation.
Lord, forgive us for these insensitive, shallow responses to the cries for help of those who are hurting.
Why do God’s people often respond this way? I have a theory: Many Christians have a skewed view of depression as a character flaw, a sign of emotional weakness, a lack of faith, or a sin. From this perspective, if you just pray more, read the Bible more, and listen to more Christian radio, you should be fine. These misperceptions lead to damaging and destructive responses. Bad theology leads to bad practice. We need an open, honest discussion about depression. This is why I am writing—and I suspect it is why you are reading.
Let’s have this conversation.
What are some of the major hallmarks of depression? Four primary aspects come to mind for me: sadness, loneliness, lack of purpose, and negative self-image. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I believe these four items represent the most common manifestations of depression. Let’s explore each of these.
For those who are depressed, an abiding sadness follows them wherever they go. A dark cloud hovers over every activity and conversation. When you are depressed, you feel that you can go off by yourself and cry for no apparent reason. It is difficult to describe, but you just feel off. You don’t feel fully present with the people and events around you. You feel detached from the moment—like you are watching your life unfold through a camera. This is an emotionally disorienting way to live.
While everyone around you seems to be having a Psalm 118 day (“This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it!”), you are in the middle of a long string of Psalm 88 days (“Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide from me?”). You find yourself envious and even resentful of the happiness of others. You wonder why you can’t just get over it and conjure up a little joy.
Do we have a theology of sadness?
At one of his lowest moments, Jeremiah said:
“Let there be a curse on the day I was born;
let no one celebrate the day my mother gave birth to me.
Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb,
that her body had been my grave!
Why was I ever born?
My entire life has been filled
with trouble, sorrow, and shame.”
(Jer 20:14, 17-18)
I’m not suggesting that this passage should become a weekly call to worship, but I suspect that many of us have an inadequate theological framework for passages like this. We aren’t comfortable with this language. We’d prefer to sing about God’s love or listen to an uplifting sermon. We’d rather not peer into the abyss and deal with the implications of Jeremiah’s words.
However, to avoid or suppress a theology of sadness is to miss out on a season of potential growth. We must embrace the sadness and see what gifts might be hidden there. I realize this sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ll come back to this idea in a later post. For now, I’m naming and exploring sadness as one of the hallmarks of depression.
In the next post, I will explore loneliness and lack of purpose as common symptoms of depression.
This material is taken from my book Rethinking Depression (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016).