We encounter depression in many places in our lives. Its sufferers are found in our workplaces, our schools, our churches, and perhaps in our households.
As Christians, we know the love of God and the hope of salvation in Jesus. So do we really need to address depression? After all, if Jesus has overcome the world, shouldn’t we be immune to depression?
Depression can and does affect Christians. While our spirits are renewed in Jesus, and he has begun his transforming work within our lives, we are all a work-in-progress. Like anything else that afflicts people in this life, depression doesn’t completely disappear as a result of knowing Jesus.
Sadly, Christians are often taught to believe that depression should simply go away through prayer, through being saved. This leaves many Christians trapped in isolation from a community that misunderstands them and bearing the spiritual burden of trying to fix depression on their own.
In this article, we will challenge myths that Christians are often taught about depression, so that those who are suffering from depression may find truth, hope, and encouragement.
Myth 1: Depression Doesn’t Exist
While most churches and denominational traditions affirm that depression and other mental illnesses are indeed a part of our reality, the view that depression simply doesn’t exist is prevalent enough in today’s church that it deserves a mention. The idea that depression is, itself, a myth is a foundation for several other myths that we further discuss below.
Among church circles where this view is common, it is seldom stated in such explicit terms. Instead, the view that depression doesn’t exist is often cloaked in language that dismisses depression as a strictly spiritual matter. The problem with this myth is twofold:
First, it fails to acknowledge a Biblical understanding of what it means for humans to be created in the image of our triune God. We are uniquely made with a physical body (our cells, along with the chemicals and electrical impulses that move among them), a soul (our intellect, emotions, and will), and a spirit (the immaterial and eternal part of our being). These three aspects of our being coexist interactively.
Things that affect our spirits presently can and do impact our souls, and even our bodies. But to dismiss all physical causes of affliction is to dip our toes into the heretical waters of Gnosticism. Man’s fall and the consequence of sin affect all aspects of our being, so imperfection, disease, and decay can and do manifest in the body, the soul, and the spirit.
Second, dismissing the existence of depression has the effect of isolating individuals from the fellowship of believers and communion with God. This result may be (and often is) entirely inadvertent on the part of well-meaning Christians, but it is the only logical destination for such a train of thought. By dismissing depression outright, the church declares to the depressed that the answer to their affliction is found elsewhere.
Churches that approach depression as a spiritual matter often branch into one or more of the ideas discussed below in myths two through seven, which each have their own shortcomings when measured against the truth of scripture.
Myth 2: Christian Don’t Get Depressed
This myth is the mental health version of the ‘prosperity gospel.’ The ‘prosperity gospel’ is the false teaching that suggests that God blesses all believers with material fortune, good health, and similar temporal benefits according to the measure of the believer’s faith.
It is a deeply flawed, transactional presentation of the gospel.
The truth is far more complex, and far less focused on the trappings of this life. While we are made spiritually alive at the moment of our salvation, we are made alive as spiritual infants who need to grow and mature.
But we mature into God’s purpose for us, which is to make us His kingdom people, and not just to give us our best life now. Also, this journey takes place in a broken world where we experience the constant tension between our fallen nature and the presence of Christ within us.
In Romans 7, Paul laments this inner struggle, wrestling with doing what he shouldn’t, and failing to do what he should. He continues this spiral of thought until he cries out ‘who will rescue me?’ and recognizes that in Jesus he has deliverance (Romans 7:15-25). But this is not deliverance from the struggle, it is deliverance despite the struggle. To understand the difference, let’s consider the next myth.
Myth 3: Depression is a Sign of Weak Faith
Among believers who dismiss depression as a strictly spiritual phenomenon, this is perhaps the most common expression. Though related to the previous myth, this one at least allows for some degree of gradient based on the sufferer’s spiritual maturity.
In other words, this myth suggests that when we mature as believers, we will “grow out of” depression (or anxiety, compulsions, and other mental diseases).
The trouble with this view is that emotions are not an accurate gauge of our faith.
Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’ Since faith, by definition, is rooted in what we cannot see or feel based on our senses and experiences, it cannot be measured by those same feelings and experiences.
But when we view depression as a lack of faith, it leads us down the works-based road of trying to fix our faith by fixing our feelings (or vice versa). So we try to believe harder (whatever that looks like) in order to gain some peace and thus feel more faithful. Of course, this is all just verbal gymnastics, since the Biblical truth is that faith and depression can coexist.
In Philippians 3, Paul recognizes that he has not taken hold of perfection, yet he continues to press on (3:12-14). And Peter writes that we may rejoice in our faith, even though we suffer grief and trials. He even adds that the trials strengthen our faith, even though we have not seen Jesus. (1 Peter 1:5-8)
Myth 4: Prayer is All You Need
To be clear, prayer is a powerful tool and a right response to afflictions of all kinds. So it is right that when we face depression that we seek God’s counsel in prayer, and that we ask other believers to pray on our behalf.
But this is not the entirety of our response, as God often answers our prayers through His Word, the community of believers, or a call to action.
Nehemiah was distraught over Jerusalem laying in ruin. With weeping and mourning, he prayed (Nehemiah 1:4-10). And his prayer led to action, as he promptly petitioned the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to lead the rebuilding (Nehemiah 2:4-6).
Jesus instructs us to pray with watchfulness (Matthew 26:41, Luke 21:36), and Paul echoes this instruction (Colossians 4:2). Prayer does not isolate us from our worldly issues, but it gives us the peace to persevere, and the wisdom to take actions over the things that are within our power to affect. And Proverbs 19:20 encourages us to seek wise counsel, as God sometimes answers our prayers through other believers, which we discuss further as we challenge the next myth.
Myth 5: Christians Shouldn’t Seek Professional Help for Depression
Just as prayer is not a sufficient solution without active participation and follow-through, a loving faith community is not sufficient to treat depression and other mental illnesses. But like prayer, our family of faith is a good place to start, as they are a necessary and God-given part of our support and healing. So we should not withdraw from the prayer and care that they provide.
But the community may not have the appropriate training in the mental or physiological aspects of depression and how to treat them. So, just as we do with bodily illnesses, at times we need to seek out specialized help for our mental illnesses.
We should note, however, that a degree of discernment is necessary here. The risks of an incorrect treatment regimen from an improperly trained physician or counselor are real. And the spiritual risks of seeking treatment from a non-believing practitioner are just as real. Remember, we are body, soul, and spirit, and any treatment we seek must properly consider all aspects of our person.
Most of the myths that we’ve discussed highlight the danger of turning our attention exclusively to spiritual matters while ignoring the physical. And in part, some of that thinking is a pushback against a secular worldview that would dismiss the spiritual and focus only on our physical and mental needs.
Both perspectives are equally flawed, so when seeking treatment, seek a provider with a proper grounding in faith and medicine.
Myth 6: Depression is a Sign of Unconfessed Sin
Another myth that treats depression as a strictly spiritual phenomenon is the belief that all depression is a consequence of sin. Surely, sin is the central issue of Paul’s lament in Romans 7.
Likewise, in Psalm 38 David faces the anguish of his sin, which leads to confession and repentance as he seeks God’s deliverance. But the Godly sorrow that leads to conviction is markedly different from the unshakable guilt that often accompanies depression.
Paul addresses this distinction in 2 Corinthians 7, where he celebrates the sorrow that leads to repentance and joy but distinguishes it from the ‘worldly sorrow that brings death’ (v 10). Depression comes in many forms, but often includes a sense of inadequacy, judgment, or condemnation. Yet, for those of us who are in Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
Similarly, Job’s friends pleaded in vain for him to confess and be released from his suffering. And as Christians, we might have well-meaning but ill-informed voices around us offering similar suggestions. Guilt that is fueled by the feelings of others (and not by a revelation of the Holy Spirit and God’s Word), is generally the worldly variety.
In some cases, the enemy may even be using the words and feelings of those closest to us to fabricate guilt and attack us. And speaking of our enemy, let’s explore our next myth.
Myth 7: Depression is a Sign of Demon-Possession
This is another flawed line of thinking that results from pushing back against a secular worldview. Since the Age of Enlightenment began dominating Western thought in the 17th century, a number of scholars have reinterpreted Biblical accounts of demon possession as medical or psychological phenomena. And while it is a theological and exegetical mistake to dismiss demons outright, as such scholars do, we are equally flawed in our thinking when we give demons more credit than we should.
So this myth leads us right back to the works-based thinking that we addressed in myth three. If we (the church) treat people with depression as possessed instead of addressing their medical needs, what happens when we fail? We have resigned this person to being ‘stuck’ with the demon, which often leads to further isolation from the community. This not only ignores the sufferer’s medical needs but cuts him or her off from vital spiritual nourishment as well.
Myth 8: God Can’t Use Me if I’m Depressed
Biblically speaking, if you are depressed, you’re probably in good company. Of course, even the best-trained practitioners would hesitate to diagnose ancient persons based on their writings (and this author is not qualified to diagnose any person, past or present). Nevertheless, for those dealing with depression, there are some very relatable people in the Bible. We’ve already mentioned two of them.
So far, we’ve explored Paul’s spiraling struggle in Romans 7, and his longing for perfection in Philippians 3. And to be sure, Paul was no stranger to physical suffering. He had been threatened, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and flogged. Yet in these verses, Paul reveals the struggles within his heart and mind. But perhaps the best glimpse into Paul’s state of mind is found in 2 Corinthians 12.
In this passage, Paul writes about a man (who we presume to be Paul himself) experiencing an inexpressibly wonderful vision of paradise. Yet, he adds, that joy was tempered by what he calls a ‘thorn in his flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment him.’ Despite his pleadings, God allowed this torment to remain, so that God’s strength may be revealed in Paul’s weakness.
To some, this may sound a bit callous, but this is the same Paul who describes God’s peace as passing understanding. When we are focused on God’s kingdom work, our suffering may not be removed, but God’s grace works despite our pain and within our suffering to produce peace and joy. And when our lives proclaim this joy, even from within our trials, God’s glory shines through us.
David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Yet at times he struggled to feel near to God. Of course, some of his writings are plainly associated with the circumstances in David’s life.
His sin with Bathsheba and the resulting loss of his son are the backdrop against which his confession in Psalm 51 is written. And the troubled cry to God found in Psalm 142 is a product of David’s flight from Saul’s threat against his life.
But other writings are more elusive. In Psalm 42, David says three times that his soul is downcast. We can’t tell why, and David himself seems not to understand his state of mind, either. Yet even as he thirsts for God, and endures mocking, he places his hope in God and gives Him praise. The progression of this psalm is not one of problem and answer, but of an answer persisting within and among the ongoing problem.
And David opens Psalm 22 with the words “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”, followed by a progression of mockery, a torn body, withered strength, and pierced hands and feet.
We are right to recognize this psalm as a prophetic foretelling of Jesus’ crucifixion. But still, these are words that the Holy Spirit inspired in the midst of, and rising up from, whatever pain and anguish David was suffering at the time.
Depression is real. And it is just as real for Christians as it is for the rest of the world. As Christians, we must recognize depression and support one another in dealing with it. First through compassion and prayer. But also, when appropriate, through professional treatment. Doing so does not diminish our faith, but in many ways furthers our mission to be conduits of God’s restorative work in this world.