How Can Christians Be Depressed?
In the Bible there are examples of people being discouraged—Elijah, Job, David. How can Christians be chronically depressed? Is there a Biblical explanation for this?
Depression has a long history of being misunderstood, both by the larger culture and, unfortunately, by the church. For many of us, shame and stigma can cause us to keep our struggles with mental health issues hidden from our friends, our church communities, and even from God himself. This week, Vince and Jo discuss depression and anxiety in the context of the brokenness of the world, offering some helpful ways to think about the examples of discouragement and weeping that abound in the Biblical account, and pointing to the God who is compassionate enough to sit with us in our lowest moments, and who is working to wipe away every tear as He makes all things new.
Question Asked in This Episode: “In the Bible there are examples of people being discouraged—Elijah, Job, David. Would you say that they were depressed? To summarize, my question is: How can Christians be chronically depressed? Is there a Biblical explanation for this?”
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*As an evangelism ministry undergirded by apologetics, the scope and purpose of our ministry is to evangelize and to help train Christians in their witness with credible reasons for the hope they have in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we as a ministry are not licensed or equipped to provide professional counsel. If you need someone to talk with about your situation, the ministry of Focus on the Family has people available that you could talk with. They can be reached by phone at 1-800-A-FAMILY (1-800-232-6459). You may also find resources available at www.focusonthefamily.com. In addition, we can share two websites of networks of Christian counselors. Through them you may also be able to find a counselor in your local area: http://www.caps.net/ and http://www.aacc.net/
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale, I am your host, Michael Davis. Depression has a long history of being misunderstood both by the larger culture and unfortunately, the church. We have no issue saying that the aches in our knees that plague us in the morning or the cancer that ravages our loved ones are effects of the fall. But if you really make the connection between our fallen physical forms and the brain, if we are new creatures in Christ, how is it possible that our minds still deal with mental illnesses like depression? Shouldn't a born again soul be able to resist the feelings of being down and out? But before we get started, Vince, can you tell our listeners a little bit about the RZIM Academy and why they should consider registering for it at rzimacademy.org.
Vince Vitale: This is a program that I recommend to as many people as possible. People have taken the core module from 135 different countries. I mean, that's an incredible statistic. And when you sign up for the core module, it's completely online, but it gets you out your front door and talking with real people as well. It's highly practical. In addition to the knowledge that you'll be learning, it takes 12 weeks, about an hour to two each week, and you're really going to come away with a strong foundation in 12 major areas of apologetics, and more than that with the confidence to be talking with your friends and your colleagues as well.
Michael Davis: Excellent. So let's get to our question of the week, this is from Elaine, and Elaine, if I butchered your name, I'm sorry, but I'm assuming it's Elaine. “In the Bible, there are examples of people being discouraged, Elijah, Job, David, would you say that they were depressed? To summarize, my question is, how can Christians be chronically depressed? Is there a biblical explanation for this?”
Jo Vitale: Well, Elaine, thank you so much for asking this question today because I think it's one that a lot of people themselves will be struggling with as well. They say that about one in six people will deal with some form of depression in their lifetime, and so if that's something that you are struggling with today as you're listening, please know that you're not alone. We also want to say that none of us on this show today are professional counselors. We are going to be speaking to this from the perspective of looking at a biblical reflections and from some of our own experience, but we would encourage you, if this is an area you're struggling with, please do consider going and speaking to a trained counselor to get more help with this.
Jo Vitale: I just want to say there's absolutely no shame in doing that. I think sometimes people feel like to do that is to admit some kind of weakness, that there's something wrong with that. I have so many friends who've struggled with anxiety, depression, suicide, and have seen a professional counselor and it's made a profound difference in their lives. So we would encourage you to explore that avenue as well.
Vince Vitale: And right at the outset, I just want to encourage you, if you are dealing with some dark emotions, everyone does at one time or another and you're in very good company. I mean, my mind goes first to the person of Jesus and you think about the way that Isaiah speaks about the Messiah to come as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Then you think about Jesus at one point being so filled with anguish that he literally sweat drops of blood. So if you're feeling emotions that make that conceivable, you're in really good company and you're not in any way alone.
Vince Vitale: That can be the case even if you're a Christian. I know Jo and I, we had a really good friend when we were studying in Oxford and she at one point was suicidal. She had one of the deepest faiths of anyone we ever knew, and in fact, her desire to end her life even at that point, came in part out of the fact that she did believe in Jesus and she's so longed to be with him. And she was in such anguish about the brokenness of this world and the way that she was experiencing that is actually an incredible circumstance.
Vince Vitale: I may have shared this before, but one of the most direct promptings I ever just sensed from God, I just really felt I needed to call her. And when I called her, she actually had a knife to her wrist at that point and the phone was what jarred her out of where she was and were able to go and be with her and talk her through that. But you see it in the lives of Christians. You even see in the life of Jesus that he dealt with some significant emotions of anguish and grief as well.
Jo Vitale: So one of the things I'm actually very grateful for today is that I feel like even if you go back 10 years, this was an area that people just didn't talk about. I think there was a sense of social shame, particularly in the church, no one would speak about a mental health struggles and depression. There was a sense in which you were supposed to just get over it. If you're in England they would say, stiff upper lip or whatever, but you're just supposed to push through as if to have faith meant that you really shouldn't experience these things, that there was something sinful about it or something wrong with you. So I'm actually really glad that today it's a topic people are talking about more and more and because when you take the shame away, it frees people to have those conversations. And the more you're able to talk about it, actually the better it will be dealt with. And hopefully that cattails the number of suicides because people aren't wrestling with this on their own.
Vince Vitale: I think it's interesting how that people won't ostracize someone for going to the doctor for a broken leg or for a disease, but for some weird reason, any type of illness of the mind and the brain that can be, especially in the church, can be seen as that is wrong and sinful.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. That's such a good point, Michael, because when we're talking about depression, I think one of the reasons people get sort of confused about it is because it's not just caused by one thing. People think, well, you know, maybe it's just emotional or maybe it's just a response to a bad situation, but there can be so many contributing factors to depression. That's why it can be hard to deal with because there are so many different elements to it and you're trying to sort of pull them apart. But often these things have come together. So for some people it might be situational that you've been through some terrible life experiences, which would naturally lead to depression. For other people. It could be something emotional. For others it could be a spiritual and for others it can be biological.
Jo Vitale: When we're talking about depression, we're actually talking about a chemical imbalance in the brain. And so, in that sense, medicine is an appropriate way to deal with it. But the point about this is whether it's biological or spiritual, or emotional or situational, all of those different areas of our lives, every single one of those are subject to the full, every single one of those is going to be affected by the fact that we're in a broken world. So why think your body from your neck down could be broken in some way but that you couldn't have a chemical imbalance in your brain or so I just think we tend to think, well, somehow...I think that we think that joy Christian joy must mean that we don't experience depression.
Jo Vitale: But I actually think that in some ways, we're actually talking about different things here. And so Elaine you asked what's a biblical explanation for this? I think we just said it, but a biblical explanation for depression is the fact that there was a full, and we're all broken so far from depression being something we should be shocked at the Christians experience. I actually think it's exactly what we should expect to experience every one of us in the world that we Currently living in.
Vince Vitale: And the Bible tells us a bit more about the root of depression in Proverbs 12 where it says, “anxiety in the heart of man causes depression.” But a good word makes it glad. So if we're going to understand depression, we need to understand something about anxiety as well and that's a really big issue. More than half of all American college students report significant anxiety, about 30% of adults will have some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Vince Vitale: So it's a really significant issue and when you do dig into a professional understanding of anxiety disorders, they're often defined as chronic fear, which is out of proportion with reality and sometimes that's right. The, the closest experience that I have had to this was when I was going into an MRI machine and I had taken many MRIs in my life for sports injuries, but I was going in and the previous time I had been in an MRI machine, I was in a lot of pain and my mind sort of triggered back to that experience of how much pain I was in the previous time and when they slid me into the MRI machine without me doing anything, making any decision or thinking anything, my heart rate just jumped to 200 and all of a sudden I didn't even know if I could stay in. I wasn't actually in any danger.
Vince Vitale: I knew I could push a button, they would come get me. I looked around, I could see light. If I had to I could have just pulled myself right out of there. I wasn't in any pain, I wasn't in any danger but the emotion was such that it was so out of proportion with the reality of the situation that I was in. Cognitive therapy, forms of cognitive therapy often attempt to change patterns of thought, changed patterns of behavior, and sometimes that can help with these fears. And in fact, that's something of what I did. In that instance, I began to pray and then I began to look around and I could see that there was light up above me. I could see that if I needed to, I could just pull myself right out of there and realizing that my fear was out of proportion with reality did help me in that instance.
Vince Vitale: But I think the problems sometimes with our deepest fears is that they're not always so clearly out of proportion with reality. When we start to talk about much deeper fears, fears of suffering, of death, of meaninglessness, of being alone, fears of losing the relationships that we care about most, especially if you're not trusting in God. Those are some very real fears and sometimes our exaggerated fears are actually indirect expressions of those more fundamental fears as well. So it's not so simple. It's not as easy as just saying, "Oh, your fears are out of proportion with reality, so we just need to fix that." Sometimes our fears are based in significant reality, the broken reality that Jo's been talking about.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, and I think example for us to look to here is actually some of the ones that you raised. Elaine when you look to the Bible even and you ask the question, is there a difference between the discouragement that some of these individuals experienced in the old Testament to depression? Are they depressed or are they discouraged? The truth is we're too far removed to know, we can't actually answer that question. There's even a question of what kind of depression might it be? Again, we can't speak to whether it's sort of situational depression or clinical depression, we don't know. But certainly what we do know is that whatever they're experiencing is not just a sort of a bad day or it's not just a little bit of discouragement. I mean, the emotions that we see express from the Psalm is seen from David when he talks about he's sobbing.
Jo Vitale: So downcast, burdens too heavy to carry, the codes of death and tangling. I mean there's a heaviness that when we look at Elijah and he literally after that great showdown with the profits of Baal and then he and lies down and basically wants to die, says, Lord, I've had enough of life take my life. And he seems so incredibly depressed in that moment. We have job who, like Vince is saying, it's not that he's overreacting to fears it out of proportion, but his life is going horribly and terribly wrong and actually that seems kind of the appropriate reaction to what he's been experiencing when he says, wouldn't have been better if I'd died before he came out of the womb. He says he loads his very life. That's not an overreaction to what he's going through.
Jo Vitale: That's just a true statement that you would expect from someone who suffered in that way and then you think of people like the prophet Jeremiah who was known as a weeping prophet because he was so depressed throughout his life and the message that he had to give. But then you look at the situation Israel we're in and what he was actually called to do in his lifetime. You think, no wonder he's depressed. This is a bleak situation. The fact that people may well be dealing with depression in these instances, it's not an overreaction in those cases actually seems like they're seeing very clearly but I do find it encouraging because often I think we talk about depression as if it was just a new phenomenon.
Jo Vitale: But actually you look to the Bible, you look thousands of years back and people have always been wrestling with this. I might not have the same terminology for it. They might not have had the same psychological understanding or ability to do brain imaging and look at what's going on the mind that we have today. But nevertheless this is not a modern experience. This is a deeply human experience.
Vince Vitale: And so encouraging that some of those people are some of the people that God used most significantly as well. I find that deeply encouraging and so I appreciate the fact that Christianity takes the brokenness of the world seriously and doesn't downplay that. And I think what's so distinctive about the Christian response to issues of anxiety and depression is that it says that at the most fundamental level, our problem is not that we overestimate the brokenness of the world, right? It's not that we've just exaggerated that we need to convince ourselves that it's not that bad. Rather, we've underestimated what God can do about it, and if we get a proper perspective on how big God is, then he can engulf even the brokenness of our world. Now to take this a step further, one thing I think is really interesting is it's not only that Christians can experience depression, but sometimes a Christian could be more inclined to experience anxiety, which could lead to depression.
Vince Vitale: Take one type of anxiety disorder, separation disorder. It's anxiety regarding separation from home or from people to whom the individual has a strong emotional attachment. Well, there's two ways that this could be more true of a Christian scripture says a Christian is not home or called foreigners or called exiles. It says that our citizenship is in heaven and we often experience our lives as separate from in one sense the God to whom we've come to believe in and love and serve. On the one hand, we're fully United to God as his children, his spirit lives within us, but on the other hand, we currently see only as a reflection in a mirror. Now we only know in part then we will know fully and we get these glimpses of what the deepest union with God is like. But that's not always the reality of our lived experience every second of every day.
Vince Vitale: So you just take one type of anxiety there. Separation disorder, and it's defined as a separation from home or separation from the person to whom you are most emotionally attached and wow, if you're a Christian, it makes perfect sense why we might feel that anxiety in this broken world where we don't yet have that full communion with God that we long for and we're not home.
Jo Vitale: And in fact even taking that one step further, it's interesting to reflect that for people who don't know God actually...If they're struggling with separation anxiety, there's a sense in which that there's an honesty to that, that perhaps they're not even aware of the fact that existentially if they're separated from the God that they were made for in the most fundamental sense, that it makes perfect sense that they're actually going to struggle with those emotions and other relationships because they're not in relationship with the one that they're made for. So I think sometimes when we're struggling with anxiety, there's a sense in which actually rather than panicking too much or actually seeing the world is clear as it is, I mean, it's interesting to think if people get depressed because they feel like there's no meaning perhaps in life but if you don't have a Christian framework, then actually that is a bit of a depressing state of the world to be in. So I don't think people are overreacting here.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And sometimes you're right, sometimes we almost look down on people as if you're over overreacting. if you could just see things clearly you wouldn't feel that way but actually if you take God out of the picture and you work with naturalistic or atheistic assumptions, maybe people aren't overreacting at all. They're just identifying the true brokenness of the world, which is right at the center of our belief system.
Jo Vitale: Right.
Michael Davis: You know, it's interesting from my unit that we deployed to Iraq, I think we're almost to the point right now where we've lost more guys to suicide than we did during the actual combat.
Vince Vitale: Wow.
Michael Davis: And it's interesting because a lot of the...I don't think any of those guys had any type of faith, but you want to understand what the real world is like. I have...Really understand the brokenness of the world go to war. And it's interesting how people can deal with the fact without any type of like any kind of grounding. I mean they can be...Well to the point where he just is not wanting to live anymore.
Vince Vitale: Wow. One reason why I think God allows us as Christians to experience that at times as well is because we are called to serve and to and to give our lives and to love those around us, including our neighbors and our colleagues and our fellow soldiers. And if it were the case that only those who don't believe in God experienced such things and everyone who believes in Jesus never experienced that, then in what sense could we truly get down into the darkness and the depths and come alongside the people that were called to come alongside.
Vince Vitale: And yet at the same time, I don't think God wants us to get stuck there and sometimes I think we try to go about overcoming depression in the wrong ways. Sometimes we think that if we're feeling depressed, we just need to do things that will make us happier or at least at the advice that we often get. You're feeling down, you're feeling depressed, you just need a good time. You just need to, you know, just go to Vegas, just go and have a certain type of good time, just do things that will be pleasurable, do things that will make you happy and I saw this interesting interview. I haven't read her book, her name is Emily Smith. Haven't read the book if she has a book called “The Power of Meaning.” So I look forward to reading it and then being able to tell whether or not I can recommend it.
Vince Vitale: But I did think she had an interesting point. I saw an interview and she said something along the lines of happiness is not the opposite of being depressed. We think that it is, but actually happiness and sadness are opposites but not happiness and depression. It's possible to be both happy at many times in life and deeply depressed. Someone might even be depressed precisely because they pursued happiness and they found it and they still realize that there was this deeper hole that didn't go away. So a better opposite, a better corollary to depression is actually meaning or purpose and sometimes what we do when we're in a state of depression is that we seek after happiness and even if we get it, we still find that we're depressed. Actually what we need to find is something much deeper and much more fundamental. We need to find meaning and purpose in life and I think that does go back to Proverbs 12 anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.
Jo Vitale: So it begs the question, what is that good word? And Vince spoke earlier about how fear leads to anxiety, which can lead to depression. And one of the verses I think people often talk about is 1 John where it says that perfect love drives out fear. But I think I used to hear that and find that overwhelming. I would always experience that as a pressurizing sort of statement because you then you hear that and you think, Oh well clearly my love just isn't perfect. I just need to do better. I need to strive harder, if anything that will make you feel more anxious but actually someone was explaining to me the other day and I found it so helpful that actually in the Greek here the word perfect isn't intended to indicate like perfection in the sense of never getting anything wrong.
Jo Vitale: It's perfection in the sense of completeness as in all of the pieces have come together and so what does complete love look like? Well, our love is complete when we're in the presence of the one that we're made for. And what I find interesting about scripture is it's talking about suffering at the verses that come out of that. Don't go on to talk about happiness like Vince has said, but they do go on to talk about joy, that weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. You know, the joy of the Lord is my strength, so don't weep. There are all these different verses throughout scripture that talk about, rejoice in your suffering and you read it and you think how? Surely that's going to lead to depression and nothing but depression.
Jo Vitale: But I think what scripture seems to speak of when it talks about joy is the joy that's found in the presence of God it's joy that is found when God is with you. Your love is complete when you encounter God. And I think that's what we see in all these cases when the Bible seems to talk about people being deeply discouraged or depressed or just in dark places is the number one thing that they're encouraged to do is to go to God first and foremost. That is where hope is found. That's where ultimate joy is found. It doesn't mean that, Oh, I'm just going to pray and all these feelings are going to melt away, but it's talking about something much deeper than that. A joy that isn't determined by circumstances but actually sort of defies the circumstances. It's pretty interesting looking at the reaction to Elijah when he lies down and basically says like, Lord, take my life.
Jo Vitale: I didn't want to be here. And it's so practical because God just tells him to basically he has a nap and then God provides cake for him, which is awesome and then he has another nap and only after that physical response God is just giving him physical rest because clearly he biologically needs it. Then he goes to the mountain and then he has the encounter with God and that's when God speaks to him. But it's a great reaction. First it's pragmatic. Maybe you just need to rest. Maybe you just need some time out, but it will say you need to go to God and you need to find hope in him because that's ultimately where our joy is found and that's where I love is made complete. And therefore fear is driven out.
Vince Vitale: There's a mathematical equation here. So, nap, plus cake, plus nap, plus God, equals joy. That's how it works, I think we've got a book there.
Jo Vitale: Cake involved in some way. I'm not sure how much that always applies. I remember being very upset after a relationship ended and one of my friends turned to me and said, “just have some cake.” My emotional response to her in that moment wasn't the most charitable.
Vince Vitale: But you did eat the cake?
Jo Vitale: But I did eat the cake. It helped for about half an hour.
Michael Davis: Well, on that note, we're at a time, Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, I'm not sure exactly where to go from there, but hopefully we've covered some encouraging ground. The brokenness of this world is very real and it impacts everything. The good news from a Christian perspective is that it's temporary and we can shift our thoughts and our focus onto those things that are most important about who we are and those are the things that are secure and that are eternal. A Christian can be depressed and sometimes it could even be harder for a Christian when it comes to depression because you see clearly how far this broken world is from what we were actually intended for. C S Lewis says, “we can't imagine a holiday at the beach when all we have known is playing in the mud.”
Vince Vitale: The flip side of that is that once we have tasted a holiday at the beach, it's that much harder to go back into, try to enjoy the mud and sometimes that's the experience of the Christian, you have tasted what it is to be in that full, perfect communion with God that you are intended for. Then living in this broken world can be a very tough thing. I think the only place we can find the courage to do so is because we have a God who humbled himself and was willing to join us in the mud that we're in at the moment and there was a beautiful story that I heard just recently. One of our students at our emerging apologist program, he's a clinical therapist and he told this story of a young woman who came to see him. They had a first meeting. She said that she had a long history of cutting herself at the end of their first session she said to him, well, there's just one more thing before I can decide if I can trust whether you can work with me or not. And then she rolled up her sleeves and she said, will you touch my scars?
Vince Vitale: And he asked why that was important to her and she said, well, that's the only way I'll really know if you care about me, if you're willing to cross the divide to touch my scars and my wounds. And our friend and student, this clinical therapist said that what she was saying was, will you viscerally descend into the darkness with me? Will you reach out and be identified with my brokenness? Are you willing to reach out and put your being into mine? And through their counseling sessions, they did work together and he had the privilege of sharing with her that there is a person who was willing to put his being into hours, who is willing to be identified with her brokenness, willing to reach out and touch her scars and not only that, but even went further. Jesus went further. Not only was he willing to touch her scars, but he was willing to be scarred for her.
Vince Vitale: And then he invited her to reach out and touch his scars. Jesus, his words to Thomas, put your finger here. See my hands, reach out your hand and put it into my side. And there's just this beautiful story of somebody who had wrestled with depression, who had wrestled with suicide but was able to find hope because there was a God who had come down and wrestled with that with her. And finally, this young woman, she did put her trust in Jesus Christ and after she did, she spoke this beautiful line. She said, "I know now that my scars likely will not disappear, but I have hope that one day they will bear the glory of the one who was scarred for me." If there's anyone who's listening and that story sounds a lot like your own, I hope you'll find that same hope that this young woman found that destiny that you have to one day bear the glory of the one who was scarred for you.
Michael Davis: Vince. Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.
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