I am not an expert in psychiatry or psychology – not even close. But I have lived with someone who suffered deeply from psychiatric issues. My dad was diagnosed as a “bi-polar, manic-depressive, paranoid schizophrenic.” The last 30-plus years of his life were marked by his mental illness. He lost his family, his ministry, and many of his friends. I am certainly not a professional in the mental health field, but I have a deep personal interest in this subject.
I narrow the focus of this article to the issue of depression. What is its cause? I approach this question from the perspective of one hurt by its devastating effects on the family as well as one who is firmly committed to the promises of God’s word. I have walked a long, personal road trying to discern the answer to the question of the cause of depression. It is exceedingly personal to me. After all, am I destined to be like my dad if my chemical makeup is deficient? Conversely, does God’s word promise me that by walking in the Spirit I won’t suffer under the blanket of depression? After all, the fruit of the Spirit is joy, among other things, right? It is my contention that there are at least three categories of depression. But first, some points of clarification are in order and are as follows:
- My interests are personal, pastoral, and Scriptural.
- My illustrations are anecdotal – not tested in a professional, therapeutic setting.
- My journey on this issue has been motivated by my personal need to be assured that it is not inevitable that I become like my dad.
- I wish to offend NO ONE who suffers from the smothering effects of depression.
- My perspective may be wrong on one or more points related to this subject.
I will state each category of depression below, offer a description and then suggest options for treatment.
Category 1: Clinical Depression – chronic experience of depression. Treatments may include medicine as well as therapeutic counseling.
A friend of mine, Carisa Wilsie, PhD., a professional in the field of psychology, offers the following short description of clinical depression:
“Clinical depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger or frustration interfere with everyday life for weeks or longer. The exact cause of clinical depression is not known, but many researchers believe it is caused by chemical changes in the brain.”
All creation has been deeply affected by the fall. Humans suffer physically (illness, disease and death) as well as spiritually. But that’s not all. We are also susceptible to illness emotionally. Modern advancements in medicine allow us to medically treat all sorts of physical illnesses and diseases that in the past would not have been treated appropriately. Should we not take advantage of advancements in treating clinical depression when the case warrants it? One more note on this category – I personally believe that one may be predisposed to certain maladies of the body or mind (emotions), perhaps even actions, but not necessarily have to experience them. Could it be that multiple factors contribute to triggering the chemical changes in a person resulting in clinical depression? This one reality, in my understanding, provides the open door on this issue for my understanding of the promises of God’s word to enter in. In other words, yes, I may be predisposed to clinical depression. I may even have an environment with stresses that might typically trigger this malady in me; however, could it equally be true that based on how I respond to these stresses is a determining factor, or at least aids in NOT actually getting clinically depressed. What if I continue to spiritually battle the negativity and stresses pressed upon my life with the truth of God’s Promises? Could it be that a laser focus on passages such as Isaiah 26:3-4, 2 Timothy 1:7, and Philippians 4:4-9 might actually beat back the onset of clinical depression? I think so – at least for me.
Category 2: Idolatrous Depression – something we idolize is being threatened or removed from our lives leaving us with a deep feeling of depression, treated with repentance and realignment of priorities and passions.
My pastor, Dr. Rick Thompson, recently said, “We are constantly putting things at the center of our hearts that are not God … Anything that we put at the center of our hearts that is not God will condemn us.” For example, if we have the idol of vocational success, then if that success does not happen as we hoped it would, then we are depressed. I am reminded of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about what it took to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16). He had put the idol of possessions and wealth at the center of his value system so that when Jesus told him to go sell all he had and give it to others the young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (v.22). Notice how when the removal of his idol was threatened, he was deeply and emotionally affected. We might even say that he walked away depressed, if that is not too much of a stretch.
We could use any myriad of examples here (idols of our children, serenity, ease, pleasures, etc. – See http://vimeo.com/70732978 for fuller explanation – starting at the 14 minute mark).
I certainly have experienced this type of depression. Time and again, I have had things that I have elevated as a priority over my valuing of God. It seems to happen so easily and many times imperceptibly – until what I want doesn’t happen, and I find myself depressed. Upon evaluation, I realize that I have actually looked to something or someone for fulfillment instead of looking to the Lover of my soul, the Lord Jesus. Instead, I need to change my focus to line up with Scripture.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25, ESV).
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7, ESV).
Category 3: Reactive Depression – a depression that is a reaction to life’s challenges or pressures treated with the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the word of God, treated through the encouragement of the saints and prayer, treated by a deep meditation on the person and work of Christ and the reality that there is a better day coming (Revelation 21:1-5), treated through therapeutic counseling.
To quote Carisa again, “The reaction to pressures we label diagnostically as adjustment disorder, a much less serious diagnosis where mood is temporary due to a life circumstance.”
I like to think of this as an entering into the universal groaning of the world (Romans 8:20-23) due to death of a loved one, personal pain and suffering, opposition from wicked people, pressures of ministry and life, etc. Biblical examples of this might be seen in the following passages:
- 1 Kings 19:1-4 – Elijah was depressed after the drama on Mt. Carmel and subsequent threats on his life.
- Job 6:8-9 & 7:1-11 – Job suffered greatly and was in deep distress, yet Scripture tells us that in all this he did not sin.
- Lamentations 1:16 – Jeremiah (?) writing soon after the destruction of Jerusalem.
- Mark 14:32-36 – Jesus in the Garden on the eve of His crucifixion.
- 2 Corinthians 1:8 & 2 Corinthians 11:28 – Paul describing his experiences as an evangelist and servant of Christ.
I have experienced this type of temporary depression – a kind that comes and goes periodically due to the pressures and stresses of life. When my dad was still alive, there were times that I would be depressed simply dealing with the verbal abuse and ongoing challenges he brought into my life. When I was the sole individual (in concert with my wife) making end-of-life decisions for my dad, coordinating the funeral, co-preaching the funeral and singing…I suffered bouts of depression. I was not clinically depressed, nor was I depressed because an idol was being removed from my life; rather, I was groaning inwardly because of the immediate expressions of brokenness that were being perpetrated upon me. I have felt depression after ministering to others who are deeply grieving the loss of a child or a spouse. The weight of the sorrows of others taps into the deep wounds of my own history, and I grieve and sometimes experience a short time of depression. Often on Mondays, I experience the “pastoral Monday blues.” This is more common than one might imagine among those who are serving Christ’s church. All these experiences of mine – these bouts of depression – are temporary. My only saving graces are the reminders of God’s promises, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the re-orientation of my focus onto Jesus, and the encouragement of the saints. Oh, and sometimes getting out and enjoying nature along with my family helps.
Conclusion: So, are you in sin if you are depressed? Perhaps – perhaps not. Is it inevitable that someone will suffer from clinical depression due to the genetic makeup of the individual? Not so sure. All I know is, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26, ESV).