As the world mourned the loss of Robin Williams, people were left feeling sad and confused. How could someone who appeared so happy actually be so very depressed? His life seemed charmed and surreal. Sadly, it sits in contrast to the chart-blasting music hit “Happy” that is still getting playtime (if nowhere else but my head). The real truth is that the vast majority of us are happy. Then we are sad. Repeat. Frequency of depression people experience varies greatly and the scale of intensity is likewise broad, but no one is immune. Robin Williams’ death simply reminds us of that farthest end of the depression spectrum. Take it from me, that end of the spectrum is a very dark one. Although, I have experienced major depression, researching the topic has shown me that my experiences were not wasted. I’ve concluded depression is mostly a spiritual matter. I can’t possibly do justice to an entire topic of medicine in a blog, but I’M SURE GOING TO TRY! So please recognize that what you read here today are generalizations, which means there are likely exceptions.
For most people, life seems to be an endless series of peaks and valleys. For some, walks through the valley are infrequent. For others, the reality of summit conquests remains out of reach as a mere dream. Regardless of where you find yourself on life’s emotional rollercoaster, we are all in this park together. It’s no accident the Bible has some noteworthy characters that dealt with depression—Saul, David, Jeremiah, and of course Job, just to name a few. All of them had times of lamenting, some to the point of groaning and even suicide. Surely these biblical accounts of the sad side have purpose. Indeed at least one of God’s purposes was to show us depression from a biblical perspective. That perspective points to how we should react in times of sorrow. We have all been down in the dumps before, and those times will surely return. So, we’re stuck with two obvious questions. Why do we get depressed? And how do we respond during those times?
A man’s spirit will endure sickness,
but a crushed spirit who can bear? (Proverbs 18:14)
My personal experience with depression proved absolutely spiritual in nature. As certain as I am about that, I don’t want my personal experience to twist a sometimes complicated subject into another religious oversimplification. I researched depression from spiritual and medical perspective equally. There’s little debate—depression is a unique, two-dimensional condition. It has physical and spiritual elements that are woven so tightly together that it is difficult to know just how they’re intertwined. As it turns out, there is “conflicting” data from studies about religion as it pertains to depression. Some studies show older people fair better in depression with prayer. Other recent studies have shown a more zealous religious person is three times as likely to experience depression because they are religious. Wait…what? At first glance, these seem like opposing views. But what if the reason these people of faith are more likely to get depressed is because of a God-shape hole within that gets filled with everything but God despite their religious affiliation? What if God has marked out a path for our life that includes following Him and progressively eliminating sin from our life, yet we refuse or make excuses?
The yo-yo of life or a yo-yo of spiritual life and death?
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)
Sin, in the above passage, whether referring to “creation’s bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21) or our individual abuse of God’s grace, demonstrates why and how disobedience can be connected to depression. Renewing of the mind should be a life altering part of our faith. (See Romans 12) Ever notice that when you are at a crossroads in your mind about whether to do something sinful or not, what eventually happens when you knowingly choose the wrong thing? Have you noticed that you eventually feel terrible emotionally? It’s easy to see how this can accumulate for years leading to profound depression. These spiritual decisions are often directly tied to neurochemical processes in our brain. Most people (including me) gravitate toward food indulgence when they are depressed. We literally have changes in brain biochemistry resulting from life’s hardships poor spiritual decisions, etc. Similarly, our favorite food (usually carbs and fat, duh) gives a temporary neurochemical fix to how we feel. (For a technical overview on dopamine click here.) God made our brain to seek him in everything, but instead we turn to a fix without even realizing what’s happening. It is a viscous cycle. I bring the donuts to church every Sunday, and the irony is seen in a conversation I overheard recently. Someone was apparently verbalizing feeling down about something to which the spouse responded, “Here, have a donut, it will make it better”. It very likely did make it better, but not for long. So, the ultimate question is: what is God asking of us that we refuse, and then reach for a fix? Whether it’s actually donuts or cocaine, or something else—it’s not what God intended. (Food and drugs might seem like an unfair comparison, but neuroscience proves both of them are processed the same way, in the same pleasure center of the brain.) Ignoring aspects of what God is asking us gets dealt with by pleasure seeking, which leads to disappointment. Then the cycle repeats itself. It’s subtle but don’t let that subtly fool you. There is an almost endless list of God substitutes. (Listen to pastor Ryan’s “The Problem of Idolatry” here.)
Think about it—God intends for us to walk with him, but if we don’t and are able stay on top of the world emotionally, what motivation would we have for change? What reason would drive us to seek God or turn back to him? However, don’t assume the reverse. Just because you get a noticeable, sad response from sin, doesn’t mean spiritual success will guarantee euphoria that has you imitating DiCaprio over the Titanic’s bow. Feelings of joy and gladness from pursuing righteous living do come, but it is mostly slow and subtle. Joy, as a reward sparingly given out by God, is just enough to continually require us to pursue faith and hope. God always requires faith and it’s the small hopes here on earth that are pointing us to that grand, final hope on the other side.
In Deuteronomy 28:1-14, we see that obedience for God’s people results in life-sweeping blessings of unimaginable proportions. As hope-filled and bliss as this passage is, it is followed immediately by a sharp contrast. Warnings about their disobedience would result in all things bad. God has not guaranteed rainbows and unicorns of a fairy-tale life—far from it. Nor does his grace guarantee that we can blend spirituality with living life however we want. As awesome, powerful, and indescribable as God’s grace is, He intends for it to draw us to him; not allow us to do whatever the heck we want. In the natural, it is our predilection to do what we feel like doing. That is ultimately the problem—life in the natural. “If it feels good, do it.” It seems clear to me that God uses depression to point us to him, yet we find pleasure in things that cannot truly satisfy to pacify us. They’re momentary gratifications of fleeting highs. Sadly, those highs are in lieu of seeking a God that can and will brink us complete satisfaction.I believe God has shown that if we truly—and I mean truly— seek to love God, we will find ourselves in an emotional slump much less often, and come out of them much more quickly through prayer (the listening kind). Although there are times in life when we may not be able to connect depression with spiritual misdirection, it may be that we haven’t tried to uncover it. We’ve all had our head in the sand before. God wants to see how we respond. At times, all we can do is cry out to him and ask for endurance and guidance. More importantly, he asks us to praise him and be thankful for everything—even the stuff that sucks.
God is sovereign. So we can rest in knowing that he knows what he’s doing, so he knows the way out for each of us. The corruption of this world referenced earlier has resulted in pain and suffering for many that has much to do with depression for them. Victims of abuse, for instance, can be in such bad shape they need help by professionals to get to a point of clear thinking. Arrival at clear thinking is the goal of psychiatric help. Some people need meds to help them get to the place were they can think rationally. If someone is on meds it is absolutely critical to be in counseling. Otherwise, the results will often just be merely limping by emotionally by treating symptoms instead of fixing the problem. It can be a difficult process, and imperfect at times, but the idea is progress. With the right steps, and God’s help, progress can be made. After all, we all need to be in progress.
For major depression, talk therapy can also help significantly. Dr. David Henderson, a psychiatrist in Dallas, gives five spiritual essentials that are needed to truly overcome major depression with the last two added by me. Talk these out with someone.
1. Humility – clear understanding of who you are in relation to God & others.
2. Confession – fess up!
3. Distinct purpose for living – God has one for you.
4. Active surrender – a continual battle for all of us.
5. Thankfulness – a state of mind.
6. Forgiveness of others – releases you from the other person, not the other way around.
7. Prayer – it isn’t a miracle-tool meant to escape the things we don’t want to experience, but it is a tool that allows us to endure it.
If you find yourself depressed, please reflect on what God is trying to tell you. If you’re majorly depressed, please seek help. In times of distress, the Book of Psalms can be very helpful in understanding the complexities of life and how we should respond. May depression be a blessing in disguise that directs you toward our father in heaven. All things, for all time, are meant to point us to Him.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13)