Christians and Depression
Too often, those in the Church are quick to call depression and other mental illnesses a sin, calling the sick to repent and return to God. It breaks my heart to see this response because there is no other type of illness where this would be acceptable. Never in a million years would I expect to see a person with a broken arm assailed for their lack of faith, yet many think it’s acceptable to treat a person with depression this way.
This strange reaction to depression in the Church stems from a misunderstanding of what depression is and how the Lord responds to it.
Depression is Not a Sin. It’s an Illness.
I can’t say it any more simply than this: depression is an illness. It’s not simply a spiritual issue, nor is it solely an emotional issue. Though depression impacts the spirit and the emotions, it’s fundamentally a physical sickness that is brought on by the neurochemicals in the brain being out of balance. I’m no doctor, so I won’t spend too long on this topic, but I am confident that depression is a physical disorder. This is why antidepressants are actually effective—they change neurotransmitters and massage the brain back to health.
Since depression is an illness, Christians ought to treat it the same way we do other illnesses in the Church. It’s perfectly appropriate to pray for healing from depression in the same way we can pray for cancer to be eradicated from a person’s body. But in the same way, we don’t pass judgment on the one who suffers from cancer. We should never pass judgment on a person for suffering from depression.
3 Examples of Depression in the Bible
What does the Bible say about Depression?
There is a more important question for our consideration though, beyond whether depression is a physical illness. How does God respond to depression? Thankfully, we don’t have to be left guessing on this. So let’s see what the bible says about depression.
Elijah and Depression
You might ask yourself, who was depressed in the Bible? Actually, many people were. Elijah is a prime example of this in the Bible. Elijah was one of the preeminent prophets of the Old Testament, but there’s no question he struggled with depression. Shortly after his greatest victory against the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18, Elijah was overcome with fear and depression. In I Kings 19, Elijah sat down in the middle of the wilderness and prayed that God would kill him.
This was a perfect opportunity for God to strike down this sinner, this man who has depression. But notice, that’s not what God did at all. Instead, he sent an angel to feed him twice and then reinvigorated him with a fresh vision for his future. In the case of Elijah then, God drew near to a brokenhearted man and gave him strength, not judgment.
Psalms and Depression
The same beautiful response from God is found throughout the Psalms. Whether penned by King David or others, the Psalms are full of very human responses to all types of life events, ranging from horrific to wonderful.
Psalm 37:23-24 is particularly reflective of the Lord’s heart toward those he loves – “The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”
Our God is a hand-holding God, and it’s impossible to hold a hand from a distance. He comes near and meets us in the pit of our depression. The Psalms paint strong imagery of a deeply involved and loving God, not a distant or judgmental one. Even more profound than this, God delights in every detail of our lives, even the discordant ones like depression.
For more of my thoughts on what the Psalms can offer to someone struggling with depression, see my article: 17 Psalms for Depression: the Complete Guide.
Was Jesus Depressed?
Our final, powerful example of depression in the Bible is found in the life of Jesus himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane before his betrayal, Luke 22 tells us that Jesus was in agony of spirit. This is translated in a variety of ways, but all the words used in various translations point to the idea of mental agony and being deeply grieved to the point of death.
If these words were spoken in relation to anyone but Jesus, we would say they were depressed or possibly even suicidal. It feels uncomfortable to say that Jesus was depressed or suicidal, but that’s what the Scriptures actually tell us here. This is then the ultimate proof that depression isn’t a sin—how could the sinless Son of God be depressed and still not sin? He didn’t sin, because depression isn’t a sin.
This is why Hebrews 4:15 states – “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do.” Jesus underwent extreme duress. He experienced the utter depths of depression. He felt the abandonment of his friends in his greatest hour of need.
And at the same time, he felt the tender hand of God the Father holding him in the midst of his darkest moment. We can too. We can be confident that God is not judging our depression but is rather drawing near to us through it, urging us to find our way to the other side.