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 stems from a misunderstanding of what depression is and how the Lord responds to it.
Depression is 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 illness 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 of this, that depression is an illness. This is why antidepressants are effective, because they change neurotransmitters and massage the brain back to health.
Since depression is an illness, we ought to treat it the same as other illnesses. It’s perfectly appropriate to pray for healing from depression in the same way we can pray for cancer to leave a person’s body. But in the same way we don’t pass judgment on the cancer sufferer, we ought not pass judgment on the person suffering under depression.
How Does God Respond to Depression
There is a more important question for our consideration though, beyond whether depression is an illness. How does God respond to depression? Thankfully, we don’t have to be left guessing on this. We can see God’s response to depression in multiple places in Scripture.
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 a man who has depression, but that’s not what he did at all. Instead, he sent an angel to feed him twice and then reinvigorated him with fresh vision for his future. In the case of Elijah then, God drew near to a brokenhearted man and gave him strength, not judgment.
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. This paints strong imagery of a deeply involved and loving God, not a distant or judgmental one. Even more profound, God delights in every detail of our lives, even the discordant ones like depression.
Jesus Was Depressed?
A final powerful example of depression 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 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 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 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 his in the midst of his darkest moment. So too can we. 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.