Serious Questions About Faith and Depression
To a man standing in his yard one afternoon, it sounded like boxcars of a train banging together when they hook up. On a different day, a couple in bed at 5:00 a.m. were jarred awake when the foundation of their house rattled. A college professor heard a deep rumble originating somewhere below him, then saw the books on his office shelves dance up and down.
Here’s how another man reported the phenomenon: “While standing in the kitchen, I heard what sounded like a brawl occurring in the hallway outside our bedrooms. I thought bodies were bouncing off the walls. By the time I ran to the hallway, the sound had stopped and no one was there.”
Those descriptions represent accounts of four earthquakes reported in 2023 near Columbia, South Carolina, occurring within a few weeks of each other.
Unsettling, to say the least. Somewhere between the earth’s surface and miles beneath it, massive, irregular-shaped slabs of solid rock shifted, rubbing against each other, getting stuck to each other around the edges until friction broke them apart, releasing unrestrained energy outward in all directions.
Tremors In My Mind
As I enter 2024, that’s analogous to what’s happening inside my thoughts concerning the correlation of recurring depression and Christian faith.
Different viewpoints among Christ-followers on the causes of and cures for depression are rubbing against each other, generating friction in my mind. Sometimes individuals with a particular opinion espouse their viewpoint with uninhibited passion, as if everyone who opposes their opinion is naive or less spiritually mature. I wish indisputable conclusions on the subject were clearer and more self-evident. Yet after reading a spate of books on the subject, poring over data-based studies and studying the Bible with an eye for pertinent insights, more questions roil around in my mind than ever before. I yearn for uncomplicated answers to questions, yet the complexity of depression resists simplistic answers.
In the following paragraphs you’ll read some the questions I’m mulling over. Yes, I possess informed opinions on some of them, but not all. These question expose issues about which sincere Christian people disagree. Sometimes the consequence is friction that fractures relationships and causes hurt. This list I offer isn’t exhaustive, nor am I necessarily putting the questions in order of significance.
Sanctification and Depression
For a person diagnosed with major depression, does “victorious Christian living” look any different than it does for a person not depression-prone? Is a person less than victorious if he or she still experiences periodic episodes of depression? Or is potential victory and growth in holiness demonstrated by how the individual handles depression, or how he or she fights it?
To what extent does one’s view of sanctification affect how he responds to a depressed person?
Due to our faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, should we have total, absolute control over our emotions? If you don’t perceive that as realistic, why not? As a Christ-follower, is it possible to control or to prevent the onset of a depressive episode? Or is our only choice employing God’s Word and other means of grace in responding to it appropriately?
In a public venue, I heard a transparent, Scripture-laced testimony of God’s grace in handling depression. Some applauded the faith demonstrated by the Christian who told his story, for whom God’s means of grace assuaged and redeemed the pain, but didn’t eradicate it. Another respected leader who heard it said the struggle conveyed didn’t agree with his view of sanctification. Who is right? Why?
God’s Glory and Depression
Does God want to heal completely every believer who experiences recurring depressive episodes? Is that how God gets most glory in a depression-prone person’s life? Or is His glory manifested more convincingly by sustaining and using someone with depression, when the only explanation for that person’s perseverance is reliance on God’s means of grace? Which is more God-honoring: testifying of complete deliverance from depression, or sharing stories of how faith in the Lord and His promises strengthen a person and keep her from throwing in the towel?
Which type of testimony (complete healing or stories of God’s sustenance) has the more beneficial effect on depressed persons who hear it? Why?
Faith in God and Depression
What’s the difference, if any, between how faith in God correlates with depression and how it correlates with handling a disease such as Parkinson’s or cancer?
Is it inconsistent to believe that a person with ongoing episodes of depression isn’t trusting God enough, yet at the same time concluding that severe physical ailments or disabilities aren’t due to weak faith? What is a person assuming when he believes that recurring depression is a matter of anemic faith or failure to tap into God’s power? Is that assumption accurate? Why or why not?
A Matter of Choice?
Multiple Christian authors say that “Depression is a choice” or “Happiness is a choice.” To what extent are these declarations true? To what extent are these statements false, or at least an oversimplification? If those remarks are accepted at face value as applying to all depressed persons, what are the implications? What is the effect on those who feel depressed or find consistent happiness elusive?
God’s Word and Mental Illness
Most physicians and persons trained in psychology assert that recurring depression and crippling anxiety constitute valid mental illnesses. But what are the limitations of the so-called “medical model” that list things like depression, anxiety and even “intermittent explosive disorder” as mental illnesses for which no responsibility is assigned? For instance, though God’s Word assumes we will be anxious and fret, we are nonetheless commanded not to be anxious (Philippians 4:6-7). Then when is anxiety a sin of disobedience, and when is it a physiological, brain-based reaction for which we are not fully responsible? Where is the line of demarcation between anxiety that’s sin and when it isn’t? Do we go too far in “blaming it on the brain”? Not far enough?
How can we reconcile the words of Jesus in John 16:24 with recurring bouts of unhappiness due to depression? “Until now you have asked for nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be made full.” Can deep-rooted joy in the Lord coexist with symptoms of depression? If so, what would that look like?
God’s Word is a means of grace for daily life and discipleship. What are wrong and inappropriate ways to use the Bible in the fight against mental illnesses? What is a good and appropriate way to employ God’s Word when battling the nemesis of depression? Can you illustrate the difference?
God’s Sovereignty and Depression
How should the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, that He ultimately controls both human actions and natural events, affect one’s view of major depression among Christians? In a series of verses discussing predestination, Paul referred to God as “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).Then is God ultimately responsible for mental illness, or are we? Or is the condition merely a consequence of living in a fallen world? How does recurring struggles with depression correlate with the priceless, yet mysterious doctrine of God’s sovereignty?
The Value of Questions
Perhaps you think the answers to all those questions are easy or straightforward. But the more research I read on depression, the more stories I hear from Christians who experience depression, and the longer I live through descents into darkness, the more complicated some of the issues seem.
Whatever viewpoints we hold, may God give us the humility to keep learning and to keep asking the hard questions. The best students on a subject are often the ones who ask the most questions, or at least pose the hardest-to-answer questions. And to persons who’ve never experienced deep depression, may the Lord give compassion that doesn’t glibly jump to conclusions about the faith. or lack of it, among those who do.
Please tell me…..
What question or issue concerning faith and depression would you add to my list?
What question or issue concerning depression do you think deserves more attention (whether or not it is on my list)?
Is there a question or issue I raised that you want to weigh in on through a note to me? I’ll read it carefully and respond to you. Anyone may respond, but I’m especially interested in hearing from counselors who have a good grasp of the biblical, medical and psychological factors that should inform the discussion.
Which question or issue in this article do you want me to address in a future post?
Keep on living and serving strong! Terry 1/12/24