Can A Depressed Person Experience “Victorious Christian Living”?

by | Apr 5, 2024 | Depression and Faith

A Story

In 2014, in a large public venue, I gave a testimony of how my faith in Christ sustains me through recurring bouts of depression. After pinpointing symptoms through a series of anecdotes covering a two-decade span, I illustrated how three primary means of God’s grace empower me when despair envelops me: prayers of lament; the promises in God’s Word and the support of close Christian friends.

I’m not always despondent, by any means, but intermittent descents into a dark mood occur occasionally throughout any given year, even when I can’t  identify a cause. The sources of strength I cited don’t usually remove all depression. More typically, they shorten the stay of an episode or assuage the worst symptoms and enable me to keep going in life and ministry. I can’t remember ever missing a class at Columbia International University, or an important occasion or responsibility involving my family, due to depression.

Days after giving my testimony, I heard from a respected Christian leader who I consider a friend. He had heard my testimony through an online link. He commended my delivery and expressed appreciation for how I employed spiritual weapons in the fight against depression. Then he frowned and admitted, “But Terry, I’m having a hard time reconciling your recurring struggles with depression with my view of sanctification.” Though he respected me, he didn’t view my testimony as a “success story,” spiritually speaking. To him, victory over depression constituted complete healing or removal of the episodes.

Some of you probably agree with him, but most of you don’t. You may conclude that he probably never experienced depression, and despite his deep Bible knowledge, he wasn’t aware of a spate of research on the complexity of depression and its causes.

Recently, what he said to me a decade ago prompted me to reflect more about the connection between depression and faith, especially the correlation between “victorious Christian living” and depression.

A Core Value I Believe In

Victorious Christian living is a core value of Columbia International University, where I taught full time for 38 years. It refers not to a sinless life, but one characterized by consistency in the pursuit of holiness and demonstration of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It suggests that though we are still sinful, we should progressively sin less. Due to the inward presence of the Holy Spirit, a persistent pattern of sin is not inevitable.

I agree with that viewpoint!

But are repeated episodes of depression spawned by some form of spiritual failure, due to some fault in the Christ-follower, as my friend implied? Or was he too simplistic and uninformed about depression to put such recurrences in the category of spiritual failure?

To suggest that a person diagnosed with major depression is not living victoriously is a less common viewpoint than it was 40-50 years ago. Less common, but the “It’s your fault” perspective is still quite prevalent.

I’ve been confronted by sincere believers who view me suspiciously, who believe that as a Christian, I should have absolute control over my emotions and should never descend into an abyss of depression. Others have erroneously concluded that I must not be having my “quiet time,” assuming that doing so would keep all depression at bay.

What Constitutes “Victorious Christian Living”?

Victorious Christian living should be a core value of every Christ-follower, not just a university. Yet thoughtful reflection and discussion should zero in on what victory is as well as what it isn’t.

If this core value isn’t explained, taught and illustrated adequately, people who struggle with despondency or severe anxiety will hesitate to share their inward struggle with a friend or visit a counselor because they don’t want to be perceived as less spiritual or not living victoriously. They’re more likely to suffer in silence, which increases their vulnerability to suicide.

I commend an increasing number of schools, mission agencies and local churches, including my beloved CIU, for beginning to address the issue of how depression and living victoriously correlate.

Overall, the mental health landscape is gradually changing due to an increasing spate of  research on the complicated issue of major depression. More Christian leaders and missionaries are writing openly about their depression and how their faith helps them through the pain rather than totally eradicating it.

Despite this positive trend, I don’t think the correlation between victorious Christian living and a believer who faces repeated bouts of depression (or other forms of mental illness) has been studied or discussed enough within our churches and Christian institutions.

We need more prayerful thought and engagement with the literature on depression, filtered  through the authority of God’s Word and a Christian worldview. Proper engagement with the correlation between depression and faith requires serious reflection and interaction among informed people of God. We need to sharpen each other’s understanding, especially concerning the myriad causes of depression. Viewpoints on how depression correlates with vibrant faith (or whether it does at all) are often superficially obtained and communicated.

What follows are a few questions roiling around in my mind today. I’ve formed strong opinions on a few of the questions, but not all. Serious Christians disagree on some of the answers, which are often more complicated than we want to admit. Here, I raise the questions without providing direct answers.

What Does Victory Look Like?

For a believer who has been diagnosed with major depression, does victorious Christian living look any different than it does for someone who’s seldom depressed? Should it look any different?

Depressed or not, we’re responsible for what the Bible considers sin.

Yet does living victoriously mean total control over one’s emotions and mood, never descending into the pit of despondency? Or is it seen in how one responds to depression when it comes, and the extent to which he utilizes God’s means of grace for sustenance and fruitfulness, shortening its stay or assuaging its intensity?

If happiness is a choice, as claimed by multiple Christian authors, does that mean the unhappiness describing a person during a depressive episode is also a choice? To what extent does the answer to that question depend on the cause of an individual’s depression? Is it even possible for a person to choose sadness?

Should some theologians and Bible teachers refine their theology of sanctification so they aren’t so hard on godly believers diagnosed with mental illness? Can this be accomplished without compromising one iota on the direct teaching of the Bible on what constitutes sin?

Blame It On the Brain?

Research among scientists and medical experts suggest a strong link between between recurring bouts of  depression and genetics. According to Stanford Medicine, someone who has a parent or sibling with a diagnosis of depression has a 2-3 times greater risk of developing it compared to the average person with no history of depression in the family.

Concerning clinical depression, the most prevalent form that involves persistent sadness and loss of interest in life, the Healthline newsletter reveals that having a close relative with a diagnoses shows that you’re 5 times more likely to develop the condition. With bipolar disorder, the presence of an inherited explanation increases to over 70% of all cases.

If intermittent bouts of depression have a genetic cause in a significant percentage of cases, traceable in one’s lineage, how should that factor affect how we perceive and respond to a depressed person? Are we being inconsistent to suggest that the depressed person should be able to snap out of it or be healed by applying his faith, yet not saying the same thing to the person with a cancer diagnosis or disability?

On the other hand, do we sometimes put too much credence in the so-called “medical model” in diagnosing and explaining a depressed spirit? Does “blaming it on the brain” ever become an excuse or rationalization for erratic behavior that may not be caused by brain chemistry depletion? Does excessive reliance on medical explanations keep us from identifying other possible causes, such as a pattern of sin or a failure to appropriate God’s means of grace?

Take severe anxiety as an example. It’s officially listed as a mental illness in the psychological literature. Anxiety accompanies despondency in over half the people diagnosed with major depression. Yet in texts such as Philippians 4:6-7, God says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Clearly, that verse suggests that some worry is a sin, or at least a failure to trust the Lord. But where is the line of demarcation between anxiety that reveals weak faith or fails to appropriate divine resources, and relentless anxiety that’s spawned by poor wiring in the brain? What do you say to the Christian who prays fervently and consistently, who isn’t tolerating a pattern of sin, yet the joy-sapping anxiety never dissipates?

The bottom-line question here is this: When is repeated bouts of depression or anxiety a disease for which I’m not responsible for its onset, and when is it a flaw springing from irresponsibility, poor choices or weak faith? And why does the answer to this question matter?

What About Joy?

How does a depression-prone person reconcile his lack of joy during repeated episodes with the Bible’s insistence that God wants His people to be happy?

The command to rejoice is an emphatic command in the Bible. Philippians 4:4 is a case in point: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us (Galatians 5:22). Jesus wants His followers to be joyful: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).To a Christ-follower who’s seriously despondent, reading these verses may add a heavier weight to his already burdened soul.

But are those texts referring to a life free of despair, or to an overall trajectory of joy that coexists with periodic descents in mood? Wait a minute: is it even possible for depression and joy to coexist at the same point in time? Even when a Christian has a rough day with despondency, can she still claim a settled joy and sense of God’s peace deep within her heart? Is a dark mood and the joy of the Lord always mutually exclusive?

Thorny Questions

Is God’s glory most demonstrated in a depression-prone person when God heals him and he no longer gets depressed?

If you believe that, how do you explain the Lord’s words to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 concerning His refusal to remove a thorn in the flesh? “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s thorn wasn’t likely depression, yet do you believe the principle of God’s glory through our weakness applies to a mental illness?

Is it possible that God gets more glory by sustaining His depressed follower through depressive episodes? Is He glorified more by redeeming one’s mental anguish, by strengthening and using the depressed person so others see God’s power manifested in the midst of his weakness?

Is it okay if others see us as weak, so long as they also see that the Christ we lean on is strong?


Give me your reaction to this post, or to one set of questions I raised.

Do you have a new or different question that needs to be addressed on the correlation between victorious living and faith?

I’m especially interested in how Christian psychologists and counselors have addressed this issue with your clients.

Keep on living and serving strong!  


Please note: comments are closed after two weeks. You are welcome to contact me directly after that time if you would like to share your thoughts.



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