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Let the Bible Help You Understand Depression

Sarah, a faithful Sunday school teacher who enthralls kids with stories about God’s goodness, misses several weeks of church. When friends reach out, she admits she’s tired, but she offers little other explanation and excuses herself from conversations. Loved ones observe that she seems withdrawn, as if a light within her has gone out.

Then Sarah suddenly resigns from teaching Sunday school. Though at first she’s reticent to admit her struggles, she eventually confides she’s overwhelmed with despair, can’t concentrate, and no longer finds joy in the things she loves. She fears that her inability to overcome her depression with prayer and Bible study disqualifies her from teaching children Scripture. “How can I teach about God’s love when I can’t feel it myself?” she says through tears. “I know the gospel, yet I can’t pull myself out of my sadness. I’m a hypocrite.”

Sarah’s doctor has prescribed an antidepressant, but she feels deep-seated shame that she needs medication for a spiritual matter. The longer Sarah talks, the more her thoughts turn toward her doubts about whether God hears her prayers for relief, whether he loves her, and whether she can be a Christian if she’s wrestling through the darkness of depression.

What does depression have to do with Sarah’s faith? How might we help Sarah understand her depression biblically?

False Impressions About Depression

Sarah’s initial reluctance to divulge her depression stemmed in part from a perceived stigma against mental illness in her church. She recalled one occasion when a church leader said, “Depression isn’t an issue for Christians.” On another occasion, a member of her small group questioned how anyone who knew the gospel could struggle with grief and sadness.

She doubts whether God hears her prayers for relief, whether he loves her, and whether she can be a Christian if she’s wrestling through the darkness of depression.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s experience isn’t unique. On top of the burdens of despondency, hopelessness, and guilt that sufferers of depression already shoulder, too often interactions with those in the church cement their fears about inadequate faith.

Pastor Zack Eswine writes about this tendency: “In the eyes of many people, including Christian people, depression signifies cowardice, faithlessness, or a bad attitude. Such people tell God in prayer and their friends in person that the sufferer of depression is soft or unspiritual.”

Such misconceptions about suffering’s role in the Christian life can dissuade those with depression from seeking help. In some cases, theological misunderstandings or unrepentant sin may indeed contribute to depression, as was true in my case. Cultivating a deeper and more robust understanding of God’s attributes offered an anchor that was crucial to my recovery. But spiritual factors don’t mean depression and faith are mutually exclusive.

More Biblical Perspective

On the contrary, Scripture teaches us that discipleship is costly; that sin still ravages the world; that deep, penetrating pain exists (even for believers); and that God works through such pain for good.

Understanding these truths can guide sufferers back to their hope in Christ when they need it most. In Sarah’s case, a gradual and careful walk through Scripture with compassionate church leaders was life-giving. As she wrestled to see the realities of her depression through a biblical lens, Sarah learned to trust God’s sovereignty and mercy, to express her despair through lament, and to lean on the church for support.

Here are some themes from Scripture that may offer solace, understanding, and hope to those who suffer from depression. A biblical understanding of suffering—and the truth that even those with strong faith can flail in the darkness—can alleviate false guilt, encourage counseling, and ease a sufferer back toward the light.

1. Trials will come.

Christ triumphed over death (1 Cor. 15:55; 2 Tim. 1:10), and when he returns, all its wretched manifestations will wash away (Isa. 25:7–8; Rev. 21:4–5). But for now, we live in the wake of the fall, in a world where sin corrupts every molecule, cell, and wayward breeze (Rom. 8:19–22). Jesus warned us that tribulation and persecution would follow his disciples into the world (Matt. 16:24–25; John 1:10–11; 15:20; 16:33), but in the good news of salvation he provides, he also gives us living hope (1 Pet. 1:3–5), a sturdy limb to which we can cling when storms assail us.

While we await Jesus’s return, the storms still come. Their winds beat on, crippling our bodies. Their torrents lash us, drowning us in misery. Yet in Christ, we need not be subdued. Though pelting hail still stings and can drive even faithful Christians into despondency, we cleave to the firm assurance of eternal life.

When we dismiss depression as a defect in faith, we forget that the Savior we treasure has also known crushing sorrow (Matt. 26:38; 27:46). Though he shared perfect communion with the Father, he was acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Our Savior has walked in the shadows and can sympathize with us (Heb. 4:15). He knows our groanings, and in love he bore them for our sake.

When we despair and can’t see God, our identity in Christ—and God’s love for us—remains untarnished. The gospel promises not freedom from pain but an abundantly more precious gift: the assurance of God’s love, which prevails over sin and buoys us through the tempests. Christ offers hope that transcends the crooked wantonness of this broken world. Suffering can bear down on us. Depression can crush the faithful. But in Christ, nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39).

2. God meant it for good.

When we dismiss depression as an affliction of faithlessness, we can crush believers during their moments of need and ignore how God uses despair as part of his refining work. We serve a heavenly Father whose love and sovereignty are so great that he can work through our worst anguish for our good and his glory.

Paul prayed three times that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but rather than relieving Paul’s pain, the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7–9). Freedom from pain, though ideal in our eyes, may not always be our greatest good.

Our Savior has walked in the shadows amd can sympathize with us. He knows our groanings, and in love he bore them for our sake.

My first—and worst—depressive episode occurred on the tails of a traumatic event that threw my faith into turmoil, but depression can also descend without any clear trigger or inciting event. I’ve had episodes strike without warning while I watched my kids at a playground or sipped coffee at a sun-soaked breakfast table. I felt as if a switch suddenly flipped in my mind, and as all color and feeling drained away, I looked skyward and prayed: “Oh Lord, please, no. Not this. Not again.”

Before these episodes of depression struck, if I’m honest, I often strutted blithely through life with a hardened, unexamined heart. I sought meaning through my accomplishments rather than through Christ. Just as the obstinate Jonah wouldn’t open his lips in prayer until locked within the gloom of a fish’s belly, I refused to gaze heavenward until driven to my knees, enshrouded in despair I couldn’t escape.

While I’d never wish to return to that desolate place, I’m thankful for how God has worked through my bleakest hours to sanctify me. Only when I was desperate for God’s light did he choose to reveal himself to me through Scripture.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty with a sufferer, we must be careful not to presume suffering strikes people as a punishment for weak faith. If we do, we err like Job’s “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2), who wrongfully accused him of unrepentant sin. While God may allow us to suffer to discipline us or to heighten our sense of reliance on him for life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25), he doesn’t condemn us to depression as punishment for sin. Christ has already borne sin’s penalty for us. His blood washes us whiter than snow (1 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 7:14).

If we doubt that God can work through our sorrows for good, we need only look to the cross. The Father sent his Son to bear the world’s sufferings so we’d have eternal life (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4–9). Through Christ’s suffering, God achieved history’s most beautiful and magnificent act of grace. He saved us, giving us hope amid the despair that afflicts us this side of heaven, and when he returns, our salvation will be complete. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

3. ‘How long, O LORD?’

Though those who suffer from depression may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to admit their condition, they may reap solace from the truth that they’re not alone. History and Scripture reveal that for centuries, faithful Christ followers who have proclaimed God’s goodness have also grappled with unshakable sorrow. Modern examples include Christian songwriters Michael Card and Andrew Peterson, who have both penned songs about their battles with depression.

These musicians follow in the footsteps of saints over the millennia. Charles Spurgeon fought depression all his life, once reflecting, “I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooseth strangling rather than life.’ I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself, to escape from my misery of spirit.” Even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), cried out to the Lord from the depths (Ps. 13:1–2). He lamented,

All the day I go about mourning,
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (38:6–8)

We see many vivid models of how to trust God through the cries of suffering in the Psalms. When depression seizes us, we too may perceive our days “like an evening shadow,” and feel that we “wither away like grass” (102:11). In Psalm 55, David grieves,

My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me. (vv. 4–5)

Such passages echo the turmoil within when depression obscures one’s vision of Christ. As we fumble through the shadows in search of God, the Psalms reassure us that even those dearest to him endure such seasons. Those who have known and loved God have also drowned in anguish and cried out in longing for him.

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