Why do Christians find it so hard to cope with depression? We have all the same problems as unbelievers, which is quite bad enough, plus a few additional ones! It’s hard to reconcile any kind of suffering with our faith in a loving God, but depression does present some particular difficulties. I think this is because it strikes at our feelings and emotions, which for most of us are a very important part of our Christian experience.
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I knew the Lord? (William Cowper)
Most of us know that the fruit of the Spirit includes joy and that we’re commanded to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4) – so does that mean that Christians should never feel depressed? When we come to church, we’re encouraged to “feel the presence of the Lord”. We expect the Holy Spirit to give us an emotional ‘lift’. A lot of the things that we do in church services (such as the liturgy and the music) are designed to create an atmosphere in which we’re more likely to feel such sensations. But if you’re depressed, these things won’t have the usual effect on you. And so coming to church can actually make you feel worse rather than better – especially if everyone around you appears to be having a wonderful time with God and you’re the odd one out.
Thirty years ago, when I was going through my second bout of depression, there was a certain worship song that we seemed to sing far too often – a horribly bouncy little song that had the chorus:
‘He has made me glad,
He has made me glad;
I will rejoice, for He has made me glad.’
Well, I couldn’t sing it at the time, because it just wasn’t true. What I felt like singing was, ‘He has made me sad,’ but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that. What I actually did was turn it into a statement of faith rather than a statement of fact and sing:
He will make me glad,
He will make me glad,
I will rejoice when He has made me glad.’
The book of Job isn’t an easy read for 21st-century people, but you don’t have to get very far into it before Job has suffered financial ruin, overwhelming personal tragedy, and a disfiguring illness, and is wishing that he’d never been born. He has three friends who make clumsy attempts to counsel him but only succeed in making him feel worse. He prays endlessly to God, but gets no answers. Is Job full of joy at this point? Of course not! He complains, he rages at God, he prays, he weeps… and at the end of the book God commends him for his honesty.
Depression is such a common human experience that we can’t be alone… countless thousands of God’s people have travelled the same road.
I mentioned William Cowper, an 18th-century poet, who was a friend of John Newton (the man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace). He suffered from severe depression in his twenties, tried to commit suicide several times, and was admitted to an asylum. Of course there was no effective treatment in those days; you just had to wait for the illness to get better on its own. (So thank God for antidepressants!) After three years he did recover, and he went on to write some classic hymns:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
When he was in a normal state of mind, he wrote hymns full of confidence like:
There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.
But after seven years he had a relapse and suffered delusions that he was condemned to Hell. As you can imagine, these were highly distressing for him and for all his Christian friends.
What makes this kind of thing so worrying is that we know that faith is vitally important. So if we lose our faith in God like this, will He abandon us? No, He won’t. I found it helpful to think of the Israelites, when they were enslaved in Egypt. Moses came to tell them that God was about to rescue them, and they all said, ‘Hooray!’ Then he went to Pharaoh – and the first thing Pharaoh did was to make their labour twice as hard by not giving them the straw they needed to make bricks. And when Moses tried to reassure them that God was still in control, we’re told that “they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labour.” (Exodus 6:9) In other words, they were so crushed that they lost their faith and all hope. But God still rescued them.