Christianity and Depression – When Faith and Emotions Conflict
Society has viewed depression in various ways throughout history. Some look down on it as a personal weakness. Some regard it as a medical condition, and yet others view it with the stigma typically associated with “mental illness.”
Sadly, far too many Christians believe it’s an automatic indication of a lack of faith or an indicator of sin that hasn’t been dealt with. If you’re a Christian who’s struggling with depression, these judgmental views of the disorder can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. You may be very wary of admitting that you have it and reaching out for the support and help you need and deserve.
What many Christians fail to realize (or selectively choose to ignore) is that depression has impacted the lives of many children of God – dating clear back to Biblical times. For example, not only were Adam and Eve the first to sin, they were also the first to experience symptoms of depression. Their sin caused them to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, which was no doubt a devastating and very sad time for them. Throughout Scripture there were many others whose lives clearly included bouts of depression.
In Psalm 38:6,8, King David revealed his heavy heart as he spoke these words: “I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long… I groan because of the turmoil of my heart.”
These are two instances mentioned in the Bible where depression occurs as a direct result of guilt. Guilt often plays a role in the depression that is experienced by many Christians today. While the guilt may be appropriate in some cases, it isn’t always. In fact, many Christians struggle with excessive guilt, which is a common symptom of depression. They may feel that God is punishing them (for real or perceived sin) or ignoring their prayers because they have somehow fallen short.
The simple truth is that anyone can become depressed. Christians – even those with the strongest faith and closest relationship with God – are not exempt. The disorder affects millions of people at one point or another in life. In fact, like all illness and disease, it is part of a fallen world.
Christians experience depression just as they may experience any other type of illness or adversity. Just like everyone else, they catch colds, sustain injuries, develop cancer, grieve the loss of loved ones, and agonize over mistakes they’ve made. As it states in Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We live in an imperfect world where we all fall short. Unfortunately, for a Christian, this can have an even stronger impact when depression becomes an issue.
With depression, it is easy to feel that you’re a failure as a Christian. You may question your faith and wonder why, not matter how hard you pray, God isn’t healing you. You may feel as though you should be able to overcome the sadness and dark mood that is the exact opposite of the joy and peace the Bible promises. If you have always been taught that prayer and faith are the answer – rather than the idea that God helps those who help themselves – you may feel that treatment isn’t an option. Sadly, your depression remains neglected and the symptoms may persist.
Situational vs. Physiological Depression
Depression can be triggered by two primary things: situations or events (e.g. the breakup of a serious relationship, financial devastation, etc.) or imbalances in brain chemistry or hormones. In many cases, the two go hand in hand – a series of negative events deplete mood-boosting neurotransmitters, and chemical imbalances that affect your mood cause you to be less productive, focused, happy, etc. – causing negative situations as a result.
Situational depression is often due to a significant loss in your life. For Christians who are naturally more resilient and optimistic, a major loss may not trigger depressed feelings. However, many people aren’t so resilient. Guilt, sadness, a sense of failure, bad choices, and deep regret can all fuel depression. This was likely the case with Adam and Eve. They knew they had sinned and disappointed God. As a result, they lost their beautiful home – the Garden of Eden – and their world was forever changed.
Sometimes depressing things happen in life that are beyond our control. Depression is clearly depicted in the Bible in the life of Job. Although a godly man, Job went through a series of excruciating trials and tribulations which scanned a period of 140 years. In addition to losing his family, he also suffered physically and spiritually as he felt so far away from God. Even though this type of depression is a pretty normal reaction in response to a succession of severe losses in one’s life, the length of time the depression is present can help determine whether it is normal bereavement or a more serious condition that requires treatment. Additionally, when someone like Job is unable to recover from one tragic loss before the next one occurs, the cumulative grief is bound to have an impact on one’s brain chemistry. We all have limits to how much we can endure before something ends up out of whack and we’re vulnerable to a full-blown depression.
Physiological depression develops when certain chemicals in the brain – such as serotonin and dopamine – are out of balance. This may occur for a variety of reasons, such as a genetic predisposition or environmental factors. However, as mentioned above, adverse events can make it very difficult – and in some cases, impossible – to get over subsequent feelings of sadness and depression. Weeks or months of unrelenting sorrow can impact brain chemistry. Physiological depression can also be triggered by disruptions in hormones, which is believed to be a contributing cause of postpartum depression.
Some Christians are far more accepting of physiological depression – regarding it as a “medical” condition – than they are of situational depression. With the latter, they staunchly believe that you should never feel depressed if you truly “turn everything over to God” and have the faith to trust that no matter what negative things come your way, they happen according to God’s will. So, if you get depressed, then you simply don’t have enough faith.
Pray but Seek Treatment Too
Prayer is an important part of your life as a Christian. It can give you the strength that you need to keep going during tough times and the guidance you need when faced with important decisions. It’s your direct line to God, so to speak. So, if you are struggling with depression, reaching out to God in prayer and asking for strength and healing is appropriate.
However, it’s really important to remember that God doesn’t always heal our afflictions. He promises strength – even though you may not feel very strong when you’re depressed – but healing is not promised. That doesn’t mean you can’t get better, but if you rely on prayer alone to heal your depression, you might not get the answers you desire. That doesn’t mean, however, that prayer isn’t important. It is. Don’t stop praying, but do seek the treatment that is available.
If you are struggling with depression, don’t add to it by beating yourself up for not having enough faith – or assuming it’s because you aren’t right with God. And please don’t assume that you shouldn’t seek treatment because that would somehow mean you weren’t trusting God. Treatment for depression is just as appropriate for Christians as it is for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, a broken leg, or the flu.
Prayer and treatment go hand in hand. Pray that the therapy and / or medication help your depression. Prayer will also help comfort and heal your spirit.
Never succumb to the criticisms and condemnations of pious Christians who believe that Christians should never get depressed. That’s as absurd as saying that Christians should never get cancer or heart disease or be born with a birth defect. It would be great if God protected Christians from depression and other types of mental illness, but He doesn’t. Remember the adage, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act is if everything depends on you”. Pray for healing for your depression, and seek the treatment that is available to you today.