Well, we took down the Christmas decorations at home this week. No more tree, lights, or socks on the wall (nothing says Christmas like decorating the wall with fancy socks you’ll never wear, right?). The socks have been replaced with our standard portrait, the tree has been boxed up and the furniture rearranged so that you’d never know it was there. Some of the stores are hanging in there though. I went out a few days ago and still saw some snowflakes and poinsettias around, but they’re likely to come down soon too. All the special holiday food has been eaten and we’re back on the normal meal plan – and maybe even less than that as we try to shed some of the celebratory pounds. I know a few of us had birthdays in the last few weeks – I had my 39th this week – so that means no more presents for almost a whole year.
I think we had a really good Christmas season together this year, but sadly, as Chaucer said, “all good things must come to an end.” I’m not sure if you feel it, but January is actually a difficult month for a lot of people. In fact, the third Monday of January, this year the 16th, is sometimes called “Blue Monday” and is considered by some to be the most depressing day of the year. One newspaper I read this week called January “nothing but a 31-day chasm of despair.”[i]
I did some digging around for actual experts and statistics to support the idea of blue Monday and found it been largely debunked, but there are a few correlations that make January seem a little worse, making Blue Monday at least relatable.
The weather is often cold and dark, which contributes to some people’s Seasonal Affective Disorder[ii]. Family has all gone home and the Christmas buzz is over, so we start to feel lonely. And if there was unresolved drama during the visits, those thoughts come crashing back at us when they leave. The credit card bills come due. By the third week of January we’ve likely already given up our New Year’s Resolutions and feel like failures.
This can be an especially dangerous time for people who are already suffering with depression, anxiety, or other metal illnesses because it compounds their struggles. When Christians talk about this sort of thing, we try to see it from a biblical perspective, and part of that is to realize that as the world around us seems to turn against us, and the bad feelings start to rise, so do temptations.
Now, with that as the introduction, let me pause for a second: I was really torn about this message this morning. Part of me wanted to get back into 1st Corinthians, but I felt strongly that I needed to share this sermon as a warning and an encouragement about the present or coming season of depression that you may be facing. Times like this bring a lot of spiritual dangers.
Not everyone here will go through this, but everyone, because we are a family, will be affected. I’ll go even further to state that no everyone here will even understand what it’s like to go through a season of depression – even though they or someone they know has.
It’s not an easy thing to deal with, believe me I know. I’ve struggled with different forms of depression for a long time, and they are hard on everyone. While you may not fully understand it, and a few of you may be in denial about it, I think most people here know what I’m talking about.
What I want to do this morning is to help you understand depression from a biblical perspective, and hopefully give you a few tools to combat it, because these depressive episodes are going to bring about all manner of dangerous temptations that have the potential to lead you into spiritual dangers, and I don’t want that for you, your family, or the church.
Two qualifications before we start, though: First, books upon books have been written about this topic, so this is going to be exceptionally abbreviated. And second, I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have studied and experienced some of this, so I do think I have a bit of a handle on it.
So, as your pastor, here are a few things I want you to know about depression and how you can face it as a Christian:
Two Kinds of Depression
The first thing I want you to know about depression is that it comes in a variety of forms, but you can lump their causes into two broad categories: things that happen inside you and things that happen to you.
On one hand you have the depression that happens because of things happening inside of you. Major, chronic, and persistent depression, bipolar, postpartum, premenstrual syndrome, hormonal changes in men, etc. are all examples of depressions that happen regardless of your circumstances. You could have the best week ever, with sunshine, a perfect diet, great exercise, get a million dollars, and a promotion at work, and still feel terrible. And it’s because the chemicals in your brain and body are working against you.
Regardless of how great everything is going, you feel like you’re looking at life through dark sunglasses, wearing your itchiest pants, with a 50 pound weight around your neck, and headphones on with a negative voice that is stuck on repeat that keeps telling you how bad things are. It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s horribly guilt producing, because you want to feel good, you kind of know things aren’t so bad, but you still feel horrible.
These types of depression are often life-long struggles which require not only spiritual and relational help, but also professional therapy and medical interventions.
The second type of depression comes from outside you. Examples of this are Seasonal Affective Disorder where the lack of sunlight causes you to feel miserable, or ‘Situational Depression’ where you face extra stresses or troubles in your life like stress, sickness, big transitions, failure, or death, and it taxes your system and puts you into a depression.
Sadness vs Depression
Now, just to clarify, I’m not talking about “sadness”. There’s a huge difference between sadness and depression, and unfortunately we’ve lost some of the nuance as we’ve used these words interchangeably. Some people who are sad think they are depressed, while others who are chronically, medically, depressed sometimes mistake it for sadness – and are sometimes treated by those around them as though their medical illness is a temporary sadness – and that’s not good. Everyone gets sad at times, but not everyone will face depression.
The easiest way to understand the difference between sadness and depression is that sadness is triggered by difficult event and you feel sad about it. Sadness requires something to have happened. You are sad about something – that you lost the game, failed the test, broke your arm, that your friend died, that you lost your job, or someone stole your favourite thing. Sadness gets easier over time as we go through grieving, when something changes for the better, the hurt fades and we feel better.[iii] Depression doesn’t require a “cause”. It can start from something bad happening, but then it doesn’t fade.
It’s a mental illness, and it’s easiest to understand as such. It’s like a broken bone, a virus, or crones, or an allergy. You can’t just make it go away. If someone broke their arm in an accident, you wouldn’t tell them to think positive and it’ll get better, right? Or, if someone had the flu, you wouldn’t counsel them to pretend that they didn’t have the flu, would you? Depression is an illness. Sometimes it just happens and then sticks around for a long, long time.
Being Depressed Isn’t a Sin
Which leads me to my second point, which is that being depressed isn’t a sin. Regardless of which type you face, whether it comes from inside you or outside, it is not a sin to be depressed. It may feel like it sometimes, and may lead you to all sorts of sinful temptation, but depression in itself is not a sin.
David, the author of some of the most beautiful psalms of worship, also faced some times of deep despair where he spends whole seasons of his life crying out to God. In Psalm 6:6 he says, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye Wastes away because of grief.”. He terribly depressed, but his pain is never represented as a sin.
Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in scripture, powerful in word and deed, a worker of miracles and a mighty man of God – and yet in the end we see him in a dark depression and totally afraid. He cries out that he feels totally alone, yet there were thousands of believers around him. He runs away terrified of a pagan queen, even though God has already protected him dozens of times. After seeing God come in power through one of the most amazing miracles in scripture, he takes off, falls to the ground, won’t get up, and wants to die. Yet, this wasn’t ever presented as sin. What we see is God lovingly taking care of him instead. (1 Kings 18-19)
ob is another example of a person who faced depression. Horrible things happened to him – his family died, his possessions were lost, his health destroyed – and he cries out for death, wishing he was never born, hating his life, bitter in soul, terrified of every moment that it’s never going to end and that it will only get worse (3:11, 3:26, 10:1, 30:15-17).
And, though I must tread carefully here, I believe that Jesus Himself faced not only sadness and grief, but true depression. It says in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus is able to understand our weaknesses because he was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. Isaiah 53:3 calls Jesus a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. I think there are a few places that show us times when Jesus faced deep sadness, and possible depressive episodes, but I believe that it is in the Garden of Gethsemane, moments before His arrest, trial and crucifixion, that we see true depression. He says to His friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…”. Jesus, who that He came as the only one who could save mankind from sin by dying on the cross, actually asks God to stop the mission saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”. It hurts too much. Everything inside of Him screams to just give up. He’s in such mental, spiritual, emotional agony, that His sweat comes as drops of blood.
Depression Effects Everyone
Which brings me to my third point, which is that depression is extremely common, that many people are facing it right now, and whether you have it or not, it’s probably affecting someone you know.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). That’s a two-fold promise. First, that we will have trouble, and one of those troubles is mental illness and circumstances that lead to deep sadness and depression.
In fact, these troubles, including depression, are often given by God. Job, in 16:12, says, “I was at ease, and he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces…”. Job’s trials were God’s idea.
When Jesus walked the earth He and the disciples came upon a man who was born blind. “And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2-3)The man suffered through many trials, since birth – and this in a society that didn’t have much help for people with physical handicaps – because God decided to make him blind. Why? Not because of sin, but because God had a unique, special plan for his life that required him to have a certain kind of weakness.
A synagogue leader’s little girl, and Jesus’ good friend Lazarus needed to get sick and die so people could see that Jesus had the power to raise the dead.
The Apostle Paul was used by God to heal many people’s diseases so they would know he was a true messenger of God’s Word, but when he begged God to remove his own source of constant pain and frustration, God said no. “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (1 Cor 12:9)
Sometimes our struggles are because of the effects of sin in the world, that we are surrounded by evil, under Satan’s dominion, in a world touched by the curse. Sometimes our pain is a result of people sinning against us, their own sin causing us permanent damage. But the Bible is also clear that sometimes God chooses to bless people by giving them or someone they love, or someone in their church, the gift of suffering – including what we’re talking about today, mental illness and depression.
I know that sounds strange, but it’s what scripture teaches. We wouldn’t have Psalm 23 if David hadn’t gone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We wouldn’t know of the Passover if Israel hadn’t spent 400 years in captivity. Job wouldn’t have stood out as a man of God and example of faith if he hadn’t faced such deep trials. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, all faced deep hurts, trials and pain – but are also written down in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith. And there are many more in scripture.
Their faith in God, the faith of those around them, and those who would read their stories after, grew because of the trials they faced. They were deeper people because of their suffering. (Romans 5:3-5)
And it’s not just biblical figures either. CS Lewis, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John Bunyan, and many, many faithful Christians through the ages have all suffered with depression. Not sadness, not melancholy, but deep, dark, often overwhelming depression. And yet, their faith, dependence and love for God grew. They were and are mightily used by God. Depression affects everyone, but it is not always a bad thing.
That’s where I want to leave it this week. Next week I want to look at some biblical ways that we can think about and face depression when it comes, but for now I want you to think and pray about what we’ve already learned today.
I want you to admit that depression is real and that you or someone you love may be facing it, and I want you to realize that you are not alone – but more than that, that God has a plan for it for your good and His glory.
I want you to pay attention over the next week when the blues creep in, and I want you to know that your sadness, depression, and desire for comfort isn’t a sin, but it can lead you to temptations – and to be on guard for those times.
And finally, I want you to pray for those who are facing depression. Pray they will find healing, hope and peace in Jesus – and that we as a church will show them love, patience, kindness, grace and understanding.