Experts estimate that approximately 20% of U.S. adults will struggle with some form of mental illness each year. One of the many ways this manifests itself is in a battle with depression. Doctors, counselors, psychologists, and other professionals attribute many different causes to depression. For the best results, it is best to seek a holistic plan addressing many of the potential contributors. Some Christians will say that is is sinful and wrong to seek medical treatment. I would humbly disagree with this sentiment. It is wise in the midst of dealing with depression to seek help from a doctor. However, there are times where the cause of depression (whether in part or in whole) is spiritual in nature.
Throughout our years many will be in and out of what John Bunyan described as the “Doubting Castle of the Giant Despair.” Ever crucial is the need to develop deep, lasting “friendships” with several Christ-centered books on the subject.
Several of John Piper’s books are especially capable of enriching one through his writings during times of darkness and struggle. Especially encouraging are several volumes in his Swans Are Not Silent series, including The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, and The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce. The Hidden Smile of God examines depression in the life of the hymn writer William Cowper. John Newton was a personal friend who frequently ministered to Cowper in his depressive state and even collaborated on a hymnal together. One of the most profound hymns Cowper ever wrote (from the depths of his depression) was “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
You may not be familiar with the hymn, but it wisely and thoughtfully directs the heart away from its anxieties, cares, and fears, toward the providence, presence and mercies of God. Through the years the Lord used this hymn to minister to me time and time again. (It can be sung to the tunes “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”) Some of the most meaningful verses have been:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His feet upon the wave
and rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
with blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord with feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning Providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast
Upholding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
but sweet will be the flower
In addition to Scripture, there are several other books including Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, If I’m a Christian, Why Am I Depressed by Robert Somerville, Deserted by God by Sinclair Ferguson, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (especially Chapter 14, “The Giant Despair”), All Things for Good by Thomas Watson, and Behind a Frowning Providence (taken from Cowper’s hymn) by John Murray that are excellent resources for the Christian struggling with depression, to name a few.
One most highly recommended is Spiritual Depression. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh medical doctor called to the pastorate. He blends his knowledge of both disciplines to address the spiritual and the medical elements of depression. In the first chapter he observes, “… there are large numbers of Christian people who give the impression of being unhappy. They are cast down, their souls are ‘disquieted within them’, and it is because of that that I am calling attention to the subject” (p. 10). Then, near the end of the chapter he states what I believe is the “key” to overcoming spiritual depression:
“I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allow ‘ourselves’ to talk to us! Do your realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience.”
“The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself, You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ – what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’ – instead of mutter in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’… That is the essence of the treatment in a nutshell… The essence of this matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled” (pp. 20-21).
This principle obviously has far-reaching applications for other areas of the Christian life as well. The challenge, as with everything, is actually putting this into practice and becoming a “doer of the Word.”
One of the misconceptions of Christianity is that Christians are supposed to be happy all of the time. Strangely enough, as we read the Psalms there are times that the Psalmist sounds as if he could be diagnosed with chronic depression. Jeremiah was called “the weeping prophet” and even wrote a book of the Bible called Lamentations. Our God is and authentic God. He wants us to come to Him as we are and will meet us in our joy, in our suffering, in our celebration and in our depression.
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David Blosat was raised in Pittsburgh, PA and came to faith in Christ at age 16. He has served 40 years in bi-vocational pastoral ministries and roles in several Southern California churches. He began attending Calvary Nexus in 2008; currently serves as assistant administrator in the School of Ministry and conducts services at a local senior home. He enjoys hiking, lifting weights, guitars, Great Danes and the music of J.S. Bach.