Unbreakable Promises: Depression and Faith
Depression and mental illness are so prevalent in the lives of people around us, yet we often feel under-equipped to talk about them. Mental illnesses are complex and painful, yet as Christians we are called to love others and love them well, knowing that God is present and in control.
So, we're really glad that Emma is writing today, as someone studying clinical depression, to take us through some of the biggest questions: what is depression? How is it affecting our friends and family members who suffer? How can we support others well? How can we speak about mental illness and still point to God's almighty love? I believe these are hugely important questions to tackle. We want to encourage you to be informed about mental illness, but more importantly we want you to believe and be confident that God is present in everything, even in a life that is overwhelmed with the weight and burden of depression. He is always working for our good and our future glory.
For many years now, I have watched someone I love struggle to fight the black cloud of depression. Seeing them in pain and not knowing how to help them has been unbearable at times. But the worst thing has been not being able to understand what they’re going through.
There is a certain lack of understanding in today’s society about mental illness. Several charities and campaigns are working hard to increase people’s understanding of what it is to suffer from mental illness and how we can respond. It’s a difficult thing to talk about; it is an illness that lives in your head... how can anyone possibly relate or understand what you’re going through? I have little experience of depression being talked about in church. I’ve only heard it mentioned once or twice in churches that I’ve attended, and that was only through prayer. I’ve never heard a sermon on depression. With 1 in 4 people experiencing some sort of mental health problem every year, why is it not spoken about more?
When preparing to write this piece, I did a little research about what attitudes to mental illness, depression in particular, are being talked about in the church. I listened to a couple of talks and read a few articles that, while well written, in my opinion, just didn’t get it. One article argued that depression is caused by lingering sin in our lives and that we need to learn to have more faith and trust God more to be healed. I do not agree. I would like to start straight off by saying that, if you are currently suffering from depression or have done in the past, it is not because there is something wrong with you. It is not a character flaw, a personality trait, nor is it a lack of faith or disobedience to God. Depression is a disease. Depression does not take into account your faith: you can be as much a Christian with depression as you can be a Christian with diabetes.
I think it’s important to understand what exactly depression is and how it can manifest itself. While the biology of depression is not completely understood yet, the widest theory states that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, which then affects a person’s mood and behaviours. There is also a genetic link to depression, with scientists in recent years narrowing it down to a specific chromosome.
The word depression is thrown around very lightly in our conversations, but depression is not just feeling a bit sad or low every now and then – everyone feels that from time to time. Here, I’m talking about what is called ‘clinical depression’, whether it is diagnosed or not. Dorothy Rowe describes depression as ‘a prison where you are both the suffering prisoner and the cruel jailer’. Through my counselling training, I’ve learnt that common signs of depression may include a constant feeling of being low, lack of sleep, disinterest or lack of pleasure in activities, loss of energy and motivation, physical pain and feelings of worthlessness, just to name a few. We all feel like sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, but for people with depression, it can be an unbelievably enormous burden. Life seems too hard to even try and the better option is to stay in bed, protected from the world.
While these symptoms can be indicators of depression, we must understand that it is a unique disease that will affect each person differently. Some people may not exhibit these signs in public, if at all. Someone may tell you they have depression and you may be surprised – they always seem so happy and cheerful on the outside, but we cannot know the pain they are keeping hidden.
There seems to be an attitude among some Christians that depression should not exist if you have faith or that because we have the gift of grace, we have nothing to be sad about. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this breed resentment and guilt, leading people to believe that their illness means they have a lack of faith, or are a bad Christian. More guilt is bred when sinning behaviour is modified yet the depression still doesn’t go away. This is so far from the truth that God wants us to believe.
Depression is the by-product of a sinful world, not the by-product of your personal sin.
And equally, taking a pill for depression is taking a pill for a broken body. Not a broken soul.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge believer in the healing power of prayer. There are stories in the Bible of God lifting people out of depression. In 1 Kings 9:4-5, we see that it got so bad for Elijah, that he wanted to die .
‘He asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life...”’.
I have seen God heal people in unimaginable and impossible ways, and yes, I do believe God can lift people out of the darkness of depression. I’ve heard stories of it happening and I’ve seen the change in people. We should always pray but we should keep in mind that depression is incredibly complex. In the Bible, God healed people of their depression, but they also didn’t have access to the technology and knowledge that we have today. God has given it to us – we should not deny its use.
But sometimes one of the most painful side effects is that you feel far from God, unworthy of his love. After all, He has given you grace and power and strength – how come you can’t overcome this? We are promised that if we cast our burdens on the Lord he will look after us. He will sustain us, carry us and protect us. But even though we believe this as Christians, and even though the Bible promises us this, in the midst of depression, it can feel like a lie. People can remind us to count it all as joy, when you meet hard times. I’ve met many people with an incredibly strong faith, but no matter how hard they try and how strongly they believe it, they cannot feel that joy. They cannot feel joy the joy in suffering and hurting. They ask God ‘why me?’ and He doesn’t seem to answer.
When a child dies of cancer and a mother questions how God possibly let that happen and still be loving and good, it is difficult to understand why. I believe that the answer is sometimes this: ‘because I am using you’. It is the same with depression. You don’t know how God is using you through your experience of depression. It may be that someone you told about it finds the courage to get help themselves. It may be that someone feels a little less alone in their struggle. It might not be that profound; it might just be that you learn something about yourself that you didn’t realise before. But it is also important to remember that, as Christians, we are not exempt from suffering.
If you are in the midst of depression or in a dark place, please know that God is with you. He will provide you with people to pray with you, doctors with the knowledge to understand this illness and treatments like counselling and medication to treat it. Even if you can’t feel Him and a way out seems impossible, He is there. God promised that he would look after you, and He does not break His promises.
How do we react to people with depression?
Chances are you know someone in your family or circle of friends who suffers from depression. For us on the outside, it can be incredibly difficult to understand what they are going through or how to help them.
- Don’t judge. Depression is not logical. Chances are, your friend already knows the wonderful things in their life and how much worse other people have it –it will only create guilt to be reminded of it.
- Be selfless. Conversation works by sharing and comparing experiences. It is likely that you will know someone who has experienced a similar situation, but depression is different for each person. Presuming to understand how they feel or sharing your experiences can feel condescending, no matter how well meaning it may be.
- Just listen. As tempting as it can be, try not to offer solutions or advice, but instead just listen to what your friend has to say. Just being a witness to someone’s story can be incredibly healing.
- Don’t push. Your friend has been incredibly brave in sharing their story. While you may want to encourage them to seek professional help, whether through prayer or counselling, they may not be ready for it.
- Get support. Supporting someone with depression can take a huge emotional toll on you. It is absolutely vital that you take steps to support yourself, like finding someone to talk to, so that you don’t find yourself overloaded or weighed down.
- Love gently. Someone with depression cannot just ‘snap out of it’. Being patient, and just being there for your loved one when they ask for it can be an incredible gift.
Emma lives and works in the fabulous city of Leeds with her husband, Tim. She has a passion for encouraging those who are low in spirit and loves to hear stories of God's perfect timing. Her favourite things include a good latte, travelling, eating dessert for breakfast, dim sum and making people happy with food.
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