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Even the most gifted, most intelligent, most capable Christians can suffer from depression. Here’s how the Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton, Ashbel Green (1762-1848) described his bouts of melancholy in his autobiography:

Having again mentioned my melancholy, I will saw a few words as to the manner in which it affected both my body and my mind. I was, during the various seasons of this afflictive complaint, entirely free from any imagination that my body had become glass, or of enormous bulk, or a fear to move lest I should fall in pieces. No conceit of this sort ever affected me at all. My complaint may have been attended, and I think it was, by some apprehensions that were delusive, as thinking that slight bodily affections might prove mortal; but after some experience I learned to disregard all these. No, my melancholy consisted in a settled gloom of mind, accompanied with spiritual difficulties of the most distressing character. (The Life of Ashbel Green, 301-302)

In his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Green goes into more detail about the “peculiar character of my spiritual difficulties and temptations.”

But there are some temptations and of the most terrific kind, sometimes called “fiery darts of the devil,” which seem to proceed immediately from this fearful enemy. A flood of blasphemous, strange, horrible, dismaying and overwhelming thoughts, or, as I would rather call them imaginations, are sometimes poured in on the soul.Sometimes such thoughts, in a more separate and unconnected manner, rise up in the mind, or are suddenly and unaccountably darted into: and having once entered they are renewed from day to day, till the sufferer is harassed and tormented almost beyond endurance; and perhaps is distressed with the apprehension of having committed the unpardonable sin, and is even tempted to self-destruction. (468)

Green goes on to say that people of melancholy or nervous temperament are most likely to suffer from these afflictions, but even people of the best spirits and most eminent piety are not immune to these temptations.

So what can be done? Green offers four pieces of advice borne out of personal experience, biblical insight, and common sense (469-470).

1. Keep in mind that the temptation itself is not sin. The Lord Jesus was afflicted with fierce temptations, and yet he did not sin. Do not confuse the fiery darts of the Evil One with your own moral failure.

2. Remember that we cannot reason away melancholy and unbidden thoughts. “All recalling them, or thinking them over–to which there is often a strange propensity–is to renew their impression and increase their strength.”

3. Keep lifting up your heart to “the once tempted and now glorified Redeemer.” Don’t run from Christ in your depression. Run to him for strength, for grace, and for protection. A broken heart and contrite spirit he will not deny.

4. Avoid idleness and solitude as much as possible. Don’t retreat. Stick with others. Listen to their sane counsel when your world feels like madness.

From my pastoral experience, this sounds like very wise counsel from a good and godly man who had experienced many dark nights of the soul. If nothing else, let if be an encouragement to you and those you care about that one as impressive and accomplished as Ashbel Green endured such deep depression. Even more encouraging: we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness.

 


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37 thoughts on “When Christians Suffer from Depression”

  1. A must read book on this subject is by Puritan Timothy Rogers, who likewise suffered from debilitating depression, even attempting suicide several times. It is called “Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy”.

    http://www.amazon.com/Trouble-Disease-Melancholy-Puritan-Writings/dp/1573581208

  2. Thanks for the post. Balancing Numbers 3 and 4, for me, seem to be critical.

  3. Claire says:

    This verse has been helpful for me: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
    he breaks out against all sound judgment” Proverbs 18:1. And thanks for your words of wisdom, Kevin.

  4. Sarah Norton says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been dealing with depression for 17 years and have been a Christian for only a year and a half. It is so encouraging to hear about men of God who dealt with depression. #3 and #4 are the things I struggle most with. And his first tip is so encouraging, it’s ok to be tempted but we must not sin in the midst of our temptation. Thank you.

  5. L. Westerlund says:

    Do you notice what is missing here? The concept of depression as an illness to be treated, rather than as a spiritual battle. Also, any mention of professional counseling, though there is the wise advice not to absent ourselves from
    fellowship with other believers when God is allowing the trial of depression. That fellowship will properly include exhortation as well as sympathy and encouragement, much as John Newton tried to do with his friend, William Cowper. And may I suggest that writing this lack off as a function of the date when this was written, makes us guilty of “chronological snobbery” to quote C. S, Lewis (though from Barfield originally, I think.)? I believe, and my experience and observation supports this, that these wise words describe a Biblical path to renewed joy, in God’s
    time.

  6. Melody says:

    Thanks for writing/sharing this Kevin! I’ve struggled with depression from time to time and I’ve found having a group of friends who are strong Christians to be one of the best helps for it. We get together weekly and pray together and it doesn’t seem like that should make such a difference but it has been huge for me. The other thing I find helpful is to memorize scripture that I need frequently. I started with Philippians 4:4-9 because I found myself looking it up so frequently. I pray through it when I feel like I can’t cope. But I’ve memorized a number of helpful passages now and the other helpful thing is that when I start to tell myself lies about myself or God or life, those verses often pop up on their own and remind me of the truth.

  7. anaquaduck says:

    Days of darkness still come o’er me,
    Sorrow’s path I often tread,
    But His presence still is with me;
    By His guiding hand I’m led.

    F.H. Rowley

  8. Dave says:

    I have sever depression as a result of changes in the brain from Parkinson’s Disease. With medication I stay afloat. When I sink there is no rationality in me to take any step to get out or recognize what is occurring until my wife intervenes.
    I guess , Mr. Westlund I am lost. For years I worked to manage the disease as you suggest with no success.
    There is another well known Puritan pastor, referred by Pastor Piper in one of his books, who recognizes multiple causes for depression. He advises in some case to see a medical doctor.

  9. L. Westerlund says:

    Dear Dave,
    I am glad you responded here to what I wrote. I was concerned after I wrote it that it might be a cause of stumbling. I am sorry–I do not want to do that. Certainly there can be biological causes for depression, and certainly, medication can help. You do not write as one who is lost, but as one who is struggling. I have not walked in your shoes. It sounds like your wife is a provision from God. Please forgive me for any stress I caused.

  10. Manders says:

    Also very helpful for me and my struggle with depression is William Cowper’s story–crushed by despair, thought God was out to get him, and yet he wrote lines like “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.” Of course, he also had a great friend and pastor in John Newton, who bombarded him with love and the truth of the gospel through all his pain. I’m blessed to have a lot of people in my life who’ve done the same.

  11. Dave says:

    I do Mr. Westerlund. It is am certain of. Medical causation as I am certain of spiritual warfare or simple not taking proper care of ones self i.e. lack of sleep.
    However, I begin to question then doubt myself with the debate which appears on going in conservative Christian circles as to the nature and cause of depression.
    No Christian wants to believe and practice wrong. I seen and been told in this forum, maybe not this blog, my depression is not biological. What is layperson to do?
    I am exhausted dealing with depression and all its effects. I do not need to be concerned about being more of a sinner then I am because I use meds.
    I am going to bed. Just joking.

  12. Doug says:

    Some good thoughts above….but remember: depression can be both a spiritual battle and have physiological causes. No one asks Christians to simply spiritually “fight against” asthma, debilitating allergies or epilepsy. A chemical imbalance is not sin. Seek help from counselors and medical professionals as needed friends. Depression does not have to overwhelm you. I am living proof.

  13. Craig says:

    Dave, when Christians suffer from cancer or diabetes or pneumonia, we see the doctor; why should it be different when it comes to depression? Depression is an illness related to the brain, which is a part of our physical body, And we are embodied souls. Don’t feel discouraged by people who tell you that medication is inappropriate to treat your disease.

  14. Fred says:

    I suffered from depression for several years and took medication for it. However, for me, I discovered that I was depressed because I was out of God’s will and refused to acknowledge it (yes – for a few years!); I was not serving faithfully in the ministry to which He had called me. I couldn’t imagine life without meds, but it happened. David, in Ps. 32, speaks of God’s hand being heavy upon him because of his unconfessed sin, and this was similar to my experience of being out of God’s will. In my case (I repeat – in my case), the meds were only masking something I really needed to deal with once and for all.

  15. anaquaduck says:

    There are no doubt different kinds of depression & oppression of which some afflict the soul in a most grevious way. Ps 42. Medicine is a blessing from God that can be utilised in a universal way to help in suffering from depression. I think the post was addressing a spiritual battle which does take its toll on the mind & body also.

  16. Dave says:

    Fred:

    Please clarify. Is sin the only reason for depression? Or, were you illustrating there can be multiple cause based on your case?
    The most difficult issue I have is identifying a Christian counsel who can separate spiritual from biological causes, then provide appropriate treatment, not psychobabble.
    You guy have been an encouragement. Thanks

  17. Lisa B. says:

    So thankful for this blog post today! And blessed by reading the gracious conversation between Dave and Mr Weaterlund. To God be the glory for brothers and sisters who are gracious, gentle and seek for the others good!

  18. Lisa B. says:

    Mr Westerlund*

  19. Fred says:

    Dave,

    You hit upon a key issue of depression – does it arise from emotional, spiritual, or physiological causes? Friends have told me that treating depression is the same as treating diabetes or heart disease; but as I understand it, there is no objective laboratory test to indicate that serotonin levels in the brain are not normal. So it seems all a doctor has to go on when prescribing an anti-depressant is what the patient tells him. But isn’t dealing with pain and suffering part of life?

    I think that difficult circumstances (e.g., loss of a loved one; losing one’s job) can certainly lead to depression. And speaking of circumstances, I was downsized from my job at the end of April of this year after quite a while at the company. It hurt, I was confused, and things seemed uncertain. I could easily have gone back to the meds; but the psalm I quote below really helped me get my focus back on God and off of myself. I know that the word of God is living and active, and that as we submit to it we have, along with prayer, the greatest resource in the world to help us in our emotional and spiritual struggles.

    “I cried out to God with my voice -To God with my voice; And He gave ear to me. 2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; My soul refused to be comforted.

    3 I remembered God, and was troubled; I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah 4 You hold my eyelids [open]; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I have considered the days of old, The years of ancient times.

    6 I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, And my spirit makes diligent search.

    7 Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He be favorable no more? 8 Has His mercy ceased forever? Has [His] promise failed forevermore? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah 10 And I said, “This [is] my anguish; [But I will remember] the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

    Ps. 77:1-10 NKJV

  20. Dave says:

    Fred:
    I think you are saying there is no proven biological cause for depression so the only way to treat it is spiritually. Correct me if I am wrong.
    I have learned recently on autopsy there are signs of low or no serotonin. I do not know if the source is correct but it is credible.
    Then there are people like me with Parkinson’s. There is no doubt portions of the brain are. being damaged and die. That in turn causes chemical changes leading to depression. Surely that is worth of medical treatment including antidepressants?
    Yet, the biological depression can be made worse when I live in a sinful manner. It also becomes worse for reasons related only to the disease.
    If there is any sin in biological depression it is original sin or allowing it to take ones eyes off Jesus.
    There are people who have depression for cause similar to yours and for no other reason.
    There are others, I understand, whom are depressed and have had no treatment. These folks have a brain that haas changed. With a short corse of meds as part of there recovery they are able to think again in a rational manner, make changes in their life and stop the meds.
    Depression is a multifaceted disease and depending which side represents ones condition determines the treatment.
    Jesus did not treat every sickness or condition he healed as caused by sin even when no one new the cause of the persons illness.
    I hope you will reconsider your position Fred.

    I do no think I can tap much more out on this iPhone with these old eyes tonight.
    Good night Kevin.
    Kevin: good night Fred
    Fred: etc.

  21. Fred says:

    Dave,

    My comments were not addressing depression as a result of an existing medical condition; in no way am I qualified to speak on that. Of course depression can be treated with medication, with the idea of serotonin levels returning to normal; but the issue is we can’t know for certain that the levels were low to begin with.

    As I mentioned in my initial post, I did not want to continue to take medication that led me to believe things were ok when they were not. Sure I felt better, could function better – but at what cost? I felt I was deceiving myself and using medication to cover up problems instead of confronting them biblically, instead of turning to God and allowing him to change me from the inside out. The issue is different when it comes to using medication for, say, a heart valve problem or liver disease. But depression is often referred to as a mental illness.

    I know how much depression hurts. I know the hopelessness and emptiness it can cause. But I also know that in Rom. 12:2, the apostle Paul affirms that we can be transformed by the renewing of our mind. I am frequently asking God to search my heart and to know me, to test me and know my anxious thoughts. I doubt I would do this if antidepressants were leading me to believe things were ok spiritually and emotionally when in fact things were were not ok.

    I decided I wanted to experience, unmediated by medication, the tears, the heartache, the heaviness that life can sometimes bring, as the Jews must have experienced during their captivity in Babylon:

    5 Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. 6 He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves [with him].

    Ps. 126:5-6 NKJV

  22. L. Westerlund says:

    Since my initial comment brought this issue to the fore, or, some would say, opened this can of worms, I’d like to add a further comment. I was not intending to address individuals who are depressed. I rejoice and thank God for what Fred writes of turning to the living Word of God, because I know, that is right and pleases God, and also because I have seen the power of God when we trust Him. But I also have compassion for the real suffering of Dave, and, not knowing him personally, have no right to address his individual situation. My post was written out of concern that the church at large has bought into some secular assumptions that are not Biblical, and this has been harmful to sinning, suffering Christians. I have found the newsletter Psychoheresy very helpful. I know it is controversial, but when I read it, i feel like at last someone is being true to the Word of God, and saying what I have increasingly come to believe. The church would do well to heed the warnings the authors give. The theological roots are a humanistic Gospel which sees sin as a problem to me, rather than a heinous offense to God, requiring the delivering up of His own Son. To illustrate, is a problem with bitterness or anxiety something that messes up my life, and needs to be helped with professional counseling, or are these emotions sins that need to be confessed, and brought to the Lord who sympathizes with our weaknesses, and does not leave us there, but works in our heart?
    Grace and peace to all,

  23. Dave says:

    Fred:
    Thanks for the continued exchange. Maybe it is because I am sensitive to the issue but it appears you continue to say it is a choice to medicate or choose scripture.
    At the same time if you are not gualified to talk to medical cause of depression how can you determine when it is a medical or spiritual issue.
    Maybe I am missing your point altogether, which is very possible.

  24. Fred says:

    Consider the following verse from Psalm 42:11, where the author is really down and severely depressed (i.e., suffering from mental illness):

    “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.”

    He has a dialogue with his own soul about his depression. As he works through it he comes to realize that hoping in God is the answer. There were no mood-altering drugs back then and this guy was seriously depressed. Yet he turned to God and hoped in Him.

    Could it be we become depressed because we no longer have a living and active relationship with God – that He has slipped out of the picture for whatever reason? That the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, His strong comfort, are gone? Pills won’t help that situation – only returning to God will.

  25. Dave says:

    Fred:
    Unfortunately, you never answer the question directly.
    The Psalms are highly stylistic Hebrew poetry. They need to be understood correctly in context. Also, application must be as intended.
    You add an interpretation to support your position. The scripture does not address cause. To assume no meds existed is historically inaccurate. Herbs have been used forever to treat various health problem. Nothing in that passage implies going to God and getting ones relationship right is the only treatment appropriate for Christians. It could be taken as plea for physical healing which occurred.
    With this I am done with this discussion. To go further would not be fruitful.

  26. Richard UK says:

    Green’s points 1 and 2 contradict each other

    His point 3 is contrary to the whole nature of depression wherein one feels Christ has abandoned you – and this you probably feel because of bad teaching from your church about performance

    4. ‘Listen to their sane counsel’ – well this is again inconsistent to the wise advice of point 2. Most of Job’s comforters gave awful advice – the best thing they did was to sit silently with him for a week

    I do wonder of Green had suffered the full horror of deep clinical depression

  27. Paul Ridgewell says:

    Thank you for this post. The best book I have read on depression is by David Murray Christians Get Depressed Too.

  28. JL says:

    Though the excerpt given from Ashbel Green autobiography does not mention a medical treatment, Mr. Green did, in fact, use medical treatment to relieve his “melancholy.” He speaks of it elsewhere in his autobiography. Medicine back then, however, wasn’t that great (and there was no knowledge of brain chemistry, etc.), and he expressed the opinion that the treatment didn’t help. But he didn’t reject medical treatment, and it is incorrect to draw that conclusion from such a brief excerpt.

  29. Hope says:

    Thank you for sharing this Kevin

  30. Dan Davis says:

    The length of the comments on this blog are proof that depression is of interest to many Christians. Saul himself suffered from depression and David soothed his depression with music, which Saul didn’t appreciate! The topic of depressing should be addressed from every pulpit in the country. Robin Williams’ death brought the topic back into the spotlight. We should not miss this opportunity!

  31. Richard UK says:

    Dan – you are right

    In one sense you might expect Christians to be more, not less, prone to depression because they become a walking civil war within whom spiritual forces battle to the death

    We have a theology of the cross. Claims that we should be ever above the clouds, in happiness at our promised journey’s end, are essentially Gnostic thinking that we can leave behind this vale of sorrows right now

  32. Richard UK says:

    Incidentally poor Robin Williams was clearly a bipolar (manic) depressive, which is another (much worse) fish to fry – Type I would be my guess, and possibly Type III

    For that lithium is often prescribed but has so many side effects that people often ditch it.

    A friend’s mother had paranoid schizophrenia and saw rats everywhere. Reasoning with her (including bible encouragement) would not work, but the meds drove the rats away.

    Maybe the rats would go without meds, but perhaps only by the prayer (and fasting?) of someone else. We do not do enough to enter into the lives of the afflicted. James (much loved by conservative evangelicals) comments acidly on this

  33. Richard UK says:

    Kevin

    I notice in a parallel blog you write

    “Run to Christ. Be forgiven. Die to self. Get happy. Follow Christ. Live forever”.

    Perhaps this is a little jejeune in the light of the plight of Green and now Williams??

  34. RH says:

    Although I haven’t read every comment, I do know that contending earnestly for the faith includes the battle for the mind and heart involving tearing down strongholds and everything that raises itself against the knowledge of God. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus and think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy while praying continually, giving thanks in all circumstances and being joyful always. I can testify to having failed miserably. Practicing the disciplines of faith is very important, but I had little success in experiencing joy. However, a doctor suggested having genetic testing done and found I have a methylation polymorphism. (50% of the American population has at least one methylation polymorphism also called snps, defects, or mutations). The good news: depression caused by methylation defects can be alieviated with targeted nutrition. Please consider eating a very healthy diet with raw dark green leafy vegetables every day. Having abundant micronutrients as well as the most active form of folate (L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate) in the diet keeps the folate and methylation cycles going in one’s metabolism without which a person cannot make sufficient serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin. Without enough of those, one may feel depressed and incapable of sleeping well, compounding the problem. However, there are nutritional workarounds. For anyone dealing with depression, it would be worth your while to learn about methylation as it is better to deal with the cause rather than cover up the symptoms with medications while the condition worsens. Polymorphisms change enzymes so they don’t work as well. The issue is complex, and it may take some effort to find a doctor experienced in dealing with methylation defects. Please don’t try to be your own doctor in this, some people can take folate and do well, but others have to be much more careful and slowly go step-by-step. Look for a doctor who practices functional medicine and works with methylation defects. If you can’t do that, ask your doctor to learn about it. There are conferences and online trainings offering CEU’s.

  35. We have a wonderful website that will bless many suffers of depression, sadness, worry, fear and such of the like. Here it is: http://ibelieveireceive.org/wordpress/2014/03/19/soaking-prayer/ If you are led please go to our home page which is titled, “I believe I receive In Jesus Name,” and donate $1 or more for the work of the gospel. It is a good website to bookmark. God bless you all. Jesus Is Lord.

  36. Dave Boettcher says:

    I researched the 10/30/14 post by Darryl Crawford and the link provided. It is associated with George Pearsons pastor at Eagle Mountain International Church, an arm of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, in Newark, Texas. Pearsons is married to Terri Pearsons who is Copeland’s oldest daughter.[It is a name it, claim it site for fundraising “just $1″ to help us. I would bet from that an email address is obtained and the giver is asked for more and more cash.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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