Depression Among Believers is Alive and Hell
My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent,
that reason seemed to totter in her throne,
and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again.
-Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles Spurgeon,
recounting her husband’s depression
Thank God Charles Spurgeon was as honest as he was brilliant.
This “Prince of Preachers” readily admitted to severe bouts of depression, and I don’t just mean “the blues.” I mean the debilitating, overwhelming sort which leaves you comatose with despair. Listen to how he described
“I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooseth strangling rather than life’ [Job 7:15]. I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself, to escape from my misery of spirit.”
Depression doesn’t discriminate. It plagues people from all walks, and sometimes it does more than plague.
A prominent church here in Southern California got the crushing news on Monday that their lead pastor, a handsome, gifted 30-year old husband and father of three, had ended his own life after a long struggle with this beast.
Perhaps hoping to help just such a young minister, Spurgeon explained why he felt compelled to be honest about his own battles:
“Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone right joyously did not always walk in the light.”
You gotta love this guy. He admitted his struggles without yielding to them, and he had the grace to share them, knowing that others would take heart and realize they’re not alone in that dark experience we call depression.
In doing so, he made a few points we could take note of.
First, depression happens
Everyone is occasionally sad; everyone has “off” days. That’s not what we’re talking about here. The difference between common sadness and literal depression is like the difference between a headache and a migraine. Headaches are common and transient; migraines are an agony which knocks you flat.
If you’ve never had one, good for you. But when someone else gets one, please don’t assume you know first hand what their pain is like, because the headaches you’ve had won’t compare to the migraines they’re enduring.
So it is with the difference between routine sadness and depression. Real depression knocks you flat. It’s not just a mood, it’s a drowning. When you’re depressed, you’re plunged under, and every word and move takes
It’s like walking in waist-deep Jello, inching along and getting, it
On top of it all is the overarching, overwhelming sense that there’s no hope, no remedy, no way out. Except …
Yeah, that’s how it starts. If you’ve never been there, good for you. But when someone else is, please don’t make light of their pain. The episodes of sadness you’ve had won’t compare to the miseries they’re enduring.
I should know. I’ve been clinically depressed, ready to end it, utterly hopeless. Depression is the migraine of sadness, the last stop before throwing in the towel. It happens, and when it does, it’s horrible
Depression happens to Christians
Did I mention I was a Christian when I fought my worst battles with depression? Yup. Call me a failure if you will, but that’s how it played out. Being born again did not, at least in my case (and I suspect many others) exempt me from this condition. I can think of a few reasons for this.
First, at least a part of depression is chemical, having more to do with our makeup than anything else. (I say that with some flexibility – I know people can induce negative chemical reactions with poor dieting or
Second, those of us who are susceptible to depression seem to have temperaments very amenable to this problem. High sensitivity or strains of melancholy in the personality are just of couple of features you’ll often find in us folks, and those are neither pluses or minuses, they’re just realities.
Then there’s sin, and no responsible discussion of depression will neglect this. When I hit the emotional skids, I was not responsible for having a personality susceptible to depression.
But I was definitely responsible for the way I handled my vulnerabilities, and I handled them poorly. Neglect of personal health, bad business and personal decisions, and long works hours were all factors I had control over. I controlled them poorly, and that’s on me.
That’s true even when the depression escalates to the unthinkable. On the one hand, my heart goes out achingly to anyone who’s suicidal, and even more so to the devastated loved ones who lose someone to that awful act
When someone reaches that point, the despair’s become a tsunami, and I really believe that, in many cases, the individual really believes this is the only option left.
On the other hand, we can’t pretend suicide is anything less than a heinous sin. The person who reaches such a point of despair did have, as a free moral agent, the capacity to make better decisions before making that final and lethal one.
Free will is still involved, and no matter how strongly I feel a person is not quite in his right mind when he does such a thing, I believe he is still responsible for allowing himself to reach such an unbalanced state.
The “heaven or hell” issue isn’t a complicated one for me. I believe most Christians die with some amount of un-confessed sin in their lives, so I hardly think we lose our salvation if we’re taken before we have a chance to confess and turn from every transgression.
That being the case, I don’t expect that a believer who takes her or his life will be turned away for eternity. That horrible rejection from God Himself comes, as I understand it, only to those whose names aren’t found in the Book of Life. (I John 5:12; Revelation 20:15)
But that hardly means there’s no chastening or loss at the judgement seat of Christ for such a believer. (I Corinthians 3:13; II Corinthians 5:10) To have the condition of depression is not necessarily a sin. To yield to it via suicide is a grave, horrendous one.
Depression happens to Christians who are leaders
Did I also mention that I was seven years into my own ministry when I nearly succumbed? OK, now you can really start pitching
I was, among many other things, very zealous and fairly stupid. My client load was inexcusably high, my hours way too long for way too many days per week, with no vacation time for way too many months. There were way too many “way too many’s” in my life, and it was poor decisions and lack of management that made it all happen. It was no accident, and I was no victim. It was my bad.
But for others – pastors, for example, or full time evangelists – it may not be that simple. Christian leaders, if they’re worth anything as leaders, are also Christian feelers. They feel deeply, connect strongly, love robustly.
Gad, they’d better. How do you effectively nurture souls you’re not connected with? But our Shepherds pay quite a price for
those connections. If those connections go south, as they often do, pastors feel it right where they live.
I say all of this because right now, as you read this, someone in the Body of Christ is ready to give up. Whether that someone is leader or laity, the potential tragedy is just as great. So maybe now, while discussing the problem of depression in the Church, you and I can recommit ourselves to contributing to a safer, healthier environment in our congregations.
We can show interest in the people we interact with. The Sunday morning greetings during worship are great, but Monday through Saturday inquiries are even greater. We can take enough interest in each other to give and get contact info, interact during the work week, ask each other how we’re managing day to day stresses, and try ensuring that no one in our church feels invisible.
We can encourage the people who serve us. To encourage is not to follow blindly, and if we have problems with our leaders we’ve every right and responsibility to bring them up.
But no Christian worker should be left by the people he or she serves feeling taken for granted or unconsidered. If someone is adding to your life through acts of service or ministry, is an occasional expression of acknowledgement and appreciation really a tall order?
We can try, as wisdom and opportunity allow, to advocate for (cliche alert!) keeping it real. When I’m sipping coffee in our outdoor patio at church, and I casually admit to another church member that I’ve had a lousy week and they’d better be grateful I’m not God because I would have sent everyone to hell, it sorta gets the conversation going.
Depression has less of a foothold when it’s brought to light. Let’s make it OK for anyone in our church to admit they’re struggling, and let’s applaud them when they show the integrity to do something proactive and redemptive about it.
Let’s you and I take our own stewardship seriously, nipping unhealthy tendencies before they have a chance to blossom.
Then let’s make it easy for those whose depressive tendencies have grown into full bloom to say, “Glad you asked. Actually, no, I’m not doing so well, and here’s why …”