Mental illness is something we’ve only recently begun to understand so how do we approach depression as a Christian?
Whilst the word ‘depression’ isn’t used in many translations of the Bible, it actually has plenty to say to people in that situation.
From encouraging passages to examples of famous Bible characters who have gone through similar situations.
And yes, although Christianity provides ways to cope with mental illness, Christians can still experience depression.
So, what does the Bible say about depression, is depression compatible with the Christian life and what can Christians do to help those around them?
We take a look in this post. Further down we also suggest 5 things you can do to alleviate depression.
How should Christians respond to depression?
Despite what some have believed in the past, depression is a real illness.
For some, it can be something they learn to live with. For others it might be a seasonal thing or something which is around for a short time, possibly following a traumatic incident or life event.
It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of and suggesting otherwise doesn’t follow the Bible’s teaching on caring for the sick. After all, as we’ll explore below, there were characters in the Bible who experienced similar things.
Anyone can experience depression as a Christian. The leader of the Anglican church in the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby has spoken in the past about his own struggles with mental illness and how he’s dealt with it.
Ultimately his story offers hope for Christian leaders of overcoming this illness but there are also tragic stories of leaders who didn’t make it. They show how important it is that we are open about what we’re going through and supportive of those who are struggling.
No Christian should be afraid to seek professional medical help when in need of it.
What do Christians believe?
Whilst it’s important that people get medical help if they need it (more on that below) we also believe in a God who cares and heals.
The Bible offers hope to those dealing with depression, that their condition is not the end of the story.
We also believe that nothing is impossible for God and that He does heal real illnesses today. If He can heal someone’s cancer or bad back, why couldn’t He heal mental illness?
This won’t happen all the time, but God always provides what we need when we walk with him. This might mean complete or partial healing, or something else allowing you to do what He’s called you to do.
One thing we do know is that when characters in the Bible experienced depression or something similar, God was with them through it.
Characters in the Bible with depression
Depression looks different for different people, but it can sometimes be characterized as sadness or despair.
Whilst our understanding of the illness is far more advanced than that of the Biblical authors, there’s no doubt it has always existed.
Here’s a few examples of where it pops up in the Bible.
David and the Psalms
The Psalms present a lot of emotions and states of mind. We mentioned this in our post on different types of worship. Whilst many of them are hopeful and optimistic, there are others which express despair, loneliness and anxiety.
Whilst not a Psalm of David, Psalm 88 is notable for being one of the darker and more desperate Psalms in the Psalter. However, there are also those like Psalm 42 which take the reader on a journey. ‘Why, my soul, are you downcast?’ it says in verse 5 but this is followed with a way out through God’s mercy; ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him’.
The story of Jonah presents a stark case of despair towards the end of the book. Jonah has done what God has asked of him, albeit after a 3-day detour in the belly of a fish.
But in chapter 4 we see a Jonah with mixed feelings about what has happened. This leads to him becoming what can only be described as suicidal. “LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” he says in verse 3. This wish for death appears to come from anger but it is an interesting example of a man deeply troubled by his own mind.
Elijah and Jeremiah
Most of the Old Testament prophets go through some tough times. In the accounts of both Elijah and Jeremiah’s ministries there are moments where they are at their lowest, feeling distraught and unable to continue, often also wanting death. In both cases God is faithful.
Perhaps the most famous example of suffering in the Bible is in the book of Job. This is the man who loses everything, so it is no surprise that he suffers with deep anguish, depression, and self-loathing. “I loathe my very life” he says in Job 10:1.
This doesn’t necessarily reflect most people’s experiences of depression, as you don’t need to have gone through a traumatic experience or significant loss to be depressed.
However, it’s interesting that Job remains faithful and steadfast to the Lord throughout this experience. Despite what he goes through, he knows that God is with him.
Yes, even Jesus had moments of despair and being downcast.
In a moment that reveals his humanity, ‘The Man of Sorrows’ cries out to his Father saying, “34 My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death… 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:34-36.
He knows what it is to have a burden that is heavy and painful. As such he joins us in our suffering.
What can you do to alleviate depression as a Christian?
There are of course practical things that we can do to help. These ideas are for those who suffer with depression, but they could also be for people you know.
1. Listen to music/devotionals
A simple way of alleviating your situation is by listening to music or calming meditations and devotionals. There’s even research to suggest that listening to certain kinds of music improves mental health.
There’s lots of ways you can do this, including listening to a playlist on your streaming platform of choice.
It’s also one of the reasons we created Glorify, to provide Christians with a variety of things they can listen to, including devotionals that are relevant to a wide range of life situations and music playlists for different moods. Download the app to check them out.
2. Spend time reading the Bible
As we’ve already mentioned, the Bible includes instances of characters experiencing depression or something similar. We can take encouragement from that that we aren’t alone.
But there’s also a lot in the Bible to encourage us in our darkest moments. There are many passages we could suggest. Here’s a few.
“17 The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
18 The LORD is close to the broken hearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
“Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
This one is relevant because depression is like a thief which can often come when it is least convenient, disrupting our life and making things difficult.
Proverbs 12:25 is a great encouragement for those of us hoping to lift people’s spirits – “anxiety weighs down the heart but a kind word cheers it up.”
3. Worship and be in community
Often if you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is spend time with other people. It can be tempting to do very little at all.
But fighting that urge to do nothing, spending time with people and engaging in worship, generosity and other aspects of church community can often lift our spirits and refresh and renew us.
Of course, going to a big church service might not be helpful for whatever reason, in which case it’s good to find ways that you can experience genuine community without doing that.
4. Change lifestyle
Life circumstances are often to blame for poor mental health. Many things from your situation in work, family, or something else, can drain your life energy and generally make you depressed.
Identifying what these things are, praying that God will make right the situation and making relevant life changes can be key to moving on.
5. See a mental health professional
Ultimately, we want to encourage seeking proper medical help if you or someone you know is experiencing depression.
If that’s the case, you should consider seeing a medical specialist. It may be that after consultation, you decide medical care is required, which could include counselling, therapy and/or medication.
Contrary to the impression you might have got, it’s ok for Christians to see specialists in their field. God has given us the tools and knowledge to deal with life’s challenges. If you need medical help, be sure to get it. There’s no shame in taking this route and prayer and therapy make a great combination!
If you struggle with mental illness of any kind, we have a lot of relevant content on our app.