DEPRESSION, MENTAL ILLNESS, AND THE CHRISTIAN
Notes from an Address on Psalm 42 v 11 given at Union Chapel
Bethersden 28 May 1996.
Depression and mental illness are a very real part of the culture in which we live. Stress in the workplace is the greatest single cause of early retirements and reasons for absence from work. It has recently been stated that one person in a hundred suffers from some form of
schizophrenia. The reality of depressive illnesses means that many of you reading this will either know another Christian who has suffered in this way or have experienced it yourself – for the fact is that Christians themselves are not immune to depression or mental illness. Indeed the writer of Psalm 42 vividly describes his feelings and mental anguish as he talks of his thoughts and feelings of despair, inward turmoil, his sense of being submerged and overwhelmed and shattered – the man was experiencing a deep and real depression.
Psalm 42 (almost certainly penned by David) was to be sung by the sons of Korah. After the great rebellion in the days of Moses, Korah, his company and all his associates were destroyed by God -but the Lord spared the sons of Korah. This Psalm is so wonderfully .suited to all present-day “sons of Korah” – the spared ones of
sovereign grace. What a foundation is the sovereign grace of God for any depressed believer to rest on.
With this background and foundation we need to ask why natural depression or mental illness affects some believers, and then look at some implications for us all. The question “why” is far reaching and within the compass of this address there is really only time to look at five general principles.
1. Depression is not of necessity caused by our own sin – although sometimes it is.
There was an occasion when the Psalmist was in great mental anguish and turmoil – his state as recorded in Psalm 32, is thought to have been written when the awfulness of his sin with Bathsheba began to dawn on him. For some time he refused to acknowledge his wrong-doing and the consequence was depression. He says “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is burned into the drought of summer”. To walk in a way displeasing to God is harmful to us spiritually and can have profound emotional effects if repentance is absent.
However in Psalm 42 it is very evident that such was not the psalmist’s state. To pant after God, to thirst for God, to long to come before God, to reflect on the blessed times previously enjoyed in the house of God and to encourage oneself in the faithfulness of God is not the language or experience of someone walking far from the Lord. And yet the Psalmist was suffering from this terrible depression. We need to be very careful therefore in automatically thinking of natural depression as a sign of the sufferer’s spiritual state.
2. Depression is not of necessity a sign that God is chastening us Â— although sometimes it is.
Psalm 107 provides an example of when the chastening hand of God resulted in real mental anguish for the backsliders. The Psalmist speaks of “such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron; because they rebelled against the words of God and contemned the counsel of the Most High: Therefore he brought down their heart with labour; they fell down and there was none to help”. This vividly describes a dark and despairing state often associated with serious depression – and yet it was clearly the chastening hand of the Lord to bring the people back to His ways.
There is not the slightest indication in Psalm 42 though, that David then was experiencing God’s chastening – although we
readily grant that God used it for his ultimate spiritual good. It is vital that we are clear on this if we are to give effective help and counselling to those suffering from natural depression. A person
suffering from depression often experiences a very low feeling of
self-worth and can be extremely conscious of their own unfitness and sinfulness before God. They may well feel that they must have done something terrible (perhaps something many years ago) or be doing something very wrong and that God is punishing them. They may then reason that they will only get better and turn away God’s anger (as they see it) by changing their pathway or circumstances, service to the Lord or some act of self-sacrifice. Any counselling which reinforces that view, when in fact the depression is nothing whatsoever to do with God’s chastening hand, can truly prove to be in some cases very harmful and distressing to the sufferer.
3. Depression is not necessarily caused by outward circumstances -although sometimes it may be.
Elijah was a man who served God in a strikingly faithful way culminating in God’s vindication of his truth at Mount Carmel and the routing of the priests of Baal. Yet shortly afterwards, under a juniper tree the dear prophet “requested for himself that he might die and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am
not better than my fathers”. Amongst other things the stresses and strains – perhaps even the blessed mountain-top experience at Mount Carmel – had taken a great emotional and physical toll of Elijah and now he was experiencing the dark valley of depression. In measure many of the Lord’s people can empathise with the good prophet – especially those who are called to minister the Word and maybe pastor a local Church. The after effects of “front- line duty” alongside times of blessing or days of drought can result in feelings very similar to those of Elijah. The remedy may well be a change in lifestyle, a rest or more relaxation. Sometimes the situations that the Lord’s people walk through can be highly stressful and can in themselves play real havoc with a person’s mental wellbeing.
However the most difficult trials do not of necessity cause depression. The Psalmist could say in Psalm 27, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.” And yet in no more difficult circumstances David was lamenting that “O my God, my soul is cast down within me”. Whilst it must be right to look at outward circumstances we would be wrong automatically to assume that these, in and of themselves, are the cause of depression. Depression can even occur when others might think that the person has everything to be happy about. Haven’t some of us heard this sort of remark, “She’s just had a lovely baby – but we can’t understand it -she shows no interest in the baby or her husband or her house!” You see immediately there is an implied condemnation of the poor mother. I can almost guarantee that the last person who wants to feel like that is the mother, who would give almost anything to be able to rejoice and probably feels immensely guilty that she is feeling the way she does. The last thing she is able to do is “pull herself together”. The poor woman is not being ungrateful, or lazy, but is suffering from post-natal depression and needs proper medical help – and not harsh judgment from fellow-believers.
4. Depression may not be anything to do with our own sin -but may well be caused by the sin of others.
It is thought that David wrote this Psalm when he fled from Absalom. The pain and stress caused by a dear son’s rebellion against him would very understandably have played havoc with his state of mind.
The Lord’s people are not unaffected by the distresses that others cause them – even if those problems occurred many years ago. A Christian may have suffered abuse as a child – or youngster – and without in any way implying an insufficiency in the healing and
restoring powers of God’s grace, it may well be that what happened all those years ago can come back to cause very real problems for today, including deep depression. Such situations require a great degree of sensitivity and true compassion – remembering that God is able to deliver from even the worst past. I know of one dear Christian who was given such a wonderful insight into the blessed truth of God being their Heavenly Father that this person was able to leave all the past behind and live in the joy of that perfect and eternal relationship with God.
5. Depression may not result from Satan’s temptation – but he is only too ready to use it to his own advantage.
The Psalmist was clearly affected by an enemy. We have a great enemy, Satan, the father of lies. Not only does he misapply scripture but he will never encourage us to look to the promises and mercies of our God. His object is to fill us with a hopeless despair -completely opposite to the work of the Holy Spirit which is to cause us to despair of self and lead us to a trust in the Lord alone. All too often dear people suffering from a natural depression are tempted by Satan that there is no hope for them – we need in our ministry ever to point to the Psalmist’s exhortation – “hope thou in God”. It won’t always be night – joy will come in the morning for those who look up.
What conclusions are to be drawn from these principles?
1. Depression is often a natural illness and should be accepted as such.
Depression is often divided into “reactive depression” and “clinical depression” although caution should be exercised in drawing a precise line between the two categories.
Reactive depression tends to occur following times of stress and anxiety. Often a period of relief from stress with perhaps the aid of suitable medication can remedy the illness. It is important to remember that a Christian who has sinned greatly and delayed repentance may well suffer from reactive depression even after matters have been put right with God and, in counselling, that fact needs to be recognised, i.e. whilst at one time the cause was spiritual now the believer is suffering from the natural effects.
Clinical depression manifests itself in a variety of forms such as manic depression or schizophrenia – true believers with a lively faith, walking closely to the Lord can still suffer in this way. It may well be that the cause may be to do with the body’s chemistry – in the same way that some of the Lord’s people suffer from diabetes due to a specific chemical deficiency. Proper medical help should be sought without delay.
2. A Christian is no more lacking in faith in seeking medical help to cure natural depression than going to the doctor for any other illness.
As with other illnesses God may cure without medical help. This is possible. Almighty God is able to heal a broken leg without a doctor’s assistance, or the most malignant type of cancer – for with God nothing shall be impossible. However this is not his usual way. Medical help is part of God’s common grace – it is numbered amongst the gifts He has given to men. After all, a doctor (Luke) , travelled with the Apostle Paul. Yet statements are sometimes made that to rely on “tablets” for depression is a sin and showing a lack of faith. If we understand (1) above then such stumblingblocks will fall. All we are doing in such a situation is using the means God has graciously provided.
3. A local church can either be God’s great gift to aid recovery or that person’s biggest nightmare.
Misunderstanding the nature of the condition or a blind refusal to accept that depression of the sort we have been considering is an illness can cause grave damage to the sufferer. They will quite easily pick up the atmosphere that they perhaps ought to “pull themselves together” or feel a critical spirit if professional medical help is being accepted. The tendency then may well be to “protect themselves” from the hurt and lack of understanding they are experiencing from the Lord’s people with all the consequent damaging spiritual effects which will then follow. On the other hand, should ready acceptance of the condition be on hand with cheerful and loving support with prayer, then the sufferer will feel the strength of the Lord’s people around them with all the blessings that the Lord may bring through that situation.
4. Caution rather than snap judgments are called for.
Bearing in mind the five principles outlined above and taking into consideration that often strands of more than one of them may have had a hand in the person’s illness, then it surely must be right that extreme caution is called for rather than mere pontification. Often these situations are very complex and it is sad that some can so readily say “I know what the trouble is there” – or “If only he or she would do this or that”: this is likely to be wide of the mark. The Lord help us to “consider all things”.
5. Compassion rather than condemnation is called for.
Depression is an awful thing to have. It ought to bring out compassion in the Lord’s people toward those who suffer from it. Sometimes when a person has severe depression their behaviour can be quite erratic – not to say irrational. That needs to be borne
with and we need to remember that much of that behaviour is due to the illness. As there are times when a physically ill person is too weak to attend public worship so it is possible to be so poorly in mind that the person just cannot cope with coming to meetings. Sympathy and understanding is once more called for.
6. Certainty in God’s loving faithfulness should be the core of our spiritual ministry.
This after all is where the Psalmist constantly looked. He was depressed and knew despair. He felt it in a very real way. But having acknowledged it and told the Lord all about it he said, “Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise him”. To bring those promises prayerfully to those in the same need as the Psalmist’s is truly the best of all spiritual helps we can give. To encourage such dear souls with the assurance that it will pass and the Lord will deliver and heal is to bring real encouragement under the blessing of God.
May the Lord bless His promises to us each.