Depression among Christians

Christians struggle with depression–including the bleakest, blackest clinical depression–like everyone else.  On Emily Scrivener’s blog A New  NameEmily has written about her own struggle with anorexia–a guest writer, Glen, posts about evangelicals’ bouts with depression.  He writes about what helps and what hinders in the evangelical tradition.

Just because he cites as problems things Lutherans don’t do and recommends things that Lutherans already have, let’s not us Lutherans discuss this in a triumphalistic or evangelical-bashing way.  Clearly, Lutherans too often battle with depression.  (Certainly, Luther himself did!)

There is a sense in which depression is tied up with psychological and physical factors that ought not be confused with one’s spiritual state.  (Doing so is often part of the problem.)  But what spiritual resources and truths can help a person through this?  (Comments from depression-sufferers are especially welcome.)

From Glen at Happy Clappy? – A New Name:

 I’ve heard it from a few people now… stories of depressed friends going to their GP and at some stage being asked, “Are you, by any chance, an evangelical Christian?” Have you heard similar tales?

I’m not sure whether we’ve ended up on any official lists of “predisposing factors” but it certainly makes you think.

So let’s ask a tough question: Is there anything about evangelicalism (as opposed to other kinds of Christianity) that makes depression even harder? Or even, perhaps, more likely?

Is it worse to be an evangelical Christian when you’re depressed?

I can think of two reasons it shouldn’t be and two reasons it might be.

Firstly: THE GOSPEL

Evangelicals are good news people (the “evangel” in Greek means the ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’). It’s about a victory that Jesus has secured entirely apart from us, apart from our works, apart from our feelings. It takes the darkness of our sin and helplessness with complete seriousness and it promises a genuine hope that doesn’t depend on any of our spiritual resources, only on Christ’s.

Now I know that some of the foulest works-righteousness in Christendom gets preached from evangelical pulpits. I know how evangelical mission and pietism and activism gets twisted in some truly horrendous ways. I also know how judgemental certain churches and groupings can become. Grace – you may have noticed – is not always what evangelicals are known for!  But it really, really should be. And right now I’m looking at the positives. So let me say that I rejoice in belonging to a movement centred on the good news of Jesus. That is a major positive – especially if you’re feeling ‘poor in spirit.’

Secondly: COMMUNITY

Depression (as with so many mental health issues) thrives in the darkness. We need each other. And evangelicals believe in community.

Yes there can be a very unhelpful individualism within the movement – the gateway into the Christian life, according to so many evangelicals, is kneeling silently by your bed and giving your life to Jesus, all by yourself. And that individualism can carry on into the whole of the Christian life. But against this, there tends to be real emphasis on life groups / home groups / community groups / growth groups. Call it what you will, evangelical Christianity is not simply a Sunday phenomenon. And if you’re not there Sunday, your brothers and sisters should follow you up. And if you do show up but aren’t “all there” (if you know what I mean), an evangelical Christian is the kind of Christian who’ll ask if everything’s really ok. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

BUT… here are a couple of negatives:

EMOTIONAL EXPECTATIONS

Your church may not be “Happy Clappy” but speaking more broadly of evangelical culture… if we were a radio station we would be one of those “feel good” FM stations playing shiny, happy, radio-friendly pop. And it’s hard enough being depressed, but when the expectation is emotional effervescence, that can be crushing.

It’s a problem that goes wider than evangelicalism but compare the song books of our churches with the song book of the Bible – the Psalms. So many of the Bible’s songs are about hanging on by a thread, or indeed falling completely into the pit. Recently I was listening to sermons on the book of Job. The preacher decided there would be no singing for some of the services because singing would be inappropriate. It made me think “None of our songs seem appropriate, but plenty of the Bible’s would be.” It’s a lamentable fact that our hymnals – and our collective spirituality – is more Feel Good FM than “Out of the depths I cry”.

So that’s a real problem when you are in the depths. Related to this is another problem:

SPIRITUAL EXPECTATIONS

What is evangelical spirituality anyway? Well, the “quiet time” is industry standard. But on our best days this can be a struggle – let alone if we’re feeling depressed. More than this, I think a real spanner in the works is our allergic reaction to “going through the motions.”  I write about this more here but, as a rule, evangelicals are dead against “going through the motions”. No, we have to really mean it.  And of course nothing is more wearying to a depressed person than being told to mean it. Yet our aversion to ritual persists and it goes hand in hand with a view of faith which I’ve discussed earlier.

Essentially the problem is this: the gospel says we’re not saved by ourselves but entirely by Jesus. We translate that into: I’m not saved by my works (by which we mean external acts), instead I’m saved by my faith (by which we mean our internal devotion).  Do you see what’s happened? We have turned faith into a work.  And faith is the last work a depressed person can summon up!

In other church traditions there’s a more developed sacramental theology, daily offices, rosaries, rituals that keep you going when you don’t really feel it. In evangelicalism, largely, we do without external supports to our spiritual life. And when we’re depressed we’re not carried by a spirituality that fixes us on external truths. Instead we are pointed within to our internal state.  And for the depressed person (not to mention any common or garden sinner!) that’s not a good place.

What do you think? Is evangelical faith and practice a help or hindrance in handling depression?

HT:  Larry Hughes

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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