Can a Christian get depressed?

Can a Christian get depressed? April 7, 2013

All over the English speaking world today, as a result of the tragic death of Rick and Kay Warren’s son, many will be having conversations about mental illness. I thought I would write a short series of posts reflecting as a Christian psychiatrist on some of the questions people will inevitably ask.

Proverbs 15:13
A glad heart makes a cheerful face,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.

The first question, today, is incredibly easy to answer. Can a Christian get depressed? The answer is a resounding, YES.

But being a blogger, I will of course want to say more than that. So why do some people feel Christians can’t or at least shouldn’t get depressed?

Some argue that a Christian should be able to reject depression “by faith.” Many would disagree with applying that notion to physical illness. Truth be told, we all know that Christians get sick. I have never heard of a “faith healer” who is 130 years old. Every great Christian of the past eventually succumbed to some illness or other. You do not simply die of old age.

As soon as we accept that Christians can get sick, we must acknowledge that they can get depressed too. Depression, like Bipolar Affective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, and a number of other psychiatric conditions, is a real illness.

We may not understand mental illnesses as well as some other conditions. Our treatments may not always work. But there is much evidence that a physical cause is at least part of the picture. For example twins raised apart are more likely to get depressed if the other twin does, especially so if they are genetically identical.

The burden of having a mental illness is at times very hard to bear. Christians must learn to ease that weight for others. Too often churches will instead add to sufferers a sense of guilt that they “ought not” to be feeling that way.

The Gospel promises “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). So how can we still be sorrowful? The gospel also promises a life free of sin and sickness. But we know that all these promises are only fulfilled in part in this earthly existence. Jesus himself taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven” precisely because it often isn’t done here. Even a Calvinist must accept that much happens here on earth that is contrary to God’s revealed will, his pleasure.

Paul spoke of the paradox of the Christian experience in 2 Corinthians 6 where he describes himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” The Christian may have a complex emotional state where the joy of knowing forgiveness battles with unquenchable depression, and the hope of eternity wrestles with despair.

One time Paul said of himself, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9:2).

It doesn’t take much reading of the Psalms to discover that King David and other psalmists had times when they suffered from severe depression. See for example Psalms 6, 30, and 31.

One message of the Bible, and the Psalms in particular is that depression does have an end point. Mercifully for most who suffer in this way, there are seasons of low mood that eventually give way to periods of resolution. We see that in the Psalms with such statements as,

“Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

But, as we saw in the tragic case that prompted this post, while that statement is generally true, it is not true in every case. Or at least it is not always true in this lifetime.

Theologians sometimes talk of an “over realised eschatology.” This happens when we take benefits of the gospel which are promised for us in eternity, and assume that they will be available completely for everybody today. God does heal depression in this life. But he doesn’t heal everyone. He does, however, promise a future where,

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

That is a glorious promise for every Christian who is affected by mental illness. Note that the repercussions of the disorder affect everybody who has a connection with someone who has mental illness. These are diseases that affect society, not merely individuals.

Time does not permit me to speak at length about some of the many examples of great Christians throughout the ages who have suffered from depression. Two that spring to mind are William Cowper and Charles Spurgeon. I refer the reader to Piper’s excellent biographical talks on each of them which explain the role depression had in their lives. Of Cowper, Piper says:

From the standpoint of adventure or politics or public engagement his life was utterly uneventful. The kind of life no child would ever choose to read about. But for those of us who are older we have come to see that the events of the soul are probably the most important events in life. And the battles in this man’s soul were of epic proportions.

The Christian does not merely accept depression as an inevitable part of life. He recognises it as an alien invasion, like sin and all other sicknesses. He fights it with all his might. But he can and should seek help from others. And he should know that for the Christian, depression will one day be defeated. And so, we pray, “Lord do today what you have promised that you will one day do!”

Learning to pray that way means we are not like stereotypical caricature of the Muslim who says “inshallah” and simply accepts everything as fate. Or as it could be loosely translated “whatever will be will be!” No, we are not meant to be stoics.

We must face the fact that there is much about this world that is not right. And we must fight it, both in our own lives, and in helping to rescue others from the grip of everything that God did not intend for us. And we pray. We pray in hope that the God who promised that he will deliver us forevermore can and does give us foretastes of that deliverance here and now. And we rejoice with those who experience such supernatural touches of God. And we rejoice with those whose healing comes by the God-given skills of doctors. And we are compassionate towards those for whom it seems that in this life at least there will be no relief.

The Bible is not ignorant of depression. It is not embarrassed to speak of it. God understands. For the one who inspired every word was tempted as we are. And, as we are reminded every Good Friday, Jesus himself on the cross became familiar with sorrow. He carried our depression, so that we would be delivered. In the meantime, although our troubles may be severe, he promises to be with us in them.

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  • Tanya Marlow

    I liked this considerably better than your previous posts on joy. 🙂

    • Not every single thing we write can be balanced. I stand by what I said in those posts. But this provided the counterpoint. The problem with trying to strike a balance in a single article is that you end up saying nothing. Better to make your point, make it well, then make the other point later IMHO.

  • Thank you for this post Adrian. Very helpful indeed. I never knew you were a Christian psychiatrist!
    What a deeply tragic situation. I hope that many of those who have endured or endure this pain out of the public eye would draw encouragement and support from your post. I also wholeheartedly recommend as a useful resource for Christians exploring the issue of mental illness and Christianity. You are not alone.

  • Melody

    Not every verse speaks to everyone every minute. It’s the same with sermons or even speakers. We are the body of Christ and different parts of the body experience the world differently. We are not a single cell organism.

  • You may find this helpful.

    Depression Toolkit and study guide:

  • Diane Roberts

    I was suicidely depressed for the first seventeen years of my Chrisitan life. Then I found out that it was caffeine that was doing most of it. While this is not a “pat” answer for everyone, I often wonder if depressed people would get off caffeine just for a season, if at least some of the depression would lift so they could manage it better. And if not, then they could go right back to drinking it. No harm done. A warning though that I did not heed—go off slowly, not cold turkey.

    • Theodore Seeber

      That last sentence is important- I’ve had migraines going off and coming onto caffeine that would make the normal person suicidal from pain alone.

  • Thank you Adrian for this post. I am a Christian and I struggle with depression. I have for years. It is a life-long fight but, by the grace of God, I continue to struggle while relying on him for my strength.

    I wrote about my depression and Matthew Warren’s suicide on my blog, please take a look if you get the chance:

    • Thanks for sharing your story. My heart goes out to your whole family. Praying that you will find some peace.

  • Look up the term “male andropause” and tell me why churches will never ever speak of it to their men. I just don’t understand.

    There is nothing more shameful or out-of-the-ordinary about a Christian being depressed than there is, say, about a broken leg or pneumonia. It’s time to wake up.

  • Very well said, and I agree! Christians are often “held to the fire” and expected to be perfect, but obviously, we are not anywhere near perfect, and I doubt any of us will ever be.
    I write a blog primarily to share daily encouragement with anyone and evryone that would like to read them, and I began writing them as a result of reading Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose of Christmas. That was five years ago, and I have come a long way in my walk with God since I began focusing on Him and His word.
    I think my encouragement for today relates to your post, and I hope you don’t mind if I share it with you:
    Thank you!

  • Abby

    I agree with what you’re saying here, I only have one complaint, and that is your understanding of the way Muslims and other Arabic speakers use the term “Insha’Allah.” It doesn’t need a loose interpretation, as it literally means “God willing.” We use that phrase in English-speaking churches all the time, and while it can be used in a stoic way, many also use it in a hopeful way, particularly in Arabic churches. When we say it either in English or in Arabic, we mean one of two things: as you mentioned, “whatever will be will be,” OR “God’s will be done.” I accept that God sometimes doesn’t heal and he doesn’t tell us why, I also accept that God doesn’t tell me why things keep happening in my life that aren’t what I thought they would be. I say “Insha’Allah, God willing” when I desire something, as a prayer. My Christian family and friends in Egypt say “We will have peace one day, Insha’Allah.” They believe that God can and will bring peace to their country, but they also understand that this will happen in his time, not theirs.
    I’m not trying to draw away from the topic you’re discussing, but I think your understanding of this term is too loose a generalization, particularly because Muslims aren’t the only ones who use it, and as I said, in English, we in the church use the same phrase on a regular basis.

    • Abby, I deliberately wrote something like “the caricature” of the Muslim. I totally agree that like “God willing” the word doesnt have to be stoical….Hope that acknowledgement is ok….

  • Ines Hourani

    By the way, “inshallah” is not a Muslim term, it’s an Arabic word for “God willing”! If the Muslims choose to use in that manner that’s their perspective.

  • I am terribly sorry to hear of the death of that young man. If Christians are looking for more understanding, as they should, on the topic of suicide may I recommend they read Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison. As a Chrstian who has suffered from both depression and suicidal ideation, can I please share the books I found most useful? I think Philip Yancey’s books Disappointment with God and Where is God When it Hurts were most useful to me. Yancey is also good on Prayer from a depressed person”s perspective. I really enjoyed this article. So thankyou for sharing with us. The one caveat I had when you said we should FIght depression. I think acceptance has a large role in the bible, think of Ecclesiastes and, well, Jesus, himself really who prayed in Gethsemane thy will be done. But I think this is a nuance. My article on depression is called Books and Darkness and its at my website.

    • Patrick Cassidy

      Thank you for the book titles.
      Having a horrible time with my long-time depression. It ebbs and swells, this is the swelling time of year.

  • Tres Adames

    I’ve dealt with depression as a Christian myself and struggled with this question too. Over time I found healing and am happy that I’m now able to help others with the same issues. I wrote a blog on the subject, maybe it may be of help to someone else:

  • Kathleen, so sorry to hear of your loss. For some reason your comment got caught up in a moderating queue. I only trust and pray you have those around you who can simply sit with you and support you. This is a terrible loss that you are facing, and it will take some time to even sink in. I am praying for you now as I write this reply.

    When you feel that reading something may be helpful, I would encourage you to look at Rick Warren’s tweets over the last few months as he has been grieving very publicly. Also, it is possible that the following posts here on my blog may be of some comfort:

    • Kathleen A. Peck

      Thank you for your kind words brother Warnock. A suicide feels much the same as a murder. A life has been taken by human volition as opposed to natural means & God’s timing. There isn’t any way to prepare for such an event & I understand that now. All of us who were close to her are feeling tortured in our own ways as to what we could have done to prevent it. Feeling the weight of that responsibility has been a terrible part of coming to grips with all this. I do believe she is in heaven, but I think satan injected her mind with such despair & hopelessness she became overwhelmed with despondency. The police confiscated her diary which had one final entry which we haven’t seen yet. Perhaps that will help with getting closure. God bless you & your work in these difficult subjects. They are difficult matters & unfortunately they leave us with difficult questions. I will check out Rick Warren’s tweets as you suggested.

      • Bless you Kathleen. I am doubtful that there was anything you could have done to prevent this. Unless a person reaches out and tells someone they are feeling suicidal even the professionals can’t help. Unfortunately many suicides are not preventable, although some are. Please try to keep running towards God for comfort at this difficult time, rather than away from him, and keep taking one day at a time. This is not something you “get over” but it is something that eventually you will be able to process. I trust you have good friends and pastors around you.

  • D.J. Heath

    I am so glad that I have come across this blog through someone else who has also lost a child to suicide. You can never know the service you are doing, Adrian, for those of us who are in this grief, seemingly for the rest of our lives on earth. My son died by suicide nearly five years ago and every single day…on some days all day…my mind is on him and what he must have felt like in that instant (as it was an impulse in the midst of an argument with his wife.) He was depressed and I knew that but not to the depths that it obviously affected him, until it was too late. I have been very angry at God to whom both my son and I prayed to all of our lives. I have feel guilt over this, as well. I have never been disrespectful to God in this manner and am ashamed that I have been so angry at Him. I will never understand why He did not answer our prayers especially about the depression. God knew the outcome and yet, my son died at his own hands. I have his prayer journal and my son asked God “do not let me destroy myself. I do not want to die.” This was a plea from 9 years before his actual death. It was over a relationship with his girlfriend at the time. God knew all along and I just don’t understand Him. I realize we don’t know the answers here but I am sunk in grief most days because of the futility of my prayers. My whole prayer life has changed. Thank you for your blog. You bring a peace that I am certain is God inspired.

    • diana

      I lost my mother with whom I was very close, to suicide, 27 years ago now. Both of us were/are Christians, but you know, I never blamed God, and I think that sometimes we blame God for things that aren’t His fault. He cannot force us to do what He wants, and He didn’t make your son take his life any more than he did my mum. Mum had been severely depressed for a few years, due mainly to life events that had happened and were happening, and now she is with her Father and completely happy, as your son is also if he was Gods child.
      Why be angry with God? We have free will. Clearly things werent good between your son and his wife that needed dealing with.
      Please don’t let this loss keep you in such a low state of anger and despair any more. Forgive yourself, forgive his wife and forgive God(who did nothing wrong) and remember that you will see him again and that is so precious.
      You will always have a deep sadness, I still have after 27 years, but you will get better ands feel better if you just trust God and accept that you may never understands why your son did what he did, but trust Him into Gods loving arms. Don’t let his suicide rob you and your family of the rest of your lives.

  • Barbara Altman

    I’ve been a depression sufferer for many

  • diana

    Kathleen did you mean step mother or step mother in law?
    My own mother took her life at the same age, 57, 27 years ago now. It was the most appalling thing I ever been though, still so clear in my mind, compounded by the fact that I had three small children at the time(one only a year old) so simply had to carry on for them.
    She too was a believer who had got severely depressed largely due to my fathers long term affair. She was the loveliest person you could ever meet, and I know that she is with Her father now because suicide isn’t the unforgiveable sin as a few people seem to believe.
    It is a terrible shock, and I once read that suicide doesn’t take the pain away but just puts it on the shoulders of those left behind, and in our case that was so true.
    I still feel a deep deep sadness, but time does heal eventually.

  • Vidia Ree

    I’ve been feeling very sad lately. I’m not sure if it’s depression but I’ve been questioning why I should even bother with life. If life will be so good in the eternity, why should one stay here and suffer? If everything will be perfect, why live an imperfect life which is only a blink-of-the-eye compared to the real life we will have with Him? A hundred years(at most) is nothing compared to the eternity we will spend with him so why even bother?
    I’d really like some answers from some fellow Christians.

    • It sounds to me like you need to go and get some expert help and advice from a medical doctor, and perhaps also consult a pastor. The short answer is that for a christian life on earth is all about preparing for eternity and making a difference in other people’s lives. God has a unique plan for all of us to accomplish. Check out the other posts I link to above as well.

  • Brandon Roberts

    i gave my heart to the lord at 7 at around 15 i began to completely lose my mind i hated myself i just had this constant urge to end it all and eventually began doubting gods existence as i grew older.

  • Ryan Caswell

    Know and understand our real enemy

    A Nightmare – Healing and Delivering Yourself – believe it

    You will find this author to be very knowledgeable in many different areas that cause our minds to trouble us.

  • Anonymous

    To assume that anyone would think that they would not be prone to normal feelings would require the person to feel they are better or more entitled than others. I just can not wrap my head around how anyone can justify that concept. That thought of supremacy is at the root of every religious conflict throughout history, regardless of which side of the debate you are on. In order to justify the means, one must assume that they know (or are), better than the person they appose. (Just ask the native americans). It should be viewed merely as a difference and handled accordingly. The title of this article is infuriating to me because it implies that the percentage of humans to ever walk the earth that are Christians are somehow better, and ~that~ concept (no matter what the religion, or group with that view), is narrow minded.