This article was originally featured on the Gresham Bible Church blog in October 2014.
Following the tragic suicide of Robin Williams back in August, the usually taboo topics of depression and suicide suddenly became fodder for the best and worst of Internet commentary. Many contemplated the answer to a question that haunts all whose lives are touched by depression and suicide: “How did this happen?”
Some considered Williams a victim of the disease of depression: a tragic casualty in the battle against mental illness.
Others, including one infamous Christian blogger, ultimately attributed the comedian’s demise to a bad decision. Many commenters even went so far as to suggest that depression (and ultimately, suicide) is just a symptom of unconfessed sin, an ailing spiritual life, and a lack of faith.
For a few of us, the “how” wasn’t even a question. We didn’t need to wonder, because we already knew. We know what it’s like to feel so hopeless that the thought of living has lost its appeal. Although the graceless speculations of a vocal minority may indicate otherwise, Christians are not immune to the bog of depression, and being depressed doesn’t make you a “bad” Christian.
Christians who grapple with depression are in good company with some big names from the Bible, including Job, Elijah, Jonah, Solomon, and David. Every one of these men grappled with hopelessness, and a few even to the point of suicidal thoughts:
Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Contemporary examples of Christian leaders fighting against depression abound as well, such as: Mother Teresa, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, and John Piper, among others.
Piper in particular has written on the subject of depression many times. In his book When the Darkness Will Not Lift, he establishes that depression may develop due to a variety of considerations, including: “sin,… Satanic assault,… distressing circumstances, or … hereditary or other physical causes.” Sin is just one of several factors that may cause or worsen depression.
Although a guilty conscience struggling under the weight of unconfessed sin may become trapped under the weight of depression, sin is not the absolute cause of all depression, and depression itself is not necessarily sin. As Piper says in his book Future Grace, “The first shock waves of the bomb are not sin. The real danger is yielding to them. Giving in. Putting up no spiritual fight. And the root of that surrender is unbelief — a failure to fight for faith in future grace. A failure to cherish all that God promises to be for us in Jesus.” While depression itself is not sin, it does leave us woefully vulnerable to it.
For the Christian, depression is a systematic attack by Satan that exploits the believer’s weaknesses and takes their focus off Christ and puts it onto a warped interpretation of their circumstances. During my own battles with depression, I have struggled to decipher truth from fiction. My mind has been filled with hateful thoughts that I could not fend off: You’re a failure. No one wants to be around you. You’re a disappointment to everyone. No one cares what happens to you. Why do you even bother anymore?
Thoughts like these are straight from the pit of Hell. They are Satan’s attacks. God’s Word warns us to be wary of his deceitfulness:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8
He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
When we know that a fellow Christian is becoming overwhelmed by Satan’s lies, it’s not our job to speculate about why that person has succumbed. Instead, it is our job to take a stand with our struggling brothers and sisters in Christ and help fend off the lion; we must help protect God’s family from all attacks.
So, what are the weapons that we have to fight this battle?
Fellowship: Depression festers in isolation. People who are depressed will naturally withdraw from those around them because of shame or fear. If you know or suspect that someone you care about is depressed, reach out to them and be near to them. Whether that means offering a sympathetic ear, or merely sitting in silence, God can use your presence to provide comfort in a trying time.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
Prayer: A depressed Christian may feel so discouraged that they aren’t able to pray for themselves. They may feel that God doesn’t want to hear from them, or that their prayers won’t make a difference. Your prayers can help guard them when they are unable to ask for protection for themselves. Pray for this person independently and with them when you spend time together. For many people, just knowing that someone cares enough to pray with them and for them will be a strong encouragement.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Truth: As it was in my case, depressed individuals may have a difficult time distinguishing truths from Satan’s lies. Take every opportunity you can to encourage them with God’s Word. Shower them with God’s promises, even if they are unable to fully appreciate them at the time. Be lovingly persistent, and continue to be faithful in prayer.
Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.
By responding to depressed believers with fellowship, prayer, and God’s Word, we can help them to embrace the freedom that has been granted to them in Christ:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
In the future, should you encounter a fellow believer bogged down by depression, I hope that your first question won’t be, “How did this happen?” Instead, ask this:
“How do I help?’
“4 Myths Christians Need to Stop Believing About Depression” By Debra K Fileta of Relevant Magazine
“What the Church & Christians Need to Know About Suicide & Mental Health” by Ann Voskamp of A Holy Experience
“Robin Williams’ Death an Opportunity to Look at Depression in the Scriptures” by Matt Lawrenz of Bible Gateway
Have you or someone you care about ever suffered from depression? What was helpful and encouraging in that time?