I am a depressed Christian.
I don’t mean that in the identity sense, like vegans, Crossfitters, and people who don’t own a television.
I mean I’m a Christian who has dealt with depression and anxiety in various forms for many years. It’s part of who I am, woven into my DNA and traceable in bleak lines throughout my family tree. It seems to be the thorn in the flesh God has given me, meant to drive me to God.
I also know how uniquely challenging it is to encourage a depressed Christian. Depression affects every part a person — mind, body, and soul. It makes simple tasks seem incredibly difficult and moderate challenges seem downright impossible.
This is why I appreciate Chris Cipollone’s new book “Down Not Out“. He writes as one who has experienced the demonic depths of depression and has witnessed the faithfulness of God even as he walks through the Valley of Death.
The Dark Lenses Of Depression
Being depressed is like wearing a pair of apocalyptic glasses. Everything seems bleak, futile, and pointless. The promises of God, which normally bring life and hope and sunshine, seem hollow. God himself feels distant and uncaring, like a distracted, removed father who cares more about other things or other people.
The reason I couldn’t work out what to do [in life] was because I couldn’t help but see the negative in everything. Nothing was appealing because life itself had become impossible to enjoy. When I thought about being a doctor, all I could think of was the oppressive training involved. When I thought about being a pilot, I could only see the financial costs. And when I thought about carpentry, the toll on my body was too much to imagine.
This is a reality that, unfortunately, many Christians who haven’t experienced depression themselves struggle to understand. After all, if the scriptures are true, the solution to depression is simply to believe the promises of God, right? Think rightly and good feelings will follow. Dispel negativity with the positive words of the Bible.
Except that’s not how it works. Mental illness is just as much biological as spiritual. The brain just doesn’t work properly, regularly vomiting large volumes of the wrong chemicals into the neurons and synapses. The body responds to these chemicals, sometimes shutting down, other times hurling the body into full-on panic attacks.
Reading the promises of God, while good and utterly necessary, doesn’t usually change the way I feel. Just like the promises of God don’t take away the symptoms of a migraine, they also don’t usually dispel the crushing feelings of depression.
And frankly, we shouldn’t expect them to. The Bible isn’t Tylenol. It’s the grand story of a sinful world, a saving King, a crushed serpent, and a coming kingdom. Yes, the promises of God are my rock and refuge, the thing I stake my present and eternal life upon. But nowhere does God himself suggest that the Bible is some sort of magical book of spells which cause trouble to disappear and pain to evaporate.
In fact, the opposite is true. We are told that we will have trouble in this world, that we are wasting away, and that we live in a world where sin has broken every part of our humanity, including our brains.
Chris puts it this way:
The first conclusion we must make is that mental illness is a result of the sinful state of humanity. Ever since the fall in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God for the first time, our world has been spoiled by sin (our rebellion against God). If the fall had not taken place, mental illness would not be in the world (neither would any illness).
These realities are precisely why it can be challenging to find encouragement when you’re depressed, as well as why it can be difficult for friends and family to support a depressed Christian. Mental illness is complex, and simple prescriptions like, “You just need to believe the promises of God,” are like patching a bullet hole with a Band-Aid.
Something more robust is needed.
3 Encouragements For The Depressed Christian
Let me suggest some more helpful sources of encouragement for the depressed Christian. In my 20+ years of doing battle with the dark demon (I’m using that term metaphorically), these are the things that have kept me from giving up the fight altogether.
Recognize That Your Feelings Are Just That
Feelings are pathological liars. Very rarely do they speak the truth about reality. They can change in a split second depending on what you ate for breakfast, the amount of sleep you’ve been getting, your family biology, your recurring thought patterns, sinful actions, and 10,000 other variables.
And yet for some odd reason, we treat them as infallible deities who always speak the truth. When we feel bad, we then conclude that things really are bad, even though that’s often not the case.
One of THE most important things I’ve learned to do when I’m depressed is to recognize that what I’m feeling probably isn’t true. The truth is outside of me, located in the sacred pages of scripture.
When I’m in the grip of depression or anxiety, I have to, in a sense, detach my brain from emotions. I have to fall back on what I know to be true even though none of those things feel true.
Chris puts it this way:
When it comes to mental illness, our feelings can be very misleading. I say this because a change in how we feel about God can be one of the main manifestations of depression or anxiety. This can be very distressing for a Christian, yet how we feel about God does not impact who he actually is.
We may feel angry about our circumstances, which leads to the thought that God hates us. He doesn’t.
We may feel lonely, which leads to the thought that God has abandoned us. He hasn’t.