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The Gospel and Depression

February 3, 2015

darknessO LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
     Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
     I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
     your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
     they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
     my companions have become darkness.
     (Psalm 88:14-18, ESV)

If you look up the word in an English Bible concordance, you might be tempted to conclude that the Bible says nothing about “depression.” The word never occurs.

That conclusion would be a terrible mistake. Partly because it fails to realize that the absence of a particular word is not the same thing as the absence of an idea (there are lots of ways to describe what we call depression; see Psalm 88 above). And partly because drawing such a conclusion effectively cuts off those who suffer depression from what they need most—the transforming presence of God.

Depression is not a popular subject in the church. We tend to avoid what we don’t understand, and depression is notoriously complex. Worse than avoidance, depression often caries a subtle stigma. Christians are supposed to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted, we think. If we face depression or any variety of mental illnesses, then something must be wrong with us. We’re not believing God enough, or praying enough, or reading our Bible enough, etc.  We don’t dare speak honestly and openly about it, for fear of what others will think.

But the sad and potentially dangerous reality is that we’re avoiding an issue that by some estimates affects 25% of our congregation in a given year.[1]

As Kathryn Green-McCreight, a theologian and minister who suffers from bipolar disorder, describes, “Depression is not just sadness or sorrow. Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being ‘down.’ It is being cast to the very end of your tether and, quite frankly, being dropped.”[2]

Depression is real. Whether clinical or situational, it’s part of life in a fallen world. But if that’s true, then the gospel of Jesus has something to say about it. For God has promised to make right everything that’s wrong with this world through the cross and resurrection of his Son (cf. Col. 1:15-20).

The Bible speaks openly and honestly about the countless ways that life can fall apart. Not only the ways we mess it up through our own sin and rebellion (which can have depressive results), but the ways we feel the often impersonal effects of the fall through injury, natural disaster, disease, and yes—depression. Consider the refrain in Psalm 42–43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5).

But the Bible also speaks hope into the darkest of circumstances, as the refrain continues: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:5-6, 11; 43:5).

This hope is secured through the cross and resurrection of Christ. It’s the promise that God will make all things new, that a day will come when “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” (Rev. 21:3). It’s also the promise that God is with us today by the Holy Spirit, shining his light into the darkness and speaking the truth of the gospel to the lies that threaten to destroy us, as he leads us deeper into his presence (Ps. 43:3-4).

Because depression is complex, we should freely recognize that finding healing can be complex, too. The hope of the gospel is not mutually exclusive with counseling, therapy, or medication (especially when depression results from physiological factors). But the gospel does put all our care into context. For even as it frees us to call depression what it is, it announces its defeat. For the gospel connects us with God through Christ. And God is bigger than depression. As Jared Wilson reminds us, “You will outlast your depression, because Christ in you, the hope of glory, will outlast it.”[3]

If we love our friends and family members, if we love our fellow congregants, we cannot afford to avoid or ignore this issue. When asked how churches can best reach out to those in the congregation who might be struggling with depression or anxiety, Rebekah Lyons answered,

“Churches can talk about it, and talk about it often. I’m a firm believer that secrets lose power when they exit the dark. Confession is a healing balm toward connectivity and we’re loved to the measure we are known. The more we name our struggles, the more others have permission to do the same. I can’t think of a more perfect medium to provide this healing community than the church.”[4]

As a pastor, I don’t have all the answers about depression. Not even close. I do know that the gospel frees us to be honest about it, and gives us hope. And so I want to help us start the conversation, and frame it with the gospel of Jesus.

So join us this Sunday at Westgate Church as we consider Psalms 42-43, “The Gospel and Depression.”

UPDATE: Listen to or read the sermon here.

End Notes

  1. See, e.g., Ed Welch, “Hope for the Depressed,” Jan. 10, 2010.
  2. Kathryn Green-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 21.
  3. Jared Wilson, Gospel Wakefulness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 157.
  4. Ed Stetzer, “Freefall to Fly: An Interview with Rebekah Lyons on Anxiety, Depression, and Freedom,” The Exchange, April 15, 2013.
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