Depression is one of the most common ailments of our time. There is no one who has not suffered this affliction at some time in his life to a greater or lesser degree. Depression is not a respecter of persons. It occurs at any age from puberty to senility. It affects the wealthy as well as the poor, the single as well as the married. It strikes any race or color.
Depression is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “the state or feeling of being depressed in spirits, a sinking of the spirits, dejection.” There are various degrees of dejection, ranging from disappointment to despondency, even to despair. Once the point of despair is reached there may be a loss of contact with reality.
The question asserts itself: What is the cause for depression? To answer this, we should immediately distinguish between circumstances that may incite the depression and the cause. Physical ailments, extreme pressure from without, financial problems, worries, or other difficulties may bring about this situation in its varying degrees, but are not the real cause. In our lives, soul and body are most intimately related, so that when the body suffers, the soul suffers along with it. When we face an emotional problem, grief, loss of a dear one, anxiety of sorts, we can also expect that our spiritual life for a time will be at a low ebb. At the same time, we may suffer physically to the extent that the appetite disappears, sleep becomes disturbed, accompanied by a loss of weight. These are but circumstances that must be distinguished from the real cause. If relief is to be attained we must discover the cause.
Sin, the underlying cause of all our miseries, is also the cause for all depressions. When our first parents fell into sin, already in paradise, God in His righteous judgment gave us over to our sin, so that we are conceived and born in sin. We may like to forget that, but it still remains a fact. Our cardinal sin is pride. It appeals to us to play god, at least, to be as God. That little idol that we cherish so much is our big I. I read at one time that a rooster is so proud, because everything appears to him to be much smaller than it really is. That makes him feel so much bigger that he dares to attach anything that comes in his way. Whether that is true or not, the point to be made is, that we regard ourselves to be much bigger than we really are, so that repeatedly we have to be put down a notch or two. Only grace can put our spiritual eye in proper focus.
Out of that sinful pride arises either a superiority complex or an inferiority complex. Conceit gives one an exaggerated opinion of himself that causes him to assert himself whenever he can, or it causes one to put on an air of sham humility, afraid to admit the abilities or talents God has entrusted to him. It all centers in the fact, that our big “I” is always foremost in our thoughts, desires, and ambitions. This is the evil that Paul calls in II Cor. 5:15, a living unto ourselves. Another term for this is covetousness, which Scripture describes as the root of all evil. We were created to seek after God and to covet fellowship with the living God as our only good. Through the fall this natural inclination to covet turns in animosity against God to crave sin with all its lusts and pleasures, so that we are literally slaves, bound in the shackles of sin and death, revealing itself in sexual perversions, greed, jealousy, deceit, hatred of God and of the neighbor. Only grace can change that craving covetous sinner into a humble child of God, who in sincere repentance says: “Whom have I, Lord, in heaven but Thee?” He actually learns to sing: “As a hart pants after water brooks, so pants my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
The old inclination to sin is still with us, so that when we will the good, we still do the evil. So readily we become dissatisfied with our lot. We lose sight of God and of His providential care, so that the joyful spirit is silenced by self-pity. We feel so sorry for ourselves. We stare ourselves blind looking at that poor “I”. Self-pity, in turn, leads to depression, even often to the point that we would just as soon die. Everything bothers us, everybody offends us, every moment adds to our troubles. We say, “That person is a pain in the neck,” or “He gives me a headache,” or “He gives me a stomach ache,” or “He makes me sick.” This may even be literally true, so that “my aching back” may have a deep-seated origin in a depressed spirit. We cannot pray. Our prayers reach no higher than the ceiling. God seems to be far from us, or has turned against us. A certain sin looms big before our consciousness, as if God is punishing us for that particular sin. All other sins can be forgiven, but this one must be the unpardonable sin. With something like that on his conscience, how can one expect to find relief?
The question arises, why are not unbelievers in a constant state of despondency and despair? In answer to that, I would call your attention to the fact, that as you look about you, you see very few really happy faces. One may wear an artificial smile, another may wish you “a good day,” still another may shout from the bumper of his car: “Keep smiling,” but no one is exuberant with joy. There is actually no unmixed joy in this world, even when taken at its best. One grumbles about the weather, which is too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet. Another grumbles about his job, his family troubles, his health, or whatever may plague him at that moment. Some will even hide their real feelings behind a cloak of hilarity, sordid jokes, drunken banter, or the like. Some will engross themselves in their work or in social activities, so as to hide their faces from reality, like the proverbial ostrich who hides his face in the sand when the enemy approaches. Then there are always those who resort to drink, to drugs, and ultimately to suicide, as if that would somehow solve their problem.
You ask, but why are Christians depressed? Are they not new creatures in Christ, who walk by faith and not by sight? Are they not in possession of the “joy unspeakable and full of glory?” If anyone has the right and reason to rejoice it is the child of God who lifts his head triumphantly above all the miseries of this present time to declare by faith: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loves us.” Nevertheless, you know and I know that a believer has this treasure in the earthen vessel of a sinful body. He does not always live in confidence of faith. Too often we live not according to the dictates of the Spirit, but according to the dictates of the flesh. Sin besets us. We succumb to its power. The Holy Spirit withdraws Himself from our consciousness. God is far from all our thoughts, until we complain, “The sorrows of death compassed me about, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” (Psalm 116:3).
It is exactly this burden of sin and guilt that the Holy Spirit uses to draw us back to God and to the peace that passes all understanding in Christ. Anyone who has had contact with a person in deep depression will know that the common complaint is that he is lost, beyond the hope of salvation. He finds himself to be the most miserable of sinners, who increases his guilt every day, as long as he remains here in the flesh, so that his situation continues to grow more hopeless.
There lies the key to the cure. It is in that state of mind that people often turn to psychologist, who, in turn, will either make light of their problems or will even warn them not to read their Bibles or be concerned about their sins. They are told that they are sick, their mind is sick, they cannot think clearly, so that their sin problem is not real. In times past psychiatrists have cruelly subjected these people to shock treatments. Today it is a more common practice to apply group therapy, along with the thoroughly modern notion that must be imprinted on their souls, “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” It reminds one of the adage that everyone should repeat to himself every day, “Everyday in everyway I’m getting better and better.” Repeated often enough, this was supposed to give an entirely new outlook on life.
The real solution to the problem lies in the Scriptures. They recommend an honest and thorough self-examination. This examination consists of the three well-known parts: That I am aware of how great my sins and miseries are; that I am deeply aware of how I am delivered from these sinful miseries; and that I know how to show true gratitude to God for this deliverance.
A few remarks about each. It is important to notice that, although cases of depression are more numerous in our busy lives than ever before, this in not something that was unknown in the past. Listen to Job as he complains: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a manchild conceived. Let that day be darkness, let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let the cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. As for the night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months. Lo, let that night be solitary, let not joyful voice come therein. Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning. Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark; let it look for light, but have none. Neither let it see the dawning of the day: Because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hid sorrow from my eyes.” (Job 3:3-10).
Consider David’s cries in Psalm 42, or 77, or 116, or 130, and many more. Be ready to see your sin of pride in your own life, your greed, or lust, or covetousness. Realize once for all that you have set up a little idol in your life, have set it up before the face of God, and have let that idol of SELF stand between you and God, so that your prayers are hindered. Of course, you will ask, “Am I a greater sinner than those who are not troubled with the miseries of depression?” But before you once more pamper yourself in self-pity, leave that to God except that you remain deeply aware that you are, along with the apostle Paul, the chief of sinners. Do not brush aside “guilt complex,” but know that he who confesses and forsakes his sins finds mercy with God. The publican’s prayer then becomes yours.
There are innumerable passages of Scripture that point to God’s love that gave His only begotten Son to die as a ransom for the sins of His people, and to Christ as the Good Shepherd, Who laid down His life for His sheep, Isaiah 53, and John 10, and Romans 8, especially the last part, can be very helpful to draw our attention away from ourselves to the cross of Jesus Christ, our only hope of salvation.
To be aroused by the Spirit of Christ to true thankfulness, I would refer you especially to Psalm 103, part of which we always read at the close of every communion service. An absolute must is Philippians 4. Read each verse slowly and meditatively, pausing to consider prayerfully especially verse 8, then verse 13, and finally verse 19. There are many other passages of Scripture that are profitable for “doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” II Tim. 3:16,17.
For this very purpose God gave us the Scriptures, that in all our distresses we may flee to Him for refuge. He tells us “Seek ye my face.” What better response can we give than to say: “Thy face will I seek.” (Psalm 27) Two things are requisite. One that we read the Scriptures, not as a matter of formality, nor as if we were playing with some charm, but as a personal letter sent personally to us from God, Who tells us all about Himself, all about ourselves, and all about the way of salvation that leads to intimate fellowship with Him; a joy unspeakable and full of glory. Read your Bible as faithfully as you eat your daily bread, listening with an attentive ear to what the Spirit is saying to you. Second, pray, pray much, pray without ceasing, not merely repeating words or phrases you have learned by rote, but making all your needs known, pouring out your soul, telling God all about your troubles, until you can sing songs, even in the night.
What if you cannot pray? What if your prayers are seemingly not heard? What if all communication is broken off between you and heaven? Then read carefully James 5, follow his advice and call minister or an elder to pray for you. But be ready, as James tells us, at all times to confess your sin, whatever it may be, that you may be spiritually healed. The prayer of the righteous man has great power in it, for true prayer is born in our souls from the Spirit, Who works mightily to save.
Does all this sound too simple, too elementary to try? Then remember what the servants said to Naaman, the leper: “If the prophet had bid tee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” Make reading God’s Word your daily practice. And let’s never minimize the power of prayer!