Talking to Christians about mental illness is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
Some Christians will tell you that depression and anxiety are purely spiritual battles to be heroically conquered with more faith, more Bible reading, and more time spent hunkered down in the proverbial (or literal) prayer closet.
Others will say that it’s only a physical issue and that the only sure solution is going to the doctor and loading up on meds.
And still, others will come up with wild theories about demonic attacks and the end times and the Illuminati. Talking to them makes you wonder if something is wrong with them.
But what does the Bible say about depression and anxiety?
It’s the million dollar question, right? Depending on what you believe, you can end up with wildly different approaches on how to think through mental illness.
It’s important to get this one right.
So let’s take a look. What does the Bible have to say about depression and anxiety?
It Says Absolutely Nothing
In one sense, scripture says nothing about mental illness. At this point, some of you are punching your fist in the air and saying, “Yes, I knew it! All those therapeutic namby-pambies are believing a lie!”
Not so fast.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about mental illness in the same way it doesn’t say anything about the Trinity. In other words, you’re not going to find the words “depression”, “anxiety”, “bipolar”, or anything else.
But just because those specific terms aren’t in scripture doesn’t mean that scripture is silent on the issue.
In fact, mental illness is everywhere in the Bible.
We Was Beat When We Was Born
In the movie Newsies, Jack Kelly (played by a super young Christian Bale) says the phrase, “We was beat when we was born.”
He’s referring to the fact that the poor kids of New York were defeated from the moment they were born, and would never have a chance to succeed.
We too were beat when we were born.
The moment sin entered the world, everything went to pieces. The perfect world God created was suddenly, violently shattered. Things that once worked perfectly, like the gears of a Swiss clock, began to shift and grind and groan and shutter.
Bodies began decomposing and everyone’s death clock started ticking. The soil rebelled, spewing out thorns and weeds and poisonous plants. Suddenly, nothing worked as it should and chaos began its reign of terror.
In Reformed circles, we refer to this as total depravity. It simply means that sin has infected the totality of our being. Our bodies and emotions and souls are all under the oppressive dominion of the darkness.
Total depravity means our world is broken. Our bodies are broken. Our brains are broken.
This is why Paul says in Romans 8:22-24:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Mental illness should not surprise us. When sin entered the world, so did cancer and colds and ebola and Zika and, yes, mental illness. Our bodies (brain included) groan for the redemption that Jesus is bringing.
What does the Bible say about depression and anxiety? Nothing. And everything.
These People Sure Seem Depressed
Not only do we find evidence of mental illness in our total depravity, we see it in action in numerous godly men and women.
When you read the Psalms, it often seems like David has sunk incredibly low. Obviously, we don’t know if David was depressed in the medical sense, but his words indicate that he was often in the depths of despair and darkness.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
These aren’t the words of a guy having a bad day. David isn’t just a bit bummed out or disappointed. He is clearly crushed under the weight of sadness. He has sorrow in his heart all day every day.
This sounds very much like the experience of those who have been leveled by depression.
As we walk through church history, we see numerous other examples of godly men and women who were absolutely crippled by depression.
In a sermon entitled “The Christian’s Heaviness and Rejoicing”, Charles Spurgeon said that during an illness:
…my spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for … a kind friend was telling me of some poor old soul living near, who was suffering very great pain, and yet she was full of joy and rejoicing. I was so distressed by the hearing of that story, and felt so ashamed of myself.
The great hymn writer William Cowper was also afflicted by absolutely crushing depression. When he was 21, he wrote:
(I was struck) with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.
Cowper was so oppressed by the darkness that he even tried to commit suicide and was eventually put into an asylum for his own good.
When we think through the question of, “What does the Bible say about depression and anxiety?” we need to look first to the Scriptures and then to the testimony of church history.
What We Think Determines How We Respond
What we think about the Bible and mental illness always determines how we help those are struggling.
From Scripture, we know that depression and anxiety affect the entirety of a person, just like any other physical disease. A person who is dealing with multiple sclerosis will need wise medical help and sweet spiritual counsel. The same goes for a person buried under depression or anxiety. There has to be a holistic, physical and spiritual approach.
When a friend is clearly in the unshakeable grip of physical depression, I recommend that they see a doctor. I don’t make medical recommendations or tell them about this one time that I was feeling sad and took this supplement and it cheered me up. I know that there is something broken in their body that needs to be fixed.
I also gently encourage them with God’s word. I don’t correct them for their lack of faith in God’s promises. I don’t tell them not to worry. I remind them of God’s love, his delight in them. His nearness to the brokenhearted. He refusal to break a bruised reed.
They probably won’t feel any different when I tell them these things, but that’s not the point. I want them to know that I love them and that God does too. Most of the time, presence is more helpful than words.
And I certainly don’t give them a book to read. They can barely get through the day, let alone make their way through a book. A single verse will do. Spiritual medicine must be administered slowly and it often takes weeks to begin working.
This Really Matters
The answer to the question, “What does the Bible say about depression and anxiety?” matters because people matter. When you get the answer wrong, people get hurt.
As G.I. Joe was fond of saying, “Knowing is half the battle.” And it’s true. Once we know what Scripture says, then we can fight the other half of the battle and minister effectively.