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.
We may feel hopeless, which leads to the thought that there is nothing left to live for. There is.
If you find yourself in a dark cloud, it’s not a good time to evaluate the state of your life, your relationship with God, or what tomorrow will be like. Frankly, that will probably sink you even further into darkness.
Rather, you need to dramatically simplify your thinking. Cling to the simple truths of scripture, even if they feel empty. Often, I’ll pray simple prayers like, “Father, I know you love me and are going to get me through this.” I don’t let my mind dwell on whether I’m being a good dad or if I’m reading the Bible enough.
Then I turn my attention elsewhere, often to something quite mindless like a show on Netflix. I know that I can answer all the big questions of life when God brings me to a better place. Until then, I’m going to keep my thinking childlike (in the biblical sense).
Find A Faithful Friend
Depression and anxiety can be terribly isolating. The last thing you feel like doing is being around other people. And this is often made worse by the pat answers that are given when you tell someone you’re in the darkness.
However, it’s critical that you have at least one friend who, though they may not fully understand what you’re experiencing, will love you unconditionally.
I have several people in my life who fit this bill, my wife being first and foremost. When I feel like life is nothing but cemeteries and corpses, she prays for me, loves me, serves me, and encourages me to get the rest I need.
I also have several friends who I will text when things are bad. They may not know exactly what it’s like to be depressed or anxious, but they understand the human condition that we all experience. They know that life is difficult, that our bodies are broken, and that depression is a real thing.
They sympathetically listen and then usually offer to pray for me, which is, frankly, the best thing for me in the moment.
Chris helpfully says, “Whether a spouse, family member or friend, you may be wondering how to care for someone you love. And in that question lies the answer. You love them.”
Love means hanging in there with those who are weak, crushed, down, depressed, and hanging on by a thread. Love means presentness. It means encouragement and support, even if it feels like the person isn’t responding to that support.
If you’re a depressed Christian, try to find one person who can be a lifeline for you. Yes, it can be challenging to find someone like this, but you need to. You can’t be a lone ranger when it comes to navigating the dark and choppy waters.
Fall Back On Jesus
When you’re stumbling through the dark, it usually feels like God has abandoned you. This can be an utterly terrifying experience, especially the first time you experience it.
But Jesus has you in a grip much stronger than your grip on him. Though it may feel like all is lost, it’s not. He has you, is holding you, and will sustain you as you travail through the screaming void.
Chris puts it this way:
There will be times when the most you can do is say, “Help me, Jesus.”
He will indeed help you. You probably won’t feel his help, but he’s there, holding you, guiding you, and shepherding you to green pastures. You may not be able to hold onto him, but he has you in his omnipotent grip that nothing, including your depression, can break.
Honestly, you’re much weaker than you feel. The good news is that he’s much stronger than you can imagine.
The End of Depression
There will come a time when your depression and anxiety will be fully and finally gone. When Christ returns, tears will be dried, brokenness will be healed, and mental illness will be banished, never to return.
Until that day, you can rest in the simple, lovely truths God has declared over you: you are loved, you are held, and you will be sustained until the end.