Upon brief reflection it’s easy to see that the remedy du jour for treating depression solely with medication is based upon very specific assumptions: that its genesis is always within the body (primarily the brain) and that we do not have an inner, invisible mind that directs brain activity. If that is true, then anesthetizing uncomfortable feelings is the wisest choice. However, if Scripture teaches something different, specifically that we have both a brain and a mind (or inner man), then categorizing depression solely as a dysfunction of the brain and turning to medicine first (thereby silencing the emotional voice of the mind) will unavoidably impede the important heart-work that God-ordained suffering is meant to produce. Of course, there might be times when medicines are a viable option, but because there are such wonderful graces at our disposal and because there are so many drawbacks with the use of anti-depressants, perhaps medicines should be considered the last line of defense, rather than the first.
Well, then, you might wonder, what is the scriptural cure for spiritual depression? This question begs another one: Should we assume that there will always be a cure for discomforts in this life? Isn’t it true that Christians recognize that suffering is part of what it means to live in this sad world? Don’t we believe suffering in itself is frequently beneficial to our lives, as it (and all things) come to us through the hands of a loving Father (Rom. 5:3–5)? Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t seek to alleviate suffering when appropriate (1 Cor. 7:21), but rather to inject perspective into our search for wisdom. So let’s rephrase our quest: If there were a practical wisdom to help the depressed, where would we find it? In Jesus Christ, of course (1 Cor. 1:30).
“All progress in the Christian life depends upon a recapitulation of the original terms of one’s acceptance with God” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 27). This delightful quote points us to an enduring remedy for all our ills, even that of spiritual depression. Every step we take in our Christianity, especially as we learn to war against inclinations to be introverted, self-critical, angry, anxious, bitter, hopeless, unbelieving, or fainthearted, depends upon an intentional revisiting of the Gospel. After all, what does a sad person need more than to be gently, yet continually, reminded of the good news? Over and over again, we’ve got to remember His suffering on our behalf: His incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, and ascension. In a nutshell, we have to intentionally consider Jesus, especially during those dark hours when we’re tempted to think only of ourselves. And although every one of us needs a daily dose of Gospel-recapitulation, those of us who feel the blows of Giant Despair need it even more.
What would this Gospel-recapitu-lation look like? It would simply look like encouraging the fainthearted with the truth about Jesus Christ. The depressed person needs a deep draught of encouragement, not trite banalities like, “Cheer up, things are bound to get better,” or “You’re not so bad. You’re really a wonderful person.” No, the depressed need strong medicine like, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that…we might live with him” (1 Thess. 5:9–10).
The counter-intuitive truth that the depressed person needs to hear isn’t “you’re really a wonderful person,” but rather, “you’re more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe.” When he bemoans that he’s “such a failure,” we should agree with him, at least on one level. We should agree that we’re all failures to the point that the perfect Son of God had to die before we would be able to have fellowship with Him. Every one of us has utterly failed to love God or our neighbor. We fail not only because we don’t love as we should, but also because we think we should be able to. We don’t really believe God’s assessment of the depth of our depravity. We can be freed from over-scrupulous consciences, from the incessant viewing and reviewing of our disappointments, when we realize that we shouldn’t expect success or to be well-treated. No, we deserve failure, abandonment, and wrath. Here’s one powerfully freeing facet of the Gospel message: We will never live up to our own standards! Neither will anyone else! In fact, the deception that we should be able to do this flows from a proud belief in our own abilities, self-sufficiency, and self-righteousness — beliefs that fly right in the face of the Gospel. We’re not in need of minor adjustments; we’re desperate for an all-sufficient Redeemer. The depressed person should ask, “What do I think I deserve? What am I expecting of myself, of others? Do I really believe that I’m as sinful and weak as Scripture says I am? Do I believe that I should be successful, appreciated, or sinless?”
Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be,” also speaks directly to the depressed. In some ways, depression is a slow, painful death of desire, the heart-sickness that comes from repeatedly having hope deferred (Prov. 13:12). Hope that sustains the heart when pursuing a treasured desire has faded (or disappeared) in the depressed. What, then, do you treasure? What do you think would bring you happiness? Who or what are you worshiping? What would give your life meaning? Whose life do you covet?
The joyous truth is that perhaps this painful depression is the Lord’s way of revealing false gods to you: gods of success, romance, acceptance, security, reputation. Is your heart sick? What hoped-for desires have been withheld? Why do you love them like you do? Why has a loving God withheld them from you?
Bathing our soul in the Gospel message will powerfully transform the locus of our treasure. Rather than cherishing success or self-approval, we can learn to cherish the Lord because He’s lavished such love upon the undeserving (1 John 4:7–10). All-satisfying treasure is found in this Gospel message: “It’s true that I’m more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe, and that truth frees me from the delusion that I’ll ever be able to approve of myself; but I’m also more loved and welcomed than I ever dared hope, and that truth comforts and encourages me when my heart condemns me and my darling desires are all withheld. It assures me that although I struggle with accepting myself, the Holy King has declared me righteous. What I’ve really needed — forgiveness, welcome and enduring love, have all been given to me in Christ.
“This is the freeing truth you can learn through your depression: You weren’t created to love and worship anything more than you love and worship God; and when you do, you’ll feel bad. God has made you to feel pain when you’ve got other treasures that you’ve placed above Him. He wants you to treasure Him” (Elyse Fitzpatrick,
Will Medicine Stop the Pain? p. 102).
We can fight against weariness, despair, and hopelessness when we consider Jesus, how he authored and, yes, even completed our faith (weak though it seems); how “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” We are to “consider him…so that [we] may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:2–3). Rather than considering ourselves, our record, humiliation, and failure, we’re to consider Him.
The depressed person needs to repeatedly hear this lovely statement, “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” In Matthew’s gospel we read of a paralytic who was brought to Jesus by his friends. Although we don’t know who they were, we can surmise what they wanted. What were they hoping for? Healing, of course. This invalid and his friends were hoping that Jesus would enable him to walk. But Jesus had a different perspective on this man’s true need. Instead of saying initially, “Be healed. Rise and walk,” he said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2–3).
The depressed don’t simply need to feel better. They need a Redeemer who says, “Take heart, my son, my daughter; what you really need has been supplied. Life no longer need be about your goodness, success, righteousness, or failure. I’ve given you something infinitely more valuable than good feelings: your sins are forgiven.” This forgiveness permanently cleanses not only outward conspicuous sin, but also hidden unbelief, faithlessness, pride, self-sufficiency, and apathy. Rather than the Gospel being ancillary to the life of the depressed, everything else in life needs to be ancillary to it.
Like the paralytic’s friends, we must bring our fainthearted brothers and sisters to Jesus. His sweet truth is to be lovingly communicated to them through a wise and patient community of faith. Encouragement to believe Gospel truth rather than Satan’s lies and support to step out in faith, whether that means simply opening the blinds or taking a walk around the block, need to come to them through others who know they are just like the depressed: immeasurably unworthy but nevertheless immeasurably loved jars of clay filled with life-transforming treasure. In this way, the Gospel is not only recapitulated but reincarnated before the suffering.
The power to transform the depressed belongs to God alone, thus we trust that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:14, 16).