I became a Christian in college and immediately started devouring the Bible. I loved the Epistles but struggled with most of the Old Testament. To try and gain a better understanding of the Old Testament, I thought I would start in Psalms because they were devotional and easy to understand. My rosy understanding of the Psalms collided with reality when I saw how many of the Psalmists wrote from places of deep despair and pain. I wondered why on earth these men were such whiners. Two decades later, I found myself preaching on ten of the Psalms this Summer. I picked the Psalms I would cover earlier in the year and once I got into the series, I realized that I picked many of those dark Psalms because of what I was walking through when I planned the series. In the twenty years since college, my perspective on the Psalms had changed. No longer were the Psalmists simply whiners going on and on about their oppression, these were men who knew how painful life could be and had learned how to cry out to God in their despair.
Christians often don’t know what to do with depression and despair. We have bought into a version of the Gospel that promises never-ending “happiness” and triumph in this life, so when we crawl into the pit of despair we don’t have the categories to process our pain. We feel guilt and shame for our darkness and begin to wonder if God can use us in our pitiful state. During times of darkness, many Christians wonder, “Can I serve in my church if I am depressed?” If Christians are supposed to have joy and I don’t, can I still serve and help people? In this article, I want to convince you that the answer to the question is yes. Not only should you serve the church when you are struggling with depression, but you are in a unique position to serve fruitfully when you are struggling with depression.
What is depression?
When I speak about depression in this post, I refer to a prolonged sense of sadness. It can be characterized by a depressed mood, lack of pleasure in activities you usually enjoy, a sense a guilt and shame, increased fatigue, excess sleep, changes in appetite, or excessive contemplation of death or suicide.
The Bible uses the language of darkness, distance from God, and feelings of despair to describe the pain of depression. Psalm 88 contains the darkest of the Psalm’s laments, with the author saying his soul is full of trouble, that he is like the slain who lies in the grave, and that he is like one God remembers no more. Depression hurts. It causes us to feel distant from God and the people around us.
How can Christians seek help for depression?
Many Christians remain distrustful of “secular” psychology and are slow to acknowledge that they or someone they love struggles with depression. In addition, if you have never been diagnosed with depression, you may not know that this is what is happening to you. I fall into the latter category. For years I struggled, especially in the winter, with crippling doom and despair. When someone would suggest I was depressed, I scoffed because that was something only “weak” people dealt with. Finally, as I heard a Christian describe what depression feels like, I thought, “wow, that’s me.” I joined the weak people who struggle with depression and thank God that he helped me figure that out.
If you are struggling with depression, first seek out a mature Christian friend, pastor, or Christian counselor. They can talk with you, pray with you, share Scripture with you, walk with you, and help you to gain some perspective on the darkness through which you are walking. Ask questions about how they have dealt with depression, what helped them keep going through it, and how they were able to pray when God felt distant. Christian friends and pastors can be a wonderful resource, but sometimes you need the aid of a medical professional. While many Christians disagree about the role medicine should play in treating depression, Christians should not feel any guilt or shame about visiting their doctor to see if they have a chemical imbalance that might need to be corrected with medicine. We wouldn’t tell a cancer patient, “just have faith and pray about it.” We would tell them to pray while they are receiving chemotherapy. In the same way, some Christians who are struggling with depression need prayer, counseling, and medical treatment.
Should you serve in the church if you’re struggling with depression?
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul detailed a vision he experienced where he was caught up into the third heaven. He came back from that experience enthralled by what he saw; yet, he was unable to speak about it. Because of what he had seen, he said that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. Biblical scholars have spilled barrels of ink debating what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, but Paul does not describe the thorn in detail. This is good news for us because we do not need to be walking through the same thing Paul was in order to receive the grace that is in this passage.
Three times Paul asked God to take the thorn away, but the Lord would not do it. Instead, he told Paul that his grace would be sufficient to sustain Paul because God makes his power perfect in our weakness. This led Paul to conclude, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
We need people serving in the church who are struggling with depression. People who believe themselves to be strong will only serve in their own strength. When you deal with depression, you keenly sense your weakness. That is a beautiful place for you to be because you will trust in his strength rather than your own. In addition, more people struggle with depression than you might realize. When you serve the church faithfully and walk in the light about your depression, you will have opportunities to bless others who are hurting. Too often we think we have to have it all together to serve in the church, not realizing that honesty about our vulnerabilities can lead to some of the sweetest opportunities to serve another brother or sister.
There is an exception to what I said above. If serving in the church while you are dealing with depression begins to take a toll on your mental health, do not feel guilty about stepping away from serving for a little while. Someone else can take the opportunity to serve while you heal. The church is a body and sometimes the other parts need to do more work while one member heals.
Have any well-known Christian leaders suffered from depression?
We sometimes get the idea that pastors and other well-known leaders simply experience victory after victory as they walk through life. Looks can be deceiving, though, and some of the pastors God has used most mightily have been men who often fought with depression. 19th-century British stalwart Charles Spurgeon fought with depression for most of his ministry. At the age of twenty-two, he preached in the 10,000 seat Surrey Gardens Music Hall. The crowd exceeded the hall’s capacity and during his sermon, someone shouted “Fire!” Seven people died and many were injured in the ensuing melee.
Spurgeon lived with great pain over this, and when combined with his frequent gout attacks, he spent many days in a depressed mood. Because of this, he often had to take time away from the ministry so that he could go recoup in Mentone, France. He once told his students about these times to get away, “A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.” He fought depression by getting outside and allowing God to restore his soul through the world that he made.
How should Christians respond to suicide?
Many Christians were shocked over the summer at the news that Andrew Stoecklein, a young pastor in California, took his own life. It was difficult for some to understand how a man who exuded such joy in the Lord could choose this dark path. Stoecklein’s widow Kayla told the church that he struggled with anxiety and depression for a long time. She said he considered leaving the ministry but continued to press on because it is what he believed he needed to do.
This brother’s death is tragic and we do not want to see one more Christian choose to take this path. If you are thinking about taking your own life or becoming overly fixated on how much you want to be free from your pain, please talk to a qualified person that you trust immediately. There is no shame in admitting that you are not okay. Seek help, take time off, and heal.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—is a free, 24-hour confidential hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress (1-800-273-TALK).
What if my pastor is struggling with depression?
Pastors struggle to admit when they are dealing with depression. If they walk through darkness, they get afraid that they are not really trusting the Lord or believe that they are doubting his goodness. It is better for pastors to take the difficult step of admitting that they have a problem than for them to burn out or worse. In your church, advocate for your pastor. Work to ensure that he has people around him bearing the burden of leading as well. Make sure that he takes off at least one full day a week. Do not let him skip out on vacation time. Make him take it. Offer him a few weeks away as a personal retreat to rest and seek the Lord. If he hits a difficult time emotionally and mentally, help him get counseling and make sure the church covers it. Help lighten your shepherd’s load.
If your church doesn't feel qualified to recognize someone struggling with depression or know how to respond, these resources may help:
- LivingWorks: The world leader in suicide intervention training.
- QPR Institute: Three steps anyone can learn to help prevent suicide.
- The Connect Program: Training professionals & communities in suicide prevention & response.
There is no shame in struggling.
We live in a world broken by sin. Its effects work their way into our moral, spiritual, mental, and emotional lives. Because of this, many Christians will struggle with depression, not caused by some individual sin in their own lives but because we live in a sinful world. At the same time, God is making all things new. Through Christ, he is redeeming us and transforming us into his image. That process will often be messy and the progress will be slow.
Christians struggling with depression should have no shame in serving the church unless a break is needed for the sake of their mental health. The Spirit uses our weakness and pain to impact other struggling people. We get to join in the beauty of God making all things new. He uses struggling, broken, and hurting people to help other struggling, broken, and hurting people.
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