Spiritual Depression

Some people think only those with weak wills or a lack of faith suffer from depression. The truth is even the most faithful Christians can get depressed. Some experience acute situational depression – such as when a loved one dies or a relationships ends. Others battle chronic clinical depression, due to their particular brain chemistry.

The Bible is filled with examples of believers who battle depression. While it offers us no simple cure, Scripture does provide spiritual principles and practices that can help us move through the dark nights of our souls to the bright morning sun, the light of Christ.

Depression is an illness, a disease that impacts us not just emotionally, but also physically and spiritually. Thanks be to God, medical science now has a number of ways to treat the symptoms of depression – with prescribed medication, talk therapy, monitored nutrition, and regulated exercise. But how do we treat depression spiritually?

Psalm 42 shows a model for moving through the darkness of depression in the light of God’s love. First, we recognize our spiritual need. Beginning in verse one and two,

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

There is no doubt depression has physical and emotional causes, but there is also a strong spiritual component. For healing to happen, we need to recognize our longing for God, to seek God where He may be found. The deer needs water not only to relieve thirst, but in order to survive. Likewise, we need God in our daily lives to save us from self-destruction, from spiritual death.

Doctors, therapists, and other health care providers can contribute to recovery, but they can’t produce healing. God alone in Jesus Christ is the Great Physician. For healing to happen, we need to look to the Lord.

Later in verse 2, the Psalmist asks,

When can I go and meet God?

The Psalmist is in exile, a stranger in a stranger land. He is separated from the fellowship of faith, restricted from worshiping God with other believers. This isolation compounds his despair. Later, in verse 4, he brings to mind days gone by.

These things I remember

as I pour out my soul:

how I used to go to the house of God

under the protection of the Mighty One

with shouts of joy and praise

among the festive throng.

These are bittersweet memories for the Psalmist. He is reminded of the joy and thanksgiving he once shared within the faith family. At the same time, he is made aware of what is now missing from his life.

I can greatly appreciate the Psalmist’s struggle being separated from his faith family. The time I was away from church during my hospitalization, I felt a huge void in my life. It was a tremendous blessing to hear from so many of you. Your faithful prayers, encouraging notes and cards, phone calls, and meals for my family greatly enhanced my healing process. I was daily reminded of the depth of God’s love reaching out through the body of Christ.

The first step toward healing from depression is to recognize our spiritual thirst for God. We can then call on God for help. Often, God’s help comes from within the body of Christ – through encouraging words and acts of kindness.

Depression is a powerful disease from which there are no quick fixes. In verse 3, the Psalmist cries out from the depths, My tears have been my food day and night…”

He is overcome by emotions that seem to have little basis in outward circumstances. The weight of his despair is overwhelming.

In my years as a pastor, I’ve known many people who, as they fought depression, stop coming to church. This is a common strategy the enemy uses—divide and conquer struggling souls by isolating them from the fellowship of faith.

I visited one such woman and, as our visit ended, I encouraged her to come to church on Sunday. She replied,

“I really can’t. I’m afraid I would just break down.”

I thought about it a bit, then said,

“That would be great if you did. The Bible tells us that the sacrifices pleasing to God are a broken and contrite spirit. God promises us that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

We could all benefit if we were to break down in tears from time to time. And what better place to do it than in God’s sanctuary, the living room of our Heavenly Father.

To compound his troubles, the Psalmist is under enemy attack. In verse 3, he notes that people, “say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” Verse 10 adds to this, describing the effects of these attacks,

My bones suffer mortal agony

as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

“Where is your God?”

It’s sad to say, but many people in the world are eager to kick us when we are down. These enemies of the Psalmist may be calling into question the existence or power of God. More likely, however, they are casting doubt on the Psalmist’s faith. It’s as if they are saying, “You say you believe in God, why then are you suffering?”

Jesus went through similar mocking as he hung on the cross. One of the thieves hanging beside him said, “If you are the Christ – save yourself and us!”

Such taunts are bound to aggravate our depression. When facing such attacks, we need to call on the Spirit of Christ who, while hanging on the cross, was able to say to his accusers, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

In Psalm 42, the Psalmist tries to make sense of his depression, to be freed from its grip. In verse 5, he asks himself,

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

Why so disturbed within me?

Often with clinical depression, we cannot find an external source or cause that would account for the depth of our sorrow. We may simply wake up one morning and find it is next to impossible to get out of bed. This may persist for weeks, months, even years.

One of the most effective forms of treatment for depression is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. This approach recognizes that what we think governs how we feel as well as how we behave. If we think life is just a meaningless series of events, we are likely to feel depressed and lack the motivation to do anything about it. If, however, we replace this negative thought with a more positive one, we can overcome feelings of despair and move toward healing.

This is just the sort of thing the Psalmist does at the end of verse 5. He speaks to his own soul, saying,

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Savior and my God.

The enemy wants us to believe when we feel depressed that nobody cares, that our life lacks meaning and purpose, that God (if there is a God) is too busy with other things or is simply unconcerned about us. God, in Christ, constantly challenges these lies.

In Matthew 10, Jesus says,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (vv. 29-31)

The God who created us in His image cares deeply about us and wants us to live in His love. The God who, in Jesus Christ, gave His life to set us free from sin and death, shines His light in the darkness of our despair. God’s gift to us through faith in Christ is a Spirit of joy. We may sow in tears, but with Christ, we will reap with laughter.

As we pass through dark valleys in our lives, it is good to remind ourselves of the power of God’s love. Picking up in verse 6 of Psalm 42, we read,

My soul is downcast within me;

therefore I will remember you

from the land of the Jordan,

the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.

Deep calls to deep

in the roar of your waterfalls;

all your waves and breakers

have swept over me. (vv. 6-7)

The Psalmist is saying in this poetic imagery that God demonstrates His tremendous power in the world, and in our lives. The God who produces waterfalls, waves, and breakers can certainly satisfy our thirsty souls. God is certainly strong enough to lift us up when we are cast down.

Though the Psalmist may not feel as if God is with him in the moment, he does not let this feeling undermine his faith. In verse 8, he proclaims,

By day the Lord directs his love,

at night his song is with me—

a prayer to the God of my life.

We can’t let our feelings undermine our faith. In Jesus Christ, God is with us, whether it feels like it or not. By day and by night, we do well to remind ourselves of God’s loving presence.

One thing I highly recommend for you as you go through dark valleys is, like the Psalmist, you keep a song in your hearts. There are so many hymns and praise songs that lift us up when we are down. We do well not just to sing these in church, but throughout the week.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, and to us, to speak

to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20)

Through music, the Holy Spirit lifts up our hearts and minds so that we can feel the warmth of God’s love, and share this love in our relationships – with God and with each other.

The demon of depression can be tenacious, voracious, and debilitating. Even when we draw on the resources of our faith in Christ, the darkness may persist. In Psalm 42:9, the Psalmist returns to his complaint,

I say to God my Rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go about mourning,

oppressed by the enemy?”

My bones suffer mortal agony

as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

“Where is your God?”

We may believe with all our hearts and mind that God is with us in Christ. And yet, it feels like God is nowhere to be found. The Psalmist reveals how attacks from the enemy can call our faith into question.

When facing depression, often our biggest enemy comes from within. We struggle with self-doubt, question our value, even wonder if we have faith. Our adversary works hard to infiltrate the minds of believers and plant ideas that discourage us, that keep us growing in our relationship with Christ. To counter this attack, we need to “set our minds on things above” – to fill our minds with spiritual thoughts.

Through depression, the enemy attempts to insinuate doubt in our minds that we have a God in Christ who cares deeply about us. Our adversary tries to divide and conquer us, getting us to isolate ourselves from God and from God’s people. Satan manipulates our feelings such that we can begin to doubt our relationship with Christ.

The good news is that the only power the enemy has within us is the power of suggestion. We can win the spiritual battle as we open our hearts to the living Lord. Psalm 42 concludes with the refrain in verse 11,

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Savior and my God.

When you go through depression, you may have no idea where this feeling is coming from. But you can know that you are never alone. Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

You can also know with the certainty of faith that God will lead you through the darkest valleys with the Light of his love. With faith in Christ, one day, we will rejoice together with all God’s children. There will be no more tears. No more suffering. No more sorrow. Only praise to the One who created us in love, in whom there is no darkness – only light. The Light of Christ.

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