Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Good News of the Gospel for Depression

"For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted." Hebrews 2:18

Ever since the fall of man in Genesis 3, this world has be plagued with the effects of sin. Sin is devastating and it leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. Every day there are opportunities for believers and unbelievers alike to view the sorrow, suffering, pain, and death which are the result of sin. Every day the temptation to despair, hopelessness, and depression stands ready to present itself. The believer has the unique opportunity to call upon the One who was tempted in every way, yet without sin,[1] and plead for His help to overcome the temptation to depression. To understand the absolute necessity of calling on Christ, one must first understand the need.

 Recently, an article published in TIME magazine decried the conflict of interests occurring in the medical industry. Since 2004, pharmaceutical companies have spent $58 billion dollars in marketing. Of this, an astonishing 87% was directed at doctors.[2] These companies are willing to invest so much in marketing their products because they know there is even bigger money to be made when physicians prescribe them. This is not to say that medications cannot be helpful in particular circumstances. However, it is a good indication that we live in a culture that would rather prescribe you a pill than actually deal with a problem. Modern medicine is built upon a materialistic understanding of the universe. As such, there is no concern for what spiritual factors may be underlying a condition. As Christians, we know the truth that man is both body and soul. When the soul suffers, so does the body, and vice versa. Therefore, we must never neglect careful inquiry into the health of our spiritual condition even as we are seeking to understand a physical condition.

 Depression has been accurately defined as "A debilitating physiological response to our thoughts of haplessness (despair or joylessness), which becomes a person's reason for not handling the most important issues of life."[3] This definition is more helpful than many because it contains within it the "cause-effect" relationship between body and soul. Here, Dr. Smith identifies the cause as "thoughts of hopelessness" and the effect as a "debilitating physiological response." For this reason we need to be extremely careful about being loose with our language. Too often people label themselves or others "depressed" when they really mean "sad" or "sorrowful" or "down in the dumps." Emotions like these are the natural response to the fallen world around us. It is right to feel sorrow over sin, grief over the loss of a loved one, even sadness and disappointment when situations don't work out as we'd hoped. Sometimes we may even feel "down in the dumps" for no particular reason. The difference between these emotions and depression is found in our definition above. Dr. Smith rightly notes it is when feelings "become a person's reason for not handling the most important issues of life" that depression has set in. Therefore, we may view depression as different by degree, not kind. That is, depression is not a unique emotion, but an unchecked degree of emotion. So, there is a way to be "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing",[4] but when depression sets in, rejoicing ceases.

 Perhaps the greatest help we can derive from our definition of depression is the recognition that, to a large degree, depression is the response to our thoughts. Dwelling on thoughts of hopelessness will open the doors wide to depression. I speak from experience when I say that sometimes the depressed individual actually wants to remain depressed, in order to justify wallowing in self-pity and sin. As believers, we have been given the Word and prayer to help us in all of life's circumstances. If we would allow the Word to shine its piercing light through the clouds of depression, we just might find the gloominess lifting. However, too often the inactivity associated with depression is used as an excuse for further inactivity. As a result, the depressed individual neglects the disciplines of Bible study and prayer, the very things that the Lord has given us to overcome every one of life's trials. John Bunyan understood this, and spoke to it in his allegory, Pilgrim's Progress. In one section, Christian and his companion Hopeful are abducted and held captive by Giant Despair in the dungeon of Doubting Castle. The Giant beats the travelers mercilessly and then gives them the option of suicide or an agonizing, torturous death. Christian is lost in hopelessness and begins to reason that suicide may be the best option. Hopeful speaks reason into their situation and stays Christian's hand. Finally, after some days in the dungeon, near starvation, the following scene occurs:

Now, a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech, What a fool, (quoth he) am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news, good brother; pluck it out of thy bosom and try. Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out.[5]

How often do we, like Christian, forget the promises of God and find ourselves trapped in the dungeon of despair and doubt when we may just as well be walking in liberty on the King's highway?

 It is the Christians responsibility and obligation to look to Christ for grace and help in their time of need.[6] The writer of Hebrews was acutely aware of his audience's struggles and temptations. They had previously endured much for their faith.[7] But now, they were tempted to throw up their hands and go back to the safety of Judaism. Perhaps they were even tempted to depression when they saw the sufferings they and their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ were facing for their faith. The writer of Hebrews knew their greatest need, and so he penned a letter pointing them to the unique glories of Christ. Jesus ought to be the Christian's greatest source of comfort and strength when faced with any one of life's manifold trials. As the writer of Hebrews reminds them, "For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted."[8] Are you tempted to depression? Consider Jesus! He suffered, bled, died, and rose again to purchase both forgiveness for your sins and strength for your journey.[9]

 For most of us, depression is a choice. We make thousands of decisions every day. Each of those decisions will be, even if subconsciously, directed by the promises of God's Word, or by the propaganda of this world. When we choose depression, we choose to neglect the promises of God and the grace and help available before His throne. Jesus, our perfect example, paved a better way:

 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance [including depression] and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

[1] Hebrews 4:15
[3] Robert Smith, The Christian Counselor’s Medical Desk Reference (Timeless Texts: Stanley, NC, 2000); p. 206.
[4] 2 Corinthians 6:10
[5] John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress & Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Vintage Spiritual Classics: New York, 2004); pp. 100-101.
[6] Hebrews 4:16
[7] Hebrews 10:32-34
[8] Hebrews 2:18
[9] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10