Talking Freely About Depression and Anxiety

I think we need to talk more openly about depression and anxiety in our churches.

Several weeks ago I mentioned in a sermon that I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life. Immediately after my sermon a woman came up to me and asked me to pray for her because she was struggling with anxiety. She said, “I’m glad you mentioned it, because it made me feel like I could come up and ask for prayer.”

Think about it for a second. Millions of people around the world struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, and millions of people within our churches struggle as well. Many women go through a period of strong depression following the birth of a child. Many great Christians of the past have struggled with depression, such as Charles Spurgeon, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.

And yet for some reason, we don’t like to talk about it. It feels weird and uncomfortable. Why is it such a taboo subject? I think that there are a couple reasons.

We Don’t Understand It

Most of us have not and will not experience true depression and anxiety. Yes we get sad and yes we get worried, but this is just isn’t the same. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating and crushing in ways that normal sadness and worry are not. Because we haven’t experienced it, we have difficulty understanding those who are sinking in the darkness, and we tend to compound the matter by saying, “I do understand.” And when people feel misunderstood, they are hesitant to talk about their struggles.

We Misapply the Doctrine of Sin

The biblical doctrine of sin is one of the most helpful, life-giving doctrines available. The Bible informs me that my heart is sinful and deceitful, and that there is a war taking place within me between the Holy Spirit and indwelling sin. But, the doctrine of sin is one that must be handled with kid gloves, especially when dealing with topics like depression and anxiety. When someone is struggling with serious depression, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are sinning in unbelief or failing to believe the promises of God. There may be some element of that, but it is also likely that there is something physically wrong with them as well.

After all, the Bible tells us that sin has affected every part of man, both soul and body. 2 Corinthians 4:16 says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Our outer man, including our brain, is wasting away.

Depression is not just a matter of the soul. It really is a matter of the body as well, and we need to understand that. When someone tells me that they have a splitting headache, I don’t immediately ask them how their soul is doing. I may get to that, but not immediately. When someone tells us that they are struggling with depression and I immediately move to spiritual diagnosis, I’m not helping them, I’m discouraging them, and tempting them to close down.

The Solution?

So what exactly am I proposing? Tomorrow I’ll put up some more specific suggestions, but for now let me propose this. Let’s try to create a culture in which our friends who are depressed or anxious feel comfortable talking about it. And that starts with listening to them as they describe their struggle and being quick to offer comfort and slow to offer solutions.

More on this tomorrow.

+photo by Sander van der Wel

Comments

  1. mommy23girls says

    I agree 100%. Having struggled with depression for years, it took hitting rock bottom before I talked about it. Now that I am currently not struggling with this, I try to talk about it, especially when I sense that a friend is struggling in the same way. And, when I do struggle, the Holy Spirit awakens my heart to realize that I am struggling which enables me to talk about it and seek prayer/help faster.

  2. Kathryn says

    I am so happy you posted on this. I suffer with depression and it is hard because I feel like I am failing. I started a downturn a couple of days ago and went to the resurgence and desiringgod to find some sermons, books, or something on depression. What I found was shallow at best, which is unusual because these sites are normally very through. Thank you for being able to talk about this.

  3. Chrissy says

    It is very refreshing to not only read this , but read it from a pastor..
    I quit sharing my struggles w/ people/ Christians a long time ago…
    I know that there (could be some indwelling sin behind some struggles)
    but for goodness sake people, let’s have more compassion and tenderness w/ open minds, ears for listening and hearts w/some understanding rather than an eagerness
    to jump all over the sin wagaon!

    Thanks Stephen

  4. says

    As a clinical therapist and a recovering minister I work every day with anxiety and depression. Most people cannot see therapy through because they come to realize quickly how difficult and demanding the journey to wholeness is. You can't pray it away. It reaches back to your past and alters your coping mechanisms, your view of self and sexuality, even you neurochemical makeup. I have found it often takes a year or better of intensive cognitive therapy with someone who is good to help people deal with these issues. One nice thing, though, is the relief they find quickly from panic attacks. Treated appropriately a person can stop a lifetime of panic attacks in a matter of weeks.

    Good post. The church is often hesitant to admit that it cannot instantly cure and there are those in churches who feel like they are "less" because they do not have the miraculous deliverance they hear from the pulpit.

    • says

      Thanks for your encouragement Scott. Yep, this is something I think the church in general can grow in. I think we can do a better job of serving those who struggle with depression.

  5. Jon A. Delamarter says

    Thank you for this. My wife has bipolar disorder as well as social anxiety disorder. I have several children that are exhibiting similar symptoms. I've had a lifelong battle with ADHD and the feelings of hopelessness and guilt that go with it. Now, I'm dealing with cardiac problems, likely linked to stress and anxiety. I think I'm dealing with genuine depression too. You're right. People don't get it. But I think most people CAN'T get it until they've been there. I know that the last few weeks have given me much greater understanding and empathy for my dear wife.

    I can tell you that the Doctrine of Sin issue is huge. Much grace is needed.

    I pray that more pastors will follow your lead.

  6. Ben says

    I'm not actually sure if I suffer from what would be described as "clinical depression" or not, but I do know the sense of extreme hopelessness and symptoms of anger/frustration that I feel, usually stirred on by intensely stressful times of ministry. My wife has a hard time talking me out of this hopelessness (that is usually not merited) and these occurrances often last a few days (in the heaviest of stressful times), set off by anything contrary to what will make my stressful time function ideally. But when it's all over, I often find the sins of perfectionism, pride and selfishness at the root of the depressive time.

    • Ben says

      I share this because, while I am empathetic to the issue and I certainly don't think we should write off all depression as sin (especially things like obvious chemical changes that occur after pregnancy), I think that searching our hearts for sin is the first thing we should do before running to the therapist or psychiatrist for medicine. In our culture, it seems that we run for medicine first, not wanting to admit the real problem. Even in recognizing the root issue of sin, it will not likely be a quick fix, but at least it can be confessed for what it often really is (at least in my own life), and I can begin to submit those areas of my life to the Holy Spirit.

      • Ben says

        Again, I'm not saying that all depression is sin-related, and I have no doubts that many who are commenting here have genuine physiologically-based depression/anxiety, I just want to point out that the Bible tells us to search the heart first, confess any sin that might be in the way, and then seek healing from the physical problems that are left.

        • says

          Hey Ben…

          I agree with you that many times there are spiritual problems at the root of depression and anxiety. However, I don't think that is always the case. I think we need to be careful in how quickly we assume that someone is sinning, when there might be more to it.

          • Amy says

            I am one of those who was affected greatly by postpartum depression. I think the key thing for anyone to remember is to seek the truth. It is very hard when you are in the middle of a season of depression or anxiety to even know what the truth is. Everyone wants to”fix” you. The best is when someone gently asks questions that make you think about what the truth is, and then really listens to your answers. Whether that truth is something spiritual or something physical, such as taking meds. I remember saying a bunch of things and then saying, I know that’s not the truth, though. I had to separate myself from my current feelings to know what truth was. I hope that makes sense and is helpful.

  7. John says

    It seems to be very commonplace in churches that the brain, the most complex organ on the planet, was somehow exempt from the biological effects of the fall. All depression is certainly not biological, but the aspects that are have effective medical solutions. Once the chemical/biological aspects are dealt with, pastoral care and/or Biblical counseling can be effective. It's so sad to see people stoically enduring depression that is clearly biological/chemical because Christians don't "believe" in mental illness.

  8. DeeDee says

    @Kathryn–Piper has an excellent little book that comforted me tremendously when I went through an intense period of time with anxiety/depression. Warmly and wonderfully written. It's called, When the Darkness Will Not Lift. Also, Elyse Fitzpatrick has a great book that is on suffering that greatly helped me as well. It's what my counselor had me read at the time as anxiety and depression are a type of suffering and trial. It's called, A Steadfast Heart.
    One thing my counselor also told me…she is a nouthetic counselor..was to stop trying to figure out 'why' this was happening. I wanted out and for it to stop!! She told me to start seeing how I could glorify God as I walked under it. Changed my perspective!! Hang in there and keep fighting and looking to Him for grace upon grace! I remember preaching to myself that on the other side of this…I was gonna look more like Jesus—the Father promises that!

  9. says

    I'm looking forward to your subsequent posts…this is a matter dear to my heart, because I know precisely what you're talking about. I deal with a cyclic depression which is sometimes accompanied by anxiety attacks. I've gained a lot of encouragement from reading bios of men like Spurgeon and Cowper, and I believe there are multitudes of believers who would benefit from other suffering believers sharing their stories and wisdom.

  10. Petra Hefner says

    Great post! Depression is real and oft' painfully embarrassing.

    "When someone tells us that they are struggling with depression and I immediately move to spiritual diagnosis, I’m not helping them, I’m discouraging them, and tempting them to close down." For real. I think Christ is a good example. He knew more than anyone the importance of the eternal, but He healed first! and then said, Go and sin no more. He met them in a loving and practical way. Of course, we can't walk up and heal like He did, but we can offer the practical–the genuine hug, prayer, sympathy… the list is endless. And like you've said, it's not always spiritual. Some of the greatest saints are hit the hardest! Blessings!

  11. rachel mcc says

    Encouraging post, Stephen. As I've tried to grow in understanding this struggle (anxiety) so as to love a sister better I found a lot of help in the biblical wisdom found in "Running Scared: Fear, Worry & the God of Rest" by Ed Welch. As I read it, I realized I have a battle with anxiety too, I just express/control it differently than those who would readily admit to anxiety. The book is incredibly easy to read & especially encouraging because he ends each chapter with how he personally applied the things to his life as he was writing the chapter.

  12. says

    Hi Stephen,
    Great to see you addressing this topic. When I spoke about this in a sermon the response was also surprising, and all positive in the sense of learning where others have been struggling and receiving encouragement myself also. Looking forward to the rest of your thoughts on this.

  13. says

    I am overwhelmed by this posting. I was deep in depression due to martial issues. My husband and I were separated and headed for divorce. I could not cope and shut down. In a matter of weeks I was placed under church discipline and abandoned by my friends. They were told I was in sin and to stay away. I fell deeper into depression and then fell into sin. My husband gained the support of our friends and church which left him feeling more powerful. He is now trying to take my kids from me saying I am unfit. I have come a long way in the past year through the grace and mercy of God. My battle is not over but my faith has increased. This posting helped me so much. Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Rosemary Potten says

    I have suffered with a very serious bout of depression but rather than finding it made me fall away from God it actually made me stronger in my faith. I have also found I am able to be very open about how it affected me and can talk to other sufferers but also to people who haven't experienced it and try and explain it an illness like any other. I think people are afraid of it because you can't see it like a broken limb or an infection. I believe the more we are open to others about Mental Illness the less it will have such a stigma to it.

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