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Suffering service

Life is pretty good at the moment. I have three great kids. My marriage is going well. We planted a church a few years ago, and we are starting to get some traction. The problems we have are because of growth. All in all, this is one of those seasons people dream about. Life is good.

And yet…

I feel like there’s a weight around my neck, a fog blanketing me. People seem to talk slowly, and my brain functions on just two cylinders. I go to sleep okay at night, but I am awake again at 4am, and by the time I get out of bed I will still be tired. A cup of coffee clears the mist for an hour or two, but then I am back deeper in it than before. Little problems are starting to feel insurmountable, and I often wonder, “Can I deal with this?” My wife is loving and attractive and yet I don’t feel the desire to express this to her. I read the Bible and the word ‘joy’ is an alien idea, and I feel I have almost forgotten what it’s like to laugh.

In short, I am suffering from depression.1

The good news for me is I understand why this is happening. I know it will end soon, but others suffering from depression will be unable to see the end. The bad news is that once I am through this, I know it will happen again, and again, and again.2

At some point in their lives, around one in five people in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States will suffer from depression. Though I don’t have the statistics, I suspect that that figure is higher in churches.3 It will affect different people in different ways, with different causes, but it is a growing problem.

Despite this, we aren’t good at talking about it in our churches—at least not good enough. There is a fear that if I’m not living a life of ‘joy’ then there’s something wrong with me. If I can’t serve like everyone else in church then something’s wrong with me. If I’m depressed, I’m not really a Christian. But by looking at what the Bible has to say about depression and what it says to the person who has depression, we see that in fact looking at depression helps us appreciate and see the glory of God even more vividly.

To examine why depression happens, I want to look at Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It’s the best passage I have found that explains what is happening in the world.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;

he shall be high and lifted up,

and shall be exalted.

As many were astonished at you—

his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,

and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

so shall he sprinkle many nations;

kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which has not been told them they see,

and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

 

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgement he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

 

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;

he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The servant song, and what’s wrong

There are a few passages in the Bible that tell us the whole story. One of these is the last of the ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah. It tells us what we’re like because of sin, and about the work of Jesus. The work of Jesus is the key focus of the passage, but I want to start with what sin has done to us to help us understand Jesus’ work.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way”, as Isaiah 53:6 says. When I studied psychology we read about taste aversion therapy: when you eat or drink something and then get sick. The taste of what you consumed is associated with the sickness, and so you feel sick when you smell or taste the item again. It was being used to stop dingos from eating sheep. Dingos were given sheep carcasses that would make them sick. Then they were put in a pen with another sheep to see what would happen. What they expected was that the dingo would keep away from the sheep, which happened. What wasn’t expected was the sheep deciding that since the dingo was not attacking it must be another sheep. It decided to stand next to the dingo because that’s what sheep do. The result was the dingo being chased by the sheep around the pen as it tried to escape the smell that caused its sickness.

This is an apt description of what we are like. We stupidly choose to stand next to things that can kill us. But there is more to our story. We are sinners, legally culpable and guilty for what we have done. We break God’s law and go astray. As the passage reminds us, we have transgressed, we have iniquity that needs to be dealt with. But also these sins affect us, others, and the world. So when it comes to dealing with our sin, we need to seek atonement for our sins and healing from them. We are both guilty and broken.

Verse six also reminds us of the universality of sin; we are affected perpetrators. All of us have experienced sin. The Bible explains to us that sin fractures a good world. It affects all of life, which now dies. It is not just humanity that experiences the repercussions of sin.

But the focus of the passage is what Jesus will do at the cross. It starts with God declaring that he would do something extraordinary, leaving people speechless. His servant would be unexpected, because God would send him to be a representative for us, to deal with sin in our place, becoming the lamb that would take away the sin of the world through an act of substitutionary atonement. We are free from our guilt. One of the big differences about the suffering of this man and many of our sufferings is that we know that he is suffering not because of himself, but because of us. He suffers on our behalf.

But the story doesn’t end there. God will raise him up to glorify him again. This last section reminds us of a time that is coming when God will restore the world to the way it should be, the resurrection age. There is a future hope we can look forward to, a life free from sin and its consequences.

“We all are sinners, and need a saviour. We all are broken and need a healer and the hope of a perfect world.”

In the servant’s song we see both what is wrong with the world and what Jesus has come to do. It is a simple summary of the gospel. We all are sinners, and need a saviour. We all are broken and need a healer and the hope of a perfect world. This helps us to start seeing why depression happens.

Why, why why?

Why does depression happen? Why does it happen to Christians? The short answer is sin. “All we like sheep have gone astray”—and that going astray has fractured every part of the universe we live in. It will and does affect us all.

Depression is just one of those effects. While Christians have the Spirit and are saved, we still live in a world that is affected by sin. Depression, therefore, is one of those things that we will face.

Most mental health professionals see depression as arising from one of two possible places. It could be endogenous, caused by some form of chemical imbalance, or exogenous, caused by some form of external reason like grief.

I would like to give another way of looking at the possible causes of depression: through the lens of the Bible, in how sin affects our lives.4 This will give us not two, but three sources of depression.

For some of us, some, depression can be a consequence of our own sin. It may be we are doing something or have done something that is causing depression via guilt. Addictions to porn, illicit drugs or relationships involving sexual sin can do us damage that can come out in depression. An idol in our life that has not lived up to expectations brings our whole world crashing down, causing depression (Jas 5:13-15).

The good news here is that Jesus offers forgiveness, and we can come to him to deal with our sins.

For others, depression is caused not by our sin, but by the sin of others. We all like sheep have gone astray, and other people’s sin can and does affect us. There may be emotional, physical or sexual abuse. It might include ongoing conflict. These situations are more complicated to deal with because it will possibly involve, at some point, seeking to forgive those who have hurt us. We must not make the mistake of thinking this is easy to do. Forgiveness comes to us easily in the gospel, but it was not easy. God planned out history around his Son dying for our sin. Jesus took the full weight of that sin, absorbing it within the Godhead. Forgiveness has come at great cost to God. Forgiveness is not easy for us either, and may require help.5 But we do have the supreme example before us in the cross.

Finally, there are depressions that aren’t anyone’s particular fault, but are part of living in this sin-fractured world. It might be the grief caused by losing a loved one to cancer. It might be a chemical imbalance in the brain. It could be any number of things, and often is.

“The good news is that Jesus is redeeming a people for himself to a new creation, where these things that cause depression are absent. This does not help us here directly, but it does give us hope for the future.”

The good news is that Jesus is redeeming a people for himself to a new creation, where these things that cause depression are absent. This does not help us here directly, but it does give us hope for the future.

Too simplistic?

But the problem is that my diagnostic tool is overly simplistic. Life is not quite that clear-cut. Perhaps Scott is a Christian guy with a wife and two kids and a life going well. Then one day, because someone in the budgeting department put a ‘0’ in the wrong place, the company starts to lay people off. Scott loses his job as a victim of someone else’s incompetence (someone else’s sin).

What Scott did not know until then is that he had a genetic pre-disposition to depression (we live in a world of sin). His layoff has now triggered depression. Scott, like most men, thinks that if he pushes through and gets a job then everything will be okay. But the economy is not doing well and jobs are scarce. Days are spent home alone, while his wife is at work and the kids are at school, and his depression is growing harder to live with. Scott starts to check out some porn sites for a little escapism from the dark cycle he has found himself in. It is not long before he is addicted to porn, but shame is making him hide it from his wife and friends (his own sin).

Depression is not simple; there’s a lot that can set it off and a lot that can affect it.

While many of these things are outside our control, there are some things that are not. So let me say this simply: the Bible tells us “do not sin” (1 John 2:1, 3:6, 3:9, 5:18). It does not have a footnote at the bottom of the page that says “unless you have depression, and then a little sin is okay”. There is no Greek word we can use to get around it. Sin is sin and it kills.

I mention this because in depression you look for ways out, moments of escapism to make the whole thing more bearable. Some of these means of escapism can start with things that are harmless or even good. But something that is a good gift from God can be turned into a means of sin.

For me it is caffeine. Coffee is a good thing if, like many other things “it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). God gives us good things, but our sinfulness turns them bad. A cup of coffee, for me, while depressed, lifts the fog and makes things a little more bearable. Of course, as any coffee drinker will tell you, it does not take long for the effects to wear off and you feel worse still. The answer is… another cup of coffee. And the cycle goes on.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of cycle? It is an addiction. It’s not the single coffee here and there, or even the few, it is the need for more that becomes a problem. I am not free, I have become a slave to caffeine (or chocolate). All sorts of things can lead to this kind of addiction. It might be a substance like caffeine or alcohol. It might be the way you treat the opposite sex to get attention: harmless at first, but it becomes flirtation, and then escapism in another’s arms.

Depression may make you more vulnerable to sin, but sin will invariably make things worse.

The gospel for those with depression

So is there any hope that the Christian world view can offer to those who have depression? Yes!

All together

Depressed people in churches often feel lonely and like they don’t belong because there is something wrong with them. Here is good news: there is something wrong with all of us! We all like sheep have gone astray, we all have relationships with people who are sinful, and we all live in a world affected by sin. We are all broken in some way. Some people with depression will say, “I am alone, no-one is broken like me”. You are not alone; no-one is broken exactly like you, but we are all broken.

Church can sadly be a place where we play the ‘okay’ game, where I pretend my life is all together and you pretend yours is. Here’s how the game unfolds. As a pastor, I try and model a life of maturity in Christ. People see this and think that’s what the Christian life needs to look like, but with sin in their lives they fail at it. So, rather than confess this sin and bring it to Jesus, they create a facade to show people they’re okay. I then feel more pressure to show what the Christian life is like, so I build a facade. And so we all pretend we are okay, while secretly struggling with sin.

In the meantime, someone seeking to deal with their sin through the gospel of Jesus comes into church and sees a bunch of people who apparently have their lives together, and immediately thinks that in order to go to church you need be okay. Since they are dealing with sin and its effects, they instantly think they don’t belong.

“We must be clear with people: you don’t clean your life up to come to church. You come to church because your life is not cleaned up. This is what the gospel is about: the need for a saviour.”

We need to remember that the gospel of grace reminds us we are all in need and we are all broken. We must be clear with people: you don’t clean your life up to come to church. You come to church because your life is not cleaned up. This is what the gospel is about: the need for a saviour.

Man of sorrows

Jesus is described as the “man of sorrows” (ESV, NIV) or “man of suffering”(HCSB) in Isaiah 53:3. The Hebrew word makovot is not easy to translate into English. It involves suffering both psychologically (man of sorrows) and/or suffering physically (man of suffering). If you have suffered from depression you will know how much it affects you both physically and psychologically.

Jesus gets that.

The idea that God is ‘without passion’, as theological textbooks sometimes say, can mistakenly be taken to mean that God is lying on his cloud-like couch in a long white dressing-gown, not caring about or understanding the pain that is happening in the world. This is not the God of the Bible! This is deism.

But Jesus understands suffering on a level that no-one else knows. The Isaiah prophecy points to the historical event of the cross where God the Son faced the wrath of God the Father. Both suffered. God embraced the suffering to pay the price of sin.

The writer of Hebrews points out the importance of Jesus being able to identify with suffering and the temptation that might come with it (Heb 2:14-18). While this may not feel like the suffering you are living, the Bible is clear that the suffering Jesus faced enabled him to be able to identify with yours. To put it plainly, he understands not just what it is like to be tempted or suffer, but he understands what it is like to be tempted while suffering. He gives us an example to follow.

Saved by grace

The gospel is all about the work of Jesus. Our passage covers what Jesus would do on the cross. We are described as sheep, helpless animals that require complete care to survive. The gospel is about us placing all our trust in what Jesus has done to save us. It requires trust.

It doesn’t require us to ‘feel’ saved. If you don’t feel saved, loved, like rejoicing, close to God, or worthy, you are still saved by Jesus.

Our trust in Jesus is not based on the size or enthusiasm of our trust—it can be as small as a mustard seed (Matt 17:20; Luke 17:6). It is effective because of who it’s placed in. He is one who will not disappoint, even if we disappoint him. We are saved by grace, not our emotions or mental state.

Saviour and healer

Finally, the heart of the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins. He died as the innocent for the guilty (Isa 53:5). He died to justify the sinner. He died as an act of penal, substitutionary atonement for his people.

But he also died to heal. Throughout Isaiah 53 we see these two themes weaved together, especially in verses 4-6. Likewise, in Mark 2:1-12, we see Jesus meeting a man facing a life of living in a world affected by sin. He cannot walk. Jesus deals with his problem of being a perpetrator of sin by forgiving him, but he also heals him of the effects of sin (Mark 2:5-12). We don’t know why this man cannot walk, only that he cannot. Let’s say he was born that way, not because of his own sin or other people’s, just living in a broken world. Jesus heals the effects of sin in him. In other parts of the Gospels the idea of being ‘saved’ is equated with being healed.6

Some churches have taken this idea of healing too far. They promise healing here and now. This is not the promise made. Healing will come, but it is not guaranteed to be in this world.

However, other churches have, over-compensating, forgotten that this is the promise held out to the people of God. Some of us, like me, will have to face depression for the rest of our lives. But these are only our lives here on earth. There is a day that is coming, a day of healing, a day of no more sorrow or pain or tears, a day when we can leave depression behind. It is not here yet, but we must continue our yearning for home.

The gospel from depression

Addressing depression in our churches will not just help people deal with it, but also show the glory of the gospel more vividly. The gospel shows our fractured state that needs redeeming, and highlights what sin has done to us (which is really what we have done to ourselves). It reminds us that we need redemption from sin and justification for what we have done. Depression highlights how sin entangles and ensnares us; we are not merely victims but also perpetrators. Looking at depression shows we need our great Saviour, who doesn’t just identify with our sin but saves us from it, giving us the hope of a life without depression.

  1. I won’t outline what depression is, but if you have any concerns then please visit a website like www.beyondblue.org.au and see your doctor as soon as possible.
  2. This is because I have a form of cyclic depression caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain.
  3. See K Birkett, The Essence of Psychology, Matthias Media, Sydney, 1999, p. 90, for Phillip Mitchell’s assessment on the state of depression in churches.
  4. I don’t disagree with the mental health approach; I think it is quite helpful; this is merely a different way of looking at things.
  5. This is where a good counsellor or psychologist can be helpful.
  6. E.g. in Matthew 9:21-22 the word ‘well’ is used to translate the word ‘saved’ in Greek.

11 thoughts on “Suffering service

  1. Absolute unadulterated garbage. If you suffer from depression get help from a trained mental health clinician. Depression and PTSD can be fixed but bibles prayer and a sense of sin will not help. It is medication and therapy that will. The author should be careful as bad advise in this area is a leading cause of post mortem epidemiology.

    • Richie,

      1. Real name please.

      2. Given the author’s agreement with diagnosis and avenues for help, it’s unfortunate you’ve come to the conclusions you have about this article. I suggest you re-read it more carefully, and with a more generous spirit.

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  3. “It reminds us that we need redemption from sin and justification for what we have done. Depression highlights how sin entangles and ensnares us; we are not merely victims but also perpetrators.”

    The issue is that the author seems to want to create a third way of treatment this being some kind of spurious attachment to the old evangelical memes of sins and justification by faith. It seems broadly cult like has no clinical significance and indeed recent research has not proved that prayer works with cases on endogenous depression whereas targeted psycho pharmaceutical interventions seem to work against placebo.

    Also in cases of non acute episodic depression issues of pre morbid personality psychosocial issues and risk factors of suicide indicate not a evangelical morbid fascination with sin but a foci on compassion and the loving nature of the trinity.

    Psycho pharmaceutical interventions especially with new form serotonin inhibitor and non selective MAOI along with CBT wseems to work far better along with a constructive family therapy base.

    I recomend to the author that he takes into account the many statistics that link suicidal ideation with a cult like negative spiritual schema. With a generous spirit I also suggest that the author would not wish to be peddling a argument that may in fact go against the hippocratic oath which states “do no harm”.

  4. Hi Richie, I appreciate your comments. In other places, unfortunately not included here, I do spend some time talking about the importance of getting good medical help when and where you can and sooner rather than later (I can’t for reasons I won’t go into here).

    My experience is that Christians sometimes have a fear of using medication as being unspiritual and I think this is dangerous. Further my experience is the GREAT danger of coming off medication too quickly.

    My point is that the article is smaller than my thoughts and experience on the subject and that there is more help that can be found than in the Gospel, but there is also help to found there. I appreciate you showing your disagreements and highlighting the dangers of only dealing with this theologically.

  5. Great article. Richie Scott, I understand the mistake you are anxious about but I really see no hint of it in this article.

  6. As someone who has dealt with depression in the on/off way and love her LORD, i found this message very helpful. thank you and LORD bless your day.
    amyfaith martin

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  8. Thank you for this article, Peter. I am thankful that more and more people in the church are tired of pretending and are facing the reality of all forms and experiences of depression and the many ways God has and is providing for relief and healing. When I was a liturgist, I was particularly sensitive to the fact that corporate worship needs to include the opportunity for the church to rejoice and weep with one another.
    I have come from a family that has many generations of people who have struggled with depression and who chose to escape in all the usual ways
    including suicide. I would add to the conversation that people who are sensitive to chemical imbalances are often very negatively sensitive to chemical/drug solutions. But I am thankful that drugs are becoming more nuanced and helpful.
    I have suffered from depression since childhood for various reasons and find that one cause that may not have been mentioned is the suffering of too much information. We are now able to see and hear about so much suffering in the world and even watch the perishing of those who may not have a saving relationship with God in Christ. I find this overwhelming some days and just have to turn the news off, pray and fix my mind on Jesus.
    And last, I have often been encouraged by the verse which says “a bruised reed he will not break.” I understand your use of broken and wonder if you have a particular verse in mind? I know that I am wounded and scarred from the past and very bruised in the present but so thankful that this life before Life is not all there is! Chapter 43 in Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, changed my life and is most encouraging and hope inspiring.
    Thank you for this opportunity to respond and may God continue to bless the work of your mind and communication.

  9. Hi Pete,

    Thanks for this article, and writing of your own struggles with it. However, I do want to gently disagree with some of what you’ve written.

    One of the problems is I’m not sure what makes this a theology of depression as opposed to a theology of suffering or sickness. It seems to me that at numerous points, you could replace depression with, say, ‘chronic pain’, and it wouldn’t make all that much difference to the content of the article.

    The problem with this is that depression is a specific illness, with specific mental and physical flow-on effects. ‘Feeling depressed’ is not the same as the mental illness of depression. Even within depression there are categories. Dr Gordon Parker, director of the Black Dog Institute, divides depression into three separate categories, all of which respond differently to different treatments. I do understand that it’s always difficult to unpack all of the nuance in a short space, but with depression, the nuance can make a large difference.

    Further, while I thoroughly agree with sin as our fundamental problem, the fairly blunt tone means that, for those with depression, you’re adding to the guilt of sin which already weighs like an anvil, and is liable to spin off into cycles of guilt and shame. I wonder if it would be better to speak of a ‘godly grief’ which leads to a salvation without regret, rather than the more brusque reminder of the consequences of sin.

    While I appreciated that there was a section on grace, it is almost painfully short. I’m convinced that the method of ministering to those suffering from depression is just as important as content of ministering: the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’. Rather than an incitement to ‘doing more’ or ‘thinking better’, for those suffering from depression, I’m convinced we should be unfolding the rich grace of God into every area of their identity, their life and their loves.

  10. Thank you for this article!

    As one who has been in deep depression numerous times (to the point of haunting suicidal thoughts) my reason finally came to me when delving into the Word while in such a state.
    It was a decision, I didn’t want to, too depressed, but I made myself do it.
    It was bringing life to my soul, reviving my heart.
    I learned to “speak truth to my soul” when depressed. Psalm 42
    (I continue to do this any time I am tempted to go deep within myself and make life all about me.)
    Many around me tried to get me into professional counseling and on medication, which I didn’t want to do.

    I agree with the thoughts in this article – it is my sin, my wandering.
    My not being content with what has been apportioned to me.
    I have found depression is an emotion. I can go with it or let it dominate my mind until I get way way down.
    Sometimes when going to church and seeing those who are not depressed and just being around people is actually a “shot in the arm” of encouragement for me, my mind is taken off of…me. I can also be blue and choose not to make a big deal out it. My depression at times, can be anger.

    It is becoming very popular to believe that depression is a “mental illness” needing medication and professional counseling. It is also popular to say that, “one is not loving” or “one is not showing grace” if one mentions to the depressed person that sin can be the root cause of their depression.

    There are so many causes for one to be blue – diet, hormone imbalance, side effects from meds, allergies, food intolerances, lack of exercise or sunshine, etc.
    To immediately slap “mental illness” or mind altering drugs on a depressed person without looking at ALL other possible causes first and foremost is wrong.

    I have learned that I can be depressed, but I do not have to give into my emotions, I can choose truth and walk in the light and not go down the path to spending all my thoughts on me and how bad I feel. I can put others above my depression.
    It is a thinking and doing for me, I learned this through Scripture. I have, “a cure for depression” written over Psalm 77 as reminder.
    The psalmist, Asaph, time and time again, went to the Lord remembering His character and his attributes when he was depressed.
    The Holy Spirit comforts, He provides contentment, this is where the christian must go. The christian must “speak to their soul” the truth of God’s word and then apply it.

    Many of the side effects from mind altering drugs (anti-depressants or anxiety) are hurting many who believe they are doing the right thing by going on them. They do not realize the worsened symptoms or new symptoms could be from the drugs. It’s beneficial to look over all side effects before and while on these medications. A lot of these drugs are not meant for all age groups either. I have family members who went this direction to worsened symptoms.

    This is my experience with depression. By the grace of God and the power to choose truth (Romand 6) I am no longer in bondage to it.
    Sweet freedom.

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