Depression, Faith and Lockdown
‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,’ says James (Jas. 1:2-3). Depression, like all trials, tests the Christian believer’s faith. And like any test of faith it also invites the believer to respond to its challenges with faith. Yet the nature of depression makes faith hard, and confusing to exercise when you are in the midst of it.
I remember someone saying to me, during a season of depression many years ago, ‘can’t you just say to yourself, ‘The Lord is my light’, and switch the darkness off?’ Well, no; I couldn’t. It’s not that I didn’t have faith in the darkness. I did. I did trust the Lord. The problem was one of expectation. What should ‘having faith’ feel like in depression? Was ‘having faith’ the same thing as ‘not having depression’, as healing? No. My reading of the Psalms, in particular, convinces me that faith and depression can co-exist. Exercising faith is not the same thing as being healed of depression. What difference should faith make to depression then? When we are fighting darkness and hopelessness, what does it look like for believers to exercise faith in the God of hope?
Many of us have found the past year of lockdowns to be a trigger for sustained depression. The prolonged assault of social distancing, uncertainty, fear, financial stress, and the lack of physical connectedness with others have taken their toll. Personally, I have recently returned to medication to help with the flare-up of a depressive tendency with which I have struggled since childhood. And, as a Christian involved in ministry, I have found myself wrestling again with the question of how depression challenges, connects with, and yet may be helped by, my faith in and service of Christ.
It is not easy. Yet I wanted to share four ways in which I think Christian faith may help us believers as we walk the road of depression. Four ‘postures’ that we might adopt towards depression that are possible directly through an application of our faith in Christ. And, so, four ways in which our faith may be strengthened in the midst of long-term depression.
Being a Christian allows you to accept suffering, of all sorts. The depressed Christian need not be perplexed about their struggle. ‘Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering,’ Peter says (1 Peter 4:12). How can that be? It is because the Christian comes at life with a framework that allows for suffering. For they know that, in a fallen and cursed world, both mental and physical illnesses are to be expected. Depression can result from medical, psychological, behavioural, or spiritual maladies, and Christians are not immune from the effects of the Fall in all these areas.
Yet not all depression is rooted in dysfunction. The Christian worldview suggests that, strange as it sounds, some depression may be rooted in wisdom. For as we experience the effects of the Fall in the lives of others and the world at large, faith-filled believers may react with appropriate grief that is a reflection of looking sensitively at the brokenness of life. And Christian wisdom gives a further explanation for suffering: Christians follow a suffering Saviour, so in Him they may even suffer more. As a Christian, you can accept your struggle with depression; be patient with yourself. Allow yourself the time and space to come to terms with how you feel.
As we come to accept our struggles, we will then be able to treat ourselves, and others, with compassion. Those who suffer with depression especially need compassion. And surely faith in Christ leads us to compassion, both for others and ourselves. For the resources in the gospel allow us to counter the negative filter that depression puts on life, resources that flow from the amazing truth that Christ has compassion on his people as they suffer. He is gentle with us.
So, Christian, if you are struggling with depression, know that the Lord understands. If you need to go back on medication, accept that as a gift from the Lord, not as a sign of failure. And if you know others who are limping through their lives with depression or other mental health issues, then be patient with them. Listen to them; take time to be with them. Be Christlike in the way you speak and act towards them, encouraging them that the Lord is with them in their struggle.
Christian compassion leads to connection. Compassion looks outwards and draws others outwards away from themselves. Surely we see this in the compassion of Christ, who comes to us in mercy, even in our unattractive rebellion, and invites us to imitate Him by seeking out others who are lost. So, the Christian has resources that can counter the isolating tendency of depression. Looking to Christ for strength naturally leads to looking to others for help.
If you are low, then don’t be alone in your struggle; try and share it. I have been so blessed recently by my pastor, my family, and my friends as I have shared something of my feelings with them. Reaching out, though sometimes very hard to do, can be an act of faith that begins to turn the tide on the waves of despair, as they threaten to pull you under. Perhaps you know someone who is depressed, but who won’t reach out. Can you stand with them, and gently reach out to them?
Acceptance; compassion; connection. These all flow from the gospel, and all bring hope in the hopelessness of depression. This is why the gospel is beautiful for the depressed believer because it is a gospel of hope. Indeed, it connects us with the ‘God of hope’ (Rom. 15:13). As believers, we live united to the risen Christ, whose life is right now reversing the despair of death that we feel, and who invites us to put our hope in him. Christ himself is the one in whom the depressed person can find daily hope. As a Christian, no matter how you feel, you are united to Christ, who cannot, and will not let you go. He suffers with you, and he understands your suffering completely. Here is the ground for your hope, the engine of your faith.
And yet hoping in Christ as a depressed believer is very practical. It gives you the grounds to fight. To fight for joy: joy in the good gifts of his Creation that can take you out of yourself, maybe in a walk, or a book, or in music. Joy in friendships and love that he gives each day; and joy in fighting sin and battling for holiness as you follow him through the trial of depression. And ultimately, Christ is your hope in that he promises to redeem your depression, and to use it creatively to bless you and others through you.
But best of all is Christ Himself – He is the Hope of the depressed. Brian Cosby, in his study of the Puritan John Flavel’s theology of suffering. "Suffering and Sovereignty", recounts Flavel’s counsel that one of the reasons God allows suffering in the lives of Christians is so they can commune more deeply with Christ. This has been a precious truth for me recently; for it reassures me that I can still come to God in my darkness to unburden myself and find, what – healing? No; but definitely hope. Hope that I am still loved, known, and that by grace, all shall be well with me. And there, in other words, is faith.
George Parsons has been a Christian since his teens. He is currently serving as the Worship Pastor at Christ Church Roxeth in Harrow, and is active as a freelance pianist, organist, and instrumental teacher. In 2016 he received a PhD in Musicology from the University of Sheffield and has just completed a Diploma in Bible and Ministry at London Seminary. He has also recently co-edited James MacMillan Studies for Cambridge University Press. He enjoys running, and the outdoors, and is gradually walking his way around the UK National Trails.