“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Psalm 42:11
The Bible is no stranger to depression. Seasons of deep sorrow and suffering are experienced by God’s children throughout the Old and New Testaments. It’s both sobering and encouraging when we pause to consider the numerous texts which testify to the reality of prolonged sadness within the family of God.
On one hand, it’s sobering to discover that the perfect love of Christ and the indwelling of His Spirit does not remove the possibility that Christians might experience seasons of deep sorrow. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to know that Scripture does not shame or condemn us when the emotional rain clouds overhead persist. As the great Puritan Richard Sibbes once wrote, “Christ will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax.”
Unfortunately, we sometimes underestimate the number of emotionally bruised reeds within our congregations and communities. As a result, we miss out on a beautiful opportunity to glorify Christ through growth in both discipleship and evangelism. Minimizing the reality of depression within the church isolates the downcast among us, while simultaneously stunting the growth of our members that God has uniquely gifted to counsel them. Avoiding the prevalence of depression in the community robs the church of an opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with disconnected saints and lost sinners who are uniquely open and searching for hope. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, here are just a few ways that we are trying to cultivate a more intentional culture of care for the downcast within our church.
Cultivate A Biblical View of Sorrow
We don’t need secular, diagnostic manuals to know that the human heart is susceptible to long periods of (what feels like) hopeless sorrow. In Psalm 42:3 David cries out to God, “My tears have been my food day and night . . . .” In Romans 9:2 Paul confesses, “. . . I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Throughout the Bible the Lord uses faithful men like Jeremiah, Job, Moses, Elijah, and Jonah who all experienced seasons of great sorrow and, at times, lost their will to live. The author of Lamentations cries out, “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is . . . ,” while the Psalmist questions God as to how long he must continue living with unrelenting sorrow in his heart (Ps 13:2).
The Lord Jesus Himself is prophetically described by Isaiah as being “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3). In fact, it is the endurance of Christ through suffering (not his wine-making, fish-catching, or water-walking) that the author of Hebrews invites us to meditate upon in order to keep us from losing heart (Heb 12:3). The Bible pulls no punches over the reality of sorrow for Jesus’s disciples in this life, nor should we. For faithful Christians living throughout this fallen world, the sum total of human experience will most likely (at some point) tip the scales in the direction of sadness, sorrow, and suffering. Pastors serve their congregations well by preaching a biblically honest view of human experience that removes the stigma from the downcast and mitigates the shame that often accompanies depression. As Jeremy Pierre has rightly cautioned, we must guard against importing assumptions from the American Dream with its pursuit of happiness into the worldview presented in the Holy Scriptures. It is good medicine for the downcast heart to learn that depression is not a direct indication of a deficient or non-existent faith.
Cultivate A Biblical View of Belonging
The one thing that depressed men and women often desire the most, is precisely the worst thing for them. Namely, isolation. Along with cultivating a biblical view of sorrow, congregations should seek to cultivate a biblical view of belonging. Experience is teaching me that depressed image-bearers often view themselves as a burden to the local fellowship and may pursue isolation to keep from having a (perceived) negative impact on the local church. While these feelings are understandable, they are squarely at odds with Scripture. As Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22, no member within our blood-bought family can ever say, “I have no need of you. . . . On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Pastors and members alike must reinforce this biblical view of belonging to prevent our spiritual limbs from compounding their sorrows through isolation.
Consider Job’s friends. They are often used to exemplify what not to do for our depressed brothers and sisters, but before attempting to theologically rationalize Job’s suffering, they actually got a lot right: “and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). We sometimes avoid the downcast because we don’t know what to say. Yet, we give the Holy Spirit a lot to work with when we quietly and consistently join our depressed brothers and sisters for a meal, a movie, a walk, or a simple trip to the grocery store. This quiet consistency is a faithful application of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:26 that we “suffer together.”
Research in brain science reveals a powerful connection between human beings through non-verbal communication. By simply being present and modeling appropriate, non-verbal emotional responses to the beauty and brokenness of everyday life, we have the capacity to help jump-start and re-shape the emotions of those who struggle to feel anything at all.
Cultivate A Biblical View of Counseling
While quiet consistency is, indeed, an instrument in the redeemer’s hands, depressed members of our church and community often need counseling. Regrettably, the knee-jerk reaction for many pastors and churches has historically been to outsource counseling needs within the body to secular therapists who ground their interventions in human experience as opposed to God’s sufficient Word. On the other hand, some pastors have attempted to handle all the counseling needs of the church and community on their own, despite having little margin and/or little training in counseling.
To help cultivate a biblical view of counseling, a growing number of churches are encouraging their staff and members to pursue lay-counseling certification through groups such as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation and the Association of Biblical Counselors, to name a few. Not only does this increase our capacity to care for the downcast, but also it often creates unspeakable joy for church members who have been gifted by God to counsel yet who have struggled to plug into other ministries in the church. Whether we promote certification or simply set aside funds to attend biblical counseling conferences annually, churches that promote a biblical view of counseling will cultivate a culture that is better equipped to care for our depressed brothers and sisters.
In summary, the gospel reminds us that, because of Jesus, a day is coming when depression will be no more. Soon and very soon, we will only know the fullness of joy in the unhindered communion with the Father, Son and Spirit. But until that glorious day, we must cultivate a biblical view of sorrow, a biblical view of belonging, and a biblical view of counseling so that, like Jesus, we might lovingly care for our bruised reeds that are no less a part of the wondrous body of Christ.