Spiritual Causes of Depression through Eyes of Christians

“Spiritual” causes of depression are in some ways as speculative as psychological or even physiological explanations. Just as there are currently no way to exactly measure brain chemistry, there are no ways for us to “see” all of what is happening spiritually within a person. Many of the spiritual causes of depression are essentially refined or redefined versions of psychological causes. For example, instead of talking about behavior, Christians talk about sin. In the area of cognition Christians emphasize not only one’s faulty view of oneself, but also a faulty view of God and his character. Finally, while secular psychology recognizes a distinction between body and mind, Christians should have a proper understanding of both the distinctions and interrelations between the human body and soul.

The Biblical point of view

What does the Bible say about depression? Little or nothing! It provides no support to those who become truly depressed from whatever cause. Paul went through terrible trials (2 Cor. 11:22-30) yet there is not a glimmer of depression in his letters. Indeed Paul instructs Christians to "Rejoice always in the Lord" (Philip.4:4), and so important is this that he repeats it "Again I say rejoice"! Two verses later again he instructs "Be anxious for nothing". Only a few verses further on he gives clear directives for the sound Christian life; "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble...if there is any virtue, and if there is anything praiseworthy, think on these things."

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Thus the Christian is instructed to have a very positive mind set. Therefore, is it not obvious that the Christian who sinks into despair and despondency for whatever cause is actually disobeying the Bible's clear requirements. He is NOT fixing his eyes upon Jesus and the glorious hope of the future that is a continual refrain in the Bible. Read Philip. 4:4-13 and check if those who are depressed are obeying God's word to mankind.

There is also little about depression in the Old Testament. Asaph was despondent when he saw the lives of the rich until he went into the House of the Lord! There he took a step back from his personal viewpoint and saw it all from God's long term plan - and his heart was lifted (Ps. 73:1-17).

David was persecuted by King Saul and felt low at times. But on one such time, he asks "Why are you cast down, O my soul?" (Psalm 42:5) Notice that this is a question, implying that the heart had no business in being cast down. He then gives his heart the very positive instruction "Hope in God.." Thus, his reaction to depression was exactly the same as Asaph's - a drawing back from his own little viewpoint and looking towards God and seeing life from His perspective. What may seem to be an exception, in Ps. 6:6 David calls upon the Lord to rebuke his troublesome enemies. But this is not the usual long term depression. David was a fighter against great odds and he knew the Lord was with him.

So, while very few episodes in Bible are clearly identified as depression, there are plenty of others, more inferred based on their responses to situations. Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, expresses deep pain and agony of the soul: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me” (Lam. 1:12). One of the most familiar passages is Psalm 42-43.  Psalm 42 begins with, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (42:1), and continues with:
“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?

O my God, my soul is in despair within me” (Psalm 42:5-6)

The phrase “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” is repeated at the end of Psalm 42 and again in Psalm 43. Some authors have also suggested that Job, Saul, Elijah and even Jesus in the desert showed signs of depression.

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Depression can be more difficult to deal with in Christian circles because the expectations for “life and life abundant” is much higher and because of emotional ties particular theological positions. Just as scientists have biases toward exclusively physiological explanations of depression and psychologists towards exclusively psychological explanations, Christians often gravitate toward interpreting all events in spiritual terms. While it is true that “our battle is not against flesh and blood,” Christians should also keep in mind that the physical world is real and that simple explanations are often incomplete.

Christian Thinking

Admitted many theological and biblical discussions have little or no bearing on one’s life. But in the area of depression, the Christian’s thought life plays a major role. The cognitive theory of depression in psychology has done much to help explain the significance of many of Paul’s charges such as “taking every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), “if there is anything excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:9), and to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

The two most common areas of faulty Christian thinking are one’s view of oneself and one’s view of God. The generalizing events are often applied to specifically Christian ideas such as, “I sinned in area X, therefore I must be an evil person, unworthy of God.” False doctrine, especially in the area of salvation, may also play a critical role. If one incorrectly believes that is possible to lose one’s salvation, he or she may experience depression from anxiety.

Many Christians also develop faulty views of God which can result in depression. Often Christian’s project onto God their own false expectations of themselves or false expectations placed upon them by parents or teachers. In his discussion of Psalm 13:1-6, Neil Anderson says, “Even though he believes in God, David is depressed because what he believes about God is not true. How can an omnipotent and omniscient God forget about David for even one minute, much less forever?”  Depressed people also tend to feel abandoned by God, characterized by David’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). “Does God abandon God’s people? No. Do people with depression feel that God has abandoned them? Yes?”

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Sin and Depression

No other cause of depression should be as carefully discussed as that of sin. Unfortunately, the stigma in society at large surrounding mental illnesses is heightened rather than lessened in the Christian discussion. But at the same time, sin is very real and very harmful. Often depressed people are characterized by irrational guilt and shame, yet those that fail to deal with habitual sin often fall further and further into depression.

Consider the following statement, “Compassion cannot ignore unbelief or son. Too often, family and friends think the depressed person is very fragile and cannot handle any frank discussion about sin or hard-heartedness. But to ignore these issues when they are obvious in someone’s life is to treat that person without love or compassion.” Some might consider this approach too harsh, while others might consider it too soft. Either way, assuming that sin alone is the cause and cure of depression is probably no more helpful than assuming that medical treatments alone can cure depression. But ignoring sin is equally unhelpful.

Spiritual Warfare

 In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an elder demon Screwtape writes lessons to his nephew Wormwood on how to cause the most damage to his human “student.” Screwtape suggests to Wormwood that his most successful course of action is either to cause his student to think about demons and the spiritual realm so much that it causes him to obsess and fear it or to ensure that his student never thinks about spiritual things and remains woefully ignorant on the matter. While it is true that those who do emphasize demonic activity often go to extremes, others tend to react too strongly against such overemphasis and ignore or downplay the reality of spiritual realm and its affects on our lives. As is true elsewhere, a balanced approach is vital.

Biblically, there is a good deal of support for the idea that demons can cause mental and spiritual depression. Job experienced severe ailments, both physical and spiritual, and it is very clear that God allowed Satan to directly cause the problems. Saul was tormented by “a demon sent from God” (1 Sam. 19:19). Jesus cast demons out of many people during his ministry on earth. Even Paul was sent a “messenger from Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7).

Similar to any of the other causes of depression, spiritual warfare may or may not play a role in a particular individual’s depression. And if it does play a role, it is probably one of several factors that should be considered.

How should a Christian treat depression?

Christians tend to look for the real cause of depression in themselves, not relying entirely on the theoretical medical causes proposed by psychiatrists/psychologists. There are some stages of depression that are considered common to all cases.
  1. The person records the progress of his "illness" in some detail, from childhood to recovery.
  2. They are told by their doctor/psychiatrist that they are "ill" with depression.
  3. This is attributed to "a chemical imbalance" - usually serotonin.
  4. They express their great gratitude and relief for this "discovery" as they can now offload their sense of guilt for their condition and can blame something over which they can have no control and therefore cannot be held responsible for: They have got an "illness".
  5. They are prescribed drugs that lift their mood.
  6. However, they still realize that there is something not right, and begin to take positive steps to get back to normal.
  7. Eventually they are well on their way to becoming normal people - with or without the drugs.
  8. At the end they understand the certain attitudes to life that are far from normal and that might lead to the illness on the first place - attention seeking, excessive fear of what others are thinking of them, perfectionism, etc. Some admit that they were mainly to blame for their depression.
  9. They realize that they are now a much stronger person than they were before their depression.
  10. Most admit that they were glad they had gone through their experience because they had learnt so much more about themselves and now had a changed, more relaxed, attitude to life.

So, how should the Christian deal with his depression?
  1. If the root problem is self-centeredness, then the answer is obvious; he must begin to take a real interest in other people and their circumstances. This must be a genuine interest, and not one that is seeking to obtain their approval. There are many passages in the Bible that tell us to put others before ourselves (Eph. 2:3-4, Heb.12:11-14.)
  2. The Bible never says that life - Christian or otherwise - will be smooth and trouble free. When we realize this, we must stand up to the problems of life, no matter how big they may be. They are sent to strengthen us and test how strong our Christian faith truly is (James 1:2-4). For the Christian, he should never forget that no matter how bad the circumstances may seem to him, he must never ever forget that ultimately, God is in complete control of all events. Whatever happens, he must never run away from the problem(s) but must deal with them in a mature Christian way; no other attitude is honoring to God.
  3. Any tendency to mope and have a "pity party" must be firmly resisted. An active, loving and outgoing life must be maintained - irrespective of how we feel.
  4. Realize that you can't base life on your emotions. Christians base life on truth, not emotions. Philippians 4:1 commands us to rejoice (whether we feel like it or not!). And James 1:2 asks us to “Consider it all joy when we fall into various trials.” Notice that James doesn't tell us to feel joyful; he tells us to reckon, to choose to think about your situation as a spot where you can have joy. This question of feelings is very important. The Bible never tells us to do the right thing "if and when we feel like doing it." It is very clear indeed that we must do good things for others whether we feel like doing them or not. This includes doing the mundane things we all have to do at times. Let us do them all to the glory of God. You can be absolutely sure that the good feelings will come in due time once you have trained yourself to do what is right in the first place. This can take six weeks to retrain the autonomic nervous system so that we have a better set of habits that become part of us.
  5. Heed God's Advice. However, many people talk about “faith” and only mean a vague hope that God will somehow pull them through. That's too nebulous a concept to be reliable. Many of the same people who claim to have faith keep plunging through life ignoring God's principles for healthy living. If we spurn the good advice that the Bible contains, we won't escape the consequences - even if we have faith.
  6. There is one physical thing that can be done that is far more effective than any medication. Tests have shown the very positive benefits of doing regular (fairly hard) exercise! This gets the whole body working more normally. It lifts depression and if it is followed by a warm shower, then the resulting glow over the whole body gives a further uplift and positive sense of well-being.

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