A Biblical Perspective on Depression

I join the thousands of people who were shocked and saddened by the news that Rick and Kay Warren's youngest son has Matthew committed suicide. While we share little in common theologically, my heart grieves at what the Warren's must be enduring right now. 

The press release regarding this news said, "Matthew suffered from mental illness that resulted in deep depression and suicidal thoughts." and “Despite the best healthcare available, this was an illness that was never fully controlled and the emotional pain resulted in his decision to take his life.” 

Depression is nasty business; however, not all sadness is depression in spite of the world’s catch-all label for the emotional response to life’s problems.  Depression has been described as an emotional problem, but what we see in a depressed person is often their emotions are working just fine.  In some cases a person may become so emotionally overwrought that they simply shut down all together - such as in the moments following the death of a loved one, but the typical thing you see with a depressed person is lots of emotions. They truly feel sad, frustrated and alone. Crying is pretty typical for a person who has the feelings of depression.

Physical depression is the kind of depression that relates to or affects a body organ—it affects the physical body. Depression can result from a reaction to prescription medications, poor eating and sleeping habits, chronic fatigue, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise, or too much caffeine.

More than 70 scientifically proven illnesses or diseases (organic causes) can contribute to or cause depression, emotional disturbances, or bizarre behavior.  A careful medical exam is always in order whenever a physical cause (including chemical dependency) is suspected. If a physical problem is discovered, the elimination or medical management of the illness should be the first goal.

In the Christian Counselor’s Medical Desk Reference, Dr. Robert Smith makes an important statement: “In order for something to be considered a true illness, science says that there must be objective, measurable, reproducible testing. To qualify as an illness there must be tissue damage … demonstrated by abnormal function It is a provable, knowable fact based on objective testing.”

If a physical problem is discovered, the elimination or medical management of the illness should be the first goal.

Dr. Smith: “The current method in diagnosing depression is based on subjective reasoning and thinking and not on changes in the body. Currently, there are no objective, measurable, reproducible tests for depression. Nothing exists to prove that it is provable or knowable as an illness for a fact, according to science.”

In the majority of depression cases, there is no objective evidence to prove that the body is functioning abnormally. No tests exist that will produce definable and measurable data; therefore, no basis exists to conclude an organic illness is present.

Apart from an organic cause for depression the usual reasons for these feelings is that a person doesn’t like what they are going through. This causes them to have and focus on bad feelings which lead to decreased function which leads to more problems, creating a vicious cycle of depression.

You may be surprised to know that you won’t find the word “depression” in your Strong’s Concordance. The Bible uses terms such as “cast down,” “suffering”, “sorrow,” “hardship” “trials,” “overwhelmed,” burdens,” “troubled,” “dread,” “hopelessness,” and “tribulations.”

If you are depressed today, the words in the preceding paragraph may describe many or all of the feelings you are experiencing. I am not going to discount your feelings and emotions. I am not going to tell you that what you feel is not real. You may feel sad. You may feel tired. You may feel hopeless and think all is lost. The truth is, hope is not lost!

When looking at depression biblically, we must examine the root causes for the way we feel. Whether or not we have a medical diagnosis, there is a critical component that the Bible addresses directly.

From the Bible we can safely determine that essentially we are comprised of two parts—material/organic and immaterial. You have read that various diseases can cause or contribute to depression. If the problem is not proven to originate in the material (organic) part of the person, it must then originate in the immaterial (non-organic) part of the person.

If you are feeling depressed, your problem may not only be the difficult situation in which you find yourself. Your feelings may also be caused by a wrong or unbiblical response to that situation. God has provided the means to live in the midst of the trial, but you must avail yourself of His grace.

I would suggest beginning by defining all the feelings and behaviors that characterize you at this time. What words would you use to describe how you feel? Are you sad, grief stricken, despondent, mourning, hopeless, in despair, angry, lonely, or tired?

Next, I would suggest reading Deuteronomy 31:6; Isaiah 26:3, 41:10; Lamentations 3:21-24; Psalm 43:4, 46:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Hebrews 12:2, with a notebook and pencil nearby to take notes about what you read. You may notice that the Bible uses words like “sorrow,” “grieved,” and “downcast” to describe these feelings. We do not find the phrase “depressive disorder” in the Bible, but various Psalms (69, 51, 32, 38, and 45) clearly describe the behavior and mindset of a person who is suffering from depression.

When you begin to adopt biblical thinking and practice it in your behavior, you will see changes in your feelings. On the other hand, when someone labels you with “depressive disorder,” you become saddled with a medical diagnosis code, which in the medical realm may mean you have an illness from which you will never recover. You are now a victim of an illness.

There is no victory there.

When behavior is labeled as a disease, it means you have a problem that cannot be fixed, which takes away all hope. You are led to believe that you will have “depressive disorder” for the rest of your life, even if you never have another depressive episode. If you believe depression is largely biological, you may think the most you can do is get long-term therapy or take a pill to feel better.

When you define depression the way the Bible defines it—“sorrow” and “despair”—this describes feelings and sinful behavior for which Christ died! There is a lot of hope there! A behavior can be stopped and avoided because it is a choice. The choice begins with the desires of the heart.

Christ didn’t die for “depressive disorder”—he died to give us victory over the flesh that drives us to be sinful in our thoughts and desires. He didn’t die for what man has labeled as disease; he died for sins. I pray this brings you tremendous hope!

Understanding this is crucial because it means Understanding this is crucial because it means either a life of freedom in Christ or bondage to man-made terminology. Using worldly terminology traps people. In many cases, harm is being done by people who believe they are being kind. Some might say it is cruel for you to be told that you are sinning. Truthfully, it is unkind when people do not tell you the truth; in fact, it is very unkind because you cannot deal with sinful behavior when it is labeled as a disease.

The Bible graciously teaches us how to respond to the feelings of depression.  Because Jesus Christ is our example, we must go to the Scriptures and determine if He lived His life by feelings.  A careful student will determine that Christ never commanded or suggested that we should live life by our feelings. In fact, the Bible warns us not to live by our emotions. 1 & 2 Peter are heavily concentrated with verses that warn against and give the result of living a feeling-oriented life.

This is not to suggest a person should deny they have feelings or be fearful of expressing them.  Emotions and feelings are a part of the package that makes us human!  There is nothing wrong with having feelings, but there is something completely unbiblical when someone lives by their feelings.

Before your feelings change, you have to come to believe or think differently in your mind. What you think or believe about depression will determine how you respond to it. If the depression is medically and objectively proven to be a biological issue, follow all the instructions the medical professionals give you. Take your medication as directed and treat the cause of the problem.  If the depression is not proven to be a biological problem, then a true alternative is to allow the Lord to affect the thoughts, belief's and desires of the heart.  Allow your belief system about whatever problem has you down to be changed to a biblical one.