Faith

Does depression result from a lack of faith?

Consider the stories of the five people described in these passages…

I’ve lost twenty pounds in two months because of your accusation. My bones are brittle as dry sticks because of my sin. I’m swamped by my bad behavior, collapsed under gunnysacks of guilt. The cuts in my flesh stink and grow maggots because I’ve lived so badly. And now I’m flat on my face feeling sorry for myself morning to night. All my insides are on fire, my body is a wreck. I’m on my last legs; I’ve had it—my life is a vomit of groans.

Psalms 38:3-8 (MSG)

He ran for dear life to Beersheba, far in the south of Judah. He left his young servant there and then went on into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die: “Enough of this, God! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush.

1 Kings 19:3-5 (MSG)

Curse the day I was born! The day my mother bore me—a curse on it, I say! And curse the man who delivered the news to my father: you’ve got a new baby—a boy baby!” (How happy it made him.) Let that birth notice is blacked out, deleted from the records, and the man who brought it haunted to his death with the bad news he brought. He should have killed me before I was born, with that womb as my tomb, my mother pregnant for the rest of her life with a baby dead in her womb. Why, oh why, did I ever leave that womb?  Life’s been nothing but trouble and tears, and what’s coming is more of the same.

Jeremiah 20:14-18 (MSG)

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

2 Corinthians 1:8 (NIV)

He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.

Isaiah 53:3 (NLT)

King David, Elijah, Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus (as described in Isaiah’s prophesy). Hardly a collection of guys lacking in faith. Yet, many in the church persist in the view that depression is a consequence of a lack of faith.

While it’s possible that a lack of faith can contribute to symptoms of depression (Elijah in fear for his life from Jezebel) or sin (David), or life stresses (Jeremiah, Paul) it’s difficult to conclude from the number of Biblical illustrations in which giants of the faith struggled with hopelessness and despair that a primary cause of depression is a lack of faith or trust in God. Aren’t we making presumptions about God’s purposes in our suffering? Isn’t it possible, perhaps likely that God might use our suffering to strengthen our faith and to draw us into closer relationship with Him? I’m struck by the number of ministry leaders I’ve met who have struggled personally with depression. Just the other day, our colleague Shannon Dingle shared a wonderful post in which she described how being broken is not bad when God breaks us.

Churches that welcome kids with disabilities and their families will encounter many parents who struggle with depression…in my nearly thirty years in psychiatry I can attest that depression is a frequent complication of having a child with significant disability,especially among mothers. If we’re using family-based ministry models as a strategy to help all kids grow in faith, we need to consider how we’re going to care for parents with depression if they’re responsible for shepherding their kids.

As a psychiatrist, I can’t ever say for sure why any individual kid I’m treating is depressed, other than to say that some combination of biological predisposition, patterns of thinking and perception, environmental influences, situational stressors and sometimes, spiritual factors are involved. From where I sit, churches are most helpful when demonstrating the unconditional love of Christ to all kids and adults struggling with depression, offering biblical counsel if desired, recognizing that depression is a manifestation of our broken world and that God (at times) may use medication and evidence-based psychotherapies as instruments of healing in response to prayer, and acknowledging that like all of us, persons with depression are broken people in need of a Savior.

Updated July 15, 2015