Just over a decade ago, when I graduated from a small, liberal arts college of 1300 students, depression was a word I had heard of, but rarely encountered. I don’t recall knowing anyone who said they suffered from depression, though perhaps some did without talking about it. Now, a mere 12 years later, the same college of 1300 has two full-time counselors on site to help students navigate depression and other mental illness obstacles that stand in their way of completing a four-year college degree.
Depression, at least on the widespread level that shows up in middle and high schools today, seems to be a new phenomenon that parents are running to catch up with. While there are many questions parents should ask as they seek to understand depression, one of the most common questions Christian parents ask is: “What does the Bible say about depression?”
If you look in your concordance, you won’t find the term “depression” listed in your Bible. If you’re looking for a quick ultra-inspirational verse that could go on a refrigerator magnet or be calligraphed on a canvas in your bedroom, the Bible has little to offer there that will change the course of depression. After all, the Bible is not in the business of offering quick fixes and pithy verses to make us feel better.
Actually, God’s word offers us something much more solid, much more real and life changing than that. It offers truth to ground us and guide us and our students through the dark paths of depression.
Here are three ways the Bible speaks into the sadness, pain, dullness, and despair that we call depression:
1. The Bible gives words to the experience of depression.
There are some who feel guilty about feeling depressed. To those, the Bible offers encouragement that God has included in Scripture Psalms that gives words to their thoughts and feelings. Others begin to expect depression, even find their identity in depression. To them, the Bible comes alongside, speaks words of understanding, and calls them away from despair. Psalm 42 is perhaps the best example, where David writes, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.” David recounts former happiness, but declares that his soul is cast down within him now; he is not experiencing the joy he remembers from the past. But David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not allow his sadness, pain, and downcast spirit to lead him to despair. He instructs his soul to “hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.” David sets the path for us: we must decide, or declare, that our God is our hope. As we plant our flag in our trust in Him, we don’t find everything magically better, but we do find that He is our salvation and our God, and that is reason to hope.
2. A guide for walking through suffering
Depression is best thought of as a form of suffering. It is mental and emotional pain and difficulty just as a physical illness or injury presents us with physical pain and difficulty. But the good news is that the Bible as A LOT to say about suffering. In fact, the Bible offers a full manual on how to think about suffering, how to walk through a life of suffering, and how God views suffering. All of this speaks to the person walking the road of depression.
The Bible tells us, for instance, that God is with us in suffering. It tells us that God never leaves us nor forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5). It tells us that God is always present with us, not just as a companion, but as a shepherd guarding us and guiding us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). It tells us that the God of peace is eager for us to call out to Him in the midst of suffering, with all prayer and supplication (Philippians 4:6).
The Bible declares that God is sovereign over suffering, it is never out of His control, and that He uses suffering to draw us near to Him and shape us to be more in His image (consider the book of Job and 1 Peter 1:6-10, among others). The Bible even tells us to rejoice in our sufferings because they are the means by which God works (Consider both Romans 5:1-5 and James 1:2-4). Joy and depression seem like oil and water…but Scripture calls us to find hope and joy because of our suffering, even the suffering of depression.
Scripture offers help for us regardless of the cause of our suffering and depression. When one's depression is a clinical diagnosis resulting from brain chemistry/mental illness, Scripture offers hope in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Perhaps depression is the result of deep suffering or pain that happens in life circumstances. The Bible calls us to step into the stories of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 and Job and find hope. Sometimes depression is the result of our own sin, either because of guilt or a continual undercurrent of self-focus and demands on life and others that aren’t met. The Bible graciously cuts to the marrow of our heart, identifies our idols, and calls us to repent. Consider the lives of David and Peter, and read, particularly, David’s words in Psalm 32.
None of the above passages are band-aids for the wounds of depression. Instead, they are just a few of the passages in Scripture where God calls us into its theology of suffering and offers hope and healing through the sovereign work of God accomplished in Christ and applied to our suffering in Him.
3. The Bible puts us in a story that ends in hope.
Few words could better describe the experience of depression and also offer solid, true hope to stand on than John 16:33. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take; I have overcome the world.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 offers a similar word of understanding and hope. Paul has been “afflicted in every, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair…so he does not lose heart. Though the outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison!” If you have trusted Christ, you are united to Him. United to Victory Himself even as you walk through suffering. United to Hope Himself even when what you see around you looks dark.
I’m not sure what kind of reader you are. I know some readers who, in the middle of a tense moment in a novel, will look to the last couple of pages to see if everything turns out alright. If it does, they can make it through the difficult part of the novel with enough hope to keep going. In Christ, hope is infused into every crevice of our lives because we know the story we are part of and we know the ending. Christ wins. There is hope.
These are just a few thoughts that scratch the surface of the Bible’s words for those experiencing depression. In the end, though, the Bible’s help for depression rests less on a particular verse or passage and more on what the Bible is: God’s words spoken to His people. God’s word is how He works in His people. Our greatest hope comes when, by faith, we immerse ourselves in Scripture and determine that its truth will be the bedrock truth of our lives, come what may. From there, we wait in faith for God’s Spirit to give us truth, hope, and comfort where and when He knows we need it.
“He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess. 5:24)