Guest Author: Chris Clevenger
Every year 5.8% of men and 9.5% of women experience a depressive episode. These seasons of depression can be short and sporadic or lengthy and chronic. Whatever the case, depression and a host of other mental illness impact countless Christians either directly or indirectly every year.
My wife and I became intimately familiar with mental illnesses about five years ago. As the stresses and strains associated with extreme life and situation changes began to mount, Melissa Jane began to fight with extreme mental anguish. At the time we had no idea why things were transpiring as they were. Her love for me and faithfulness to the Lord remained strong, but her mind and spirit seemed broken. Her daily struggle to continue any semblance of normalcy led us to seek the prayers and counsel of older Christians. We decided to seek professional help from a local psychiatrist which had been recommended by several members of our local church family. Upon careful examination he diagnosed Melissa with a veritable cornucopia of mental illnesses including Bipolar II and, in his words, “one of the worst cases of depression he had ever seen.” Medicines were prescribed, books were suggested, and Melissa Jane and I began a journey of discovery into the vast realm of mental illness.
For Christians who struggle with mental illnesses, and for those who love them, the overwhelming nature of such plights can be frightening. Many are not familiar with the details and diagnoses associated with these mental sicknesses. Even further, God’s people often wonder if the Bible says anything about afflictions of the mind at all.
The Bible is not silent concerning mental illnesses. In fact, time and time again the inspired text reveals that God is bigger than all the afflictions that men face, including mental afflictions. Through His Word, God offers education for His disciples about mental illness and encouragement for those who are distressed.
Education For The Disciples
Numerous inspired writers provide valuable insights into the symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses. Job’s depressive episodes caused him to suffer from disturbed sleep (Job 7:4, 13-15) and extreme weight fluctuations (Job 17:7; 19:20). The “weeping prophet” suffered from digestive problems brought on by stress and anguish (Lam. 3:15). Throughout the book of Psalms various writers describe these symptoms in detail. They range from feelings of tiredness (Psa. 6:6; 69:3) and loss of appetite (Psa. 42:3; 102:4) to bodily pain (Psa. 31:10; 32:3-4; 38:3) and choking feelings and breathlessness (Psa. 69:1-2).
One of the most interesting accounts concerning depression is found in Psalm 88. Heman, the author of the psalm, was likely a Temple musician during the reign of David (1 Cor. 6:33, 37; 15:17; 16:41-42; 2 Chron. 35:15). He was a man of prayer and passion, but he suffered from depression. Evidently his afflictions had been ever present with him, even from his youth (Psa. 88:15). He describes his feelings of depression as being surrounded by darkness (Psa. 88:1, 6, 12, 18). He feels as if his life is in the depths (Psa. 88:3-4, 6) and like he is drowning (Psa. 88:7, 16-17). It is almost as if his death is ever imminent (Psa. 88:5, 10-11). Loneliness is a constant companion (Psa. 88:5, 8, 14, 18). Heman feels as if he is imprisoned by his own mind (Psa. 88:8).
Unfortunately, many Christians recognize the signs or symptoms of depression but don’t consider the cause. Some wrongly assume that all mental illnesses are the result of sin. It is true that sin sometimes leads to depression (Psa. 51), but that is not always the case. More often than not, especially in the life of a child of God, depression is a result of bodily or mental inequalities and not a deficiency in faith.
Moses fought feelings of depression that were brought on by stress (Num. 11:4). Improper ways of thinking or a faulty psychology led to Elijah’s depression (1 Kngs. 19). As was the case with Heman, sometimes mental illnesses are endogenous and are the result of a genetic predisposition to such afflictions (cf. Psa. 88). Whether we like to realize it or not, sometimes depression and other mental illnesses are simply a result of the sovereignty of God. While God does not place these ailments upon His children, He does allow them to occur so that He can be glorified and those who suffer faithfully can be benefited (cf. Job 1-2).
The Bible also highlights various treatments for depression and other mental illnesses. Medicines for the brain, rest for the body, counsel for the mind, and spiritual encouragement for the soul all work together to provide a holistic approach to mental well-being.
Encouragement For The Distressed
Those faithful children of God who wrestle with mental illness on a regular basis need to be directed to the treasures of peace and comfort offered by the Lord. God is bigger than mental illness, and He has revealed methods of treatment in His Word that can help to provide relief. Heman, the Temple singer in Psalm 88, provides a wonderful example of this treatment. These Scriptural directions should be used in accompaniment with helpful medicines prescribed by a qualified and thoughtful physician.
First, the child of God should carefully ponder the cause of their depressive episode. Heman asked, “LORD, why castest thou off my soul?” (Psa. 88:14). Was he suffering because of an undiscovered sin or was his affliction a result of stress or an improper way of thinking? Remember that, in addition to sin, stress, and psychology which can be changed, mental illness can also be the result of an underlying sickness that can only be treated with medication. Also, like Paul’s mysterious thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10), mental illnesses can be the result of the sovereignty of God and may never be completely removed.
Second, those who endure mental illnesses should be persistent in prayer. Throughout the his psalm, Heman describes his constant petitions to God. These intercessions include cries for help when he was in distresses (Psa. 88:1), loud shouts (Psa. 88:2), and cries of anguish (Psa. 88:13). As a begging child, Heman “called daily upon” the Lord and “stretched out [his] hands” unto God (Psa. 88:9). Although his prayers seemed to go unanswered Heman continued to prayer daily (Psa. 88:1, 9, 13). He had prayed, was praying, and would pray. Those who bow before God can find “grace to help in time of need,” (Heb. 4:16).
Third, patient trust in God is helpful to those who are seeking support from the Savior. Heman suffered daily from depression but still recognized that God had the power of salvation (Psa. 88:1). Throughout the whole song he used the covenant name for God which is translated “LORD” or “Jehovah,” (Psa. 88:1, 9, 13, 14). His faith was undoubtedly tried by his depression; nevertheless, he managed to maintain his relationship with the Lord. Warren Wiersbe wrote, “Never doubt in the darkness what God has taught us in the light.” God has ensured His children of love, grace, protection, and salvation. Even the darkness of depression cannot conceal such a magnificent providence.
Fourth, even during times of depression, God desires for His children to produce fruit faithfully. Heman remained busy about his work as a Levite and priest for God. Although he was afflicted in mind and troubled in spirit, he could produce effectually in God’s service. Those who suffer from mental illnesses are not insignificant in the service of God. The Lord often chooses His strongest soldiers to fight the toughest battles. Neither is God an idle husbandman. He desires a fruitful crop. The words of Ruth Stull bring comfort to the afflicted: “If my life is broken with I give it to Christ Jesus, it is because pieces will feed a multitude, while a loaf will satisfy only a lad.”
For those who endure such fights of affliction regularly like my Melissa Jane, the Lord offers answers and even treatment through His divine Word and counsel and medicines to assist by HIs Providence. Those who struggle to understand or comprehend the depths of distress brought on by depression can be adequately educated if they will search the Scriptures.
One day, when the clouds are parted and the Lord returns in glory, all of God’s children will be welcomed into a glorious habitation prepared for all the saved. Ailments of the body will be no more, afflictions of the mind will forever be relieved, and God will forever prove that He is bigger than mental illnesses.
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