I have been out of the dark days long enough that I can begin to look back at my depression with an analytic mind. I still remember waking up in the morning and regretting it, dreading the coming day. I remember driving across bridges and studying the rail, wondering if it was possible to flip the car over the rail and down into the river. I remember using coffee as a drug to get started in the morning, and using whiskey or gin as a drug to fall asleep at night. I remember ignoring advice about saving for retirement because I did not expect or intend to live that long.
Some people say that depression is sinful. (I did some internet surfing to fact-check this statement. Some sites are pretty harsh about depression and anxiety, calling them sinful choices and not treatable illnesses.) They quote verses such as Hebrews 13:5-6, Philippians 4:6, and I Peter 5:7 as evidence that, when a person has depression, that person is sinning. I respond that depression, like anger, is not a sin. But depression, like anger, is a powerful temptation to sin. People who have depression are likely to make sinful choices that confound their families and their friends. Depression is not something they choose for themselves; depression is something that happened to them.
Being sad for a few days is not depression. Mourning a loss for a time is not depression. Depression is lingering darkness of the mind and heart. Depression is absence of hope. Depression is desire for destruction, the lack of will to continue living. Depression can lead to suicide. It can lead to other forms of self-harm, including cutting one’s body, abusing alcohol and other drugs, or trying to reinvent one’s self. Depression might cause a person to quit school, to leave a rewarding job, to refuse all invitations to spend time with friends, or to make damaging self-revelations on social media.
Depression is an illness—or, to be more accurate, depression is a symptom that something is wrong. Many causes can lead to depression. They include poor nutrition, lack of sleep or of exercise, and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (Yes—substance abuse can be a cause of depression or a result of depression. It can be both, creating a vicious spiral.) Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the body. It can be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of the treatment for an illness. Depression can be caused by ongoing stress or by childhood trauma, whether remembered or forgotten. Depression can have genetic causes, as people from some families are predisposed toward depression. Depression can be caused by spiritual problems, such as feeling guilt over one’s sins. Often depression is the result of several of these causes rather than only one of them.
Because depression has many possible causes, different things help different people to battle depression. Medication is helpful to some people but not to others. Counseling helps some people but not others. Prayer and meditation help some people but not others. Finding new hobbies or ways to be active helps some people but not others. When a person has persevered through depression and now feels better, those things that helped that one person might not be any help to another person who has depression.
When one has depression, other peoples’ hope and joy can seem like illusions. Optimists appear oblivious to reality. After all the world is a terrible place, stained by sin, and people with depression find it easy to believe that they are the only ones who see things as they really are. When someone else tries to correct their perspective, that helpful friend is likely to be told that he or she just doesn’t understand.
Even if it appears to outsiders that a person with depression has chosen to be that way and to stay that way, accusing that person of sinning is not helpful. A sense of guilt has never helped a person shake off depression; being made to feel guilty only worsens the problem. The book of Job is a classic study in depression. Job’s friends were right to sit with him and comfort him with their presence. They were wrong to challenge his perceptions and to tell him that he was causing his own problems. God never told Job why Job was allowed to suffer, but God did say that Job’s friends were wrong and that they would be forgiven when Job prayed for them.
Being present with a person who has depression helps. Listening helps. Caring helps. Judging, arguing, and accusing do not help. Depression is connected to sin, but depression itself is not sinful. Depression is a result of living in a world polluted by sin and evil, just as influenza and cancer and broken bones are results of living in a world polluted by sin and evil. Rather than accepting all these problems, the better approach is to find solutions for these problems, whether or not those solutions include medication, counseling, or prayer. Thanking God for every kind of help he provides, we each do our best to be productive in our own lives and helpful to those around us. J.