Depression: One River, Many Streams


The matter of despression has become a fairly popular topic in recent years among Christian bloggers and evangelical websites. Given the ever-growing number of diagnoses and prescriptions for this troublesome malady among Americans, it's no small wonder. Add to these realities the tragedy of suicide, which is now a leading cause of death in the most prosperous of nations, and you easily come to understand the interest in this dynamic, but all too common life struggle.

As I read through a good many of the articles published on the topic of depression, I find myself thankful for the church's great awakening to this and other emotional-spiritual problems--what we commonly call "mental illness" in culutral vernacular. Rising awareness of this and related categories is a good thing for the church and her vocation of disciple-making. Paul calls upon the church to "bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2)," making the field of counseling and one-another care a golden opportunity for the church to reach hurting and lost people with the hope of Jesus Christ. In this way, counseling becomes an intensely evangelistic opportunity.

I would like to take a moment to remind helpers and sufferers of one important truth that seems to be missing from one too many articles that I read. What's missing reflects a potential lack of understanding surrounding the topic of depression (and other counseling related issues), and threatens to short-circuit the well-intended efforts of many believers as they seek to minister to and encourage those who struggle against depression.

One River

Too often, it seems, depression is addressed as a monolithic enemy of the body and soul. The impression I get as I read much of what is presented in the on-line world (though not all) is that depression comes to all sufferers in one package, unleashing what amounts to the same set of symptoms from person to person, with only a variation in intensity. I'm not so sure that this is a helpful approach.

The trouble with this manner of speaking about depression (and other emotional-spiritual troubles) is that while it offers the appearance of caring for the individual, it fails to take into consideration the nature of depression as a dynamic, multi-dimensional experiece that arises from a good many set of circumstances. Understanding this about depression is critically important, because how we come to understand depression's course through a person's life has much to do with the type of help we offer (spiritual, physical, or both).

For instance, depression's work in the life of a widow who recently lost her husband of thirty years to illness ought not be treated, or even blogged about, as if it is the same depression suffered by the adulterer who recently lost his family and 401K due to his own sin. Add to that the person who sufferers from feelings of depression due to low-thyroid function, and you have a third unique scenario.

Sure, all three are "depressed," all are losing sleep and losing weight from not eating, but the nature and genesis of their depressions are quite different. These three people will hopefully all meet at the cross, but they will take different paths along the way. Christian counselors, pastors, and caregivers love their people well when they keep these realities in mind, because it helps them from being reductionistic in the care and remedies they provide.

Many Streams

If you suffer from depression, or if you care for those who do, I'd encourage you to take whatever time is necesasary to carefully examine your story with the help of another able-minded and caring individual, to include the history and progression of your struggle. Are there events in your life that would indicate a gateway for depression's entrance (i.e. unresolved trauma, loss, besetting sin)? Or, it may be that there are no potential or identifiable risk factors for depression in your life, making the need for a medical checkup a little more clear.

In any event, whether your depression appears to be rooted in a spiritual struggle or an organic dysfunction, the Scriptures have something important and life-giving to say to you. Without exception, everyone benefits from having the gospel counseled to them when the soul is downcast. Medication may reduce the physical symptoms of a broken body, which may bring needed relief to the mind, but only a biblical worldview communicates long-term, lasting hope in the face of suffering. We cannot understand ourselves and our greatest dilemma apart from a growing knowedge and understanding of our Creator.

Depression, as it turns out, may best be described as a river with many streams. Which stream are you (or the person you're helping) navigating today? Does that stream require a raft, a canoe, or wading boots? How strong is the current? Are there rocks, or does a cliff lay ahead?

Those who suffer from depression will share a number of things in common, but they are unique people with unique stories. As we, the church, grow in our ability and desire to help, lets engage our calling with eyes wide open, ready to bring the diversity and depth of the Scriptures to bear upon an enemy that always preaches a false gospel to those who suffer and need our help.