Joy in Depression

Very few people – Christians included – spend much time thinking about whether or not they have joy.  We assume that it is there.  We feel happy from time-to-time, usually because of a special moment or event.  So long as “everything’s going my way,” we don’t concern ourselves much with joy.  We don’t necessarily feel a sense of joy or delight, but we are content enough with our lives and circumstances.  So, we don’t think about joy.  After all, how ironic would it be to worry about something like joy?

But then, things go sideways.  Something comes along – perhaps a tragedy or some challenge – that disrupts the easy-going joy that we have experienced as almost a default setting.  And then we do worry about it.  “I’m supposed to be full of joy: where is it?”  We feel down, discouraged, maybe even despair.  We know that we shouldn’t feel this way.  After all, we are Christians: the joy of the Lord is supposed to be our strength.  But something has happened.  Joy is gone. 

We don’t tend to be concerned about joy until it goes AWOL.  In the good times, we take it for granted.  But then God brings along a disruption to our joy – may be in the form of a trial, but more often by letting our spirit sink. When we are low in spirit, we feel our loss.  And because we haven’t paid much attention to joy, we find ourselves stuck in a rut. How do I get my joy back?  What is it, really?  Where did it go, and how do I find it?  What does joy look like when I am low in spirit? 

We are speaking here of the garden variety forms of what we call “depression.”  Sometimes it can show up in a mild case of the blues, sometimes it can be more severe than that.  When our spirits fall, we experience a loss of joy. 

This might be the most controversial discussion we will have about joy.  For various reasons, we have come to despise depression as a form of unacceptable weakness, inappropriate for a Christian.  Christians should never be discouraged.  They must always be happy, happy, happy.  Most of the time, we should be as frothy as a Starbucks latte, fresh from the blender. 

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When a friend gets down, we give them approximately 2 ½ minutes to get back up before we cast a suspicious, sideways glance in their direction… and then look the other way. And when a person really gets down and stays down, we think this proves they have some deep-seated sin in their past, which is causing all of this guilt they call “depression.” 

Not so fast!  The Psalmist sang the blues.  And not just when he sinned with Bathsheba.  The blues were a regular part of the songs David and the other Psalmists sang.  In fact, discouragement and depression is such a big part of the human experience that God dedicated one entire book of the Bible to it. That book is the largest book of the Bible, by the way — 150 different Psalms, many of which sing the blues.  So, this is not a small, inconsequential thing to be ignored, despised, or casually dismissed.  We are talking about a genuine struggle that affects real people – even, sometimes, Christians. 

Depression hinders joy. 

It doesn’t help that many Christians view depression as a weakness or even as sin.  Our attitudes toward depression drive many into hiding. Those who suffer from it feel embarrassed about it as if they had a bedwetting problem or something.  They feel ashamed of themselves.  They don’t want anyone to know about it – not even family members or close friends.  They have learned how to fake cheer. Though acting might save a person temporary embarrassment, it can cause long-term damage.  Pretended happiness adds to the unhappiness.  You wouldn’t put a band-aid on a broken arm, and you shouldn’t put one on your broken heart. 

Because joy is a treasure, we should be concerned when something interrupts our joy.  Discouragement and depression – emotional pain and sorrow – cause a legitimate disruption to joy.  Therefore, we should give our hearts the best chance for healing so that our joy can be restored.

Three Suggestions

Let me suggest three ways to deal with heartache and depression. First, the Psalmist teaches us to pour out our troubles before the Lord.  I see this as a reason to immerse ourselves in the book of Psalms. There, we find spiritual answers for every kind of depression. 

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (Psalm 42:1-3)

I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. (Psalm 27:13-14)

For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead. Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands. I stretch forth my hands unto thee: my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land. Selah. (Psalm 143:3-6)

David was not in sin any of the times he prayed this way.  In fact, he was doing what he should have been doing. The Bible consistently teaches us to pour out our complaint, to “cast our cares” onto the Lord:

Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. (I Peter 5:7)

Casting our cares upon the Lord means letting go of the care.  The Scriptural way to let it go is to pour out your complaint to the Lord.  But, we must pour out the complaint Scripturally.  If you complain like a tattling 3-year-old, you aren’t casting your cares upon the Lord. You should knock it off with the whiny voice.  Casting your burden shouldn’t resemble a temper-tantrum.  

Casting your burden calls for calm deliberation.  Think of yourself as a scout.  You’ve been sent out to gather information, and now you are bringing that information to the One Who can do something about it. 

“Lord, I am down and this is why.” 

So, hopeless frustration has no part with “casting your burdens on the Lord.”

We must learn to cast our care upon the Lord. But let me suggest something else.  Scripture nowhere forbids you to visit a doctor.  Not even for depression.  Not even an unbelieving doctor. An unbelieving doctor can still know some things about the human psyche. Believe it or not, some doctors know more than the church’s resident vitamin woman or in-house Essential Oils saleswoman.  Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, has some herbs to cook up for your melancholy.  The Essential Oils dealer has 5 different oils for that malady — one for each temple, one for each wrist, and one for your belly button. Still, you can pass on the “miracle cures” and go visit your doctor.

As you visit the doctor, please remember that sometimes unhappiness can’t be medicated.  Some sorrow is the result of envy, bitterness, covetousness, or discontent. Occasionally, King Saul encounters an evil spirit from the Lord.

Unbelievers have a tendency to treat everything with a pill.  Keep that in mind when you go.  Maybe you don’t need medication.  But don’t be afraid to visit a doctor.  You can find doctors who would never use oxycodone to treat your funk.  But he might offer some helpful pills.  As Douglas Wilson pointed, “some non-Christian doctors know how to set bones, and some know how to set brains.” 

Since I’m already stirring the pot, let me stir it again more vigorously.  Some of my God-fearing friends might take my suggestion here as rank heresy. I know, I know… “When people suffer from depression, they just need to get their hearts right.”  I’ve heard more than a few pastors (and pastor’s wives) claim that it is a sin to take medicine for depression.

Take a deep breath there, Sparky!  When God made the world, He poured in a lot of chemicals.  People, in fact, are a rather potent mix of chemicals.  So is our food.  And vitamins.  Even Rolaids and Excedrin are made of chemicals.

Sometimes, our opposition to chemicals is ignorant and unfounded. And quite often, we are absolutely inconsistent.  Here is a guy who pops pills all the time for his headache – sometimes even prescription drugs.  He takes pills for his headache; his wife takes pills for her indigestion.  And they both despise the guy who takes pills for his heartache.  Why exactly does Headache Man object? And why does Miss Essential Oils so vigorously oppose taking drugs for depression? “Rub this oil on your temple; that is all you should need,” or so she claims.  “Chemicals are bad, unless they come in an oil and I can make a profit.”

And then, of course, you have Super Christian over here who doesn’t use any of that junk.  Just give him 10 cups of coffee before noon, and he’ll be happy all day long. 

We need to show some grace in this area – and a healthy dose of discernment.  Coffee has chemicals, essential oils have chemicals, and narcotics have chemicals.  We would not make ourselves absolutely dependent on any of these things, nor would we reject them when helpful.  If you had cancer, I would suggest that you take your chemo treatments (if that’s what the doctor recommends).  Trust the Lord and take your medicine. 

So, I suggest that Christians pour out their hearts to the Lord, take medicine if you need to (go talk to your doctor), and I recommend one more thing: talk to someone who cares. 

Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad. (Proverbs 12:25)

Talking to a friend can help more than any of the other remedies I have suggested.  I don’t mean to suggest that prayer is somehow less helpful, but that quite often, the answer to that prayer comes from a kind word in the mouth of a caring friend.  God made us social creatures with a built-in need for loving relationships.  He cured Adam’s loneliness with a wife, and His cure for your aching heart may very well be your spouse. 

For sure, I believe a husband ought to cheer his wife up when she is down.  I would try that before I ran to a doctor.  If I had a struggling friend, I would do everything I could to lend an ear, offer encouragement, and take his mind off the sorrow that has consumed his joy. 

We judge melancholy pretty harshly. The Bible teaches us to use a “good word” to make that stooping heart glad.  When your friend’s heart stoops, that is no time to swoop down with your condemnation.  The same passage in Proverbs 12:18 says,

There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.

If you care, God can teach you how to use your tongue to lift up the fallen.

The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: (Isaiah 50:4)

Sometimes, asking the right question lets your friend know that you care, that you intend to listen, that you are there for them.  One day, my wife looked at me and said, “Dave, stop trying to fix me.  I just want someone to talk to.”  I needed to hear that.

A Servian proverb says, “Give me a comrade who will weep with me; one who will laugh I can easily find.”

Christian, please remember your duty towards those who struggle with heartache.

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. (I Thessalonians 5:14)

And while we are at it, we ought to remember the truth of the Proverb:

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)

One Christian struggles with headaches, another struggles with heartaches.  Since we treasure joy, we should fight for it. And when our friends struggle, we fight for them.   

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