I am a pastor and I struggle with depression.
I know you’re not really supposed to say that as a Christian, and certainly not as a pastor, but the truth is I have struggled on and off with depression for as long as I can remember.
The problem is I grew up in a church where we didn’t talk about mental health issues like depression. The result was a lot of confusion about what depression is and what it is not.
Like many, we were led to believe that real Christians don’t get depressed. Real Christians, we thought, “rejoiced in the Lord always and I again I say rejoice.” The truly faithful had “the joy, joy, joy, joy down in their heart…down in their heart to stay.” Unfortunately, there weren’t lament versions for the rest of us. (Apparently “I’ve got the pain, pain, pain pain down in my heart” isn’t quite as marketable.)
For those of us that found ourselves in painfully dark seasons at times the rhetoric seemed clear: real Christians are happy. And if that’s not your experience, there is something wrong with you.
At times this caused me to question whether my faith was real. Am I doing this wrong? Am I defective? Did my salvation not take? Had I somehow missed Jesus somewhere along the way? Other times it left me feeling very alone and confused, like a closet leper too afraid to admit my illness for fear of being cast out.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun to realize just how common my struggle is. If you don’t believe me, consider these jarring statistics:
- In 2010, more than 253 million prescriptions were written for anti-depressants in the U.S. (To put that in perspective, there are only 311 million people.)
- Anti-depressants have become the second highest volume drug in the U.S., second only to cholesterol medication.
- The number of people diagnosed with depression increases by 30% every year.
- In 2013 someone committed suicide every 12.8 minutes. And for every “success,” there are over 100 more attempts.
Depression is a very serious issue that the church can no longer afford to ignore.
I’ve been a part of a lot of different kinds of churches in my lifetime – Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Evangelical Free, Converge, non-denominational, you name it. In all of my experiences, I can’t remember a single time in which depression was addressed directly from the stage. Earlier this year when I prepared to teach a series on depression I struggled to find more than a handful of churches anywhere that had tackled the issue head on.
Friends, this has to change.
Why? Because there are people in our churches every week who are suffering. And if we’re not talking about depression in our churches, chances are very good those people are suffering alone.
The truth is there remains a lot of confusion about depression. If we won’t address it, people will continue to misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we make things a lot worse.
It’s time for the church to step up.
A Few Resources
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few resources to help you better understand and respond to depression:
- Earlier this year I did a teaching series on depression and anxiety. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the issue, but I think it’s a great start. Below you’ll find a video of the first message. You can find the second message here.
- If you are looking for a short and helpful read on depression, I highly recommend “Christians Get Depressed Too” by David Murray.
Whether you struggle with depression or know others that do, I do hope you’ll take the time to give these two messages a listen. If you are a pastor, I plead with you to break the silence and help those in your community better understand and lovingly respond to this very real issue. (If you don’t feel comfortable teaching on it, let’s talk. I’d be happy to help in any way I can.)
Lastly, for those who struggle with depression, as I do, please know this:
1. You are not alone.
Even the most conservative numbers I’ve found estimate there are over 120 million others across the globe who struggle with depression and anxiety. They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and yes, even pastors who struggle just like you. Don’t ever buy into the lie that you are alone in this.
2. Your faith is not broken.
History is full of extraordinary men and women of faith who struggled with depression and anxiety. Saint Bernard, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, Mother Theresa – each walked through their own “dark nights of the soul.”
The bible itself is full of examples. David made a habit of saying things like, “My bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. I am worn out from groaning. All night long I flood my bed with my tears” (Ps 6). Jonah grew so angry with God that he wanted to die (Jonah 4). Jeremiah thought his life so void of hope or value that he cursed the day of his birth (Jer 20:14-18). Elijah was so ridden with anxiety that he begged God to end his life (1 Kg 19:3-4). Despite their struggle, each was hand picked by God to be used in unique and extraordinary ways.
3. God is for you and He offers to walk with you.
When Elijah became suicidal God didn’t berate him for not being joyful or having enough faith. Instead, God met him right in the middle of his struggle with tender grace. His offer to you is the same.
Jesus said this in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is the kind of God that God is. He is never surprised when we find ourselves overwhelmed or exhausted. Instead, he fully expects it and he invites us to find life and rest in Him.
4. Depression is not just a spiritual issue.
Sadly, Christians still tend to make the mistake of only treating difficult issues like depression spiritually. As a pastor, I’m all for addressing the spiritual, but depression is far too complex to be treated so simplistically. Depression is more than just a spiritual issue. It is also a physiological one that can affect even spiritually healthy people in debilitating ways. If you are a Christian who struggles with depression, don’t make the mistake of thinking if you just pray enough, claim enough, repent enough, or believe enough you will be cured. That may be part of the solution, but you may also find you need to treat the issue medicinally and therapeutically as well. Each is a gift and an expression of God’s grace. Please ignore anyone who tries to shame you into thinking otherwise.
Friends, we can no longer afford to ignore mental health issues in the church. Though this may be new ground for many of us, we’ve got to lean in so that we do not make the mistake of continuing to misunderstand and mistreat the growing number who suffer among us. For some, this can literally be the difference between life and death.
As Christians, let’s commit to approach mental health issues with an extra measure of grace and humility as we seek to love and learn together.
Lord, may it be so.