By Paul Asay
The wilderness doesn’t sound like much. But in the Bible, it sure is a popular place.
Jesus spent 40 days there. Moses, 40 years. When Israel’s Queen Jezebel was trying to kill the prophet Elijah, he ran into the wilderness and asked God to take his life.
But “wilderness” doesn’t need to be a place of ravens and broom trees. Depression is a wilderness all its own. And like Moses’ doubting followers, those who suffer from this wilderness may wonder whether they’ll ever find home.
Just last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly one-third (31%) of U.S. adults said they were struggling with anxiety/depression symptoms. There’s a good chance some (if not many) of those people are in your church.According to the CDC, 31% of U.S. adults said they were struggling with anxiety/depression symptoms last summer. There’s a good chance some (if not many) of those people are in your church. Click To Tweet
My own depressive wilderness wasn’t located in a desert, but in my basement. While Elijah ran to a cave, I ran to my couch. I was there for nearly a month—barely eating, barely sleeping, mustering just enough energy to watch the Disney Channel at 3 a.m. Gentle, family-friendly reruns were the only shows that didn’t make me want to literally throw up.
I felt worthless, hopeless, almost lifeless. It felt like Psalm 102 was written for me: “My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread . . . I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop” (Psalms 102:4, 7, ESV).
Christians are hardly immune to depression: I and countless others are proof of that. But sometimes, the church doesn’t quite know what to do with us. How can you be depressed when you hold the gospel—the Good News—in your hands?
Many well-meaning Christians—even some pastors—characterize depression not as a disease or condition, but as a sin, a rejection of the truth of God’s saving love.
But it’s not as simple as that. When I’m in the teeth of depression, I may know mentally that God loves me. I may know, on some level, that I’m precious. But that hardly touches the worthlessness I feel. The pain. The inclination, like Elijah, to just lie down and give up.
So what can you do to help these hurting people in your midst? How can pastors and church leaders come alongside those who are depressed and give them the hope that they so desperately need?
It’s not easy. And honestly, I feel a little intimidated even daring to say what might help. I can only say what might’ve helped me if I walked into a pastor’s office in the depths of my depression.
It’s so simple but often so overlooked. When people are hurting, sometimes the process of simply talking can ease the pain.When people are hurting, sometimes the process of simply talking can ease the pain. — @AsayPaul Click To Tweet
I’m an introvert, so talking doesn’t come easily. Writing a whole book on depression—my depression—was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve done in my life. But I’ve found that when I do dare talk about how I’m feeling—even if those feelings don’t make sense or aren’t fit for dinner party conversation—I feel better.
Giving voice to those feelings can, at times, give me a sense of greater control over those feelings—almost as if they were Rumpelstiltskin, who lost his power once the princess learned his name. As I talk, I often find myself formulating strategies for how to deal with those destructive emotions—strategies that eluded me when I kept those feelings to myself. Sometimes the biggest thing we need is a good sounding board.
Avoid easy answers.
We’re part of a fix-it culture, and sometimes the church itself embraces the idea that if you just do or say or pray the right thing, all will be just fine.Depression isn’t a leaky pipe that just needs a good twist with a monkey wrench. — @AsayPaul Click To Tweet
But depression isn’t a leaky pipe that just needs a good twist with a monkey wrench. And honestly, I believe that sometimes our “10 steps to a better you” culture is unbiblical. Moreover, depression acts a bit like platitude Teflon: Well-meaning advice, even good advice, simply slides off unless the person’s in a space to actually hear it.
Lean into the Wilderness.
Depression is inherently isolating. It pulls us away from friends and family and can even make us question our relationship with God. Why can I not feel God’s presence? We ask. Does He not love me? Am I doing something wrong?
These questions plagued me, and I had one or two Christian friends who told me that, yes, I must be doing faith wrong—that the distance from God I was experiencing was a sign of unbelief or sin.The wilderness, as miserable as it can be when you’re there, can be a place of deep encounter. — @AsayPaul Click To Tweet
But the Bible itself says something far different. I turn to Psalms and see the writers frequently cry out with sorrow and grief and anger. Many biblical “heroes” found themselves in that wilderness I mentioned, be it physical or emotional or spiritual.
Even though I felt alone, the Bible told me that I was in good company. And I came to understand that the wilderness, as miserable as it can be when you’re there, can be a place of deep encounter.
Stress that God loves them.
People who suffer from depression often feel worthless, inherently unlovable. When I wondered why I didn’t feel the presence of God like some of my friends did, I took a step beyond “Am I doing something wrong?” to “Is there something wrong with me?”
And all the Sunday school clichés that convey God’s love for everybody didn’t work on me. It didn’t sound like love. It sounded like pity.Even when we feel most broken—and let’s face it, we often are pretty damaged—we’re not discards. We’re treasures. — @AsayPaul Click To Tweet
And yet, God does love us. He loves us like a mother loves her newborn baby, even though the baby brings literally nothing to the relationship but lots of noise and smelly diapers. He loves us like a child loves a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s: Even as everything that made that person who they are is slowly stripped away, they are still precious, worthy of love and care.
Even when we feel most broken—and let’s face it, we often are pretty damaged—we’re not discards. We’re treasures. That’s an important truth to emphasize.
While many churches embrace counseling (and some even have counselors on staff), some Christians argue that counseling or psychiatric help for mental illness is unnecessary, perhaps even un-Christian.
God should be sufficient for all our woes, they say. And ultimately, that’s true. But it’s also incredibly misleading. Depression isn’t just a spiritual issue, but a mental and physical issue as well, complicated by the brain’s complex chemistry and our own unique experiences.Don't be ashamed to look for help if you need it. Your flock needs the best of you; make sure they get it. — @AsayPaul Click To Tweet
Few pastors would ever discourage a parishioner from seeing a doctor for a broken arm. But sometimes, the brain can be a little broken too. At such times, it could use a little expert treatment and perhaps medication to help it find and maintain balance.
One final word: As you help those suffering from depression, monitor your own mental health too. Being a pastor or church leader is often synonymous with stress; the demands of the job can be overwhelming. Your depressed or anxious congregants can turn to you for help, but where do you turn?
Seek out connections among fellow leaders. Don’t be ashamed to look for help if you need it. Your flock needs the best of you; make sure they get it.
Paul currently works in Focus on the Family’s Plugged In division, reviewing movies and TV shows and analyzing culture from a Christian perspective. He has written for Time, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today, among others. He’s the author of Beauty in the Browns: Walking With Christ in the Darkness of Depression.