Humans struggle. Particularly in more “churched” communities of the United States, the church has often assumed churchgoers are immune to the struggles of those outside its walls. This is no less true with depression. Fortunately, the veneer is coming off, and it must. Christians struggle with depression. The reality of this human condition compels us to tell the truth about its presence in the church family.
Pastors have the unique opportunity to open the pages of Scripture and speak to people about other people. Elijah, David, Jonah, and the defeated apostles immediately after Christ’s crucifixion all point to the experience of depression in the lives of real people. It has been said that Scripture addresses two main topics: the human condition and the character of God. Rather than minimizing depression, teaching directly about its existence allows listeners to experience the empathy of those “in that great cloud of witnesses.”
Because depression is a “de-pressing” of a person’s passion for living, the church must be a proactive voice addressing the topic. Few things rob a person of the rich, joyous life Jesus gives to those He has saved more than depression. This condition propels people into isolation, apathy, and resignation, all of which are antithetical to living fully in Christ.
How should the church respond?
One way of viewing the presence of depression in the church is as a “wolf” that preys on the sheep. In this case, the wolf attacks the flock not from without but from within, in the very hearts and minds of the sheep. Addressing the wolf directly is a key to ministering to those struggling with depression. While it is important to directly confront the condition, it is equally important to remember that depression “stands on the chest” of those who are depressed. They need room to breathe. The simple presence of another caring believer can accomplish this.
“Sitting Shiva” is the Jewish foundation for mourning. In Job 2:11, 13, Job’s friends come to him and simply sit with him. This act recognized Job was hurting, afraid, sad, and depressed. They did not offer prescriptions or false assurances, nor did they attempt to talk him out of where he was. In fact, when Job’s friends did offer explanations for his condition, his depression worsened considerably!
Pastors and fellow church members must also admit their limitations, and be willing to refer people struggling with depression to those gifted and trained to help. Just like a person experiencing a heart attack needs more than a family physician, those suffering from depression often benefit from the expertise of skilled professionals and possibly treatment through therapy.
What are the benefits of therapy?
The process of therapy provides direct, applicable attention to the existence of depression. For the person suffering from depression, walking into a counselor’s office can be strikingly different experience than walking into church. The most obvious difference is that the relationship between counselor and counselee is built upon the recognition that there is a problem. Sadly, it’s possible for this same person to walk into a local church seeking help and to be discouraged from talking about it.
The freedom to speak openly during the therapeutic process can break denial, provide tools for recovery, and facilitate development of a language to communicate personal struggles. The decision of whether or not to seek medication is another issue often discussed in counseling, so patients will be better prepared to efficiently and safely approach the subject with a medical doctor.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits of counseling for depression is the inclusion of the family. Depression is more than a temporary condition affecting one person. Integrating the family into the process allows the person dealing with depression to explore their condition in the context of those with whom they are most closely connected. Depression is not just a person issue, but a people and family issue that the family and church body can and should embrace.