The Bible speaks often about discouragement, despair and hopelessness. The word “depression” is not found in Scripture, but it should comfort us that many men and women of God, including Jesus, struggled with these troubling emotions.
David, the man described as being after God’s own heart, describes his personal, ongoing struggle with depression. He uses phrases like “My soul cleaveth unto the dust” and “My soul melteth for heaviness.” (Ps. 119: 25,28) This heaviness of soul is real and often debilitating.
Listen to Paul’s struggle that he described to the Corinthians: “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves…” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9a) Paul Tautges’ commentary on this passage in his book Overcoming Depression is helpful.
“To “despair even of life” means, therefore, to be so utterly burdened and without strength so as to succumb to affliction (the source of which does not matter, ultimately) to the place of accepting death as the only possible outcome. To be in despair means to be without a way out; that is, to be so mentally and emotionally without any hope or help in sight that death seems inevitable.”
Jesus himself was a perfect man, yet He experienced discouragement, physical exhaustion and great disappointment. He was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Is. 53:3) His sweat became blood because of the anguish of soul that He was experiencing the night before His crucifixion. (Luke 22:41-44) Jesus Christ did face discouragement and even depression. But he worked through it and overcame it perfectly. (Hebrews 4:15)
Jesus never allowed these negative feelings to control Him, and He always completed the tasks and responsibilities that His Father gave Him to do. (John 8:29)
How do I know if I am just discouraged or if I am in severe depression? Let’s look at the warning signals and then discover how the Bible speaks to this common experience among believers and ministry leaders today.
Everyone will become discouraged now and again. Many will find that this is just a temporary season that all of us as humans face from time to time. For others, however, it becomes a prolonged “dark season” that never leaves. Differentiating between depression and discouragement is problematic because the term “depression” is used to describe a variety of emotional responses. We say we are depressed when we feel sadness, dejection, disappointment, discouragement, grief, humiliation or rejection.
For example, many pastors may feel down on Mondays because a large amount of preparation and energy are involved in the Sunday worship service. This should not be labeled as “depression,” but rather discouragement or, at times, disappointment. Many ministry leaders have found that rigorous physical activity, a healthy diet and time with friends and the Lord can quickly stabilize these emotions. This type of discouragement is normal and is not sinful.
If we respond correctly to feelings of discouragement by recognizing them but not being controlled by them, then the negative emotions will eventually dissipate and normalize.
However, if we allow those negative feelings to dominate our thoughts, they will begin to manifest themselves in sinful attitudes and behaviors and we will spiral down into deeper discouragement that will ultimately lead to severe depression. Though we may think that we cannot control these chaotic thoughts, the Bible says that we can.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
The Word of God gives us clear instruction to helps us overcome common times of discouragement.
1. Focus on the Character of God.
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
“Troubled” means to have your calmness of mind taken away, to become restless, to have your spirit rise up with fear or dread or for the mind to be perplexed by doubts. Jesus knew the fear and discouragement the disciples would soon face, and he commanded them to take captive those thoughts and to not allow their heart to be troubled. The moment we become aware that we are feeling discouraged we should meditate on Scripture that magnifies the character of God, His steadfast love, His unfailing promises and His constant presence.
God’s promises and His presence are not emotions. They are unchangeable facts.
2. Remember that we are body, soul and spirit.
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
Our emotions affect our bodies and our souls, and our souls affect our bodies and how we handle our emotions. When we realize this, we can make adjustments to our diet, our physical activity and our sleep patterns in order to stabilize our emotions and pull out of the discouragement. Someone once said that there are times when the most spiritual thing that you can do is to take a nap!
If you are discouraged, step away from the office. Spend some time relaxing and having fun with your wife and children. Go out with friends. Enjoy rigorous physical activity on a regular basis. Find out what energizes you and what brings you true rest, then begin to practice those things regularly.
3. Be honest with a mature, Christian friend about the emotions you are feeling.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)
How can our brothers and sisters in Christ admonish us if they don’t know about our discouragement and struggles? The Word of Christ is rich and gives life. Jesus’ plan is for us to experience life-giving humility and dependence upon the Lord and each other through truth, music and singing. Do you have a friend that can ask you the difficult questions? Do not stay isolated. Do you have a friend close enough that you can sing out loud together in the car without criticizing or judging? Spend time with them. God loves to hear our heartfelt praise, especially when we are discouraged. Put on those headphones and sing to the Lord.
“By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
There is much more that could be gleaned from Scripture about how to overcome discouragement. But what about the times when nothing seems to help? What about those seasons when you go to bed with the fog and then you wake up to the same debilitating darkness?
Our next post will look at how to biblically recognize and deal with severe depression.