How God heals depression – when you can’t

Severely depressed people and their doctors generally agree there is no cure for severe “clinical depression”.  Medications are prescribed to temporarily cover over some of the symptoms but the underlying cause is not well understood and therefore assumed to be physiological.

What can a depressed person do other than take anti-depressant pills? 

The Bible contains an answer.  The Bible-based cure for full-on, intransigent, relentless, unbearably deep depression is full-on, intransigent, relentless, unbearably deep Godly sorrow (II Corinthians 7:9-10).   Godly sorrow is a form of grief.  Unlike depression, you go through the grief and eventually come out of it.

Bible-based cure, effective but not easy

To those who haven’t tried it, the Bible-based cure may seem too painful.  Godly sorrow is often more intense than the depression we are trying to get rid of.  Depressed or not, we naturally fear the pain of impending grief.  However, here’s the good news: all grief is short-lived compared to depression which never quits.  True grief, thank God, no matter how horrible, lasts only “for a season”.  And God constantly promises to help us go through it all.  When we emerge from grief, as we eventually do, the sun shines again.  On the other hand, we may never “emerge” from clinical depression: it just goes on and on.

Great men and women of God have suffered severe depression (called “melancholia” in times past) until they completely surrendered to God.  Billy Graham was “spiritually dead” prior to being born again.  Franklin Graham was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.  St. Augustine wrote his famous “Confessions” about the depths he experienced before turning completely to the will of his saviour the Lord Jesus Christ.

David of Judea and even Jesus Christ both suffered briefly from what we now would call depression.  They both asked, God, why have you forsaken me?   (Jesus in Matthew 27:46 David in Psalm 22)  There’s no use telling yourself God hasn’t abandoned you when you really think He has.  Instead you should do what David and Jesus did to get the answer direct.  If God doesn’t answer immediately (which He may not), persist!  Set aside a time every day to ask God why He seems to have left.  Don’t take my word for it, find out for yourself.    

Psychoanalytic cure never applied

A famous Swiss psychoanalyst, Dr. Alfred Adler, invented a fourteen-day cure for depression.  Adler said, if each day for fourteen days you simply think of one thing you might do to help another person, your depression will lift.  You don’t really have to do anything, just think that thought.  Problem: his patients could not think it.  Severely depressed people simply could not imagine a single thing to help someone else.  They asked Adler, “What do you mean by ‘help’?”  He replied, “Make someone smile.”  Still they couldn’t do it.  A patient said he was so depressed he couldn’t sleep.  Dr. Adler said, “Instead of sleeping, stay awake and think of something that would help someone.”  Next day the depressed patient said he went right to sleep!

Dr. Adler couldn’t make his cure work but his diagnosis was on the right track.  Depression always involves horrendous self-pity and self-obsession.  And the result can be disastrous.  Depression is a deadly serious disease.  Self-destructive thoughts prevail.  Because you can’t extricate yourself, suicide seems the only way to get rid of the pain.

The way out of depression

The Bible way is not to kill the body but to “die to self”.  You go on living but not as your old self.  You become a new creation.  Jesus says (Mark 8:34-35) “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Depression is caused by hanging on to something God wants us to let go of.  As long as we hang on, we are still “of the world” in some large or small way.

Good sorrow and bad sorrow

The Bible says there are two kinds of sorrow, Godly vs. worldly (II Corinthians 7:9-10).    9) Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a Godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.  10) For Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. (Italics mine)  These verses are usually interpreted in terms of repentance from bad behaviour (sin).  Accordingly, worldly sorrow is just feeling sorry for yourself because you got caught whereas true Godly sorrow leads to contrition and repentance.

However, there is more to it.  Worldly devotions, addictions, compelling thoughts and bad habits of various kinds may not be crimes but they are depressing because they entrap and enslave our minds.  Devotions that may seem OK, like idolizing your child or worrying about your finances, are actually “sinful” because they take priority over God in your life.  Any person, place, thing or idea that God wants me to let go of can be deadly.  It may not be a felony or misdemeanour but it is a form of idolatry, a breach in the relationship with God.  Such attachments, coming between us and God, cause depression.

But the cure for depression, Godly sorrow, involves grieving.  You repent and then you mourn because you have totally given up the person, place, thing or idea you valued so highly.  You go through the great grief like a heavy waterfall.  When you come out, the sun is shining.  Good grief!  People are afraid of grief but actually there is nothing to be afraid of.  Grief is always temporary.

But depression is worldly sorrow, a constant, intransigent, self-piteous concern for ourselves.  It can also be caused by overwhelming concern for someone as dear as, or dearer than, ourselves.  At any rate, we are hanging on and won’t let go.

You may not be fully aware of exactly what or whom you are idolizing.  Or you may be aware but not want to face the fact.  In any case, you won’t give it up because it seems as important as your very own soul.  It might be your profession, your self-image, even your ministry.  That person, place, thing, important activity or beloved idea is an idol.  Hanging onto it can eventually kill you; the Bible says it “worketh death”.  As long as you hang onto him/her/it, you remain intractably depressed and there seems no way out except the unthinkable – suicide.  However, you are deceived: the way out of depression is to become willing to let go completely.

If you are unsure or unaware of exactly what it is you are holding onto, if the object of your tenacity is unknown or uncertain, then seek help from a Godly counsellor, mentor or advisor to help you find words for it and bring it to full consciousness.

Then, hand it over to Lord Jesus.  Give Him your cherished self-concept: you’re a new creature in Christ now.  Give Him your idolized, unsaved child: s/he’s the Lord’s child now.  Surrender your drug-abusing partner to God: s/he’s God’s problem now.  Give UP the idea you will ever get healed the way you think you should: let the Lord work in His inscrutable way with your health.  God’s will be done, not yours.  Surrender your life to Him – total, absolute surrender.

Sound impossible?  Letting go completely means total loss and total loss means unbearable grief.  But that’s your only choice, unbearable grief vs. interminable depression.  If you choose grief, you will find grief is temporary and God will send His comforter, the Holy Spirit, to get you though.  If you choose to remain in depression, He makes no such promises.  In fact that’s the whole problem in a nutshell: God appears to forsake the depressed while He blesses those who repent and mourn.

Don’t idolize your life

Jesus said that whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33)  Idolizing my self-made lifestyle made me suicidal with depression.  But, thank God, I didn’t kill myself.  Instead, I “died to self”.  I got crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)  But at the time I was totally powerless, I felt I simply could not do a single thing.  But I actually did very little except quit resisting.  Then God took over.  I just let Him do His job.  The pain was great (greater than the depression) but after God removed the cause, the pain subsided.

Don’t let anyone tell you to lighten up: happiness comes later.  When I grieved, I cried tears, I mourned, I felt unbearable loss because I had really let it go.  That person, place, thing, idea, whatever you were clinging to, is now gone forever and you suffer accordingly.  However, the Lord Jesus always supplies a “Comforter and Helper” (John 14:26): the Holy Spirit comes.  “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)   Grief is all about suffering and being comforted.  God gives us mourning to get the grief out of our system.

Summing up

When something or someone really important to you such as your old self-concept or self-confidence, your idea of healing, your beloved child, your spouse, your ministry, your belief in yourself, your own wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:18), your position in the world, your idea of success, even your religious views, but particularly your very cherished ideas of happiness and contentment, does not pan out, you get depressed.  Someone or something is more important to you than God.  When you get absolutely desperate enough to recognize your idolatrous state and really let God run the show, then you will go out of worldly sorrow into Godly sorrow.  You will mourn the idols now gone forever.  That grief is the cure for depression.  Pills, anti-depressants, are cover-ups.  Godly grief removes the root cause.

Surrender requires trust in God.  “He will bring it to pass.”  (Read Psalm 37 every day and take it totally to heart.)  Ask God to remove ALL your old ideas.  Begin afresh.  Let him give you new ideas about relationships, healing, love, salvation, your profession, your ministry, and of course, about depression and happiness.  He will renew your mind in His time.  Just do what is required.  It may seem mechanical, but go through the actions anyway.  Be patient.  He will bring it to pass.  God will turn your mourning into joy and “gird” you with gladness (Psalm 30:11).  You will be more content than you ever thought possible.

Finally, the most important thing you can do to keep from getting depressed again is regular, full-on worship of the Lord.  That was the point of an article I wrote years ago on Hebrew words for worship.  Worship at every opportunity.  Next in importance is “helping others”: 1) Love God with all your being; 2) love your neighbour.  This is good advice but, when you are depressed, no way can you do it.  But after you pass through the grieving, you can worship and share abundantly.

Blessings come to those who go through their grief

Richard Roberts asks, “When does God set a table before us in the presence of our enemies?”  Answer: “after we go through the valley of the shadow of death.”  First I mourn the loss, and then I get the blessing.

On pages 250-251 of “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference” by Philip Yancey, is a testimony by a severely depressed lady named Jacqueline titled “Hanging On”.  When depressed Jacqueline says she felt “everything was wrong”.  She “might as well have been run over by a truck.”  She could hardly get out of bed.  She “went on suicide websites to see if other people had experienced something similar.”  In the finish she surrendered to God’s love and pulled through by His grace.

A survivor, Jacqueline concludes depression changed her forever.  “It took away all cockiness, any sense that I can make it on my own.  I think of myself as having a spiritual disability now – I have to rely on God all day long every day.  I can’t count on myself because I have failed myself. I used to see prayer as a way of getting God to do what I wanted.  Now I see it as my way of getting in on what God is doing, and just hanging on.”

I put it this way: depression taught me that it is human to desire success but divine to embrace failure and turn to God.

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