I’ve struggled with depression for several years now. Words that come to mind are disorienting, numb or lethargic. Depression is never easy but I think this is especially the case as a depressed Christian. It is easy to connect depression with my spiritual life. And it is easy to feel condemned when other Christians are genuinely wanting to care.
Former pastor Steve Austin shares his struggle with depression and attempted suicide in his book From Pastor to the Psych Ward. This is how he describes part of his struggle:
‘If you have never lived through the hell of sleepless nights, been strangled by the cold hands of anxiety, you can’t understand why someone would want to die. You can’t possibly “get it” if you’ve never heard that scream-whisper of depression that rarely backs down, or felt the sting of worthlessness, no matter how hard you work.
The constrictive wash of shame over your soul at a red light for absolutely no reason, the weight of guilt that you just cannot escape, no matter what you do.’
Everyone wants to help people when they see them hurting. I mean, who doesn’t want to bring comfort? Isn’t this what Jesus has called us to do? But we need to be careful that in doing so we don’t end up causing pain.
5 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Christian
1. ‘Just Snap Out Of It’
Who hasn’t said, or at least thought, this at some point? People can’t just ‘snap’ out of depression because depression isn’t an act of the will. The simple truth is, no one actually wants to be depressed. Someone who is depressed would ‘just snap out of it’ if they could, but they can’t. There is no magic switch.
2. ‘You Need To Think Positively’
I had a disagreement with my wife the other week. Afterwards, I couldn’t clear my mind. Instead of doing the work that needed to be done, I started cleaning the house.
Telling someone to just think positively is just like my experience. As much as they may want to be positive, depressed people often find it impossible. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve heard compliments and thought they were criticisms.
Now, I know that you are trying to help by saying this. But there are times when the depressed cannot see the positive side of anything.
3. ‘I’ve Been Through Worse’
This statement doesn’t rate very high on the scale of empathy. Maybe it is meant to be some sort of cosmic shock and awe intervention trick? But I don’t see how saying this is meant to help anyone. For someone in the depths of depression, there is nothing worse. They are at rock bottom.
Lying at the heart of this statement is the belief that pain and suffering is objective. In other words, we all feel the same way as we go through the same things. This simply isn’t true. People experience things differently depending on their past, culture, the support they have in place and personality. Circumstances that may play an important factor in one person developing depression may not affect another. To say ‘I’ve been through worse’ implies the sufferer is weak and at fault for their depression.
4. ‘God Won’t Give You More Than What You Can Handle’
Some things are almost in the Bible. We are sure they’re in there somewhere because we hear them so often. The Bible says God will provide an escape when we are tempted (1 Cor. 10:13). But this is different from saying God won’t give us more than we can handle.
Many times Christians have suffered and died at others hands. Sometimes Christians may experience such suffering they seek death at their own hands. Suffering is hard. It is torture. Paul implores us to compare our present suffering with the glory to be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). This may not solve our struggles but it helps give perspective.
I have found God can even use depression to help us grow. At least this is my experience. As I’ve struggled with depression I’ve come to realise God’s presence is with me even when I don’t feel it. I’ve begun to understand the greatness of the hope I have in Jesus and long for a day when he will restore. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like depression, but even in the midst of it, I can see God at work.
5. ‘Confess Your Sin. Joy Is The Mark Of The Christian Life’
Anyone who has struggled with depression knows the ugliness of this statement. It is hurtful and judgmental. And problematic.
Consider this, everyone sins but not everyone is depressed (not even all atheists suffer from depression). If depression was God’s go-to punishment to bring us to repentance then surely God would lift the depression once someone confesses. But what happens when the depression doesn’t lift?
Who says joy is the mark of the Christian life? Now, I know it is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit but consider the Bible as a whole. If joy is our pass mark, what do we do with most of the Psalms? How do we understand David, Jeremiah, Job or, even Jesus, the man of suffering, if we focus only on joy? Yes, joyfulness is a fruit of the Spirit, but it isn’t the sole criteria for walking with Jesus.
What You Can Do To Help A Depressed Christian
We want to help those who are suffering. This is why we say things. It pains us to see people we love hurting. But we bring more comfort by being present. Avoid the temptation of needing to talk and just be there.
Job is the Bible’s picture of someone who suffered. He lost everything. Initially, his friends brought comfort. They sat with him in his suffering for 7 days, but then they opened their mouths. They should have stayed quiet. His friends don’t have the compassion to sit and suffer alongside him. Their words bring pain rather than comfort.
Steve Austin knows this. Reflecting on his journey he wrote:
‘All we really need is for you to sit with us when we are sad or hurting or don’t have any words at all. It’s great to tell us Jesus loves us, but what would be even better is if you would show us love and acceptance. Tell us to “come just as you are” and really mean it. The one thing depressed people need is a friend.’
If you want to help a depressed Christian learn to be a friend. Don’t try to be a fixer, just be a friend. There is no greater gift you can give.