Dr. I.L. de Villiers, a well-known Dutch Reformed minister, has called depression “The sickness of our times”. That is no understatement, and judging from prevailing moods in. society, the growing need for psychological counseling and psychiatric treatment, and the rise in the suicide rate, depression has reached near-epidemic proportions.
The fact that it has affected so many Christians is equally alarming. Whereas some would consider it incompatible with the Christian faith to become depressive, the Scriptures make very candid allowances for the experience. Elijah suffered a severe lapse into this condition, as did Jonah. In the light of the Apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life”, it is not unlikely that he also descended into the proverbial “slough of despondency.”
If there is a biblical corrective for depression, we must find it. I believe that there is, and the purpose of this booklet is to set it before you.
Very few who have never known depression by experience can possibly appreciate the magnitude of the problem. For those who have known the bitter cup of depression, the condition is serious enough to call for urgent attention.
In God’s purpose, I had to live with it for 51⁄2 years. They were hard, almost unbearable years, and were made all the more difficult by virtue of the fact that the advice given by six ministers of the Gospel did not seem to help. The counsel given ranged from guilt-complex to mid-life crisis. Even the devil was blamed for the malady. While there was an element of truth in all that was said, none of the advice got to the root of the problem, nor did any of it help me to emerge from the hole of despair.
It is my heartfelt prayer that the contents of this booklet will assist in effecting a powerful emancipation from the misery to which so many have been subjected, as they have become victims of depression.
Sometimes physiological factors, such as a hormone imbalance, may be the direct cause of depression, in which case medical expertise needs to be consulted. It is simply not possible for a counselor to deal with problems which are the exclusive domain of a physician.
Nevertheless, by far the majority of cases of depression have their root cause in those attitudes and factors which may be eliminated by a careful and thorough application of biblical principles.
In Luke 24, when the Lord Jesus found the two disciples on the Emmaus Road in a very negative mood, in response to His invitation to talk about their hang-ups, they themselves revealed the cause of their melancholy. In verse 21 of the chapter they said, “We had hoped that it was He that would be the Redeemer of Israel.” In their case their expectations of the Messiah had been shattered. Things had not turned out the way they had wanted them to. The anti-climax of it all was too much for them: Now they were in a bad mental and psychological condition.
Exactly the same reasoning circulates in the mind of a modem depressive. He may use the identical words knowingly or unknowingly, “We, or I, had hoped ….”. For example, there had been expectations of a happy marriage, all of which was destroyed, leaving a dream in ruins; or a promising child turns out to be a rebel; an apparently good profession backfires, and work is hated; a relationship with a friend turns sour; high hopes for marriage on the part of a bachelor or spinster are never realised; a financial investment collapses, and nothing is left of what was “hoped” would be a means of future material security. Examples could be multiplied, but the essence of it all is that once good expectations have either’ not been realized or have collapsed and become a sad story of defeat and bitter disappointment.
Having heard the two disciples’ _expression-of despair, The Lord Jesus went straight to the root of the matter, and in a single sentence exposed both the cause and the cure. In verse 25, the Greek word He uses literally means “without mind”. He was telling them that they had misunderstood the Cross, and it was essential that their thinking should be put straight. He immediately proceeded to do that, and in the process; did it so effectively, that the end result was quite dramatic. Gloom changed to hope, and despair eventually ended up in such a state of excitement that the very men who had been walking away from Jerusalem, now returned to the City with a completely different mind-set (verse 33).
The exact same reason for depression applies in the vast majority of cases today. We think, but we do not think correctly. Thoughts invade the mind, and while they are not untrue, they represent a slanted perspective of the situation, they exclude other shades of truth, and consequently the condition of melancholy is not at all surprising.
At this point, it is extremely important to understand a very simple and straightforward anatomical fact. When we were created by God, we were made body, mind and soul. While these three elements of our being are distinguishable, they are inseparable. For example, what affects the body is transmitted to the mind, which will in turn produce feelings of emotional joy or anguish, depending on the nature of the effect. This is particularly true of the relationship between the mind and the sympathetic nervous system. It is very simple to illustrate. Unexpected good news produces an immediate’ effect of happiness or elation in the person who received it. Someone who is threatened with an incurable disease may be overcome by depression, until the moment the doctor communicates the fact that the growth excised was benign, and that there is nothing to be worried about. Gloom is immediately converted to elation. What has happened? Information transmitted to the brain has affected the nervous system to bring about the dramatic change in mood. The reverse is equally true. One moment, you are overjoyed at receiving an unexpected cheque in the post, and your joy is almost limitless until, in the next mail, you receive an above-average tax assessment. Information turns happiness into distress.
Depression has everything to do with a person’s thought processes. In the old King James version Proverbs 23:7 is rendered “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” That is why the Lord Jesus knew very well that the only effective way to change the feelings of the men, would be to put their thinking right. They were not wrong nor dishonest in reacting negatively to, what to them, was the tragic anti-climax of our Lord’s life when He was killed on the cross. What they lacked, however, was a preoccupation with information which had not yet found a foothold in their minds. When He proceeded to correct that, they themselves in the totality of their being changed completely. From being upset, they were elated. Miserable men became positively useful.
It is an established fact, medically proven, that the brain actually releases chemicals to the sympathetic nervous system, of one kind or another, depending on the information transmitted to the mind.
In an article in the New York Daily News, the University of Texas in Dallas is said to have completely changed course on its treatment of depressed people, according to Dr. Jean Hamilton, Associate Professor of Psychiatry. A case history is cited – that of a woman who experienced an explosive fury of depression in her 30’s. According to the report, “She consulted highly recommended doctors, including a leading authority on depression at the National Institute of Health. Two psychiatrists said her intense depression could only be helped by electroshock therapy. Shaken and scared, she refused. Her doctors prescribed enough anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and other drugs to fill a medicine cabinet. The side effects from the medications often interfered with her ability to function normally even more than the depression.
Nothing dispelled the dirty gray mist of depression. “It was a pain that never went away. The only way I could think to end it was to kill myself’, she said. Then, cognitive behaviour therapy was prescribed, a treatment which deals with depression as a thinking disorder. The treatment involves counselling, and written assignments were designed to correct the distorted thoughts that produce hopelessness and despair. When she started therapy, she learned her depression was largely the result of pessimistic views about herself, her life and her future. Events in her life did not improve after she started cognitive therapy. In a brief period her mother died unexpectedly, a long-time relationship collapsed and the company where she had worked for six years folded. But much to her surprise, she has never been happier. “Sometimes it seems as if it’s just a matter of seeing the glass half full instead of half empty, but I wasted a lot of my life coming to that conclusion”, she says.
Dr. David Bums, an authority on cognitive therapy says. “The techniques are very easy but it can be very difficult for people to see that their thoughts are very illogical and negative and to move past that established mind set”.
It is wonderful to see then that God’s Word taught principles long ago which have been discovered to be essential today for mental and psychological stability. In Romans 12:2, we are told not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. There is an immediate hint as to what the cause is of so much depression in this verse. Taking the average newspaper today, the information transmitted by the world is normally always negative. Is it any wonder that depression is as widespread as it is? There is little information in circulation to make people really happy. It either makes them tense, or anxious. If not that, it frustrates them or angers’ them. A combination of these factors will then sink a person into depression. No wonder Proverbs 12:25 says what it does! “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” We need to get God’s perspective of a situation, and when that happens, we begin to feel so different.
Jacob once complained that “All these things are against me” (Genesis 42:36). His negative reaction was based on incomplete information. He did not know, or realize, that there was another side to the truth, at that point in time known only to God and to Joseph. When eventually that came to light, Jacob was a different man. Reunited with his son, and taking cognizance of the remarkable providence of God, he, in his old age, was given a new incentive to life. What had happened? He became better informed of the full facts of the situation.
The Apostle Paul knew and understood the vital importance of correct thinking. He says in Philippians 4:8, that we are to think on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely and those things of good report. He insists that we are to meditate on these things. He means by that that we are to be preoccupied with thoughts that are good and true and wholesome. In the next verse he tells his readers that they are to do the things they have seen in him. It is significant that the letter was written to the very people who lived in the city where he and his friend Silas were once meted out a severe injustice, imprisoned unjustly, and openly put to shame. They were more than equal to the crisis, in fact so much so, that while in prison they were even capable of singing praises to God. That, of course, in turn precipitated their remarkable deliverance. However, the fact of the matter is that because of his ability not to allow himself to be dominated by one-sided thinking, and due to the disciplined use of his mind, he could dwell on those things which gave him a healthy perspective of his situation. Writing to the same people he could say in Philippians 1:12, that the things which happened to him actually turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel. He thought about this: and it made him feel positive about his imprisonment. Going back to Luke 24, the Lord Jesus Himself took the very thing that was so distressing to the disciples, and pointed out that the Christ had to suffer and then enter His glory. He did not stop at the suffering, but proceeded to educate His men as to the divine purpose in the cross event, and also the ensuing glory which followed His shame in dying. He introduced into their minds fresh truth which made such a difference to them that they later returned to Jerusalem, with joy, to the very place that had previously “turned them off.”
A friend of ours who herself went through the agonising experience of depression, had this to say after her deliverance: “There is this one criticism I have of the various approaches in treating the depressed – too much is made of ‘feelings’. The shrink who got hold of me some years ago, took the same line. After treatment I felt like a jelly-fish – I dented wherever anybody kicked! Maybe in a way that acted as a turning point because I realized that much of my turmoil was caused by my inversion of values. I had never been a very emotional kind of child, but had great respect for the mind and facts. All of a sudden, the environment I landed in was geared on emotions. Not only my home, but TV, the people around, those I thought to be friends at the time – their talk, their response, their whole line of thinking was emotional. “He/she angered me”. “I scolded”. “I hit the child”. “I’ll take him/ her to court” – the kind of conversation in very emotive fashion. There was hardly a reference to God in His goodness and justice and love. Thank God for the fact that in time our friend was made to appreciate the very things which I am trying to stress.
Depression is largely the result of bad thinking habits. For example, an unemployed person will descend into a state of total despair because he thinks that he is no longer wanted, that he has reached the end of his usefulness, and that there is nothing more in life to live for. These thoughts and others begin to set in the mind. They are there all the time, and though they may be partially true, they are not the whole truth. The same person, especially if he is a Christian, may begin to see his circumstances as ordained of God. Since everything is the result of God’s wise decree and purpose (Ephesians 1:11), nothing that happens to the believer takes place outside of God’s wise counsel. The unemployment factor, though serious, is not the worst that could happen. Preoccupation with the negative aspects of the setback, tends to completely shut out other things which are decidedly to the advantage of the person concerned. He may forget that he enjoys good health, is capable of thinking, still has a number of friends who are concerned for him, and that in his relationship with God, he may turn the setbacks into a catalyst for future happiness. “How?” you may ask. By taking seriously the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34, with particular emphasis on two things. First, the call to think clearly and biblically (verses 26-30) and secondly, to give greater attention to your relationship with God.
When my late wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in the ensuing surgery lost a breast, she could very easily have allowed negative thinking to drag her down into a condition of perpetual melancholy. Instead, she turned the event into a positive blessing. When I visited her the day after the operation, she preempted anything I could say to her by telling how excited she was. Stunned, I waited for an explanation. She then went on to say that she now realized that God had opened a door for her which had been closed before. She foresaw many opportunities of finding and ministering to other women who had been through a similar trauma. The ensuing weeks proved her to be correct. A new ministry was given to her, and she was never the same after that. There was a sense in which she was even able to thank God for what had happened because her usefulness as a Christian had been enhanced. Please note that her subjective feelings were determined by her thinking. If your thinking is worldly, your feelings will be correspondingly doleful. When, however, your mental attitude is influenced by God’s thoughts, you will have a healthy outlook on life; you will be preserved from dejection, and you will be more than equal to every situation.
In order to be practical, I give the advice of a well-known Christian psychiatrist. It is as follows: For three times a day, for five minutes each time, you are to take the thing that has created the depressing mood, and counter-attack by putting down in writing the other truths which you have tended to reject. These are the factors which, notwithstanding the negative view of the matter you have had, are positively encouraging. It may be very difficult to start with, and it may require a person’s taking himself firmly in hand to do it. However, if done on a regular basis, that which begins as an effort, will end up as a pleasure. Since the mind is so easily influenced by adversity, and is often so reluctant to consider the other side of the coin, the process of psychological healing takes time. It is normally found that the rate of improvement once such a program has been initiated, is a maximum of 30% in the first week. In the second week, it begins to move towards a 40 – 50% rating. Following a persevered commitment to the discipline, by the third or fourth week, most depressives find themselves emerging from their poor mental state. It then becomes essential to continue this discipline for as long as possible in order to ensure a permanent state of mental and spiritual stability.
The following two case histories from my personal experience illustrate the point. A lady whose mother was murdered on a small holding was brought to me by her husband. She had been in a state of complete depression ever since the tragic event. No one seemed capable of lifting her out of her pathetic condition. When she told the story of her mother’s violent death, it became clear to me that the thoughts which completely controlled her mind were the following: Her mother was murdered; could she not have been spared such a painful death? Could she, her daughter, not have done more to persuade her parents to move to a safer vicinity? It was a premature death occasioned by evil men, and that was not the way she had wanted her mother to perish. It was necessary for me to assist her in her thinking of the tragedy. First, I pointed out that all our ways are ordered by the Lord. Second, I explained to her that her mother had died a heroine, for it was while her father ran to look for the firearm, that her mother, instead of fleeing into the night or hiding under the bed, had gallantly gone to the telephone to call for help when she was killed. That was nothing less than glorious heroism. Finally, I explained that since Christians live in a violent world, and are said to be accounted as sheep for the slaughter, Romans 8:36, when some, like her mother, die a martyr’s death, she joins the ranks of those who like Stephen ended life on earth seemingly prematurely and violently, but according to God’s perspective, triumphantly and according to His plan and purpose. Her entire countenance changed, and she contacted me a few weeks later to say that all was well, and that she was out of her long state of depression. What really happened amounted to a change of her thinking perspectives.
On another occasion a woman who had suffered years of depression came to tell me her tale of woe. Her mother had rejected her since childbirth, and had repeatedly told her during the years of her upbringing, that she was an unwanted child and a burden to the home. The long-term effects of such negative brainwashing took its toll, and the poor woman, now married, was under treatment for depression from both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. To add to her troubles, she had given birth to three children, the first of which came into the world after an abnormal and agonising experience of child-bearing. The latter two were unexpected, and to some extent, unwanted. She found it almost impossible to handle her own rejection by her mother during the unhappy childhood, and now to put up with the fact and responsibility of having to raise her three children. Once again, it was clearly a thinking disorder. I showed her that though her mother rejected her, she was obviously chosen of God. Had her mother had her wish, she would never have been allowed to live, but God in love and mercy overruled completely, and not only purposed, but affected both her birth and her preservation through many years of psychological abuse. I pointed out that in view of this fact, she had more reason to be alive than I did, for in my case, I was wanted by my mother, and there was little to counteract the divine purposes. Furthermore, in the trauma she had felt in the birth of her children, God’s will had once more prevailed, because she had been deemed by the Lord to be a mother worthy of the calling. Had that not been the case, she would never have been given the offspring she now had entrusted to her care. When she came back by appointment to see me two weeks later, she was a different woman. Many months later, she said to me, “I am off all medication!” Once more, a thinking disorder had been tackled head-on, and full truth had replaced half-truths.
When God delivered Elijah from his depression, he imparted accurate information about the de facto situation which to that point had made Elijah depressive to the point of being suicidal. Elijah had said, “I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” (1 Kings 19:10). But while Elijah believed that he was right, God corrected him. The information which Elijah repeated in verse 14, God rectified by telling him that there were actually still seven thousand people in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal! Do we not do the same? We magnify negative factors to the exclusion of all the positive gifts and favours God has given. We often fail either to see or to appreciate who He is and what He has done. South Africans whose minds are clouded by thoughts of gloom and doom, are oblivious to such facts as tens of thousands of great Christians who live in the land and who will always be its blessing, not to mention so many tokens of His love in not only giving us so much in life to enjoy, but also in these days a glorious opportunity to share the truth as it is in The Lord Jesus. As Mordecai said to Esther in a time of great crisis, “Who knows but that you are come into the kingdom for such a time as this”. (Esther 4:14).
Your mind matters to God. If you allow your mind to feed on thoughts which amount to half-truths, and for that matter, discouraging half-truths, you will reap the bitter consequences in an experience of depression. On the other hand, if in the light of God’s Word, you see your situation as part of God’s providence and plan, and consider the things which God has already done for you, and is still doing, your preoccupation with such things is bound to effect deliverance from depression.
In a depressing age, the Christian has the responsibility to demonstrate the wonderful God-given ability of living above circumstances. It is not a sin to fall into depression, but it is a sin to stay there. When one uses the God-given facility of keeping depression from the door of one’s life, it reinforces the opportunity to demonstrate to a watching world that, by His grace, we are more than capable of handling life. We are more than conquerors in Christ who loves us. We live as He lived, and above all, we think as He thought. Think as God wants you to think and you will feel the world of difference.