I’m beginning to write this just a few days before February, the longest month of the year. I know what the number of days on the calendar says and how February compares to the other eleven months. But for those of us who battle against “seasonal affective disorder” (appropriately but cruelly abbreviated as SAD), the grayness of February seems to fit C. S. Lewis’s image of “always winter and never Christmas.” Actually, my battles against depression aren’t limited to the winter, thus SAD only presents new twists to a battle that simmers most of the year.
I have learned a tremendous amount in my decades infested by depression. Along the way, I have seen the goodness of God, his power to lift, and the hope of the gospel. In this article, I want to share some of those insights—for those who struggle but also for non-strugglers who want to love their neighbors. Many people in your spheres of influence may be all too familiar with this particular burden.
A working definition may be in order as I begin. Depression is not just sadness. Depression is hopelessness. The problem with depression is not that you feel down. It’s that you feel nothing. Depression is not the opposite of happy. It’s the opposite of vitality. At times, when I fight against depression, I recognize situations as happy or sad, exciting or upsetting, joyous or discouraging—but I feel none of those emotions. It’s as if I’m an outside observer to my own life, thinking, “I wish I felt the feelings that seem appropriate to that situation.”
Did you notice I chose to say, “battle against depression” instead of “struggle with depression?” This is not mere semantics. Words cut like scalpels in the surgery against depression, and vocabulary selection makes a difference. I choose not to say, “I’m depressed.” That centers things too internally and ontologically. It implies I am my emotional state. But we are far more than just our feelings. In fact, we are not our feelings. Our identity is grounded elsewhere. I also choose not to say (out loud or internally) “I struggle with depression.” That feels too even-handed, with the outcome too much in question. I am the victor in this battle or, at least, I need to be. How I see and express things tilts the scales either in my favor or against it. I advance in the battle with words carefully chosen. I don’t just struggle with depression; I push it back. I battle against it. I fight.
As part of this battle, I must take on an argument some Christians make about depression. They believe (consciously or not), “Christians shouldn’t be depressed—ever! We have the joy of the Lord. The fruit of the spirit includes joy. We’re more than conquerors.” In other words, depression is a sign of immaturity, a lack of faith, or a form of sin. I remember hearing one preacher mock Christians who say they’re “doing OK under the circumstances.” He blurted out sarcastically, “Well, what are you doing under there?” I hope what follows puts that argument to rest. I must brace myself with rigorous thought, based on a firm foundation from Scripture, if I’m to understand depression and triumph over it.
I find four major sources of help, as I dig in: The complexities of our personhood, the richness of the Psalms, the examples in Scripture, and the benefits from practical strategies.
The Complexity of Our Personhood
We are multifaceted creatures, made up of physical, emotional, spiritual, social, aesthetic and other natures, and each of those dimensions has layered complexities of its own. I can experience a myriad of emotions at once, even some which seem contradictory. I am influenced by physical energy (or the lack thereof), the weather, the artwork on my walls (or scribblings from children who think they’re Monet), what I ate last night, who I spoke to last, how many unanswered emails are in my inbox, and the latest news I may have heard (including the slant of the news agency that reported it). Put all this into the mix during a pandemic, while waiting for a vaccine, facing economic uncertainty, and watching footage of unrest at The Capitol and we begin to see how complex life can be.
Thus, while I do acknowledge that “the joy of the Lord is my strength” I also experience that joy (which is a far richer experience than mere “happiness”) while also sensing a multitude of other emotions. It is possible to know the joy of the Lord while crying beside a grave. Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive. The same can be said of simultaneous feelings of regret (for sin) and gratitude (for forgiveness); love (for our family) and anger (at what sin may be doing to them); pride (for our country) and shame (at some of the ways we treat each other); compassion (for people who suffer) and outrage (at the causes of that suffering). We are not unidimensional beings.
By the way, that phrase, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10) was uttered by Nehemiah who had also experienced “mourning” (1:4) and “sadness of heart” (2:2). I also note that the Lord did not rebuke Nehemiah for those feelings with “Snap out of it, Nehemiah, don’t you know that my joy is your strength?!”
The Richness of the Psalms
I find the most potent antidepression medication in the Psalms. It’s amazing how many Psalms can be categorized as laments. You know what I mean. They’re the ones that begin with “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1) or “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” (Ps. 69:1) or “All night long I flood my bed with weeping.” (Ps. 6:6). If you were to categorize all the Psalms into groups such as Thanksgiving Psalms, Messianic Psalms, Royal Psalms, etc. Lament Psalms would have the largest collection.
They all tend to follow a similar pattern. They begin with expressions of emotions about their circumstances (not a denial of them), move to recollections of God’s character, and culminate in vows to continue to trust in God. You might think of it as a process from emotions to intellect to volition. Can you see that sequence in Psalm 13?
Emotional recounting of pain:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
And every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
My enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
And my foes will rejoice when I fall.
Intellectual recollection of God’s character:
But I trust in your unfailing love;
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
Volitional resolve to trust in God:
I will sing to the Lord,
For he has been good to me.
These categories may not be as watertight as I have indicated. Our emotions, intellect, and will weave in and out. Other Lament Psalms express things in different orders. But together these crucial parts of God’s revelation serve as templates for us, as we craft our own expressions of lament, recall God’s character, and make vows to cling tightly to the God who loves, accepts, saves, and transforms.
I have benefitted greatly from perhaps the darkest lament Psalm, the 88th one. I used to teach that it was the one lament Psalm that never turned the corner from griping to trusting. Unlike the other lament Psalms, this one does not conclude with a turn-around phrase that begins with the word “but.”
It just goes down and down and down and finishes with the dire cry, “the darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 88:18). It is helpful to note that there are times that seem so troubling, that telling God exactly how we feel is both encouraged and modeled in God’s word.
But as I have reread and meditated on Psalm 88, I no longer think it is as hopeless as I once thought. Note how the Psalm begins! “O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry” (vss. 1-2). He doesn’t need to “turn the corner” from lament to trust because he begins with trust. He clings to the fact that his God is one “who saves.” (By the way, if this psalmist who lived under the Old Covenant can speak of a God who saves, how much more can we, who have seen and experienced an even fuller display of God’s salvation—the Son of God dying on a cross to atone for sins—draw near to find help and sustenance in even the darkest of times!)
Take some time to prayerfully read Psalm 88, recalling all the way through, that the Psalmist chooses, even during the most difficult of days, to turn his attention, affection, and trust toward God. The very fact that he wrestles with God through times of depression or sadness or trouble should encourage us to do the same.
The Examples in Scripture
You may be thinking, “All those laments are in the Old Testament. But we live after the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. We now live under a better covenant, one where we’re more than conquerors. Do these Psalms really apply to Christians?”
I agree that the New Covenant is “better” than the old. (See Hebrews 8:6) But we still find expressions of lament in the New Testament. And they are not accompanied by any disapproval from God. Jesus, of course, is our greatest example. He wept at Lazarus’s tomb and was “sorrowful and troubled” at Gethsemane. It was there that he told Peter and the sons of Zebedee, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:37-38). He felt such heaviness that “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” He “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He asked God to “take this cup from me” (Luke 22:44).
In Corinth, Paul needed the Lord to appear in a vision to tell him “not to be afraid,” (Acts 18:9). He described the complexity of the Christian life as, “…hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). If Paul saw the Christian life as having the “treasure” of the gospel but “in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7), we should allow for such complexity in our own thinking about life in a fallen world.
The Benefits from Practical Strategies
Scripture teaches that we must weave together spiritual depth and practical wisdom. Nehemiah prayed but he also managed the building of a wall. Proverbs admonishes us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5) but also delivers scores of practical tips like, “If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit” (Proverbs 25:16). Similarly, it’s good to have theological understanding and spiritual insights about depression. It’s also imperative to have a practical game plan. As I’ve read numerous books on depression, several strategies receive frequent mention, providing help on a daily basis.
These include, but are not limited to:
A consistent schedule: I like novelty and spontaneity, so I resist making and sticking to a regular schedule. But steady, dependable routines help tone down depression. I can still weave spontaneous activities and variety within the fixed template of a schedule. A set weekly pattern can still vary within boundaries that create rhythms and flow.
Nutrition: We need to eat good food and drink plenty of water. Even vitamin supplements help. There is some evidence that Omega 3s nourish the brain in depression-fighting ways. In addition to general truths about healthy eating that apply to all (e.g. avoid junk food, limit refined sugars, etc.) you need to know how specific foods affect your own, particular body. Lots of people rave about kale but, for me, just thinking about the so-called “superfood” triggers lament.
Sunlight: We all need it, perhaps more than we realize. In winter months, we might need to augment the limited sunlight with Vitamin D or the use of a bright lamp. I find both to be helpful, although the effects are more subtle than dramatic.
Exercise: In addition to all the obvious benefits, sustained cardio workouts and toning up muscles can help with depression in gradual ways. The key is consistency. If you love exercise and enjoy “that rush that comes after a good run,” you’re probably not battling depression. Those of us who do wage war against the dark moods need ways to motivate ourselves to go to the gym. I listen to great music or audio books to pass the time on the treadmill or that elliptical torture machine.
Social interaction: This may be our greatest challenge during a pandemic. For those of us who battle against depression, this takes vigilance and planning (two things that can seem rather formidable). Argue against any inner voices that discourage you from reaching out for a phone, Zoom, or Skype visit. I try to plan in at least one sustained conversation each afternoon.
Sleep: This may be the ultimate Catch-22 for depression. Good sleep patterns reduce depression. Depression interrupts good sleep patterns. It’s enough to make you, well…depressed. One key is a regular schedule. Go to sleep at the same time and set the alarm to wake up at the same time—every day, even on weekends. Exercise helps improve quality sleep. You have to find what works best for you. There are several books, websites, and apps that help you get better sleep.
Music: This may not apply to everyone, but I find music to be very helpful (or diabolically destructive, depending on the selection). Some music moves me in beneficial directions. Others do just the opposite. Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, and Dave Brubeck never fail to boost my mood. Mahler, Shostakovich, and Leonard Cohen make me wonder how much Prozac I can get my doctor to prescribe. And I do not benefit from just having music in the background as much as I do from putting on headphones, closing my eyes, and focusing exclusively on a piece of music. See what works best for you.
Rumination: Not too long ago, I listened to an audio book on practical aids for depression. The author mentioned that people who deal with depression tend to ruminate a lot. I thought, “Well, I’m glad that’s one problem I don’t have. I don’t ruminate.” And then I thought, “Well, I guess it depends on what he means by rumination. There’s intellectual ruminating about ideas but there’s also emotional ruminating on certain feelings. And within the intellectual category, you could ruminate completely on abstract concepts or you could ruminate about implications of ideas. And I imagine that different personality types go about this in a variety of ways. And then there’s….”
At that point, I just started laughing at myself. I don’t ruminate?!!!! Are you kidding? I’m the poster child of rumination. I’m ruminating on his comments about rumination! I dwell on ideas and thoughts for hours, sometimes days and weeks! What I’ve learned is that we all ruminate to some extent. It’s impossible (or certainly very difficult) to stop ruminating completely. What we need to do is ruminate in uplifting, positive, depression-defeating ways.
In any situation, after hearing any piece of news, when engaging any thought, we can extrapolate in downward spiraling ways. We can mull over things like: “Here’s what’s wrong with that. Here’s how that’s going to go wrong. I don’t like that. These kinds of things always go badly for me. I know how this mess is going to turn out and it’s probably worse than I can even imagine.”
Instead, we need to train our minds in ways that move us toward “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy.” Imagine if these were our default ways of thinking!
As part of my ongoing, moment by moment, internal processing, I practice Biblical meditation to move my default lines of thinking toward the Lord, his goodness and grace. For example, at this moment, I’m dwelling on how good it is that God has given me the opportunity to write an article for The Washington Institute. He has given me gifts and abilities to write and express myself in ways that might possibly help others, particularly those who, like me, battle against depression. He has redeemed me from a life that would have no resources whatsoever to combat against depression, hopelessness, and nihilism. He has blessed me with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, made me part of the body of Christ, paid for all my sins, filled me with his Holy Spirit and…on and on and on I could go. This spiritual discipline of Biblical meditation, a specific sanctified form of rumination, lifts me out of the mire and mess of depression – even in February.
Depression’s benefits? While I wish I never had to battle this foe, I do see that our Lord has used my wrestling against depression to advance my sanctification. It has deepened my dependance on God, intensified my prayers, and forced me out of self-reliant independence. I need other people more than I care to admit. I abandon my tendency to trust in my own resources and turn more quickly to God for help. He has used this “thorn in the flesh” to deepen my compassion for other strugglers of a wide variety of ailments. And I regularly rejoice that God is glorified in and through my weakness.
While I quickly admit I’m not in the same league as Abraham Lincoln, I have benefited from learning of his struggles with melancholy and how he combatted dark moods. He memorized poetry and told jokes, which bolstered his mood. He forced his thinking in helpful directions and used writing and public speaking toward that end. Biographers have also noted that, in ways Lincoln may not have realized, his very struggles deepened a resolve he needed for other, far greater battles.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, observed:
“Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. … Lincoln’s melancholy doesn’t lend itself to such a narrative. …Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”
In conclusion, while Lincoln’s story inspires and helps me, I must remember that I have even greater resources through the Holy Spirit and the gospel. Transformation is possible, even if not as completely or as quickly as I’d like. The finished work of the cross cleanses me from all sin and makes me a new creation. The Son of God intercedes and advocates for me before the Father. Memorized passages from God’s word are more powerful than memorized poems or humorous anecdotes. The indwelling and filling of the Holy Spirit, along with his gifts, fruit, and power all serve as down payments of the greater deliverance to come when I join that great throng of worshippers in heaven, where there “will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4)—and that includes the pain of depression.
 The most helpful book for me has been Ed Welch’s Depression: Looking Up From the Stubborn Darkness, (New Growth Press, 2011).
 Statistics vary but it’s reasonable to expect that only a minority of people battle depression, perhaps 10 – 15% of the total population. That percentage may be rising. Younger people report more struggles in this area than their elders. And a good case can be made that world events do seem to be growing in their ability to trigger anxiety and depression.
 I’m not opposed to using medication for help with depression. I have benefited from it on several occasions. But it is not a simplistic, one size fits all remedy, and when it comes to treating depression, medication is far from an exact science. But I’m not qualified to say much more about this. Serious consultation with doctors and counselors should be part of your preparation for battle.
 The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression by Stephen S. Ilardi, (DaCapo Lifelong Books, 2010).
 Philippians 4:8.
 Joshua Wolf Shenk, “Lincoln’s Great Depression,” The Atlantic, October, 2005. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247/