I was saddened to hear this morning about Robin Williams taking his own life. The oscar-
award winning actor/comedian had a talent for making others laugh in spite of the fact that he battled severe depression for many years. I have thought about him much of the day and I am certainly heavy hearted that he quite possibly entered eternity without a saving faith in Jesus Christ (based on accounts of his religious beliefs which I hope to be wrong). Sandy and I spent a lot of time discussing his life as well as the depression that led him to end it.
Depression is a darkness that can envelop both unbelievers and Christians alike. Several examples stand-out in scriptures of men of God who despaired of life. We find Jonah, sun-beaten and nearly faint, who “wished in himself to die and said, It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). Elijah also comes to mind as he sat despondently under a juniper tree and “he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life” (1 Kings 19:4). In the New Testament we find Paul describing his mind-set during his troubles in Asia Minor, “we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8). In recent centuries we find the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon who had recurrent battles with depression. He wrote “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” This “causeless depression” that he described as “shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness,” in his estimate, could not be reasoned with.
Unfortunately I have heard many Christians sneeringly dismiss people who struggle with times of despair. They appear to these spiritual elitist as nominally saved, whose apparent lack of faith is the true source of their ill frame of mind. The standard prescription often includes peppering the poor soul into outward submission and a plastic smile with a few verses of scripture. As Sandy said to me earlier, “It is easy to show sympathy at a funeral it is much more rare to show empathy in life.”
Given Sandy’s educational background and personal experience with those suffering from depression, I listened intently to her as she responded to my many questions about the subject. Here are a few things I gleaned from our conversation regarding the potential causes and suggested helps for this condition.
Potential Causes of Depression
Physiological: blood sugar levels have been implicated with depression due to the brain’s dependence on an even supply of glucose. Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates are also linked to depression as they use up the mood enhancing B vitamins. Another example of physical causes of depression is mood-related chemicals such as serotonin that have been found by researchers to be low in the brain during major depression episodes, i.e. chemical imbalance.
Sin: without a proper understanding of the nature of God and the removal of guilt at Calvary, many feel that they are “unforgivable” and the sense of hopelessness is overwhelming.
Another’s sin: tragically many fall victim to the sinful actions of others (e.g. sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse) and become emotionally enslaved.
Persistent negative circumstances: death of loved ones, financial problems, family problems, etc.
Drug/Alcohol abuse: depression can be just one of many consequences to an individual’s choice of substance abuse.
Spiritual attack: Satan and malevolent spirits seek to destroy those made in God’s image. The Bible says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Suggestions to help those Depressed
For the physiological, a personal decision for our family would be to avoid prescription drugs due to adverse side-affects and focus on herbal/dietary/holistic alternatives.
Bible reading and prayer
This cannot be overstated. How often does the Lord provide comfort and deliverance from His word. Often the depressed person is tormented with unbelief and fear not realizing that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Spurgeon concluded that “there is no remedy for [despondency] like a holy faith in God.”
Where does this faith come from to pull someone out of the slough of despond? How can we think rightly about God? “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). As the psalmist wrote, “Why are thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God” (Psalm 42:5).
The depressed person should be reminded that they are valuable in God’s sight (Romans 8:32; John 3:16; Matthew 6:26) but sadly, in a state of depression, God can sometimes feel far away. David wrote, “How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” as well as “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” (Psalm 13:1; 22:1).
When Christ walked this earth He consistently communicated a single theme: His identity. He said to the people lost in the darkness of this world system and sin: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). People who follow Jesus do not spend their lives in the dark spiritually. Jesus passed the torch to His spiritual offspring. He said, “Ye are the light of the world… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Our distinction as Christians should be demonstrated by the three pillars of faith, hope, and charity (1 Corinthians 13:13). To the degree that our lives are, in fact, constructed on these three pillars, we are light. The Lord uses people as instruments to demonstrate His love to those in despair. Our lives communicate our faith to others as we exhibit faith, hope, and charity (unconditional love).
A depressed person often feels isolated, lonely, hopeless, and worthless. Although a depressed person cannot see God or feel His arms around them, the body of Christ can be His arms and speak for Him, affirming the truths of His word through their unconditional love, unfeigned faith, and undaunted hope. This does not mean to treat the person suffering as a project or to feel compelled to help because it is “the Christian thing to do.” The depressed person needs someone to sincerely believe in them, encourage them, and help them to see that they have something to contribute to others with their life and the special gifts God has given them. This takes patience and is a labor of love but as the wise man wrote, “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
Be kind to everyone
You might not be that one person, or part of the core group of people, that is influential in the depressed person’s life but a positive, casual interaction with someone can be an encouragement. A smile and a kind word can go along way. Solomon wrote, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
No man is an island
Demonstrate that there is someone that desperately needs them… a child, grandchild, spouse, or friend. A severely depressed person sometimes thinks everyone would be better off without them and if they consider those that depend upon them then most likely they’ll step back from hurting themselves.
Listen. Be sincere. Be empathetic. Often the cry is for someone to feel what they feel. Don’t act like you have all the answers. Don’t be preachy. Job’s friends were probably a blessing as they wept and “sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights” for they saw that his grief was great. But then they opened their mouths and became “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2).
Don’t betray trust but be balanced
A depressed person needs to trust you. They are vulnerable. However there may come a time that you are seriously concerned the person is suicidal and have no alternative than to get help.
Complex problems need specialized care, e.g. substance abuse
The ultimate need is Christ
Opportunities for the gospel often present themselves as we live out our faith with a sincere concern and love for others. As missionary/author Jim Petersen wrote in his book Living Proof, evangelism is not merely an activity; it is a way of living. We are the first account of the gospel most people will ever read, and having read us, they will either desire more or they will decide that there is nothing there for them.