Friday, June 01, 2012

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: The Joy of the Lord

Although we could derive much teaching from the Old Testament about the joy promised to believers (e.g. Deut. 12:12; Ps. 16:11; 51:12; Isa. 61:10; Jer. 15:16), for the sake of brevity I am going to restrict our study here to the teaching of the New Testament, and even then I will only be able to scratch the surface. Let's begin, then, with Jesus' teaching about joy.
NKJ  John 15:8-11 “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. 9 As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Jesus knows the joy of walking in the Father's love and keeping the Father's commandments in a way that we could never know it, at least not without Him. That is why He speaks of His own joy that He wants to share with us as we learn to abide in His love and to obey Him. He wants His own joy both to remain in us and to be full in us. In other words, He wants us to have joy that doesn't go away and that is not hindered in any way.

But what about the depressed person? Can a depressed person know such joy? Well, according to Jesus, anyone who is His disciple and who thus abides in His love may indeed have such joy. To exempt the depressed person from the expectation of joy here would also entail exempting them from the ability to abide in Christ and to obey Him, wouldn't it? Yet, many Christians assume such an exemption, apparently thinking that, although Jesus still requires depressed people to abide in His love and obey Him, He does not grant them the joy that He says will come with such abiding and obedience.

Here is the point: Anyone who has entered into a genuine relationship with Christ should expect to have the joy that comes with knowing and following Him. And because it is His joy that is shared with them, they should expect to experience it even in their trials and even in the midst of the challenge of depression. The implication of Jesus' teaching here is that we will have our joy hindered only if we fail to abide in His love and to obey Him.
NKJ  John 16:16-22 “'A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.' 17 Then some of His disciples said among themselves, 'What is this that He says to us, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me”; and, “because I go to the Father”?' 18 They said therefore, 'What is this that He says, “A little while”? We do not know what He is saying.' 19 Now Jesus knew that they desired to ask [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] Him, and He said to them, 'Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me?” 20 Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.'”
Here Jesus was thinking of His coming death and resurrection when He said, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” And He was telling the disciples that their joy would be interrupted because of His death but that later – after His resurrection – when they would see Him again, their joy would return and that no one would ever take it from them. No one can take away a joy that God promises and gives to us as a result of Christ's death and resurrection on our behalf!
NKJ  John 16:23-24 “And in that day you will ask [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” [But see also 1 John 5:14-15, which makes explicit what Jesus assumes here, namely that to ask in His name is to ask in accordance with the Father's will and that we can expect to receive only that which is in accordance with His will.]
I think William Hendriksen is on the right track in his explanation of verse 23 when he points out that:
In order to grasp the meaning of this passage we must first of all connect it with verse 19 where the same verb inquire [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] is used …. The disciples had been searching each other to find an answer to Christ's dark saying about the little while. They had been filled with a desire to inquire of him, but they had not dared to interrupt him again. Now, in verse 23 Jesus declares that in the dispensation of the Spirit these men would no longer be at a loss what to do, desiring to ask questions and yet not having the courage to do so. In the light of Christ's resurrection, as interpreted by the Holy Spirit poured out on the day of Pentecost and present with the Church ever afterward, the meaning of all such matters would become perfectly clear. Then these men would know why Jesus had to die, why his death was advantageous for the Church, in what manner the source of gloom had been turned into a source of joy, etc. Peter would no longer have to ask, “Where art thou going?” (13:36); nor Thomas, “How can we know the way?” (14:5); nor Philip, “Show us the Father,” (14:8); nor Judas the Greater “Lord, what has happened that thou art about to manifest thyself to us and not to the world?” (14:22); nor any of them, “What is the little while?” (16:18). (BNTC, e-Sword)
Keeping this in mind, Jesus must be referring in verse 24 to the disciples' questions about the meaning of His teaching, and He assures them that the Father will always give them the answers they need  to these questions so that their “joy may be full.” This means that Jesus connects fullness of joy not only to obediently abiding in His love (as in John 15:8-11 above) but also to a right understanding of spiritual things. This is why Jesus earlier promised that the Holy Spirit would come to be their teacher, when He said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). And, of course, the Holy Spirit then inspired the Apostles to write the New Testament Scriptures that we possess today, and these Scriptures provide us with the knowledge we need to have fullness of joy Jesus promised. Indeed, it was this same Spirit who had inspired the previous authors of the Old Testament Scriptures as well, as Peter was sure to express in his epistles:
NKJ 1 Peter 1:10-12 “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us  they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things which angels desire to look into.”
NKJ 2 Peter 1:20-21 “... knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, 21 for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
This is one reason why we have spent so much time going through so many parts of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) in our endeavor to ascertain how we should think about the issue of depression. It should be a great help for those who are depressed, for in this way they too can have fullness of joy with the answers the Father provides them in His Word.
NKJ  John 17:12-13 “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.”
Here again Jesus spoke of the fullness of joy that His followers may have as a result of His Word, only this time He was praying to the Father on behalf of the disciples. He was praying for their fullness of joy, and He wanted both them and us to know that He was thus praying, which is why we have it in our Bibles. But doesn't He still intercede for us as well? And can't we assume that He still asks the Father for the fullness of joy that He has promised us? (See, for example, Rom. 8:34 and Heb. 7:25.)
NKJ Galatians 5:22-25 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
Notice that part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy (vs. 22), which is one of those traits that will be manifested in those who know Christ and who “live in the Spirit” (vs. 25). This means that any and all Christians should experience this joy, just as they should experience the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit such as love, peace, kindness, or self-control. Why, then, do so many depressed Christians assume that such joy is not for them? Why should we ever assume that this particular fruit of the Spirit just isn't available for a person who has been diagnosed as being clinically depressed, for example? Is our faith to be in the diagnoses of modern psychologists and psychiatrists or in the promises of God? Or does our joy in the Holy Spirit ultimately depend upon some *pill rather than His power? I think not!
NKJ  Romans 14:16-17 “Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
This verse is significant for our study because in it Paul associates the experience of joy so closely with the experience of God's reign in one's life that he can actually say that “the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (italics mine).

William Hendriksen is again helpful in his commentary on this passage:
The essence of God's royal reign, the evidence of that blessed reign in your midst, says Paul, as it were, is not affected by the kind of food a person consumes, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, whether only vegetables or also meats, but is attested by one's possession of the state of righteousness before God, consciousness of peace with God, a peace resulting from reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:1, 10). It is characterized by the experience of Spirit-wrought joy, a joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:18). (BNTC, e-Sword)
If a depressed person is truly a member of God's kingdom, then wouldn't he also experience the joy that belongs to that kingdom and is a fruit of the Holy Spirit's presence and work? Of course he would! And to expect it of the depressed person is no more nor less than to expect it of any other Christian, for in any case such joy is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit! To assume that the depressed person should not expect to experience this same joy is to disbelieve God's Word and to assume that He is unable to do for them what He has promised to do for all of His children.

Now, moving right along, we have already seen that both Paul (in Romans 5:1-5) and James (in James 1:1-17) connect our experience of joy to our enduring trials and sufferings for Christ. So here I would just like to add Peter's testimony to theirs.
NKJ  1 Peter 1:6-9 “In this you greatly rejoice [ἀγαλλιάω, agalliáō, “as feeling and expressing supreme joy be glad, rejoice exceedingly, be very happy,” Friberg #25, BibleWorks], though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice [ἀγαλλιάω, agalliáō] with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith – the salvation of your souls.”
Peter agrees wholeheartedly with Paul and James that we believers may experience great joy even in the midst of – indeed even because of – great trials, for it is through these very trials that we discover the genuineness of our faith. And this fills us with joy because, as we see the genuineness of the faith that God has given us (for faith is a gift of God), we are also receiving with it the ultimate goal of such faith, the salvation of our souls. In other words, we are witnessing God's work of salvation in our lives as we see the genuineness of our faith, and this brings with it great assurance. No wonder Peter says that we “rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory”!

Simon Kistemaker is quite helpful in his discussion of the importance of this assertion:
Already in this present life believers experience indescribable joy; they do not have to wait until they leave this earthly scene. Even now they are filled with joy that is “inexpressible and glorious.” The emphasis in this part of the verse is on the joy that fills the hearts of Christians. A literal translation conveys this concept in both verb and noun: “You greatly rejoice with joy” (NASB). This is the second time in this first part of his epistle that Peter introduces the subject joy. Peter repeats the word he used earlier, “you greatly rejoice” (v. 6). The word depicts shouting for joy that cannot be contained.
Besides, Peter qualifies the noun joy with two unusual adjectives: “inexpressible” and “glorious.” The first word, “inexpressible,” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Peter uses it to describe the activity of a person who possesses great joy. That person cannot express his joy in human terms. In fact, he copes with not only an inability but also an impossibility to convey the depth of his joy. The second word, “glorious,” signifies that which has been glorified and continues to be glorified. It connotes the presence of heavenly glory that characterizes this particular joy (compare 2 Cor. 3:10). (BNTC, e-Sword)
Now, if depression be regarded as a trial – as I think it should be – then it too is a chance to discover the genuineness of our faith and to be filled with inexpressible joy. Seen from this perspective, then, depression is actually an opportunity for a deeper joy than we might otherwise experience!

Conclusion

This brings us to the end of our attempt to discover a Scriptural framework within which to understand how believers should think about and react to depression. Along the way we have examined a number of Scriptural case studies of depressed people (whether they all would qualify as what we would refer to as "clinical depression" or not doesn't matter). We have examined a number of passages that speak directly to the issue of depression. We have examined a number of passages that teach about trials in the Christian life, among which depression in all its forms may be included. And, finally, we have examined a number of passages that teach about the joy God promises to believers even in the midst of the most difficult trials.

I hope it has become clear to all of us that depression is not viewed in Scripture as a problem that should rob us of our joy or even necessarily diminish our joy. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Depression can actually be a tremendous opportunity for growth in our walk with Christ and for a greater and deeper experience of the joy of the Lord than we might otherwise have known. It is also thus a tremendous opportunity to be a better witness for Christ as people see in us a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) and a joy that is “inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8), one that does not depend upon our circumstances.

In fact, because we are created in God's image we are also at times capable of experiencing a number of emotions at once, such as when we experience a mixture of both sorrow and joy upon the death of a loved one in Christ. Because we do not sorrow as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), we may experience the joy that such hope brings even in the midst of great sorrow. So it shouldn't surprise us that a depressed believer may know peace and joy in spite of or in the midst of his or her battle with depression.

Now, all of this will no doubt sound like nonsense to unbelievers – or perhaps even to believers who take their cues more from pop psychology than from Scripture – but it is true nonetheless. And the sooner believers begin to realize this the better it will be for them as individuals and for the Church as a whole.

*Note: I do not intend to imply that there is no proper role for medication when dealing with people who suffer from depression due to some physical problem, whether it be a physical problem with the brain or a chronic ailment which may bring depression in its wake (such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, for example). I am, however, suspicious of many diagnoses of depression and of the overuse of medication. And I do not believe that a Christian should ever substitute mood altering drugs for dependence upon the Spirit in any case.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, this is the kind of thing that makes depression even more depressing for Christians. You speak as if clinical depression is a choice one makes, rather than something that chooses them. Indeed, it can seem and feel very "unfair" that God would allow a physical problem to so affect the fruit of the spirit. I have to assume the writer of this article hasn't experienced true depression himself, or he would realize this is like pouring salt into the wound of the man who was lying next to the road when the Good Samaritan saw him, rather than helping him up.

    The comment, "I hope it has become clear to all of us that depression is not viewed in Scripture as a problem that should rob us of our joy or even necessarily diminish our joy" is very flawed. Scripture doesn't necessarily say anything about true physical ("clinical"?) depression. Sure, there are plenty of Psalms and other passages that talk about being sad, even unto death, but where does Scripture even hint at a disorder like depression that would be likened unto a blind person healed by Jesus, or a lame person made to walk, etc. It's just not treated in Scripture, but it's a malady just as surely as some of the ones mentioned in Scripture.

    I think we've moved beyond assuming anyone who is truly depressed is somehow possessed, as was the thinking a generation or two ago. But this article shows it's still in a category that makes truly depressed believers even more dubious/frustrated over themselves, the Scriptures and the good Lord.

    ReplyDelete
  2. John,

    I have to wonder if you have read much else that I have written on the subject, since this post is just one of many. For example, had you clicked on the category labeled "Depression" in the menu to the right, and then if you had gone to the first post found there, you would have discovered that I have indeed known the suffering of deep depression in my own life. Here is a direct link to that particular post in case you are interested:

    http://reformedbaptist.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-lord-shepherded-me-through-my-wifes.html

    This was the post that got me thinking that I should write a whole series just on depression. Although the main focus of the post is on the way that the Lord helped me through the difficulty of facing my wife's battle with cancer, it also describes the constant struggle I had with depression for many years in my life, and it describes the important lessons of faith I learned through this struggle. Perhaps if you were to go back and begin reading there, and then perhaps read the rest of the posts in order, you might get a much better understanding of where I am coming from. The posts were, after all, intended to be taken together and to be read in the order in which I wrote them. It was my goal to present an overall Biblical framework within which to understand and deal with depression.

    I will respond more specifically to the points you have made in a subsequent comment, but for now I would simply suggest that you might better be able to see how I could say that "depression is not viewed in Scripture as a problem that should rob us of our joy or even necessarily diminish our joy" if you understood the rest of what I have written.

    Keith

    ReplyDelete
  3. John,

    Here I will begin to respond with more specificity to the points you have made in your comment. I will quote in bold type bit by bit what you have written with my own responses following.

    Wow, this is the kind of thing that makes depression even more depressing for Christians. You speak as if clinical depression is a choice one makes, rather than something that chooses them. Indeed, it can seem and feel very "unfair" that God would allow a physical problem to so affect the fruit of the spirit.

    First, I would just point out that, if you read my earlier posts -- or even the note in this last one -- you would know that I do indeed agree that depression may be caused by physical problems. I do not, therefore, believe that depression is always simply a choice one makes. However, I do believe that how ones chooses to respond to depression is crucial. Will he respond to it by faith in the Lord or not?

    Second, I do not disagree that depression can hinder our experience of the joy of the Lord. I definitely think that it can do so and that it can provide a temptation not to trust Him as we should, just as any trial may do so. The point of my posts was that no trial, no matter how difficult and no matter if it is depression or not, should completely rob the Christian of the joy of the Lord or necessarily hinder it. In other words, if joy is really promised to the believer by God, and if it really is a part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, then nothing can take it from us. So here is the issue: Is depression the one type of trial that has the power to prevent the Holy Spirit from producing joy in the heart of a Christian? Or does the Holy Spirit have the power to produce such joy despite depression, or even in the midst of depression? I think He does have such power, and I believe that God does so keep His promise to us, and, what's more, I have experienced it myself.

    So, do we to believe that depression is the one type of trial that the Holy Spirit cannot overcome so as to give us the joy the Lord has promised? Or do we to believe God's Word? That is the issue.

    I have to assume the writer of this article hasn't experienced true depression himself, or he would realize this is like pouring salt into the wound of the man who was lying next to the road when the Good Samaritan saw him, rather than helping him up.

    I have already explained in a previous comment that I have indeed struggled with depression in my own life. So I am not, therefore, speaking as one who has no sympathy for those who so struggle. In fact, I believe I am doing quite the opposite. I am trying to administer the healing balm of God's Word for troubled souls, the very thing that has gotten me through such trials. Thus, it is not out of lack of experience of such spiritual principles that I write, but rather out of having experienced in my own life the transforming and healing power of God's Word as applied to my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am seeking to help the depressed person trust the Lord rather than continue to believe that his depression is like kryptonite to the Holy Spirit that prevents Him from being able to accomplish His work in a person's heart.

    Due to space limitations, I will continue my response in the next comment.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The comment, "I hope it has become clear to all of us that depression is not viewed in Scripture as a problem that should rob us of our joy or even necessarily diminish our joy" is very flawed. Scripture doesn't necessarily say anything about true physical ("clinical"?) depression.

    So, you are saying that none of the passages I have cited that speak of the joy Christians can have in the midst of any kind of trial actually applies to the particular trial of "physical" or "clinical" depression? Would you have us believe that the one trial in which the believer cannot experience the joy of the Lord is depression? If this is what you would have us believe, then I want to know where in Scripture you find such an exception.

    Sure, there are plenty of Psalms and other passages that talk about being sad, even unto death, but where does Scripture even hint at a disorder like depression that would be likened unto a blind person healed by Jesus, or a lame person made to walk, etc. It's just not treated in Scripture, but it's a malady just as surely as some of the ones mentioned in Scripture.

    First, I think that if you went back and reviewed some of the case studies from scripture that I have presented, or if you really took a closer look at some of the Psalms that speak to the issue, and then if you compared the descriptions of depression in some of these passages to the symptoms of what is called "clinical depression" today, you might be surprised to see that the Bible does indeed deal with what many today would call "clinical depression."

    Second, I do not see how comparing clinical depression with the situation of a blind or lame person helps you with the point you seem to be trying to make. I would simply ask you if God promises joy for the blind or lame person in spite of their physical maladies. For this is the issue I was addressing in my post. I was not assuming that someone who has a physical problem that cause depression should necessarily be healed when we do not assume this will necessarily be true of a blind or lame person. I was simply assuming that such a depressed person could indeed know the joy of the Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit just like a blind or lame person can. That is, unless we assume, as I mentioned in a previous comment, that clinical depression is a kind of kryptonite to the Holy Spirit that He is simply powerless to overcome.

    I think we've moved beyond assuming anyone who is truly depressed is somehow possessed, as was the thinking a generation or two ago. But this article shows it's still in a category that makes truly depressed believers even more dubious/frustrated over themselves, the Scriptures and the good Lord.

    Well, as a Christian I accept the Scriptures as my final authority in such matters, and I would thus ask you to show me where I have misread the Scriptures. Do the Scriptures not promise joy to all believers through the power of the Holy Spirit? If they do, then why am I wrong to believe that this is actually true? Now, to be sure, we may be tempted in the midst of trials not to trust the Lord, or we may find that various trials and tribulations provide a hindrance to our experience of many of the promises the Lord has made to us, but that doesn't mean that the promises are not true and that we should just accept defeat. For just as surely as the Bible warns us about the reality of trials and spiritual warfare, it also promises us the the Lord will keep us and that we may experience His joy and peace in any circumstances if we will but trust in Him. This I believe with all my heart, and this I have experienced in the very depths of a depressed and broken heart. And this is why I have written what I have written, to share with others what the Lord has done for me.

    Keith

    ReplyDelete