This article is an installment of Holy Joys Questions. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: I’ve prayed for God to take away my depression. Why doesn’t he answer me?
It sounds as though you’re praying that God will provide you relief from feelings of depression and anxiety, but have yet to experience much relief.
Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that you aren’t the only person navigating this journey. I find it helpful to look to Scripture to read the stories of those who had similar journeys—for instance: Elijah.
Elijah was arguably the preeminent prophet of his era. He interacted with political and religious leaders with integrity; even those of other faiths recognized his impact. His walk with God and effectiveness in ministry was never called into question, even when he faced significant challenges. His prayers were answered in ways deemed miraculous both then and now.
Elijah was arguably the preeminent prophet of his era. Yet he struggled with depression.
Yet he struggled with depression. He had trouble eating, sleeping and connecting with others. Burdened by a loss of energy and motivation to press on, he left the ministry. He abandoned relationships. His mood was low; he believed that his days of making a significant contribution, of having any value to God or His people, had come to an end. He was hopeless. He wanted to die.
The American Psychiatric Association has established diagnostic criteria for a “major depressive episode,” which may well have been what Elijah was experiencing. It is characterized by a cluster of at least 5 of 9 symptoms including depressed mood (“most of the day, nearly every day”), diminished interest in activities, significant changes in weight, significant changes in sleep patterns, psychomotor agitation, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness, diminished ability to concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death. At least 5 of these episodes need to be present for at least 2 weeks in order for it to be classified as a major depressive episode. Once three such separate episodes occur, the individual meets criteria for “major depressive disorder,” what most people call “clinical depression.”
While some have criticized this system as “labeling,” the purpose of establishing specific criteria is to help identify what works to help those with that specific collection of symptoms, so that we can more accurately provide services.
Some have referred to depression as a disease. Yet, this is an inaccurate way of looking at emotional distress. The term that best fits is the one most often used by mental health professionals: disorder. Such a term acknowledges that there is something out of the ordinary without implying what isn’t entirely known to us. For while there are physical symptoms consistent with depression—but that doesn’t mean depression can be reduced to a biological disease.
Rather than viewing depression solely through the lens of a medical model, mental health professionals use what is called the biopsychosocial model. This framework is a more holistic way of looking at all behavioral and emotional distress.
Yes, biology is a key domain. The physical chemistry of the brain and inherited genetic coding should be acknowledged as contributing to the predisposition toward symptoms of depression. But predisposition is not causation. While modern psychiatric medications can be prescribed to help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression, there are other factors that can “trigger” depression.
The second domain is psychological. In this category, we include an individual’s personality, temperament, self-esteem, stress management and coping skills. These characteristics often relate to an individual’s upbringing and previous experiences, whether they were nurturing or traumatic. Counseling can help individuals understand how these impact behavior and emotions, and how to identify and strengthen appropriate coping strategies.
The third domain is social. As individuals created in the image of a relational Triune Godhead, we are created for relationships. Interactions with family, friends, and colleagues all work to build us up (or tear us down). Intervention in this domain focuses on helping to strengthen relationships and social interactions, as well as building faith and connection to God and His people.
Comparing depression to diseases like cancer or diabetes does a disservice to those afflicted with these diseases–and to those who need intervention for depression as well. Depression cannot be reduced to a simple lack of faith, nor can it be reduced to what some refer to as “chemical imbalance.”
Depression cannot be reduced to a simple lack of faith.
While there’s no shame in acknowledging a physical disease, because of the complex nature of depression and other mental health disorders, there remains a stigma about seeking intervention from a mental health professional. Sometimes medical treatment will be sought for the specific physical symptoms, but then the other contributing factors are overlooked.
In light of all this, what can then we learn from the account of Elijah’s depression? That running and hiding doesn’t work. Elijah was physically afflicted. Physical exhaustion often leads to discouragement and irritability. Proper rest, diet, and exercise are protective factors against depression and can help to alleviate some symptoms. Also, neglecting responsibilities and isolating from others only makes the problem worse. Not only did God provide for Elijah’s physical needs, He got Elijah active again—and provided him with a brother-in-arms in Elisha.
If the story of Elijah resonates with you, seek help. Don’t over-work. Take care of your physical body. Foster relationships within your family. Reconnect with friends and fellow pastors for edifying and encouraging support and accountability. Find a credentialed Christian counselor in your area. Talk to your primary care physician.
Don’t hide. Don’t pretend that you can push through on your own.