Can You Have Joy Despite Your Depression?
I was recently diagnosed with clinical depression, for the second time in my life. I have been open about my diagnosis and invited others into the struggle as much as I can. The stigma of mental illness is alive and well, and unfortunately, it is very strong within the Christian community. If you’re reading this today and you know all too well what it is like to go to battle every day against depression and anxiety, please know that I see your struggle. More importantly, God sees your struggle. He will not forsake you (Psalm 94:14, Psalm 37:25, 2 Corinthians 4:9).
Damaging Advice From Well-Meaning Christians
If you’ve opened up about depression, chances are you’ve received some well-meaning but altogether unhelpful advice from other Christians. “Count it all joy when facing trials of various kinds,” they might say. Great, another thing to feel guilty about – I’m not counting my depression as joy. You smile on the outside and roll your eyes on the inside.
“God works all things for good,” another friend chimes in. Dismissive much?
Or, my personal favorite, “So, what happened that made you depressed?” Nothing! That’s part of how I know it’s clinical depression and not circumstantial depression!
My response to this kind of advice is often to just shut everyone out. A lot of energy is required to talk to people these days, so it is extra crushing when I walk away from conversations feeling misunderstood or unheard.
Why “Choose Joy” Is An Incomplete Theology
I did get some wisdom from a friend who also suffers from depression. She said that for her, depression is the manifestation of the flesh and the Spirit warring against one another. Every day she feels torn in what to choose – to give into depression (because let’s face it, sometimes it feels good to wallow a bit), or to choose joy. She encouraged me to choose joy, and I walked away really pumped and encouraged to make good choices!
And then that evening I had a panic attack and cried on the couch until 3 am before sulking off to bed, feeling guilty and defeated. I had all the tools to choose joy, so why didn’t it work? This excerpt from a John Piper sermon has a powerful perspective on emotions, and the God who commands them:
“Say you are camping and you wake up to a silhouette of a grizzly bear outside your tent. You don’t say, ‘Now, let me think about this. There is a bear. I should feel fear here, so I will now decide to be afraid.’ Emotions don’t work like that. Thinking works like that, but feeling doesn’t… which means that the Bible is filled with commands that we do things that are immediately outside our control to do — commands to rejoice, to fear, to be grateful, to be tender-hearted.”
Piper follows up with a quote from Saint Augustine, “Father, command what you will and grant what you command.” He knew God commanded certain emotions of him that he couldn’t make happen on his own. So he prayed, Oh God, if you are going to command me these things, grant that you would give them when you command them.
Really, whether I choose joy or despair, my focus is still on the feeling and my performance of it. Instead, my focus should be on God, from whom all good things, emotions, blessings, rest, peace, joy, validation, and consolation come from.
That being said, I very much believe that depression has a spiritual and a physical side to it. With careful prayer and trusted doctors, medication can be a useful tool in regulating depressive episodes. As one friend put it, “Anti-depressants don’t fix everything; they just get me to a place where I have the capacity to deal with my baggage in a healthy way.”
Wherever you’re at today in your journey with depression, know that God sees you and cares for you, right where you are. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” – 2 Corinthians 4:8 & 9