Depression and the Ministry, Part 5: Facing Depression with Christ

July 15, 2011

Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

Depression and the Ministry 5

Editor’s Note: The following is Part Five of a five-part blog mini-series on Depression and the Ministry. The series is a joint effort of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and The Gospel Coalition.

Solution-Focused or SOUL-u-tion-Centered?

In ministering to ministers, near the end of our first meeting a pastor will often ask me, “How will I know when I’m ‘cured,’ when I’m ‘better’? What will ‘recovery’ from depression look like?”

In one sense, that’s a good question because it’s a hopeful question. In another sense, it’s not always the most helpful question. It can fit all too well with the typical pastoral persona of “Get it done. Let’s fix it now!” That question may have more in common with the world’s idea of solution-focused brief therapy than with God’s plan for SOUL-u-tion-centered lifelong growth in Christ.

Of course, it would be unwise to ignore the question, and it would be heartless to insist that “You’re always going to be like this—get used to it.” But it would also be disingenuous to imply that full “recovery” is guaranteed this side of heaven.

So, I typically say something like, “That’s a fair question. Everyone’s battle with depression is different. Everyone’s journey through the valley of despair is a unique relational process. Let’s talk about what it might look like for you to face your depression face-to-face with Christ.”

Set Stages or Personal Pathway?

In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I compare and contrast the world’s “five stages of grieving” with the Word’s relational pathway for growth in grief. Whether we’re talking about grief, anxiety, depression, or any issue of suffering or sin, no two journeys are identical.

Ponder David, Elijah, Job, and Paul. They each faced what we might call “depression,” but in various ways with distinct causes and “cures.” David’s path in the Psalms, Elijah’s process in 1 Kings 19, Job’s journey throughout the book of Job, and Paul’s struggles in 2 Corinthians are each idiosyncratic—person-specific.

This is one reason that biblical counselors never simply take one verse or one passage and plop them down on every person as a one-size-fits-all model of cause, care, and cure. It’s also why biblical counseling is not an “exhortational event,” but a relational process. We don’t simplistically exhort someone to “be anxious for nothing” or “rejoice always” as if those are magical words of instantaneous cure. Paul, who spoke those words, also said in another letter, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). God calls us to share Scripture and soul—robustly and relationally.

Pastor—I can’t offer you a quick, easy, three-step answer that will “cure” your depression. I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all checklist that identifies “recovery from depression.” Instead, I encourage you to find a few trusted friends who will travel together with you in and through your unique valley of despair.

Victory Over or Struggling With?

Whatever Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, even after Paul pleaded with God three times, God chose not to remove it. Consider how common it was for Paul to “struggle with” rather than to experience “victory over.”

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9a).

“We are 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).

“…in great endurance; in troubles; in hardships and distresses… sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…” (2 Corinthians 6:4b, 10a).

Rare is the person who experiences miraculous, instantaneous, and ongoing victory over depression. Rather than being discouraging, the candid message of daily courageous struggles against depression is encouraging because it’s true to life as we live it in a fallen world in fallen bodies.

Pastor—in all integrity I have to share with you that God does not guarantee “victory over.” God does not promise “cure” or “recovery” if by that we mean the guaranteed removal of all symptoms of depression. However, God does promise to comfort and care (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He does promise that what cannot be cured can be endured (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Self-Sufficient or Christ-Dependent?

But why wouldn’t God promise “happiness all the time”? Paul makes it clear.

“But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9b).

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Pastor—how will you know when you’re “better”? When you’re a more Christ-dependent person. When you’re increasingly relying on the God who raises the dead (and depression feels like death). When you’re increasingly demonstrating to an onlooking world (including your family and congregation) that your power is from God. When you’re increasingly modeling the truth that God’s grace is sufficient for you, that His power is made mature in your weakness.

Removal of Symptoms or Growth in Christlikeness?

Praying for the removal of symptoms of depression is legitimate—just as Paul prayed for the removal of his thorn in the flesh. However, our ultimate goal is not changed feelings or altered circumstances, but responding to our feelings and circumstances in Christ-like ways. Our ultimate goal is Christlikeness: our inner life increasingly reflecting the inner life of Christ.

In the Garden, Christ prayed for the removal of the Cup. He candidly expressed His abject sorrow to His heavenly Father. But even when the sorrow was not cured and even when the Cup was not removed, Christ relied on the God who raises the dead!

Martin Luther, who experienced deep spiritual depression and anxiety, understood that suffering was God’s medicine of choice to cure us of our deepest sickness: self-sufficiency. That doesn’t mean that all depression is due to our personal sin. It does mean that God can use depression as a curative agent in the relational process of making us more like His Son.

Pastor—how will you know when you’re “cured”? When finding God is more important than finding relief. When knowing Christ and being like Christ is more important than finding a cure. When you’re facing your depression face to face with Christ so you’re increasingly reflecting the face of Christ.

Join the Conversation

How are these descriptions of “cure” and “recovery” different from what you might have expected?

9 thoughts on “Depression and the Ministry, Part 5: Facing Depression with Christ

  1. Bob, now you’ve really got me interested in your book.  There’s so many biblical counseling materials popping up that it’s hard to keep up with them anymore.  I need insights like these to direct me to the really good ones.  I appreciate your realistic approach and gracious tone!  Thank you!

  2. I never really thought of it this way, Bob. As someone who is in ministry and who has struggled with depression in recent days this post helps me to see what God is doing in all of this.
    Thank you for sharing this wisdom which is laced with hope.

  3. An area that did not receive much focus in the articles is the relationship between depression and neurological issues. I realize that the authors had limited space and a specific focus that restrained them from saying all they desired. I also assume that most of them would agree that sometimes depression is a neurological disorder that requires medication.

    Those who benefit from depression medications should never be made to feel embarrassed about it. They are no different from those who take medications for deficiencies in other bodily organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made but woefully and tragically fallen.

    Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as normal intense sadness. Those who battle a prolonged and debilitating depression that negatively affects their daily lives and relationships should be encouraged to seek medical counsel and be open to the possibility of medicinal aid. I say this with an added warning against accepting medicinal aid without reliable counseling.

    Family practitioners are the primary prescribers of depression medications and they rarely have sufficient time for thorough evaluations. These doctors are often put in awkward positions when their basic evaluations indicate need for medicinal aid. They see the need to prescribe medication but desire more extensive evaluation and more support for their patients. When prescribing medications for depression or other neurologically based life-challenges, I encourage doctors to always attach requirements for more extensive counseling.

    Medicinal aid must never be approached in a one-dimensional manner. We are more the bodies with physical needs. The other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive equal consideration in the battle for health. A holistic approach respects all the dimensions of personhood created by God.

    In some approaches to Christian counseling, we find unnecessary opposition to medications for neurologically related struggles. Some of those who take this position are reacting to over-diagnosis and over-prescription regarding depression (a significant and problematic reality). Yet we must never form opinions on such important matters based on knee-jerk reactions. Such responses unnecessarily depict us as people unworthy of trust.

    Those who oppose medicinal aid must recognize that it is not loyalty to the Bible that leads them to their stance. It is actually an approach that reflects superficial theology regarding the pervasive affects of human depravity. Those who simplistically reduce everything to a spiritual problem are also not being faithful to the full teaching of Scripture about how God made humans. Like doctors who ignore the spiritual dimension, these counselors are acting as if we are only spiritual beings with spiritual needs. 

    Reactionary and one dimensional approaches lack honesty, humility and compassion.

  4. While I am not a Pastor, I am heavily involved in ministry on a daily basis. In 2009 I began a year-long season of deep depression. 

    It followed the home-going of my beloved Mom after a long illness, during which I was working alongside my Dad as her caregiver.  My husband and I were living apart for 6 months as he moved ahead of me to another State.I eventually followed several months after Mom’s death, and left my ministry work behind to start over, left every friend I had, my last child finished home-schooling, and I had to work full time in a non-ministry job for the first time in decades. My whole world changed and I had no idea what to do, or who I was as a wife, mother or servant of Christ. Even though I was depressed I continued going about life as though nothing was wrong on the outside ( I thought) yet I was dying on the inside. My sorrow occasionally leaked out in self-disclosure, and as a result I was encouraged to counsel myself, reminded to practice what I teach, and was told to “buck up” by people who thought they were being helpful.  I know now that in spite of all my biblical knowledge, “wisdom,” and counseling ability that no one is bullet proof and no one is immune to sorrowing to the point of believing there is no hope. I listened to wonderful sermons by Piper and MacArthur on the passages listed in this series, read Job and Psalms over and over, and In spite of how I felt, I believed God was keeping me, sustaining me, holding me, loving me, carrying me, and trusted that one day by His grace I would emerge stronger in the Lord. It took an entire year of praying, crying, grieving, immersing myself in Scripture and trusting that God was as work in my heart and life as His Word promised He was before He brought me through it. Today, I rejoice daily at His mercy and grace.  I have a deep well of compassion for those who suffer this way and am completely confident in the sufficiency of the Lord God who heals to minister to those who fall into this deep, black place in life. 

  5. You write in, “Why Do We Fight” part 2, the section…
    “Employing the Razor-sharp Scalpel”

    “However, since our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) only the scalpel of the Word of God can do this necessary heart surgery (Hebrews 4:12). Once the Spirit uses the Word to point His convicting finger on our sin—thoughts, actions, and desires—we must immediately repent of them and make pleasing God our chief pursuit.”

    Much agreement with…
    “only the scalpel of the Word of God can do this necessary heart surgery”

    Is it possible the reason “Burnout” and “Depression”is such a problem
    for **Today’s** “Pastor/Leader” is they have found themselves

    with a “Title” and “Position” NOT found in the Bible?

    In the Bible, How many people are… called pastor?
    In the Bible, How many people have… the “Title” pastor?
    In the Bible, How many people are… ordained as a pastor?
    In the Bible, How many people are… hired, or fired, as a pastor?
    In the Bible, How many congregations are… “led” by a pastor?

    And every pastor I’ve met also has the “title” Reverend.
    Can’t seem to find anyone with the “Title” Reverend in the Bible either.

    Is it possible the reason “Burnout” and “Depression”is such a problem
    for **Today’s** “Pastor/Leader” is they have found themselves

    with a “Title” and “Position” NOT found in the Bible?

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice – Jesus


  6. This entire series has benefited me in a season of struggle. Thank you to all the contributors. God bless,

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