God's Sovereignty in Depression
Even in some of my otherwise happiest and fullest seasons of life, I have experienced plenty of days where I struggled to get out of bed or struggled to fall asleep because some impenetrable cloud of despondency had overtaken me. These moments have been dependable realities in my life since before I became a believer, and of course they take different shape now that I am one; but unfortunately, after much prayer and effort, I have not entirely been rid of depression even to this day. It can show up out of nowhere, stay for a long time or a little, and sometimes has no real underlying cause I can detect. It cripples my ability to pray, understand Scripture, fulfill responsibilities, and love my friends and family well.
Depression affects such a large portion of the human population, and the Church is far from immune to it. We would probably be shocked if we could learn the true number of genuine believers who experience this intense despair and heaviness on a regular basis. Stigmas abound even in our “judgment free” society, which prevents many people from being honest about what the battle within the confines of their hearts and minds. Yet, there are many places in Scripture that attest to the reality of genuine believers experiencing depression. David expresses his own anguish in Psalm 6:6: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” Here he’s dwelling on the hatred of his enemies, and then later in the Psalms he despairs over his sin as well. Even so, he is called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
Job is another example of a man who loved the Lord but experienced intense emotional agony, which he describes very candidly in Job 30:16-26: “And now my soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me. . . God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you [God] for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. . . But when I hoped for good, evil came, and when I waited for light, darkness came.”
Do these descriptions sound familiar? This is precisely what it feels like to be caught in the throes of depression. Clearly, it’s possible (perhaps even common) for people who love the Lord to go through seasons of crushing despair or hopelessness. So how do we approach it in a way that both soothes our souls and glorifies the name and character of God?
Again, countless Christians experience depression. But one much more recent than David or Job who has responded gracefully to mental suffering is the nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s personal insights on the subject of Christian suffering have benefited the Church long after his death, especially when they pertain to the reality of depression in the lives of many true believers. He experienced debilitating levels of despondency throughout much of his time in ministry. What makes his experience so paradoxically beautiful is his persistent belief in God’s abundant sovereignty - even when it hurts. According to John Piper in a biography on Spurgeon, there were three “designs” of God that Spurgeon believed could be seen in and through a believer’s depression. These truths have been a great help to me in my own journey.
1. Depression can function like Paul’s “thorn” to teach the believer humility.
Spurgeon said, “Those who are honoured of their Lord in public have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil.”
Personally, this has been the most relevant “design” in regards to my own bouts of depression. It is so easy to treat our mental or emotional hindrances as a curse instead of a blessing sent to force us into deeper reliance on God. When things come more easily to us and all our efforts appear to flourish, we often fall (rather quickly) into pride and self-sufficiency.
In this way, depression’s debilitating nature can work out for our good and God’s glory (Romans 8:28) by making it hard for us to exalt ourselves and be content in our own strength. Depression throws us into a place where we are keenly aware that only the power of God can overcome the obstacles and complexities of our lives. It reveals our own powerlessness and the inability of others to fulfill our deepest needs. It fulfills God’s own message in Scripture when He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians. 12:9).
2. Depression can unexpectedly empower the believer’s ministry.
Scripture also attests to God’s sovereignty in how He knits our hearts and lives together through compassion and sympathy. 2 Corinthians 1:4 says that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Depression often turns our eyes far more inward than is good for us. We begin to pass over or become blind to the suffering of others, either because we’re distracted by our own pain or because we don’t want to “take on” any more negative emotions than we are already experiencing. But God’s design for suffering works in the opposite way by using pain to produce compassion within us. It opens our eyes to reality of affliction as well as the corruption that saturates the world, and it gives us a deeper glance into how desperately we all need Christ. This is the foundation for effective Gospel ministry.
3. Depression can act as a “prophetic signal” for the believer’s future.
Many Reformed Christians are hesitant about the subject of prophecy, but bear with me. Spurgeon clarifies this point beautifully: “Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist, heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer benison.” Depression often feels like a cloud that hinders a believer from processing their life with clarity and hope, but viewed from a more objective, eternal perspective it serves as a reminder of good to come.
The weight of pain and obstacles that saturate life on this side of eternity can feel crushing - but we find strength to bear it when we remember the joy and glory that will come when this incredibly brief piece of eternity is over (Romans 8:18).
Jessica is a native to the Appalachian mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, although she now resides in northern Virginia with her husband. She has been a lover of reading since elementary school and a lover of Christ since high school. She is a full time English major, in hopes that her studies will help her more effectively minister to other through written words. Her favorite things in the world are British tea, old books, autumn leaves, dry humor, and rainy weather. Her goal as a writer is to demonstrate how the Gospel, objective truth, and sound theology are not only applicable, but essential, to all aspects of life as a woman, especially in a world that celebrates sin, false doctrine, and self-sufficiency.