If you’d like to read this in PDF format, please click here.
My brother will forever be one of my heroes.
Joe Hein was a tireless humanitarian. Skilled in business, he instead spent many of his years relentlessly advocating for the less fortunate. Joe spent some time as a peace-keeper in Bosnia during the crisis there. While he was in the United States, he worked for a senator and strongly advocated for reading programs for underprivileged students in the inner city of Washington D.C. He also worked hard to get similar programs started on Native American Reservations in South Dakota. This was a man who didn’t have much, but emptied his wallet every time he passed a homeless person on the streets. Charming, intelligent, gentle, kind and attractive – Joe Hein was looked up to by others for inspiration and hope.
More importantly, he was the best older brother I ever could’ve asked for. He was 17 years my senior, which meant that he was graduating high school and leaving the house around the time I was born. As far back as I can remember, my brother had something of a “legend” status in my head. When he came home from college, his older brother game was always on point. He taught me how to read a clock, and he encouraged me to read with bribes. He played basketball with me in the driveway, and took me out to train as a skee-ball champion at Chuck E. Cheese. He trained me up in the ways of Dallas Cowboy fandom. He wasn’t afraid to show me physical affection, and he modeled compassion and mercy for me when he took me to serve in homeless shelters with him.
On April 25, 2000, we lost my brother to the monster called depression. Even the strongest and bravest knights can fall to this beast.
Depression has seen increasing awareness in recent years – and for good reason. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 18% of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of anxiety-depression disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability between ages 15 to 44, affecting 15 million people (about 7% of the population). Of course, these are conservative statistics as many who are silently suffering don’t come forward to ask for help.
Yet, despite all of the advancements in awareness and treatment, depression still has something of a stigma in our general culture. It is rarely talked about; and our silence encourages sufferers to persist in silence. Silence perpetuates shame, and shame perpetuates depression. It is a vicious cycle which many people fear they can never escape.
Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t like the fact that depression does not fit neatly into one paradigm. It’s not as simple as positive thinking. Many individuals will still struggle even after receiving years of the best counseling available. While medicine can be of great benefit to some, it can also make symptoms worse. As a Christian, I believe the message of the gospel offers great hope to sufferers of depression. Yet I also know that it’s not as simple as “take two doses of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” The Bible doesn’t paint the human experience so naively and neither should we.
In fact, I think the Bible gives us much wisdom and insight into better caring for those who suffer from depression. In memory of my brother and – in the hopes that as a result of his death I may be able to help others who suffer as he once did – I want to offer a few pieces of this wisdom to you in the remainder of this article.
First, the Bible presents us with a robust understanding of the human being. Depression is often met with one of two extreme solutions today. The first is a hyper-physical view of the person: all our problems are either medical issues within the body or originate from not having our physical needs (food, sleep, sex, etc.) met. The second view is a hyper-spiritual one, which centers our problems in our wrong beliefs about ourselves. If we think/feel/believe more positive things about ourselves, our issues (i.e. depression, etc.) will go away.
In the middle of these two extremes is the biblical view of the person. Commonly referred to as the dichotomist view, the Bible presents the human being as both material and immaterial, both a physical and a spiritual being. Some might call us an “embodied soul” – a term I really like. There are many places in Scripture which show this view, but I will just highlight a few of them:
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
What does this mean for us? It means that we should expect suffering like depression to have both physical and spiritual symptoms. It means we need to labor hard to care for the entire person, and not just a part. It means we shouldn’t try to neatly fit out friends into a one-size-fits-all paradigm.
It also means we must distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression.
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Secondly, the Bible reminds us of the painful realities of life. The world isn’t sunshine and rainbows for anybody. Many of us want a quick solution that will fix our many problems and struggles. Some people will even sell Christianity to you in that way – as if confessing belief in Christ will make all your problems go away.
Yet the Bible doesn’t give us a quick solution, nor does it fool us into believing that following God leads to an easy life. In fact, the greatest heroes of the Christian faith all suffered immense physical and spiritual torment. Moses doubted his call as a prophet and was often chastised or even betrayed by his family and the Israelites. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah retreated into the wilderness by himself (in an episode strangely similar to depression) and wished death upon himself (1 Kings 19:1-18). Jesus was a man of much sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and after being betrayed and abandoned by his 12 closest friends he cried out to his Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?” The Apostle Paul, having faced much suffering, despaired even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Why does this matter? Knowing the realities of this life, we are able to have compassion on people in the midst of their suffering and trials. Rather than giving them platitudes which we know won’t help, we can meet them with hope and strength to persevere to the end, even if the darkness never lifts in this life. Which brings me to my last point.
Finally, Christianity offers us real hope. Clearly I don’t mean the kind of hope which says, “Believe this and your depression will go away.” I’ve met many people whose faith has transformed their struggles with depression; I’ve met many people who have still needed years of counseling and medicine to coincide with their Christian faith. So what kind of hope do I mean?
The Bible teaches us that when we confess saving faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, we are adopted into the eternal family of God. Adoption is the height of our privilege as God’s people. This doctrine reminds us that in our salvation we are brought into a family. While we were formerly separate from God and walking in darkness, we are now “called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). As we become sons and daughters in our vertical relationship to God, we become brothers and sisters in our horizontal relationship to one another.
Our society today wants us to believe that our worth and value is based on our own decisions and merit. Our surround culture says that worth and value are measured by our job performance, our charity and good deeds, or even our sexuality. If we haven’t found our worth in these things, then we need to keep looking until we’re fulfilled. Is it any wonder that depression is on the rise with each passing year? Failing to achieve these standards of worth only sets us up for doubt and disappointment.
In stark contrast, the Christian knows that their worth or merit is not found in themselves, but it is found in the very fact that they belong to a loving Father. Even when we don’t believe it, even when we don’t want to believe it – it’s still true. Once we’re adopted into the family of God we bear his stamp forever upon us, a stamp which reads: loved, valued, precious, beautiful, created with purpose, a child with full access to all the rights and privileges of a son or daughter of God. It’s a bit of a mouthful.
This is a hope that points us away from the things we’ve chosen to give us purpose and define us, and towards the only title which we need to give us purpose: child of God.
When we properly understand what it means to be adopted into the family of God, we know that we can’t abandon our brothers or sisters to face their struggles alone. Because our worth is found not in the things of this world but in the arms of a loving father, there is no effort, no amount of time, no amount of love that is too much for the people of God to give to those in our midst going through any kind of struggle. That is simply what family does; they care for and love one another when all other lights go out.
So, what can you do to help people struggling with depression that you know? I’d like to offer six things:
- Read this article I wrote. This isn’t shameful self-promotion, but I know many people who have been greatly helped by the material in this article. It is a much more in-depth approach to some of what you’ve already read here.
- Pray. Pray for them, pray for your own heart. Pray that God would lift them out of the mire, and give you a greater compassion for their particular kind of suffering – especially if you haven’t struggled with depression yourself.
- Listen. Be Present. Often, bearing each other’s burdens looks less like speaking and simply lending a listening ear and a bodily present. Simple, small reminders go a long way (“You’re not alone”, “I’m here”, “It’s not your fault”).
- Offer your service, not answers. It’s impossible for us to have the answer and solution for someone else’s depression. But, you can offer yourself as an aid during their struggle. Ask them, “What can I do to serve you?”, or “Can I go with you?” (to their counseling sessions, should they be in counseling). Counseling can often be more effective when someone you trust comes with you.
- When the time is right, encourage them with the gospel. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If we suffer, we suffer with Christ; if we rejoice we should rejoice with him. Bodily pain should help us to understand the cross, and mental depression should make us apt scholars at Gethsemane.” Remind our friends who are struggling that our suffering confirms our adoption and status as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), that we have a savior who knows the pain and struggle that we are going through and meets us in our pain and need.
- Ask the hard questions. Even though it may be difficult or awkward, don’t shy away from the hard questions. “What kind of thoughts are you having?” and “Have you thought about hurting yourself?” are important questions to ask when people are going through depression. If they have thought about bringing themselves physical harm, then it is important to pursue immediate help through their counselor or some other means. Contact your pastor, their counselor or other family that can help during this time.
Finally, if you or someone you know are going through depression at this time, I want to highly recommend this book to you.
Below you will find audio, handouts and articles I used for three of the eight weeks in my class entitled “Fear, Anxiety and Depression.” I hope they will be useful for you.
1. Introduction and Personal Story
2. A Biblical View of the Person and How it Impacts our Depression-Anxiety Care
3. The Place of Psychiatry and Medicine in Depression-Anxiety Care
To read this article as a PDF, click here.
We’ve all felt it.
That pain in our soul that lies somewhere in between that ache in our chest we felt when we first experienced grief and loss, and the cold sweats we have in the evening before a big presentation at the office. The exhaustion that comes from spinning thoughts in our heads over and over. It’s the inexpressible confusion that can only be summarized by the question, “Oh God, why is this happening to me?”
This is the question we all ask when suffering hits and we do not know how to process it. We swing back and forth between emotions like a grandfather clock gone haywire. Our cultural influences tell us to react in one of two ways. On the one hand, we are told to rise above our suffering and our circumstances in order to remove ourselves from the situation. The other tendency, which is perhaps more dominate in Western culture, is to suppress and avoid suffering altogether. This view could best be summarized by the last great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid you, that pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits…When then you are discontented about any of these things (pain), say to yourself that you are yielding to pain.”
While the cultural norms instruct us to believe that purpose is found above or away from suffering, the Bible teaches that hope and purpose is found in the midst of our suffering. The best way for us to understand this is first by briefly looking at a Christian theology of suffering. We will then be able to see God’s purpose for us in the midst of our afflictions.
A Theology of Pain and Suffering
It is impossible to avoid suffering in this life. From the moment of conception to the day we are laid to rest, we are subject to pain and sorrow in this life. There is a popular misconception that individuals turn to Christianity in order to have suffering alleviated or altogether removed. But this is entirely antithetical to the message our God gives to us.
Did you know that there are more Psalms of lament than any other genre? Surely this gives us a clue to how common the experience of pain and suffering is going to be in this life. Jesus promised us in John 15 and 16 that we will suffer for following him. The entire letter of 1 Peter is written to a group of Christians who are facing trials and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17 that we are children of God if we suffer with Christ. Again he says in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The author of Hebrews reminds us that those who are not disciplined by God are illegitimate children (12:8). Many Christians today are taught that suffering occurs as a lack of our own faith. It is a sobering thought to examine just how much we’ve bought into this lie in light of the Bible’s cohesive teaching on the subject.
The message is clear: Christ-followers will suffer in this life. But what does it mean to experience pain and affliction as the Bible teaches us? I think most of us are led to believe that these passages speak to some unique form of Christian persecution which comes from publicly following Christ. While this aspect of suffering is certainly included, these passages are not speaking of only this kind of suffering. Dr. Richard Gaffin summarizes Christian suffering well: “Christian suffering, then, is everything in our lives in this present order, borne for Christ and done in his service. Suffering with Christ includes not only monumental and traumatic crises, martyrdom and overt persecution, but it is to be a daily affair – the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives, when they are endured for his sake.” Any and all suffering and affliction we endure in this live – when we endure them for Christ’s sake – are uniquely Christians sufferings.
You might be asking, “How can this be the case?” After all, don’t Christians experience many of the same that non-Christians do? Cancer isn’t uniquely Christian, so why is it that if a Christian is diagnosed with cancer it becomes Christian suffering? The answer lies in the fact that as children of God who have placed their faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, our suffering is redeemed. God uses the very things that are intended to destroy us to mature his children and make them more like Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9).
Purpose in Suffering
But why does God allow us to suffer? It is impossible to know the exact reasons for what we are going through: it might be a result of the general state of the world and natural forces, it might be a result of someone else’s or our own sins, or it could be from a host of many other reasons. However, the important question to ask is not “Why is this happening to me?” More often than not, we will not be able to answer this question. Instead, we should be asking “What is God’s purpose for me in the midst of my suffering?”
In today’s Christian subculture, we love to make signs, posters and desktop backgrounds with “inspirational” Bible verses (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 John 3 all come to mind). Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible is often skipped on these signs. That passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Apostle Paul writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who 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. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
This is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. Paul teaches us that God is the source of all mercy and comfort, even in the affliction we cannot see or feel him working in. We are told that although we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share abundantly in comfort as well. God comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort others in their affliction.
So what does this passage teach us about the purpose of suffering in the Christian community? Our suffering is meant to create an army of Christian counselors who become uniquely equipped to comfort others in their suffering. This is a part of God’s glorious and beautiful outworking of redemption in his people! While the world around us tells us to flee suffering, God instead equips us to live out the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). For this reason, we agree with Charles Spurgeon who wrote, “I am almost persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favoured have suffered more times of darkness than others.” It doesn’t matter whether your suffering is depression or cancer, God’s purpose for you is to receive his comfort and then take it to others who are suffering. As we suffer, our churches are collectively strengthened. In this way, the church is to be marked by Christians who faithfully provide godly counsel to one another – even in the midst of their own pains and afflictions.
You could be tempted to doubt that this is the purpose for all Christians in the midst of their suffering. Perhaps you think that you can provide no comfort to anyone else because you’re barely hanging on. However, don’t underestimate your ability to comfort and provide counsel to someone who has already thrown in the towel.
Recently I’ve been weighed down by an immense fear over the future – job, finances, family, children, etc. In moments where my fear is especially strong I become overwhelmed with the temptation to just give up and pursue a new vocation with more stability and predictability. During one of those moments this week, a friend of mine emailed me telling me that he would be experiencing a job change soon. He asked me to pray that he would remain faithful during his transition. Even though he didn’t know it, he provided so much encouragement to me! Just when I was tempted to despair, a friend was able to motivate me to keep going simply by a demonstration of his faithfulness.
Friend, don’t underestimate what God is doing for his people in the midst of your suffering and affliction. God’s purpose for your suffering is to be a benefit not only to you as he makes you more like Christ, but also to bless and benefit his other children who are suffering. The counsel you bring to others as they experience pain and affliction will have a ripple effect in your Christian community that you will likely never see. It is a beautiful thing when we all play our part in the household of faith!
 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 54.
 Richard Gaffin, “The Last Adam, the Life-Giving Spirit” in The Forgotten Christ, 231.
 Charles Spurgeon, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, The Journal of Biblical Counseling Number 3, Spring 2000.
This is a lengthy article. It is best read as a pdf, which you may find here.
There is a great scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that really captures what true friendship looks like. Sam and Frodo are nearing the end of their journey to destroy the One Ring. Frodo – even more so than Sam – is completely exhausted not only physically but also from the internal burden of carrying the Ring all this way. As they’re both collapsed on the side of Mount Doom, Sam asks Frodo, “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?…Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Tragically, Frodo replies, “No, Sam. I can’t recall the taste of food…nor the sound of water…nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark, with nothing, no veil between me and the wheel of fire! I can see him with my waking eyes!”
Sam, responding perhaps as the greatest friend in cinema history says, “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it [the Ring] for you, but I can carry you!” He proceeds to pick up his dear friend, and although he can’t carry his friend’s deepest burdens, he can help get him to the place he needs to go. Recognizing his friend’s exhaustion, Sam helps him by meeting Frodo’s immediate physical need.
What do you say to your friend who comes to you and tells you they’re struggling with depression and/or anxiety (depression-anxiety)? Unfortunately, we in the Church today tend not to respond very well to our hurting brothers and sisters. Most of our advice amounts to nothing more than, “Take a dose of Romans 8:28 with this glass of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” We brush our friends off with passive comments like, “It sounds like you just need to believe this truth, know that I’ll be praying for you.” By quickly passing off our friend’s deepest pains, we essentially provide them with an over-spiritualized version of “God helps those who help themselves.” This type of care is not only unhelpful, but it is not Christian and it is potentially destructive.
Think of it this way: what if Sam had looked in Frodo’s face and said, “It sounds to me like you just need to believe Gandalf wants you to make it to the top of the volcano. Remember that you’re loved and everyone is counting on you! I’ll pray for you when I’m back at home eating those strawberries.” Sam would have been an incredibly bad friend! He would have been passing over Frodo’s immediate needs without providing him any real help at all.
How can we as Christians, who have been called to care for and love one another, better respond to our friends who are struggling with depression-anxiety? We can do so by better understanding how the Bible presents the person as both a material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) being. In other words, by understanding the person holistically, we will know how to respond and care for our hurting friends in a loving and Christian way.
A Biblical Foundation
There tends to be two extremes our society (and by extension, the church) takes in regards to our anthropology (our understanding of the person) today. On the one hand, secularists tend to view the person as a primarily physical being. When you follow this extreme, every issue within a person has a physical cause. Depression-anxiety becomes a disease that is a result of something gone wrong in the brain, but if you can fix the brain, you can fix the issue. Meeting one’s physical desires and comforts – such as the desire for sex – becomes a physical need that must be met, regardless of the relational, emotional, or spiritual consequences.
The other extreme is to view the person as a primarily spiritual being. This is happening today both inside and outside the Christian Church, now that spirituality is back in vogue today. With this extreme, the solution to one’s problem must be found in some sort of belief system, usually directed within the self. The gospel according to Oprah presents a world where believing in yourself and your own internal strength is the answer to your problems. In Christian circles, this over-spiritualization results in chasing spiritual “experiences” and “encounters” with God that give us a spiritual high. When the spiritual high runs out, we are told there is something wrong with us and that the answer is found in creating and experiencing another encounter like ones we have had previously. Like any addiction, the more we go down this path, the more we find that we need increasingly robust experiences in order to create the same feeling we had before.
In the middle of these two extremes is a biblical anthropology. The Bible presents a unique answer to the human dilemma by telling us that we are both material and immaterial, physical and spiritual. We are a mysterious blend of the two, what some might call an “embodied soul.” Counselors call this the “dichotomist” view of the person. C.S. Lewis describes us as “composite beings – a natural organism tenanted by, or in a state of symbiosis with, a supernatural spirit.” There are numerous passages that explain this view to us in Scripture, but I’ll just mention a handful of them:
- We are spiritual beings clothed in an earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1).
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
- Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
If this is true, how do we differentiate between what is spiritual and what is physical? The Bible uses numerous words to describe the spiritual side of the person: spirit (pneuma), heart (kardia), mind (dianoia, phrenes, nous), soul (Greek: psuche, Hebrew: nephesh), conscience (suneidesis), inner self or inner man. These various terms have slightly different emphases, but ultimately can be summarized by the term “heart.” Herman Ridderbos describes the human heart as, “the concept that preeminently denotes the human ego in its thinking, affections, aspirations, decisions, both in man’s relationship to God and to the world surrounding him.” In other words, the heart is our “motivational center” that is at the root of all of our moral responsibility and behavior before the face of God.
But what about the material side of the person? With our description of the spiritual side of the person out of the way, we can conclude that the material consists of…everything else. The best way to comprehend this might be to look at a list of differences in symptoms between physical or spiritual issues.
Feelings of depression
Feelings of panic
Remembering and forgetting
Ability to read
Ability to calculate
Problems with attention and concentration
|Sin: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, malice, greed, anger, rage, murder, strife, arrogance, boasting, disobedience to parents, unbelief, jealousy, gossip, drunkenness, lying, idolatry, pride.Righteousness (fruits of the Spirit): patience, love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, wholesome speech.|
What are we to make of this? When we properly understand Biblical anthropology, we are better equipped to understand how depression-anxiety is impacting our brothers and sisters, and how we can best care for them. What we have seen is that the person is a mysterious blend of both body and soul. This means that we should have the expectation that what is happening in one part of the person is going to be reflected in the other. The Bible predicts that an issue rooted in our hearts will manifest itself with physical symptoms (including changes in our brain). Similarly, an issue with a physical origination might have an impact on what comes out of our heart.
The Dichotomist View of Depression-Anxiety
Let’s start to direct this foundation toward the issue of depression-anxiety more specifically. What should you do when your friend or loved one comes to you to communicate their pain and struggles with depression-anxiety? The first task we have is to recognize what is happening as some form of depression-anxiety. While we all have some general idea of what depression-anxiety is, don’t assume that you understand what the experience is like for your friend. Ask good questions and listen more than you talk. Try to understand the experience your friend is going through. Allow their experience to drive you to compassion (Matthew 9:36, 14:14).
The next thing we must do is distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression-anxiety.
|Insomnia or hypersomnia
Significant weight changes
Feeling of being restless or slowed down
Fatigue, loss of energy
Sense of alienation
Feeling sad, blue or depressed
Tight chest or heart palpitations
It may be difficult to begin to separate physical from spiritual symptoms. This is where most Christians begin to struggle in caring for their loved ones. What do we say? What questions should we ask? It is at this point our foundation of a biblical anthropology becomes exceedingly practical. With our understanding of the material and immaterial person, we can begin to care for and meet people’s physical symptoms while intentionally observing, listening to, and understanding the underlying heart and spiritual issues/symptoms. I believe this approach works best for a number of reasons.
- Focusing on the physical symptoms first builds trust with your friend. It is likely that you are not the first person your depressed or anxious friend has spoken to. In all likelihood, they have already spoken to multiple people who have brushed off their struggles with depression-anxiety as a small problem that needs a quick fix. By affirming the person’s struggles and then committing to helping meet their practical, physical needs, you will establish a deep relationship of trust with your friend. Depression-anxiety naturally creates a filter of skepticism in the individual; your commitment to their physical needs can go a long way in beginning to overcome this skepticism. As author John Lockley once said,
The presence, the availability, just the existence of a friend like this provides a tremendous degree of comfort to the depressed person, as it demonstrates in physical terms how much he is cared for, accepted, loved, as he is, warts and all. It is not difficult for the depressed person to go on to realize that if individual Christians can love him that much, how much more will God do the same.
- Caring for physical symptoms often draws out the deeper heart issues. If you offer care to someone and they reject it, you’re seeing their pride at work. If you tell someone they need more sleep but they respond that they can’t because of work commitments, you might have exposed an idol of control. If depression-anxiety always sets in during the evening, there might be a pattern of fear of man or circumstances that arises throughout the day. This is a pattern we see in Christ’s earthly ministry, where his physical miracles are often the catalyst to address a deeper spiritual need (John 6:1-59, Luke 13:10-17).
- If an individual has been struggling with depression-anxiety long enough, their physical, emotional and mental exhaustion will probably prevent fruitful counseling. If your friend hasn’t slept for weeks and is plagued by constant panic attacks, then they’re probably not in a good place to begin thinking hard about what is causing the panic attacks. One of the best things you can do is help provide the rest and nourishment they need to search their heart and mind for what is really going on.
- Caring for physical symptoms is a vehicle for evangelism. Our service to one another does not occur in a vacuum. There is a broken, hurting world looking at us to see if our actions line up with our words. Jesus himself said the world will know we are Christians if our love for one another mirrors the love he has for us (John 13:34-35). In this way, committing to and caring for physical needs will be peculiar to our broken and sinful world.
In addition, developing wisdom and sensitivity in meeting and caring for physical symptoms and needs equips you to care for not only Christians, but non-Christians as well. As we ask good questions, apply wisdom, and care for the physical symptoms of our depressed or anxious non-Christian friends, they will naturally want to know how we have the wisdom, insight, and care that we do. This is the perfect opportunity to point our hurting friends to our Savior, Shepherd, and true Caretaker who meets our deepest need: forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
Application: Practical Questions for Everyday Ministry and Friendship
So what should you say when your friend comes to you with their struggles of depression-anxiety? What questions should you ask? This is a wisdom issue for all of us. However, there are some questions we can have in the back of our heads at all times that can become good launching points for conversation, as well as finding and addressing physical symptoms and needs. My hope is that these questions, although not exhaustive, will serve you well as you seek to minister to your friends and loved ones both in and and outside of the church.
0. Affirm their decision to open up about their struggle with depression-anxiety. This isn’t a question (hence the number 0!), but it should always be the first thing we do. We have already said that depression-anxiety creates a skeptical filter toward individuals and the world. By affirming your friend’s decision to share what is going on in their life, you are removing the stigma our society carries and disarming their fear and skepticism.
1. How does depression/anxiety make you feel? What words would you use to describe your experience? This goes back to the idea of trying to empathize with your friend or loved one. Depression-anxiety tends to force the individual into one of two extremes: either a heightened sense of physical or spiritual pain, or a numbness to any kind of pain
2. Is there any way you have identified I might be able to help you? Your friend might already know they are struggling to get enough rest, eat well, or maintain a regular pattern. If that is the case, allow them to share that need with you before you ask any more specific questions.
3. Have you had a physical recently? Even if your friend had a physical at some point during the same year, if they have not received a physical during their depression-anxiety then they probably should. The reason for this is two-fold. One, because they can alert their physician to their struggles in case they need to come back and have a conversation about medication in the future. Secondly, because there are numerous diseases an individual can have that might manifest itself with depressive symptoms. These include:
|Medical Problems with Known Depressing Effects|
Viral or bacterial Infections
Certain types of headaches
Side effects of medication
4. How are you resting? Depression-anxiety often causes a person to get either more or less sleep than normal. We should know how it is impacting our friend or loved one specifically. Related questions might be, “How much caffeine are you consuming?” or “How much media are you consuming on an average day?”
5. Are you exercising? Physical exercise often helps our body get rid of unhelpful chemicals and instead produces helpful chemicals in our body. Encourage your friend to begin a modest exercise routine – perhaps even offer to go on a walk with them once or twice a week outside.
6. How are you eating? Similar to our sleep patterns, depression-anxiety almost always has an impact on our eating habits in one of two extremes: either we eat way too much, or we eat way too little. Help your friend identify their pattern, and offer assistance in providing healthy, routine meals.
7. How has this impacted your routine? While your friend may have once been the cleanest and hardworking person you know, depression-anxiety might be completely decimating their daily routines and habits. Good hygiene might seem like an impossible task, and showing up to work on time or being productive at all might be equally so. Try to identify small steps your friend can take to return to a normal routine. Help them create a schedule for the next week or two to accomplish some of their errands and chores, and hold them accountable to it.
8. Is there a particular time of the day or season of the year during which this has a greater impact on you? Seasonal depression-anxiety is not uncommon. If you can identify a time of the day or season of the year where depression-anxiety becomes particularly severe, then you can help your friend or loved one develop a “battle plan” to get the jump on depression-anxiety before it gets out of hand.
9. What are your priorities? An individual’s depression-anxiety might be the result of burnout from out-of-order priorities. These priorities might include family, work, church, neighbors or travel. Help your friend reprioritize their life and attend to what is necessary now while putting secondary commitments on hold. Once the individual has returned to a sense of normalcy they may be able to pick up some of the activities or commitments again
10. Have you thought about hurting yourself? Don’t avoid the hard question just because it is difficult. If your friend has thought of specific ways to hurt themselves, this is an indication that it is time to pursue immediate counsel and suicide watch.
11. Are you taking a Sabbath and participating in the Lord’s Day? The Sabbath was created as a means of rest for us (Mark 2:27). What a novel idea that the Lord knew we needed regular rest! Encourage your friend to obey the biblical mandate for rest and participation in worship with the saints on the Lord’s Day.
12. May I read a Psalm with you? Many Christians struggling with depression-anxiety are under the impression that the Bible does not allow for a Christian to struggle in the way that they are. However, the Bible is absolutely full of examples of God’s people crying out in pain, despair and lament in ways that mirror what we call depression-anxiety today. Great examples of this are the Psalms of Lament. Within these Psalms are beautiful demonstrations and prayers for God’s people to cry out in pain while simultaneously striving to put their trust and hope in the Lord. Reading through a Psalm of Lament with your friend may provide hopeful reassurance that God knows, hears, and is not ashamed of the things they are going through. It may also show your non-Christian friend that God’s Word has something to say to them in the midst of their brokenness or despair. The Psalm can be a perfect springboard into how your friend relates to the pain of the psalmist. Great examples of Psalms of lament include Psalm 22, 51 or 73.
The careful reader will take note of my indebtedness to the work of Edward T. Welch for much of my views in this article. In particular, his book Blame it on the Brain?, as well as the articles “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms” and “Who Are We? Needs, Longings and the Image of God in Man” have been instrumental to me. My hope is that I am entirely faithful to the work that has come before me and the shoulders on which I stand.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 126.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 35.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 119.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 45
 Ibid., 120.
 John Lockley, A Practical Workbook for the Depressed Christian, 338.
 Edward Welch, “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms,” ed. David A. Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 3, Spring 2000 18 (2000): 46.