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Christians and Depression
Knowing who you are in Christ brings hope. A psychologist offers steps to equip us in the battle against forces that contribute to depression.

Carol* was a church worker. She had a wonderful life…or so people thought. She appeared happy, successful, and had healthy, fulfilling relationships with others. However, that was just the appearance.

The way she felt on the inside was much different from the way she appeared. She always felt like she wasn't as good as other people; she wasn't smart enough, attractive enough, or successful enough. And to make it worse, she feared others could see she was "less than" in so many ways. Her life was filled with fear, worry, and sadness. She dreaded being around people because she always felt she had to prove she was worth something. Often she felt like she was a big fake, pretending she was something she was not. She worried about the future, because there was nothing to look forward to, other than more disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. She felt sad, tired, and hopeless, and most of the time struggled to get out of bed to face another day of more of the same. Carol was suffering from depression.

Depression is a devastating illness that affects the whole person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Many with symptoms of depression believe they have some purely physical illness rather than depression. (See "Four Major Symptoms of Clinical Depression"). It is one of the most common problems people experience. Studies show that between ten and 20 percent of adults in Canada will experience an episode of depression serious enough that professional help is necessary.

The Bible records the depressive symptoms of people such as Job, Moses, Elijah, David, and Jeremiah. Depression is not something new, but what is new is the way we look at it and seek and find solutions.

How does depression happen?

Biochemical changes take place in the human nervous system during clinical depression. Research reveals that relatives of depressed individuals have a significantly higher incidence of depression than the general population. Scientific studies have also shown that women are more prone to depression. However, this is not to suggest that genetics are a primary cause of depression. It is not a case of "bad genes," although a family history of depression may predispose you toward developing clinical depression, particularly if you are under stress.

Situational stresses can also precipitate or trigger depression. Specifically, a loss, such as the losses Job suffered, is the most common stress that precipitates depression. Anger turned inward, guilt, or a blow to your self-image can also trigger depression.

One thing all the symptoms of depression have in common is they involve feelings of inadequacy. It attacks us at our most vulnerable point—our sense of worth and our reason for being. If we are not equipped to defend our self-worth using Christ's truth, then we are at risk for depression.

Rooted in Eden

We need to begin by acknowledging our legacy of sin that plagues us every minute of our existence and began with Adam and Eve. Our fall from grace began our legacy of sin.

The apostle Paul had an ongoing awareness of his sinfulness…"I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature" (Romans 7:18).

It is clear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." And that apart from God we are nothing and will achieve nothing good.

Our source of worth

In Romans 12:3 we read, "For by the grace given me I say to everyone of you: Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." Here, the Bible warns us not to think more highly than we ought. This is not to suggest that we should consider our selves as waste, or of no value. If we were a wasted humanity, would God our heavenly Father have sacrificed His only Son as a demonstration of His utter goodness and grace to us, broken, yet redeemable beings?

…the self-help psychology movement misdirected people to focus completely on themselves and their own happiness…

We are of great worth to God our Creator, and through Him we can do great things!

Our self-worth comes not from who we are or what we do, but rather from knowing that we have been totally forgiven and fully accepted by the God who planned our existence. It involves a growing awareness of our value to God our maker. It is a self-esteem that enables us to accept unashamedly our strengths and weaknesses, and our capabilities. It includes an awareness that God is transforming us from the inside out.

You are a special creation of a good and all powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. You are created in His image, with capacities to think, feel, and worship that set you above all other life forms.

People in a state of depression lack this basic and necessary truth. (Sometimes those who grow up in a dysfunctional home, believe—or have been told—they are worthless, and that nothing is good about them. This is where Satan creeps in to begin to create the distorted thoughts, beliefs and feelings that one day become depression.)

This is not to say we are good in and of ourselves. The problem arises when we try to feel good about ourselves based on who we are, what we've done, our status, or what we own. A healthy self-image is seeing yourself as God sees you—no more, no less. Neither should we be proud and indulge in self-love.

We don't want to become like so much of our self-absorbed society. In the 70s and 80s the self-help psychology movement misdirected people to focus completely on themselves and their own happiness, and be as far away from Jesus as possible. Jesus doesn't want us to be self-absorbed; He wants us to be totally "other-absorbed."

In the Christian world, low self-esteem often translates to, Jesus can't really use me, or I don't deserve His love, or, The spiritual gifts that were given to me by God, aren't as good as those of other people. Low self-esteem that is central to depression keeps us focused on self.

In our feelings of worthlessness we ruminate about our inadequacies. It's still all about me.

And that's just where Satan wants us to be—in a place that keeps us from serving God using all of the special gifts and abilities to serve Him in a unique way.

Satan and depression

Satan likes nothing better than to render Christians ineffective through depression. The apostle Peter stated that Satan walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and one way he attacks us, is by robbing us of the Truth of who God made us to be. Satan has a vested interest in separating us from the love of God as he tries to rob of any sense of identity and purpose.

Satan lashes out in ways that are familiar to all of us. He tells us we are not good enough; we must do more—of everything (busy bee) or do better (or perfect) in everything (perfectionist). Only then will we feel good about ourselves.

Evil Satan knows that if we believe the lie that we must do it all, we will soon face failure, because we are limited and can't do all! In the meantime we lose sight of God's plan for us, and become caught up in ourselves and our need to prove something by worshipping the idea of "more." We end up defeated, and alienated from God, and too exhausted to offer any service to Christ. We end up depressed, paralyzed and unable to serve.

The same thing happens as we strive toward impossible perfection. Perfection is an arrogant state of being because we all are sinners. We can't live without making mistakes, hurting others, and falling short. To pretend that we can do things according to the ideal is to ignore the fact that we are sinners. It is like saying "I don't need God and the sacrifice of His Son." Or it is an attempt to find some sense of self-worth through the quality of our accomplishments. But this is also misdirected, because our self-worth comes not from who we are or what we accomplish, but because of Christ's love for us, who He made us to be, and the things He accomplishes using us as His instruments.

Again, as Satan strives to rob us of the truth, we are paralyzed by our fear of not being good enough, and therefore do nothing—just what Satan wants.

We prevent and fight depression by relying on the truth. Scripture tells us what to believe and what is true, and we see in Scripture that God doesn't expect us to be perfect. Our worth is already recognized in the eyes of God our Father, and fortunately He does not measure our value based on how much we do or how perfect we are. He is the author of the truth. He already knows that we can't do it all or we can't do it perfectly, after all, we are limited sinful human beings. And that's why He sent His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins, inadequacies, and imperfections. Let's not ignore this precious sacrifice in our misdirected attempts to redeem ourselves by trying to be perfect, by trying to do it all, or by trying to be more than we really are. Here is the key: Be who God made you to be.

Your unique Christian identity

God created us to do something, and that something is a little different for each of us. We are not carbon copies of each other, but rather He gave us different, special and unique gifts to use in His service. This is not to suggest that one person is better than another, but we were meant to serve God in a unique way, based on the unique gifts He gave us. We don't have to do it all and serve God in all ways.

Someone else will use their specific gifts to do their piece of the puzzle. Just as Paul wrote about everyone being part of the body of Christ; we are not all left hands. You are a left hand, another a right leg, and another is pair of eyes.

Overcoming depression

For some people, antidepressant medications may be recommended as part of the treatment for depression. This is a personal decision, and does not suggest personal weakness or a lack of faith. In fact, for some people, antidepressants may be required to bring the person's level of functioning to a place where they are able to think clearly and work through the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges of depression. The point is, however, that to "overcome" depression one needs to attack the problem of depression at its root. It is the focus of this article, to equip you in the battle against forces that contribute to depression.

Accepting the gift of forgiveness means we forgive ourselves.

1. Seek the truth as established by the Word of God
Divine healing is based on Christ's truth—knowing and living it. We are sinners, and as such, imperfect human beings. But God has plans for us, and at our birth equipped us to serve Him, each in special and unique ways. This is the basis of our identity and purpose. The basis of our self-worth is who we are in Christ, not the meagre things we do.

2. Realize that no one is perfect
Everyone sins and makes mistakes, falling "short of the Glory of God." In 1 John 1:8 it says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." However, that is no reason to give up and give in to depression. Our sinfulness should not be the focus of our lives, either. We need to know our sin and learn from it. We need to confess it to Christ, and as He offers us the gift of forgiveness, accept His gift. Accepting the gift of forgiveness means we forgive ourselves.

3. Stop trying to do it all
Since we are not perfect, we cannot do it all. When we try, we are destined for burnout, failure, anxiety and depression. When we behave like we must do it all, we are demonstrating an unhealthy arrogance and self-centredness. We are not capable of doing it all. There are other parts of the body of Christ who are intended and better equipped to do other parts of God's work. Our job is to do the part God specifically equipped us for.

4. Recognize your God-given gifts and start using them
At your birth, God made you uniquely you. It is important for you to know who God made you to be and the specific purpose He has for you. Satan works hard to convince us we are not special, and if we believe him, he has succeeded in robbing us of the way God wants us to serve Him. Often people need help seeing how God made them unique. That's when Christian counselling can be helpful. Or turn to your friends, or look at your life's history.

5. Change the way you talk to yourself
There is no point to constant, negative, critical thinking. When we constantly criticize ourselves, we are criticizing God's workmanship, and suggesting that God made a mistake by creating us. We end up feeling hopeless and alienated from God. We end up depressed.

6. Increase self-esteem
See yourself as God sees you – no more and no less. Don't confuse "pride" with self-worth; they are opposites. Pride focuses on oneself, and living for oneself. Self-worth is acknowledging the gifts God gave you, and using them in His service.

7. Know the truth
Depression's triggers shake us off balance so we become confused and lose our healthy Christian perspective. Our Christian truth, the truth that tells us who we are and why we are here, is lost. If you are not clear on who Christ made you to be and why you are here in this life, you are vulnerable to depression. Without Christ's truth as the centre of your universe, it all seems pointless, and hopeless.

As a Christian psychologist I believe that to stand strong and to be able to withstand the risk of falling into depression, or to pull yourself out of a depression that has already taken hold, you need to know who you are in Christ and why you are here. This gives you all the purpose, meaning, direction, and fulfilment you need to focus your life and to live as a healthy, committed servant of God.

*Not her real name.

Dr. Colleen Hammermaster is a counselling psychologist in Edmonton. She is a member of Riverbend Lutheran Church.

Originally published in Canadian Lutheran, July/August 2007.




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