Let’s Talk: Depression & Anxiety

Notes

Second to the Bible, which book in the English speaking world do you think is the most popular? Go ahead, tell your neighbor what you think.

Believe it or not, it isn’t Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Chronicles of Narnia, not even close. Actually, the most popularly sold English book in the entire world (aside from the Bible) is a little book called Pilgrim’s Progress, by a man named John Bunyan. In Bunyan’s book he writes what is called an “allegory”, which is kind of story that is told to represent something. Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress as an allegory of what the Christian life looked like, as if it were a man on a journey. So, the main character’s name is “Christian” and Christian begins his story in the City of Destruction when he meets a man named Evangelist. Evangelist explains to Christian how he might escape the coming wrath and have his burden of sin removed, but that means that he must flee the City of Destruction and go to Calvary to be saved. But, as soon as Christian begins his journey of salvation, he immediately is caught in what Bunyan calls the “Slough of Despond”. We would probably call it the “Swamp of Depression”. Christian becomes trapped in the muck and mire, and no matter how hard he struggles, he cannot free himself.

Eventually a man named Help comes and pulls Christian out of the mud and warns him that the swamp of depression ensnares many unassuming travellers. Help asks Christian why he did not follow the steps that help lead a safe path through the swamp, and Christian responds that he didn’t see them, became afraid and just attempted to take the quickest path that he could see. Help explains that this is a common problem, but there are in fact, good and substantial steps laid by the Lord Himself to help travellers, “but at times this marsh spews out a lot of filth, and in times of changing weather the steps are hardly seen. Even if the steps are visible to a normal person, here a man’s head often becomes so dizzy that he cannot see the steps; then he stagger to one side and mires down in the slime. Nevertheless, the steps are there. (Bunyan, p. 18)”

Now, I am going to be stretching Bunyan’s metaphor a little further than he intended, but it is certain that Bunyan believed that depression was not something that only a few, rare people experienced – but was, in fact, something that all people, including Christians, walk through at some point. Some of the most famous Christians throughout Church history have wrestled deeply with bouts of anxiety and depression. Being a Christian does not mean that you are suddenly immune to attacks on depression – not by a long shot. But, being a Christian does mean that we do not handle our struggle of depression the same way a non-Christian would.

Now, obviously we will not be able to cover this topic comprehensively by any means, but what we are hoping is this: point out some of the stepping stones available in Christ to get you through the swamp.

But before we begin, I want to point something out. You may listen to me speak, and intellectually agree with what I am saying, but emotionally feel unmoved. That is, actually, one of the scariest things about depression and anxiety – they can numb you from really being able to feel. I think this is what Bunyan was hinting at when he described how a “normal man” can easily see the steps in the swamp, but once one is actually in the swamp, he becomes dizzy and disoriented. What is plain and obvious to others, isn’t to the one who is suffering depression, and the easiest thing, it seems, is to just let the swamp swallow you. But the character Help notes something we should pay attention to: just because we may feel like there is no way out of the swamp, doesn’t mean that there really isn’t, “Nevertheless, the steps are there.”

We need to be reminded that our feelings do not dictate what reality is to us. It is true, it is an awful thing to feel the hopelessness and helplessness of depression – but just because we feel it, doesn’t mean that we really are hopeless or helpless. Our feelings are unreliable guides to reality.

As I talk, if you find that you cannot emotionally swallow what I am saying, don’t just throw it away. Keep thinking about it, pray about it, mull it over, and in time, the Lord may change your heart.

Depression and Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a powerful feeling of worry, fear, excitement, or nervousness. Anxiety is typically centered on the fear of something bad happening to something you deem as very important.

For example, perhaps you have a test coming up, and this test counts for fifty percent of your grade in a class. You will feel anxious about taking the test, because you know that if you flunk it, you won’t pass the class, and then your GPA will suffer, which could have far reaching consequences to your college aspirations.

You can be anxious about many things: family tensions, grades, friendships, romantic relationships, a secret being exposed, health concerns, sports teams, etc. In all of it, simply put, anxiety is the fear of losing something very important.

What is depression?

Depression is a powerful feeling of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, loneliness and numbness. Depression is typically the feeling we experience when something very important is lost.

For example, if you flunk the test and fail the class, and are now uncertain about your college prospects – you will feel depressed.

You can feel depressed after losing a friendship, a family member or parent to a divorce, flunking a class, a break up, a death in the family, being denied something you deeply want, feeling like you will never measure up or fit in, etc. Simply put, depression is the sadness felt when something very important is lost.

Depression and Anxiety are two pitfalls that we all will experience, to some degree, on this side of Heaven. However, there are a variety of different causes and reasons why we may become anxious or depressed – we are going to look at five categories that the wisdom literature in the Bible gives us.

A Few Cautions

Two cautions for you to keep in mind before we walk through these five causes:

  • Don’t be reductionistic. The causes for our anxiety and depression often are a mixture of a variety of things, and it can be confusing at times. Sometimes, I do certain things that further my depression, because I already am depressed. This is the flaw of many of the therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and books of our day dealing with depression and anxiety – they tend to flatten you into a one-dimensional person. They say, “Well, you basically are a body…or you basically are your emotions…or you basically are the choices you make.” But the Bible refuses to do that, and so should we.
  • Don’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy. While we want to make it clear that everyone to some level or degree will encounter a time of depression or anxiety, what we do not want is for you to walk away from tonight telling yourself “I’m depressed” more than you truly are, and then go looking for more reasons to validate what you are telling yourself. For example, if I wake up one morning and crack open a fortune cookie that tells me “Today, you will experience frustrations and setbacks,” and if I believe that, I will go through the rest of my day searching for how that fortune is going to come true. And if I am searching for ways to be frustrated, I will certainly find them – it doesn’t mean that my day was necessarily more frustrating than any other normal day, but because I read the fortune, I went sniffing for it. We don’t want you do that with depression and anxiety; if you go searching for reasons that aren’t already there, you will suddenly find a bunch of reasons that have only been discovered because you went looking.

Five Possible Sources of Depression and Anxiety

  1. Physical. A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness to the bones,” (Prov. 14:30). This proverb tells us that if our inner-life is at peace, our body will be healthy; but if our inner-life is out of balance, our bodies will suffer. The word for “passion” there literally means “a hot feeling” – many other translations translate it as “envy”; it is trying to communicate an inner unrest, an unhappiness and unsettled tumultuous inner-life. Simply put, your body is absolutely affected by your inner-life, and your inner-life is affected by your body. One possible cause for a pattern of depression and anxiety may be that you are physically unhealthy. Diet, exercise, sleep-patterns and a normal schedule will deeply affect your emotions. If you are eating Taco-Bell for every meal, sleeping two to three hours some nights and then fourteen hours on other nights, and watching six hours of Netflix on a daily basis – you are going to start to experience inner unrest. God has created our bodies to operate a certain a way – there are particular endorphins in your brain that are released when you exercise, there are specific vitamins your body needs to create the hormones and chemicals required for you to have a balanced emotional life, your brain needs at least six to seven hours of regular sleep to function properly. In other words, you need to take care of your body. You should exercise at least three times a week for 20 minutes; you don’t have to start doing Crossfit or anything, but do something that elevates your heart rate and gets a light sweat going. Eat your fruits and vegetables, and cut out some garbage. Get outside and go on a walk, do some chores around the house, scratch some things off your “to-do” list.
    1. You may also experience depression because of a physical illness you have. One of the most famous preachers in Church history, C.H. Spurgeon suffered from severe depression because he struggled with a lifelong case of gout. Another pastor I listen to, Timothy Keller, had thyroid cancer and had to have his thyroid removed, and because his body was then deprived of the thyroid hormone he wrestled with depression.
      1. Lastly, you could suffer from depression or anxiety because of a chemical imbalance in your brain. You may suffer from acute depression, bi-polar disorder, or any other number of clinical emotional disorders. There is no shame in struggling from an emotional or mental disorder; just like a diabetic suffers because their pancreas doesn’t create enough insulin for their bodies to function properly, so too does someone with a mental or emotional disorder suffer from a brain that doesn’t properly create the hormones and chemicals needed. And for this cause, it then is a viable option to pursue the use of medication to help balance the chemicals in your brain. However, this accounts for only a small percentage of the causes of depression or anxiety that we encounter today, and the use of psycho-active medication should always be used very cautiously, and most likely as a last resort. One of the worst possible things to do is to begin taking a drug that can seriously alter your brain’s chemicals, when they do not need to be. Also, many medications can have very serious side affects that can present emotional problems that are worse than the original problem. That being said, mood-stabilizing medications can provide serious help when used wisely. Ultimately, the decision for pursuing the use of medication should be one taken under the guidance of an experienced counselor and doctor.
  2. Emotional/Relational.Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad,” (Prov. 12:25). If you have experienced serious anxiety, you know that what this proverb is saying is true – it will weigh you down. But notice the remedy, “a good word makes him glad,” you see, what the proverb is saying is that you need a word from outside declared to you. You need someone to look at you and say “I love you, I care about you, you matter to me.” God created us as relational creatures, meaning, we are not islands, independent of one another. We were made to flourish and thrive within a community. This will look different depending on your temperament; an introvert and an extrovert’s community will look different, but they both need community. We were made to know one another and be known. This is very important, because when you or I are going through a season of depression, we tend to want to isolate ourselves and spending time with people is often the last thing we want, but it is often the very thing we are needing most. Now, I am not saying that we need to go be the life of the party, but we need to contact a friend and let them know that we aren’t doing well. One of my best friends was explaining to me just today that depression often turns you into a vacuum. You feel like you desperately need something from others, but then feel guilty for burdening them with your problems, and you stay quiet, and the depression gets stronger.
    1. And Christians, we need to learn to be better friends to our brothers and sisters who are struggling. William Cowper, a poet and hymn writer from England lived in the 18th century, and struggled with a crippling and paralyzing form of depression. He tried to kill himself nearly a dozen a times throughout his life, was extremely despondent, and was a Christian. Now, his pastor just so happened to be John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, and Newton was an incredible friend to Cowper. He spent time with him, despite his seemingly unyielding gloomy demeanor, he wrote him letters, never patronized him for his sickness, but also never gave in to his pessimism. He pulled him into serving in the church and put his poetic talents to use in beginning to write hymns. He consistently led him back to the joy and peace that is found in Christ. He didn’t “fix” him, per say, but he loved him and cared for him regardless – that is what we need when we are at our lowest. Someone who will love us without flinching. We need a good word.
      1. This is why the Church is so important, for those struggling and not struggling with depression. When you become a member of a church, you are committing to become a part of a family of people who “bears one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:1). Meaning, if I notice that you aren’t doing okay, I, as a fellow member of the family of Christ, have the loving responsibility to step into your life and ask you how you are doing, and you have the humble responsibility of being honest, asking for help, and letting someone else’s strength bear you up when you are weak.

  3. Moral/Guilt. The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion,” (Prov. 28:1). This proverb is discussing the moral aspect of our inner unrest. The writer is actually quoting from the book of Leviticus, chapter 26, where God promises that if you obey his laws and commands, you will become bold and strong, but if you disobey his commands you will become weak. But notice the proverb says that the wicked flee when nobody pursues them? Those who break God’s commands are haunted by an anxiety and unrest, no matter what they are facing. This is because guilt generalizes. If we do not deal with our guilt right away, it becomes a blinding fog, and we begin to feel like we are just bad people. So, if you are walking in sin and have refused to repent, then when someone critiques something else about you, that has nothing to do with your unrepentant sin, you still take it extremely personally and are far too sensitive. You look at those who appear to be more morally pure than you are and you find yourself resenting them, assuming that they are judging and critiquing you, even if there is no good reason for you to think that. You see, this is because you sense that something is wrong, but because you have not addressed the moral problem, it has turned into a hazy cloud that is blinding you.
    1. So how do you deal with guilt properly? Guilt is to your soul what pain is to your body. If I shove my hand in the fire, the pain I experience is my body trying to protect itself from destruction. Likewise, when I experience guilt, that is my soul telling me that I am partaking in or doing something that is destructive to it. And this is where, as a Christian, you uniquely deal with this problem differently than others. As a Christian, I look at my sin and realize that Jesus has forgiven me of that already, I repent, turn from it, confess it and move forward with my life. If you don’t have the forgiveness of Christ, then you are left to deal with your moral problems on your own – you either work hard to become a better person, or you decide to lower your moral standards to accommodate for this flaw – neither of which will provide you the peace you are looking for.
      1. Now, this needs to be stated: it is also possible for you to feel guilt for something that you should not feel guilt for. You can experience guilt over something that you have indeed repented of, but still feel guilty over. You can feel guilt over something that truly wasn’t your fault – someone may have done something to you or blamed something on you that you had no part in. This would be like me feeling like my hand is on fire, when it plainly isn’t. In those moments, I need to make a conscious effort to tell myself the truth, “I am not guilty for that. Christ has forgiven me. I was not responsible for that. My hand is not on fire.” This is also where having a friend who can speak truth to you as well is very important.

  4. Purpose. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” (Eccl. 12:13). The book of Ecclesiastes focuses on the fact that if this life is all there is, then everything is pointless. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how rich you are, how smart you are, or how much good you do – eventually you are going to die, and none of that will really matter anymore, so what’s the point? For many of you, you are extremely anxious about your future. You have no idea what you are going to do with your life, who you are going to be, what college you are going to go to, how you are going to afford college, how you are going to get the grades to get into college, etc. But listen, here is what the book of Ecclesiastes is saying, “If this life is all there is, then none of that matters anyway – but if this life isn’t all there is, then only one thing matters: obey God.” The Bible says that you and I and everyone else is made for one purpose: to bring glory to God (Isa. 43:7). So, the mission and purpose that all human beings have (though many do not know it) is ultimately to make God look more satisfying and more beautiful than anything else – to reflect His glory. This isn’t to say that what you do with your life, where you go to college, who you marry isn’t important – it just means that it isn’t ultimately important. You can obey God, glorify Him and go to college, get a career and get married and glorify Him through those things – but the things themselves are not the end, just the means.
    1. Often, we can slip into depression or anxiety because we feel like we don’t have a purpose in life, or don’t know what to do with our futures – as if college, a career and a family were necessary to live a fulfilled life. Jesus, the most perfect man who ever lived, never went to college, worked a low-class job, and never had a family. Did He live like He had no purpose? Again, I don’t want to sound like those things are bad – I am just saying they are not ultimate. Don’t worry too much about them – life consists of more.
      1. If you are in a season of depression right now, here is what you need to know: God has put you on this earth, given you the breath in your lungs, your talents, your abilities, your resources for a mission! There is a world that does not see the goodness and glory of God yet, and God is calling you to step onto the battlefield and play your part. You are not damaged goods. You are needed. Live a life of seeking the lost, helping the hurt, and loving the Church. You have a purpose.

  5. Faith. A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed… Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” (Prov. 15:13; 13:12). What are these proverbs telling us? Well, they are telling us that our depression and anxiety often comes from our faith. Our faith? In the Bible the word “heart” doesn’t mean what we Westerners tend to think it means. When we read “heart” we tend to think of emotions, but that’s not what the Bible means. In the Bible the “heart” is the core of a person, their central commitments and hopes; it is like the command center of the person’s being. Your decisions you make, things you love, affections you feel, all flow from your heart and what your heart is committed to, what your heart is hoping in. So the first proverb tells us that a “glad” heart makes a cheerful face; a heart that receives the ultimate thing it is hoping in and for is a happy person, but if a heart is denied the ultimate thing it is hoping in, it will crush them. We are hope shaped creatures, it is impossible for us not to put our hope in something, and if you put your hope in the wrong thing, you will be crushed. And though it is risky, we can’t help it – this is because the Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God, and therefore are designed to look towards something and worship it. We are to look at something and say, “You are the most wonderful thing in the world, you give me my meaning, you give me my purpose,” but because of sin, we tend to look at everything but God and worship it.
    1. Remember our definition of anxiety and depression: fear of losing something ultimate, or the sadness of something ultimate being lost. Our depression and our anxiety all center on what is “ultimate” in our life. For example, if I think having the acceptance and love of a boyfriend or girlfriend in my life is the ultimate thing I need to make my life happy, then when I have it, I will be haunted by this fear of ever losing it – I’ll make irrational decisions to try and keep the relationship going, no matter what. And if I lose the relationship, I’ll feel like there is no point in living anymore. I’ll just want to give up.

      We can do this with nearly anything: family, college, careers, friendships, comforts, sports, relationships, success, grades, etc. This means that when we feel most anxious or most depressed, we can probably follow a line that will run back up to something our heart was hoping in that failed us. Proverbs says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick” – that’s what we’re talking about tonight.

      1. But, I would like to draw your attention to that last line, “a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Tree of life? What does that mean? Well the Tree of Life is mentioned in the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis. Adam and Eve, after sinning, are forced out of the Garden so that they will be unable to eat from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). The Tree of Life is also mentioned all the way at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation. The Tree of Life stands at the center of the New Earth, by the throne of God, and we are told that it will bring healing to the world (Rev. 22:2). The Tree of Life stands like book ends to the Bible, something that we are shut out from and unable to reach, but one day, we will experience. The only other place in the entire Bible that the Tree of Life is referenced is here, in the book of Proverbs. And the book of Proverbs says that when our hearts finally receive what we have been ultimately hoping in, it is like we are experiencing the Tree of Life.

The Power of the Gospel 

What does all of this mean? Well, in the book of Galatians, did you know that Paul describes Jesus being killed by being hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13)? You might think, Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? I mean, it was made out of wood, I guess, but it was a cross. What is Paul doing here? Think through this with me, because it is really important.

In the Garden of Eden, here you have this Tree, and it symbolizes and represents fullness and completeness of life, and now because Adam and Eve have disobeyed, they are barred from being able to experience it. But hundreds and thousands of years later, Jesus also is in a garden, the garden of Gethsemane, but Jesus (unlike Adam) is obeying God. He is doing precisely what the Father is asking Him to do, so shouldn’t He then be experiencing the Tree of Life? Jesus, kneeling in the Garden, explains, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death… And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” (Matt. 26:38; Luke 22:44). What’s going on? Why is Jesus so troubled? Well, what we are seeing is Jesus experiencing anxiety. This is anxiety deeper than anything else you have ever experienced. But why? Hasn’t Jesus done a good job? Hasn’t He obeyed? Yes, He has – but you see, Jesus’ obedience to the Father is leading Him to the cross, where He is going to die for the sins of the world. Jesus knows that when He is nailed to the Cross, He isn’t going to just experience physical pain, but his soul is going to ripped to shreds – His spirit is going to be crushed. The wrath and anger of God towards sin is going to poured onto Him, and Jesus is going to stand guilty. When Jesus is on the cross He cries out, “My god, My god, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). On the cross, Jesus experienced the ultimate depression – He lost the one thing that was ultimate in His life, the Father.

Adam, had he obeyed God, would have experience the Tree of Life; Jesus, on the other hand, did obey God, but instead He got a tree of death. Why?

So you’d never have to. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). As sinners, we were under the curse of the law, the curse that began with Adam breaking God’s law. The curse demanded that we be separated from the Father – but God, being rich in mercy, and in a tremendous display of love, took the curse upon Himself, so we never would have to. Jesus experienced the tree of death, so you and I could experience the Tree of Life.

Friends, do you see the power this has on your anxiety and depression? What does your depression tell you? That you are unloved, unwanted, a burden, hopeless, helpless? The Gospel says “No! Jesus paid for all of my flaws and failures to give me a new identity in Christ. Jesus was cast out, ignored and lost what was ultimate, so I never would have to – I am loved, I am accepted, and I am secure.” What does your anxiety tell you? That everything is going to fall apart, that your world is unraveling, and all could be lost? The Gospel says “No! Jesus suffered and died on my behalf to bring the one Ultimate thing to me, the Father, and He can never be lost. Jesus was unraveled, undone and suffered the worst fear possible, so I never would have to – I am safe, I am cared for, and I am going to be okay.” The battle here is a battle for reality. You need to speak these things to yourself. You need others to speak these things to you. And together, hand in hand, we will walk this path together.

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