In a Tabletalk article from 2008 R.C. Sproul, theologian and founder of Ligonier Ministries, writes about the reality of spiritual depression. He says:
Spiritual depression is real and can be acute. We ask how a person of faith could experience such spiritual lows, but whatever provokes it does not take away from its reality. Our faith is not a constant action. It is mobile. It vacillates. We move from faith to faith, and in between we may have periods of doubt when we cry, “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”
The thought of spiritual depression may frighten some of us. Many of us have been taught that spiritual depression must come from unconfessed sin or a lack of prayer or some other sort of silly nonsense. Of course, unconfessed sin and an inattention to prayer have dramatic effects on one’s spiritual life (see Luke 22:40, James 4:1-8 and 1 John 1:9), however, spiritual depression does not necessarily arise from these causes alone.
The reality of spiritual depression is much more complicated.
Here is what spiritual depression (SD) is NOT. SD is not suspending one’s belief in God. It can, however, be a time of wrestling with the reality of God’s sovereignty. The book of Job illustrates this beautifully. Job states, “Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.” (Job 3:23–26 ESV). Job, in the midst of loss and suffering, fought to understand how a good God could allow such evil. In the end, he praises God for his sovereignty (Job 42:2), but the SD he encountered in the midst of his crisis was all too real.
Additionally, SD is not sin. It is however, a time of grappling with the reality of emotions such as sorrow and despair. Experiencing lament and grief is a normal part of existence as an emotional being. Numerous writers of Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture have conveyed these intense emotions. David declares, “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Psalms 13:3–6 ESV). David’s grief, expressed here as well as in numerous other passages, reveals the reality of our frail humanity. The people of God have expressed powerful emotions of sorrow and agony, yet continue to look to God for comfort and support.
Finally, SD is not unknown by our Savior. The prophet Isaiah declared, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV). Jesus’s Garden of Gethsemane experience reveals a shade of this: “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:41–44 ESV). We also see this in His crucifying cry, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV). While this shout from the cross can be variously interpreted (most likely as a Messianic declaration echoing Psalm 22; for more on that click here), in a basic sense it shows the sorrow and agony experienced by a Savior who took on flesh (and our sin) for our sake.
R.C. Sproul concludes his thoughts on SD with this:
This coexistence of faith and spiritual depression is paralleled in other biblical statements of emotive conditions. We are told that it is perfectly legitimate for believers to suffer grief. Our Lord Himself was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Though grief may reach to the roots of our souls, it must not result in bitterness. Grief is a legitimate emotion, at times even a virtue, but there must be no place in the soul for bitterness. In like manner, we see that it is a good thing to go to the house of mourning, but even in mourning, that low feeling must not give way to hatred. The presence of faith gives no guarantee of the absence of spiritual depression; however, the dark night of the soul always gives way to the brightness of the noonday light of the presence of God.
Spiritual depression does not deny a believer’s faith; it complements and confirms it. Such a state should not be sought, but when it comes, it should be embraced and captured for the Holy Spirit do His work in and through those sorrows and griefs. Ask God what He wants you to know about Himself in the midst of this dark season. Like David, we can affirm God’s providence even in the thick of our soul’s darkest nights. Here are some thoughts for working through spiritual depression when it comes:
- Journal your thoughts and concerns. Don’t be afraid to be candid in your writing; David wasn’t!
- Confide in a trusted (Christian) friend or pastor. The benefits of friendship in working through SD can not be overstated!
- If possible, work in a time of personal retreat in the Scriptures and prayer. Focus on the Psalms, making the prayers of Scripture your own.
- Don’t forsake community and service, even in the midst of SD. Remain active in church fellowship and service to others.
- Scripture does not promise a release from all earthly despondency, but it does implore believers to “hope in God, for [we] shall again praise him” (Psa 43:5 ESV). We look forward to the day when Christ will “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4 ESV).
Looking for additional comfort in the midst of a weak soul? Click here.