Sadness, Depression, and the Christian


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. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
—Isaiah 53:3-4 ESV

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
—Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 KJV

We live in an age when sadness is under assault.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a fellow Christian. At one point, I brought up some of the sadness I felt over the state of the world 2010 and some genuine losses in my life and the lives of family members. In the course of the discussion, he mentioned antidepressants.

Back in the dark ages of 40 years ago, depression was considered a debilitating mental illness. To be diagnosed with depression, one had to be nearly nonfunctional, unable to perform even simple tasks, such as getting out of bed in the morning. I had a college professor who talked about losing three entire years to crippling depression. He said he couldn’t think and could barely lift himself out of his favorite chair. Depression had rendered him completely inert.

I like to listen to Science Friday on NPR. Recently, they did a program on depression. During the interview, the two experts discussed the explosion of cases of depression diagnosed today and the reality that antidepressants are the most common drug prescribed, with one person out of every 15 in America taking them. And those numbers are growing.

Those experts noted disconcertingly that pharmaceutical company marketing departments helped manufacture much of the need, dramatically reducing the threshold for what is considered depression. Doctors bought into that marketing. Now, we have created an atmosphere of  “Sad? Well, there’s a pill for that.”

In effect, in many cases, we are using drugs to eliminate ordinary sadness.

A friend who works with mentally ill children attended a recent symposium. He later wrote that an expert on depression divulged that for most people, if left to a natural grief-resolution process that omits drugs, feelings of sadness equated to “depression” typically fade away on their own in about nine months. Intriguingly, that expert works for a drug company that sells antidepressants.

Something is terribly wrong in our society when we are unable to separate normal sadness from debilitating depression.

March 29 is turning out to be a sad date on the calendar for me. My mom, a woman greatly loved by everyone who knew her, died on that date nine years ago. In one of those terrible synchronicities of life, I got the news that the man who led me to Christ, the most Spirit-filled person I ever met, and the one whose life still serves as my example of what it means to be a Christian, died yesterday. He mentored me in what it means to live by the Spirit and to listen to what God is saying. He loved people unconditionally. God spoke to him and used him to always give a word in season. Fred Gliem was 90.

Even though Fred lived a full life and impacted many for the Kingdom, his death makes me sad.

Some Christians out there don’t like sadness. Like the society around them, they want to replace sadness with a sort of Pollyanna-ish happiness that never abates lest one discredit the joy of having Christ dwell in one richly. I hear about Christians who want to turn every funeral into a cause for celebration. Honestly, I wonder what those folks are smoking.

Here’s what the Bible says is the reaction of Spirit-filled people to the death of one of their own:

Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
—Acts 8:2

Those devout men knew their friend was in the arms of Jesus. Still, they wept and wailed over his tragic loss.

I think one of the reasons why so few people know how to deal with sadness, why some want to toss medications at those who are sad, is because our worldviews allow no place for anything less than individual fulfillment and happiness. Sadness and grief are rendered deviant emotions.

Sadness also demands a response from others. While many emotions can go without comment, sadness can’t. Sadness asks for comfort. And comfort means availability.

Do we make time for the sad and grieving? Or do we prefer they pop a few happy pills and stop bothering us?

Job’s friends are almost universally reviled because God chastised them for speaking while ignorant of the facts. But one thing God did not do was criticize Job’s friends for their dedication to their stricken friend:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
—Job 2:11-13

Seven days and nights Job’s friends stayed with him—before they even said a word. They mirrored Job’s grief, tearing their robes and weeping as they took on the dust of his despair.

When was the last time you or I heard of anyone showing such devotion to a friend in his or her time of sadness? Isn’t our tendency instead to quote Romans 8:28 and casually discount another’s abyss? Man of SorrowsHaven’t we become people who blithely say, “You know, they have a pill for that,” so we can go on with our lives, make our next business meeting on time, and not be bothered by the natural outcome of living in a sin-soaked world?

If one of Christ’s titles were not “The Man of Sorrows,” how could we ever claim that He was fully human? No, we know Jesus was well acquainted with sadness. He did not run from that emotion. How then can we?

The Scriptures say that the fool’s heart is always in the house of mirth. The fool learns nothing of the breadth of life’s truths, including the truth that sadness serves a purpose. From its depths come a kind of wisdom that can’t be gained from always thinking happy thoughts. Indeed, a sad face is good for the heart. It grounds us in real meaning and makes us better people.

Listen to “Sad Face” by The Choir:

There’s a crystal in the window
Throwing rainbows around
There’s a girl by the mirror
And her feet won’t touch the ground
‘Cause she never saw the sky so bright
Isn’t that like a cloud, to come by night
Nevermind the sky
There’s a tear in her eye

A sad face is good for the heart
Go on cry, does it seem a cruel world?
A sad face is good for the heart of a girl
A sad face

There’s a woman in my kitchen
With a rainbow on her cheek
Well isn’t that a promise?
Still I never felt so weak
There’s a tiny spirit in a world above
Cradled so sweetly in our Father’s love
So you don’t have to cry
No there’s something in my eye

A sad face is good for the heart
Maybe just now I don’t understand
A sad face is good for the heart of a man
A sad face

A sad face is good for the heart
It’s alright you don’t have to smile
A sad face is good for the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
A sad face A sad face…

31 thoughts on “Sadness, Depression, and the Christian

  1. Jeff

    Dan, thank you for writing on this.

    It grounds us in real meaning and makes us better people.

    Thankfully, God does not ask us to put on faces or be happy when it is not time to be happy. Being grounded in real meaning helps us to be real people who can love others in a real way. The gospel is more attractive to the outside world (and its reality more apparent) when lived out by believers who understand that there is a season for everything.

    You may want to check out this blog post by Paul Couglin (“Why Our Happiness is so Sad”):

  2. Truth be told, Dan, we don’t want to deal with it. If we do, then it exposes the inevitable in our own lives that we don’t want to think about.

    We also don’t know how to deal with sadness and depression in others. Because we usually avoid it, we don’t know what to do when it touches those close to us. When do we hear about it in church? Not that often. Oh, we may hear the odd “I don’t know what you’re going through right now, but….lay it at the feet of Jesus”. Meanwhile, the rest of us will pretend that everything is alright.

    What happened to “bearing one another’s burdens”? Yes, Jesus is able to heal, yes, Jesus is able to bring joy, but sometimes he wants to do it through the “one another’s”.

    • Don,

      Who has time to bear someone else’s burden? Seriously. Or the room for that intrusion into one’s island (read yesterday’s post, “My Island, No Trespassing”)?

      • Dan,

        I know what you mean. You post from yesterday did come to mind after I wrote that.

        My would be that we would at find some time, when we are church, to listen to one another and pray for one another. Perhaps we could be reminded during the week as well, to at least offer up a prayer for someone who is struggling with pain, sickness and depression. It’s easier said than done, because I’ve neglected to do it for family members.

        Keep posting your good content. Eventually, it will provoke some of us to action.


  3. Donna

    Hi Dan – It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s been 9 years since I held Ethan during Helen’s service… You’re in my prayers today. And, thank you for your thoughts on sadness. It rings so true…

    As a practical help for those who want to come along side, when Bob’s wife died, two families deliberately scheduled & cooked supper with him for 6 weeks straight – every night…. that is coming along side as burden-bearers (between both families, they had 5 children under the age of 3).

    Another friend brought ice cream, a jigsaw puzzle and the radio to listen to Indian baseball games every week during the following summer… simple things, really. But, companionship, a listening ear and a hug can bring healthy healing… we need more of these Friends… and we need to be them more often, ourselves.

  4. Sonya

    As a new christian in charismatic circles in the 80’s I likened much to what I was taught about conversion being something like swallowing a Jesus pill and everything will be alright,…. sad to say. It wasn’t until I started reading more christian counseling type books and eventually attending a PCA that I have learned more what appropriate expressions should look like from the suffering we have in this life as a result of the fall and the suffering we experience at times in following Christ .(as a result for righteousness sake… hope that made sense ) Any escape from reality ie addictive/compulsive behavior is obviously the wrong approach. Christan community is important at those times of suffering. It still takes effort for me trying to renew my mind from the’ Jesus and me’ only mentality I learned early on.

    Regarding natural death Jesus himself wept over Lazarus. Death of any kind brings sadness I think and also should provoke a righteous anger as this happens because of the fall and likely not Gods intent initially at creation. His plan through Christ is restorative as we all know now but only Christians have that hope. Others are held in bondage by the fear of death.

    I work in healthcare and it doesn’t take much these days to get a Rx for a antidepressant.
    I myself proably was suffering from a mild depression last summer. No energy at all and dropped a few projects I was working on. Didn’t care either. I thought it was my job which is partially true.. Found out I have a autoimmune disease of thyroid and my TSH was out of wack. WAY OUT OF RANGE sheeesh. Amazing what a little pill called synthroid can do LOL !!! Needless to say I am back to normal. Hurray.

    Thorough physical exam AND labs is a good place to start. Growth and developmental stages of life for middle age can bring on a melancholy saddness as one reflects on life. This is normal though.
    As we all age our friends start dying around us. Staying plugged in a community of believers and not necessarily only blood relatives and family is important and vital IMO.

  5. Quote: “a sad face is good for the heart”

    I feel the overload coming. The circuts are burning out. You’re kidding, right? This has got to be some kind of calculated pose.

    Oh, well, if ever I start to feel even the slightest bit happy, I’ll make sure to come here and read something edifying from Dire Dan. It’ll cure me in a heartbeat and wipe that silly smile off my face. And for the really bad news, I’ll next go and read something on I love finding out how, real soon now, the country will default, and our currency might be good for toilet paper. Like Argentina, only written much larger. Yep. My entire life savings might buy me a loaf of bread. And if I’m real lucky, I might be able to retire to a single-wide whose pipes don’t freeze in the winter.

    Gosh, where are all these happy people you’re talking about? It’s like a MAJOR PROBLEM THAT MUST BE SOLVE.

    • Oengus,

      The funeral Friday should be a good day. Amidst the tears, it will be a joy to see a bunch of old friends I have not seen in years. Sadness and joy can coexist.

      As for your comments about bread, I remember an old song with the line “a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.” The title of that song is informative.

  6. We all know people go to church with fake plastic smiles and pretend things are all right. I don’t think it’s always the others who aren’t bearing burdens. I think many won’t share their burdens for fear of seeming weak? for fear of judgment? for fear they are the only one?

    Although I agree that there is a place for sadness, I do not think we are to experience it as the world does. Joy does come in the morning. We don’t have to follow the world’s year-long grief cycle. We can find healing in Christ. But it’s from Him we should seek healing.

    This post reminded me of when I had a miscarriage two kids ago. Someone called to offer condolences and when I told her of the many blessings that I had seen in the situation she chided me and told me she was going to pray for me to grieve properly. No, I didn’t find that encouraging.

    I had been sad. I had cried. But I do believe in the truth of Romans 8:28 and I do believe God is good and faithful and true and I do trust my life to Him. And I found blessings. The death didn’t disappear. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen, but we don’t have to remain in sadness without hope like the world–or pop a pill.

    • Lee,

      As I noted in the post, an expert on depression stated that much of what we deem depression today often fades away on its own in nine months. By short-circuiting that process with drugs, I suspect we end up missing out on the wisdom the process of healing brings.

      I believe in the truth of Romans 8:28, too. But I think it needs to be judiciously applied, possibly better used by thinking it in the head of the comforter rather than speaking it carelessly to the comforted.

  7. merry

    Thank you for writing this.

    It reminds me of a discussion I was in a few months ago, regarding beauty. A few people in the group couldn’t see beauty in anything but happiness. A while later, I experienced a death in my family. The weekend of the funeral, I experienced joy for the first time…not happiness, necessarily, because I felt deep sadness. But at the same time of the sadness there was also much hope, because God was there. I don’t think joy is the same thing as happiness. It seems to go deeper, and I think with God working sadness can become a useful, even beautiful emotion. Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

  8. wayne

    Thanks, the last couple of years have been a season of sadness & doubt. Your thoughts have helped me believe there are others that have walked past and out to the other side. thanks God bless

    • Wayne,

      Time does heal wounds. It may not heal all the scars, but there is wisdom to gain in walking into that valley and out the other side over the course of many days.

  9. Bryan Cobb

    Dan, your post reminds me of a song on this subject that has always corrected my perspective… 🙂

    These Plastic Halos
    by Mark Heard (1983)

    These plastic halos
    They seem so out of place
    Behind the mask lurks a scarred and fragile face
    We lie so spiritually
    Familiar smiles displayed
    Misleading masquerade

    We hide our pain
    We try to laugh
    Fools to think our tears
    Would provoke holy wrath

    In stone-gray silence
    We do not face our fears
    We bite our lips and we press on with feeble cheer
    With hearts of sadness
    We say our thankful prayers
    Refusing comfort unawares

    We hide our pain
    We try to laugh
    Fools to think our tears
    Would provoke holy wrath

    We learn the protocol
    We bare our souls to none
    We praise our peers for the optimism shown
    “Brave men don’t cry”, we say
    As we watch the world turn to dust
    The tears of God fall for us

  10. @Bryan, this lyrics are surprisingly similar to more recent hit “Stained Glass Masquerad” by Casting Crowns.

    I remember also Keith Green, that made irony on this topic during a preach: “Do you know that the Lord can be… SAD?” “Nooo, da Lord iz alwayz happy, alwayz happy… Praiz da Lord” (lolcat slang is a choice of mine to give an idea of the mood)

    @Dan, I think that also this article deserves an Italian translation 😉

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      … these lyrics are surprisingly similar to more recent hit “Stained Glass Masquerade” by Casting Crowns.

      Maybe there’s a reason the subject crops up so much in lyrics.

  11. Dan – thanks for the brave post on an unpopular point. I think you are right on. I’ve been sad for a year and especially since October. Every person in my family has had (and for the most part is still) wrestling with something significant from health to finances to emotions to spiritual issues … the same with those in my small group … and even I have had a number of physical issues (although not life threatening) …

    Anyway, at first it bothered me … I cried at some point nearly every day … but then I thought, “no, this is good. This is healthy. I’m crying because I care.” Anyway, the point is that we have to ensure it’s not debilitating and/or leading to an unhealthy spiritual place but properly focused, sorrow is good.

    So I appreciate your post because if we cannot acknowledge and talk about this, it becomes unhealthy and our friends (as Job’s) are quick to prescribe inappropriate remedies.

  12. Mark Van Norden

    I agree with Lee that a lot of people feel the need to put on a mask, and act happy, because, by golly, a good Christian should be happy. I think the world is screaming for an expression of “real”ness, for a people that can admit “I’m sad”, or can admit “I struggle with this”, or admit “I’m divorced”. Christians in general are not good at being real. We want to cover up our wounds with a bandaid (which essentially is what anti-depressants do), so we don’t have to feel or admit how much we need help. Sometimes it is just too painful to face the things from our past that need to be faced. As you’ve discussed, Dan, I think we as Christians have to embrace our sadness, and then trust in the Lord to deliver.

    On the other hand, I will not go out of my way to be sad. I agree with the poster that stated that there is a time for both, and joy (which IS different than happiness) can and does co-exist with sorrow. I believe that if we are fervently following Christ we will suffer, and sadness is a part of that. But as previously posted, the joy comes in the morning, and we must always be cognizant of where Christ is in the midst of our sorrow. We certainly must allow ourselves to grieve, but improper focus on that grief is not healthy.

    The only other thing I would say is, like already posted, the world doesn’t have the same grace we have. The world has no hope to find true healing for “what ails them”, and thus often are relegated to medication to control their symptoms. I think that the rise in the incidence of depression can also be linked to the fact that more and more people are growing up without hope in Christ, and without Christ there is despair, with no hope for healing.

  13. I think we Christians could benefit from some training in how to grieve, and how to grieve with others.

    How to speak graciously or be silent, rather than saying things meant to be comforting but which deeply hurt.

    How to accept graciously those words meant to comfort, but don’t.

    How to cry out to the Lord in pain and accusation and anguish and despair without feeling guilty for doing so, just like many of the psalms and the lamentations do.

    How to demand, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” and grow to be comforted by the dawning realization that He never has, never could, never will.

  14. Deborah Lawton

    Your point about Christians not wanting to display sadness extends, I think, to Christians not wanting to display any “negative outcome”: sickness, chronic pain issues, marital troubles, money troubles, kid troubles, etc. We seem to have created a Christian culture that assumes if we are less than perfect we somehow sully God’s reputation. Boy, doesn’t that put us in a bind! He is the only hope for dealing with our situations, but we feel too bad to approach Him–judged guilty because we defame His name. We crave the comfort He can give us through His people, but are afraid to admit what is happening because they will chide or rebuke us for not being perfect.

  15. I think you are right when you talk about people not wanting to stay with others in their pain. It is a true friend that will grieve with you and not just try and give you a cliche and expect you to get over it.

  16. Thanks for discussing a subject that we’re frequently uncomfortable with. I came across another link recently that I thought was well-written on this topic: Let No be No.

  17. maizie

    This format is so wacky that I am surprised you aren’t depressed.
    The format aside, the term “depressed” is a euphemism for a whole host of troubles. And believers have allowed the world to define that rather than the Word of God. That is depressing also.

  18. I thank the Lord for sorrow has acquainted me with the Lord Jesus, more than fleeting moments of joy. And to know sorrow is to know the person and life of Jesus Christ, ‘man of sorrows’. Jesus bless you.

  19. I thank the Lord for sorrow has acquainted me with the Lord Jesus, more than fleeting moments of joy. And to know sorrow is to know the person and life of Jesus Christ, ‘man of sorrows’. Jesus bless you. True repentance is accompanied with godly sorrow for sins.

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