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…

The Times and Our Response


Munch's 'The Scream'

I can’t remember a time in my life when more people are on edge. Short fuses and strong emotions don’t mix. Everywhere I look, people are either ready to pop a vein in their heads or to bury those same heads in their hands out of fear or sorrow.

In the last few days, I have had numerous encounters with people who appear to be losing it. What’s even stranger is that I spent most of last week at home sick. That makes the percentage of tense encounters even higher.

While I’m not one for end times speculations, it sure seems to me that the time before the Lord returns is running out. Reading the biblical descriptions of what people will be like in those days reads like America 2010.

Which is why,  more than ever, the Church needs to be at its most humble, winsome, and loving. We cannot be the angry, fearful, hateful people. Because we are called to be like the Lord, and the Lord is a rock and sure foundation, we need to look like Him in the eyes of desperate, angry, fearful people. We must be solid, but humbly so. We must turn the other cheek more than ever before and refuse to dish back what is dished out to us. We must be willing to accept being called wrong even when we are right. We simply cannot afford to repay anger with anger and fear with fear.

How do we get the American Church to that point? The only answer is to die to self.

Fact is, dying to self is pretty much the answer to 90 percent of the questions and issues that face Christians living in these times. If we only live to preserve our material goods, our status, and our positions on negotiable issues, if we live only to ensure that we always look good in the world’s eyes, then we will fail to stake out the higher ground and only descend into the madness around us.

Black Dogs and Slate-Colored Skies


It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 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 ESV

Greater Cincinnati broods under a pall of slate-colored skies for much of the winter. That frigid, monochromatic season arrives like a boorish houseguest, and his anticipated departure encapsulates the entire household's hope. Slate-colored skiesAs for me, I've never been one for a perpetual grayness that obscures the colors of life. Cerulean skies and a smiling sun are more my style.

I've noticed a trend in talking about depression on several Godblogs. Brad Hightower of 21st Century Reformation discusses depression and the creative process, Nathan Busenitz looks at failed secular answers to confronting depression, Dan Phillips of Team Pyro observes forty years of desert wandering, while Lisa Samson chronicles her own battle with the affliction. Various reasons for depression exist. B.H. ties it in with the ever-popular tortured artist effect, N.B. for the lack of a godly foundation, D.P. goes for the unbelief angle, while L.S. attributes it to artificial sweeteners. I can definitely see all four causes as possible culprits.

Winston Churchill, the peerless political hero of WWII, referred to his depression as his "black dog." Man's best friend took on a Stygian demeanor, but Churchill's affliction undergirded the hope that lifted his entire nation in evil days. Out of his own personal abyss, he saw a light in the distance and led his countrymen to it.

The patron saint of a majority of the Godblogosphere, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, fought depression most of his life. Several people died at one of his preaching events when some fool hollered "Fire!" in the crowded theater. Those deaths haunted the "Prince of Preachers" for much of his life. Later, Spurgeon dealt with respected Christian ministers who belittled his ministry. Then came his declining health. He writes:

I know that wise brethren say, ‘You should not give way to feelings of depression.’ … If those who blame quite so furiously could once know what depression is, they would think it cruel to scatter blame where comfort is needed. There are experiences of the children of God which are full of spiritual darkness; and I am almost persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favoured have, nevertheless, suffered more times of darkness than others.

As the nights grow longer and the news around the world tells ever more grim tales of hate, fear, loss, and death, many go into "the most wonderful time of the year" with sad faces. Nothing weighs the heart than to fall into the recessed corners of life while others decorate brightly-ornamented trees and sing festive songs.

The Christmas carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" begins

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Four hundred cursed years without the voice of God speaking life into His chosen people. The heavens were as brass, sealed with bars of cruel iron. Yearning and mourning, but to no immediate satisfaction.

I believe that one of the dark secrets of our churches are the countless souls stumbling through fog under slate-colored skies, black dog at their side. Maybe they've failed to believe in their hearts, or maybe they never should've downed that Diet Coke with a Splenda chaser.

Or perhaps they are simply people who know the deep, deep love of Jesus, but weep with Him for a world rent by injustice, want, and human savagery. For the True Light of the World is also the sinless Man of Sorrows. 

Are we ministering that Light to others? Have we tasted of the heavenly sorrow that brings wisdom so we can speak the voice of God into the yearning barrenness of another?

Spurgeon again:

I would, therefore, try to cheer any brother who is sad, for his sadness is not necessarily blameworthy. If his downcast spirit arises from unbelief, let him flog himself, and cry to God to be delivered from it; but if the soul is sighing–‘though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’–its being slain is not a fault.

This Christmas, take a moment to look around. Someone you know is struggling with depression, I can guarantee it. Find out why. Better yet, shine the light of Christ in the midst of his or her darkness.

Wintertime cannot prevail. One day the Lion of Judah will return and this perpetual chill we dwell under will surrender to eternal Springtime.


In sibilant winter winds hear the answer

To the questions, to the groanings of the trees,

"How long, how long must we slumber

And the nights saunter on without number

While we sleep away day and we slumber

As the hours roll by as they please?"


And from the ice-stifled brook by the woodside

With the echoes of its runnings frozen still,

"What time, what time will I waken

To the courses and swells now forsaken,

To meander my way when I waken

From the grip of this dire winter chill?"


See, hibernating, the vole in the meadow

In its dreaming, in its breathing whispers, too,

"Enough? Enough in my larder?

Will the length of the winter make harder

My assault on the stores in my larder;

Will I have all I need to get through?"


Listening in on the widower weeping,

Hear the anguish of a young man turning old:

"Oh who, oh who will be waiting,

And my shattered heart anticipating,

As I live out my winter here waiting

For the rest of my life to unfold?"


In sibilant winter winds comes the answer,

"There's a splendor to the coming of that day

When the trees' dormant hands will applaud me,

And the streams' many voices will laud me,

And all creatures below will applaud me

When the wintertime passes away."


"Winter" © 2002 by Dan Edelen, Ethereal Pen Productions, LLC.