Depression and Grief

by Charles Slack

Depression and grief are not the same.  Depression is a lingering state of mind (often assumed to have a neurological basis) whereas grief is a more acute state of emotional pain caused by a specific loss.  In grief, we temporarily mourn the passing of a cherished person, place, thing (or sometimes theory or thought).  Often the emotional pain following loss does not seem to be temporary.  When that happens it’s best to call it depression rather than grief.  Likewise, self-pity, a persistent] distress featuring bitterness and resentment, is more likely associated with depression than with true grief.

So the Bible-based relief from full-on, intransigent, relentless, deep depression (worldly sorrow) is full-on, deep but transient Godly sorrow (II Corinthians 7:9-10).   Godly sorrow is intense, sometimes almost unbearably severe.  But unlike depression, we can mourn and go through the worst of it with God’s help.  The Bible cure for depression involves letting your heart break, your tears flow in complete sorrowfulness.

Grief-relief from depression, effective but not easy

This Bible-based method is painful.  Grief is more intense than depression and we naturally fear its full-on agony.  But the good news is: the intense phase of grief is short-lived compared to depression which never quits.  The intense phase of grief, though horrible, lasts only “for a season” – thank God – and He constantly promises to comfort us during the worst of it.  When we emerge from grief, as we eventually do, we may still feel some loss but we are no longer at a loss – the sun shines again.  On the other hand, we never do emerge from clinical depression.  We just suppress/repress (or dampen the blues with medication) while the anguish goes on and on undercover.

Great men and women of God have suffered depression (formerly called “melancholia”) until they completely surrendered to God.  Billy Graham was “spiritually dead” prior to being born again.  Franklin Graham was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.  St. Augustine wrote his famous Confessions about the depths he experienced before turning completely to the will of his Saviour.

David of Judea and even Jesus Christ both asked, God, why have you forsaken me? (David in Psalm 22; Jesus in Matthew 27:46.)  There’s no use trying to convince yourself God hasn’t abandoned you when you really think He has.  Why not do what David and Jesus did to get the answer direct?  If God doesn’t answer immediately, persist!  Set aside a time every day to ask God why He seems to have left.  Don’t take my word for it, find out for yourself.

My depression was caused by my hanging on to something God wanted me to let go of.  As long as I hung on, I was still “of the world” in a big way.   The Bible way is “die to self” and grieve, after which you rise – becoming a new creation.  Jesus says (Mark 8:34-35) “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Psychoanalytic cure never applied

A Swiss psychoanalyst, Dr. Alfred Adler, invented a fourteen-day cure for depression.  Adler said, if each of fourteen days you simply think of one thing you could do to help another person, your depression will lift.  You don’t really have to do anything, just think that thought.  Problem: his patients could not think it.  Severely depressed people simply could not imagine a single thing to help someone else.  They asked Adler, “What do you mean by ‘help’?”  He replied, “Make someone smile.”  Still they couldn’t do it.  A patient said he was so depressed he couldn’t sleep.  Dr. Adler said, “Stay awake and think of something that would help someone.”  Next day the patient said he went right to sleep!  Dr. Adler’s patients didn’t know how to make his cure work because they didn’t know the Lord.  You and I can help somebody merely by going to church early.  Leave in advance and get there early: you meet the best people that way, Early Club members who help make the church service possible.  Being an early bird indicates willingness to help. Even if you actually do little or nothing, you have at least done some Adlerian thinking.  Repeat for three Sundays in a row and put your mind to it every day in between and your depression will lift noticeably.  Such is the power of even a tiny bit of Godly devotion.

Good and bad sorrow

Worldly devotions, such as idolizing your child or worrying about finances, may seem OK but these can take priority over God.  A person, place, thing or thought that God wants us to let go of can be deadly.  It may not be a felony or misdemeanor but it is a form of idolatry, a breach in our relationship with Him.  Such attachments cause depression.

Good Grief

The ultimate cure for depression is Godly sorrow which means grieving.  You repent and then you mourn because you have totally let go of the person, place, thing or idea you valued so highly.  You go through the great grief like a heavy waterfall.  When you come out, the world is brighter.  Good grief!  People are afraid of grief but actually there is nothing to fear.  The intense phase of grief is always temporary.

So think, for a moment, about exactly what or whom you may be idolizing.  It might be your profession, your self-image, even your ministry.  You don’t want to give it up because it seems as important as your very own soul.  That beloved person, place, thing, activity, idea or ideal is an idol.  Hanging onto it can eventually kill you; the Bible says it “worketh death”.  As long as you hang onto him/her/it/them, you remain intractably depressed and there seems no way out.  However, you are deceived: the way out is to become willing to let go completely.

If you are unsure or unaware of exactly what it is you are holding onto, if the object of your tenacity is unknown or uncertain, then seek help from a Godly mentor or advisor to help you find words for it and bring it to full consciousness.

Then, hand it over to Lord Jesus.  Give Him your cherished self-concept: you are now a new creature in Christ.  Give Him your idolized, unsaved child: s/he’s the Lord’s child now.  Surrender your drug-abusing partner to God: s/he’s God’s problem now.  Give UP the idea you will ever get healed the way you think you should: let the Lord work in His inscrutable way with your health.  God’s will be done, not yours.  Surrender your life to Him – total, absolute, unconditional surrender.

Sound impossible?  Letting go completely means total loss and total loss means unbearable grief.  But that’s your only choice, unbearable grief vs. interminable depression.  If you choose grief, you will find grief is temporary and God will send His Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to get you though.  If you choose to remain depressed, He makes no such promises.  In fact that’s the whole problem in a nutshell: God appears to forsake the depressed while He blesses those who repent and mourn.

Don’t idolize your life

Jesus said that whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33)  Idolizing my self-made lifestyle made me suicidal with depression.  But, thank God, I didn’t kill myself.  Instead, I “died to self”, was crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)  At the time I was totally powerless, I felt I simply could not do a single thing.  That’s when God took over.  I just let Him do His job.  The pain was great (greater than the depression) but after God removed the cause, agony subsided.

Don’t let anyone tell you to lighten up: happiness comes later.  When I grieved, I cried tears.  I mourned and felt unbearable loss when at last I finally let it go.  That person, place, thing, idea, whatever I was clinging to, is now gone forever and I suffered accordingly.  However, the Lord Jesus always supplies a “Comforter and Helper” (John14:26): the Holy Spirit comes.  “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)   Grief is all about suffering and being comforted.  God gives us mourning to get the grief out of our system.

Summing up

Surrender requires trust in God.  “He will bring it to pass.”  (Read Psalm 37 and take it totally to heart.)  Ask God to remove ALL your old ideas.  Begin afresh.  Let him give you new ideas about relationships, healing, love, salvation, your profession, your ministry, and of course, about depression and happiness.  He will renew your mind in His time.  Just do what He requires.  It may seem mechanical, but go through the actions anyway.  Be patient.  He will bring it to pass.  God will turn your mourning into joy and “gird” you with gladness (Psalm 30:11).  You will be more content than you ever thought possible.

Finally, the most important thing you can do to keep from getting depressed again is regular, full-on worship of the Lord.   Worship at every opportunity.  Next in importance is “helping others”: 1) Love God with all your being; 2) love your neighbour.  This is good advice but, when you are depressed, no way can you do it without Lord Jesus in your life.

But after you pass through the grieving, you can worship and share abundantly.

On pages 250-251 of “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference” by Philip Yancey, is a testimony by a severely depressed lady named Jacqueline titled “Hanging On”.  When depressed Jacqueline says she felt “everything was wrong”.  She “might as well have been run over by a truck.”  She could hardly get out of bed.  She “went on suicide websites to see if other people had experienced something similar.”  In the finish she completely surrendered to God’s love and pulled through by His grace.  Jacqueline concludes depression changed her forever.  “It took away all cockiness, any sense that I can make it on my own.  I think of myself as having a spiritual disability now – I have to rely on God all day long every day.  I can’t count on myself because I have failed myself.  I used to see prayer as a way of getting God to do what I wanted.  Now I see it as my way of getting in on what God is doing, and just hanging on.”

I put it this way: it is human to desire success but divine to embrace failure and turn to God.