Depression is a real thing. According to the website http://www.healthline.com, it’s estimated that 16.2 million adults in the United States have had at least one major bout with depression in the past year. Of course that number is probably low given the fact that many depressed people don’t want to talk about their problem and don’t want to end up a statistic in a poll.
I personally know some good people, Christians, who struggle with depression. One of the best church members that I ever had called her depression “the pit.” It robbed her of her Christian joy and caused her to isolate herself from people, an isolation that cut completely against her normally outgoing nature. Each time her depression came upon her all she wanted to do was lie on her bed in a completely dark room.
Ralph Barton was perhaps the most popular cartoonist/illustrator of America’s roaring ’20s. His caricatures of celebrities and New York socialites were featured in various magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and, most notably, The New Yorker, where he served as an advisory editor. He also drew the illustrations for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a wildly popular book of the decade.
Barton had fame and money, hobnobbed with celebrities (he and Charlie Chaplain were very close friends), traveled the world, dated and married beautiful women, and enjoyed the finer things of life. And yet on May 19th, 1931, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his penthouse apartment in Manhattan. He was just 39 years old.
The truth about Barton is that he was a deeply troubled man who suffered from chronic depression and mental illness. The suicide note he left is one of the most famous ones ever written, having been published many times in many places. I offer it here again as an illustration of the depths to which depression can take a person. Barton wrote:
Everyone who has known me and who hears of this will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it. Practically all of these hypothesis will be dramatic–and completely wrong. Any sane doctor knows that the reasons for suicide are invariably psychopathological. Difficulties in life merely precipitate the event–and the true suicide type manufactures his own difficulties. I have had few real difficulties. I have had, on the contrary, and exceptionally glamorous life–as lives go. And I have had more than my share of affection and appreciation. The most charming, intelligent, and important people I have known have liked me–and the list of my enemies is very flattering to me. I have always had excellent health. But, since my childhood, I have suffered with a melancholia which, in the past 5 years, has begun to show definite symptoms of manic-depressive insanity. It has prevented my getting anything like the full value out of my talents, and, for the past three years, has made work a torture to do at all. It has made it impossible for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that seem to get other people through. I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself. In doing so, I am very much afraid that I have spread a good deal of unhappiness among the people who have loved me.”
Barton’s glamorous life and tragic death prove that no one is immune from depression. Even the Bible backs up this truth. Take the time sometime to read the following passages:
- Israel’s King Solomon voices his depression in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11.
- Solomon’s father, King David, does the same thing in Psalms 42 and 43.
- The prophet Elijah asks God to take his life in 1 Kings 19:1-4.
- Jonah asks God to take his life in Jonah 4:1-3.
- Job asks God to take his life in Job 6:8-9.
- Moses asks God to take his life in Numbers 11:10-15.
Charles Spurgeon was one Christian who had a different take on depression. “Who was Charles Spurgeon?” you ask. He was England’s most famous preacher during its golden age of preachers, the Victorian age. His Metropolitan Tabernacle in London is sometimes referred to as the world’s first megachurch. However, Spurgeon suffered from great bouts with depression that plagued his ministry and life. As the The Spurgeon Center website puts it:
Spurgeon owned more than thirty books on mental health. He read about depression, wrote about depression, and suffered from depression. Spurgeon’s letters contain numerous references to his sinking spirits. He often called himself a “prisoner” and wept without knowing why.
But what was the different take that Spurgeon had concerning depression? He called his depression “a prophet in rough clothing.” In his Lectures to My Students, he says:
Fits of depression come over most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. There may be here and there men of iron…but surely the rust frets even these.
Basically, Spurgeon looked upon depression as something with which everyone, to some degree or another, must wrestle. But he viewed bouts with depression as helpful experiences for the Christian. As he saw it, fits of depression cast Christians down to keep us humble before God so that we might not be egotistically exalted above measure (2 Corinthians 12:7). They teach us that we have the power of Christ upon us the most when we are the weakest, not when we are the strongest (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). They strip us of our overrated wisdom as we learn that we don’t really have all the answers to life’s troubles. They reveal the inferior quality of our supposed courage as we grow scared that we can’t overcome our depression. And they force us to face the reality that even though the born-again experience has equipped us to feel true Christian joy, sometimes we are not even happy, let alone joyous.
I have to say that the more I study Spurgeon’s attitude toward depression the more I see the blessing in it. Surely it’s no coincidence that God was able to use the man so mightily. Needless to say, I want that same uncommon spiritual power upon my own ministry.
But what if that power only comes by way of bouts of depression? What if it takes those bouts to keep me humble and cause me to understand the fullness of Jesus’ words, “…without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)? Well, that’s another matter altogether, and it’s one that I have to come to grips with one way or another in my own life.
I really don’t believe that God wants us to desire depression. Furthermore, I don’t believe that depression even comes from Him. But I do believe that He can use a person’s depression as a tool to do outstanding spiritual work not only in that person but also through that person. We might think of this as Him redeeming depression and bringing good out of it. It’s just a shame that so few depressed people actually understand this, and therefore they never reach the place where they can benefit from that good.