In the summer of 2021, a question appeared on the CCEF website: “What has helped you to endure in the midst of depression?” We received 365 responses—each one a gift. Thank you. If you were to read them, you would have been strengthened in your faith in Jesus. I certainly was, and I plan to read them again. They remind us that there are many fine people, some of them within reach, who fight every day, with every speck of life and every resource the Spirit gives them. They are heroes of the faith whose strength and beauty are seen by some of us now, by all when faith becomes sight.
Everyone who endures hardships by faith in Christ stands in the tradition of witnesses. Israel was called upon to be a witness to the greatness of God in contrast to the emptiness of idols. “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord (Isa 43:10). Witnesses are those who believe that God exists, and they draw near to him even when they have only heard his words and not yet seen him (Heb 11:6). They continue to draw near when they endure fiery tests.
Here is how these witnesses were helped as they endured depression.
The basic summary of the answers is what you might expect:
- daily time in Scripture supplemented by anything spiritually good,
- time in prayer,
- time with people who understand and care well, and
- wise routines.
These might seem ordinary, but they are evidence of the Spirit’s power, and they are truly impossible when you feel as though all life has left your body, soul, intellect, and affections. When Scripture suddenly becomes a foreign language, a normal person will not take the time to decipher it, but those who endure by faith will keep trying. When you live with accusations—“you are a failure, nobody loves you, you don’t deserve to live”—why would you turn to God? When you believe that even if God loves you, he loves you less than the upbeat people in the church—why would you turn to God? One person wrote: “I ruminate on things that are so unhelpful.” Those ruminations were about how God was displeased with him. But those who endure work hard to not give these questions or their answers the last word. Instead, they turn to Jesus because they have a faint memory that he “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev 1:5). And they know they will not find life anywhere else.
Here are some details from the survey.
1. Time in Scripture. For the depressed, this can mean: the truth, force-fed. “I have to remind myself that God loves me every day, and pray every day, whether I feel like it or not.” If you ever had to eat when you had absolutely no appetite, you know how hard this can be.
Aim for “slow listening.” By this, this individual meant that he waited to hear one thing that could possibly be good for his soul, and then he held on. Respondents slow listened to Isaiah 61:1–3, Psalm 27, Psalm 131, Zephaniah 3:17, Romans 5, Hebrews 11, 1 Peter 1, or anything that said, “but God,” or a hymn book, or the Book of Common Prayer. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy made a few lists, as did biographies of old saints of the church, especially those digested by John Piper. Some were able to read. Others could only listen — to sermons, podcasts, music, and a spouse who “just read Scripture, even Leviticus.”
“I have to think hard about the suffering of Jesus and the eternal joy that followed.” Think hard? Amazing. Most of us don’t think hard about spiritual truth after a good night’s sleep and a day that seems manageable. Another said, “I lost my ability to think.” This is a common reality of depression. But here is that evidence of power: “At that bottom, I was met by the Man of Sorrows and high priest who had suffered.” And then, they must find him again tomorrow. Truth fades quickly when it competes with the chronic pain of depression. Frequent trips to Scripture and truth were the order of the day. “I have tried to have resets throughout the day by reading a wise book or devotional.” A few followed this time in Scripture by “repenting of misplaced hopes and trust.”
About 20% of respondents found refuge in God’s sovereign control over all things, including their depression. This is more than I anticipated, but it should be no surprise. Job and Habakkuk have led the way. Both men, each approved and loved by God, faced great suffering, and both had very personal encounters with the Lord. They asked God questions, and he actually spoke with them. In visitations such as these, people bow to God’s greatness and authority. They learn that he is the LORD. Habakkuk said, “I hear, and my body trembles . . . I will quietly wait for the day of trouble” (Hab 3:16). Job said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). The eyes of both men were diverted from the troubles of the day to something bigger, which freed them to grow in simple obedience and joy.
One woman was led to this same place through the greatness of God’s presence and love.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Ps 5:7)
The Maker of Heaven and Earth walked with her, and their destination was his house. Forgiveness of sins in the sacrificial death of Jesus assured her that these words were true. She was left with the prized gift of the fear of the Lord and a measure of rest. The one who is over all the nations is over depression, and neither the nations nor depression will prevail.
2. Time in prayer. Endurance listens. It also talks.
- “Prayer, prayer, prayer.”
- “Being honest with God.”
- “Praying Scripture back to God.”
- “I cry out more than fight against the darkness.”
- “Crying out helps me endure—a gut-wrenching cry, angry petulance, weak whimper, expectant confidence. When I cry, he always answers.”
Prayer appeared everywhere in this survey. Either they cried out to the Lord, or they relied on the prayers of faithful friends.
3. Time with people. Depression isolates. “Being depressed is very lonely.” We need other people. But when it feels herculean just to get out of bed, who can seek out friends? If you push yourself toward others, you could receive both good and bad. “Churches admire the strong and the busy.” “I often feel alone at church. They hurry and scurry around the church serving cups of tea, but don’t speak of the Savior’s loving heart.” People, indeed, come with risks, but, for most of the respondents, the risk was worth taking. When in doubt, “I do the exact opposite of how I feel. If I feel like being alone, I try to get out.”
“Tell someone you are depressed.” That is a small, risky yet doable step. It might feel like you are coming out of hiding and acknowledging something hideous or shameful. But tell someone. If you have no idea who to tell, tell your pastor. Among those who responded, there was a chorus that never stopped singing the same refrain: “Don’t isolate. Don’t isolate.”
Who were the most helpful people? The ones deemed safe had a common profile: they did not prejudge depression as wrong or a sign of spiritual weakness, they did not act like hired consultants who dispensed simple remedies, and they were willing to make time. A number of people wrote that they especially valued those who could care even without words—by a hug, a walk, and simply being present.
- “Tell someone you are depressed.”
- “I have faithful friends who press in when I want to isolate myself.”
- “I have trusted and safe friends with whom I can speak honestly and openly about anything, no matter how much shame I feel.”
- “I have been helped when I share how I feel with my husband and close friends.”
- “Two people meet me where I am and walk through all the junk.”
If you have known depression, you might wonder: Where are all these safe people? You should know that the respondents to this survey were not necessarily a fair sample of depression. They searched for helpful material on the internet and had more spiritual stamina than most of us. But if you remain without a supportive community, think of this group as a witness to you. They are a half step ahead and urge you to take a small step toward others, and then another small step. Let’s keep listening to them.
- “I have three trusted friends who know me, who listen, who don’t have answers for me but help me bear my burden. I know they pray for me.”
- “I have a friend. We usually study the Word together and pray for one another.”
- “People check in on me, pointing me to Christ.”
- “I have been 100% honest about my struggles and pray regularly with a small group of women.”
- “I connect with other Christians who know suffering firsthand.”
- “Hearing the stories of others has helped me to know that I am not making this up.”
- “I talk to a close friend and listen to her pray for me.”
- “People text me Scripture and WhatsApp their prayer.”
- “A wise friend asked me to write to her every day. She wanted to know me, endure my confused thoughts, hear important themes, and pray.”
- Counselors were among the helpful people. “A counselor really helped to confront issues in my life that I had hidden, and she helped me to see how God sees me.”
- A clear message went throughout: Small, kind acts and words had an outsized impact. “Someone invited me to speak—God has used that to strengthen me.”
4. Wise routines. There were many pleas to “do something daily.” Depression feels like bone-weariness, so routines were by no means automatic, but respondents tried to impose structure on a day that could otherwise feel like nothingness. “None of this is easy. Depression is in the foreground, screaming. At times I do my work through tears.” Among those whose depression would lift, only to return, they tried to use their routines as a kind of muscle memory, so they could keep at them when their mind seemed to fail. “I need alarm clocks to remind me to pray and remember what is true.” “I try to stay current on personal emails, even if I do little else.”
What helps? “Medication”—this was a valued part of some routines. A few mentioned the benefit of having a skilled mental health professional oversee the prescription, rather than a person who is licensed to write prescriptions but is not experienced with depression.
Other activities included: Eat properly. Take a shower. A dog (a dog came up a few times). Friends who gently force me to do normal things, and my husband making me leave the house for a nightly walk with the dog. Worshipping every week and being part of a small group. Journaling. Walking. Hiking. Seeing and feeling God’s creation. Exercise, reading, time with friends, funny movies, serving others. Love and serve someone. Love the person in front of me. And, of course, chai!
What We Can Learn
As we discussed this survey at CCEF, ideas were flying. Many of our ideas were our responses to an implicit question: How can we be faithful friends? How can we be the right people?
Here are two possible ways the church can help.
1. Care teams. Churches have different structures for pastoral care: care teams, small groups, a pastor for pastoral care, deacons. What they share is that pastors themselves cannot and should not carry all of the pastoral load. Instead, all members share in the care of each other.
The challenge of depression is that while most of us see those who have acute, physical disabilities, we do not see quieter yet more enduring struggles like depression. So the first thing we can learn is that we want to see the people who need care. The next step is to know how to care in ways that are natural, regular, relatively small, and ordinary. “Ordinary” is especially important. If you bring a meal, that helps, but the ordinary act of lingering when you drop off the meal is even more meaningful. Five minutes might be all you need to hear what is on the person’s heart and pray for him or her.
2. Resources. When you are depressed, you rarely have the energy to track down helpful resources. A church website could begin to collect resources that members and friends have found helpful. These could include books that become part of a church library or digital playlists that bring Christ to a heart that feels lifeless. For example, Biola University has The Lent Project. These are daily devotionals, available online, that include art, the written word, and music.
To those who responded to the survey question, thank you. Please know that your strength in weakness is a balm for our souls. You are in the tradition of witnesses who cling to Jesus when your eyes tell you that nothing good exists, but your eyes of faith, informed by the words and the gospel of Jesus Christ, tell you that God is with you, and his great power is evident in the small steps of his weakened people.