Often, when someone expresses anxiety in the context of the Church or Christian community, more than likely they will hear somebody, at some point, recite the famous words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:6. “Do not be anxious….” is the beginning of that verse, and it’s also the beginning for many people with anxiety to to silent with their anxiety in their Christian communities, often seeking help outside the Church.
But what about depression?
Depression is one of the most common mental health issues facing people within the Church today, yet, it’s hard to think of a verse that is so readily available on the topic, and used to confront those with anxiety.
The Greek Word for Depression, Ademoneo
Within the New Testament the word ademoneo means “to be troubled, distressed”, as well as “to be depressed, or dejected, full of anguish or sorrow” (Greek Dictionary, Bill Mounce). For example, in the New Testament we read the following:
- “And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.” (Matthew 26:37
- “And he took along Peter and James and John with him, and began to be distressed and troubled.” (Mark 14:33)
- “because he has been longing for all of you and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” (Philippians 2:26)
Within the Old Testament we will see this idea of depression best expressed with the Hebrew word muk (transliteration), which means to be “low or depressed, or grow poor”. It can also be thought of as “sinking or bending down, or being brought low or humble”. (Brown, Driver, Briggs)
Reframing The Meaning of Depression in the Bible
In my theological and pastoral work with the biblical meaning and concept of depression, I have come to the conclusion that depression is less nuanced in the biblical texts than the concept of anxiety, but the expression of depression, like anxiety, can point us towards growth in our own lives. Another way to say this is that anxiety seems to express in the Greek New Testament both a declaration to work towards not being anxious, as well as telling us that anxiety is important as it can show us what we care about. Whereas, depression seems to only point towards this idea of one being down, or low, or brought humble.
That being said, the question then becomes what can the purpose of depression accomplish in our lives?
If depression can bring us down. If depression can make us humble. If depression can bring us low. Then how can that posture help us better understand the work of God in our lives. I have used this passage in other articles I have written on depression, but I want to share it here because I think it gets at the heart of what I am trying to express. Parker Palmer in his wonderful book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, writes the following words:
“After hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me eventually reclaim my life. ‘You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?’
Amid the assaults I was suffering, the suggestion that depression was my friend seemed impossibly romantic, even insulting. But something in me knew that down, down to the ground, was the direction of wholeness, thus allowing that image to begin its slow work of healing me.
I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe. The problem with living at high altitude is simple: when we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may well kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple: when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get back up.” (pp. 66)
Depression is that force that presses us “down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?” Depression may not be good, in and of itself, but the experience of depression and what it does to us, may give us the best opportunity we have to grow in life.
Depression and Being Pressed Down
What I find really intriguing is the use of the Greek word for depression, ademoneo in the book of Phillipians. In 2:26 we read the following passage, “For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.” Here in vs. 26 we see the apostle Paul talking about how Epaphroditus is depressed because the church at Philippi who sent him to help take care of Paul has heard that Epaphroditus is ill. The concern for the welfare of Epaphroditus from the people at Philippi has literally made him depressed. Translated, it has brought him low and humbled him. And this use of depression in this verse is literally set in the context of the famous kenotic hymn, or Christ hymn, found in Philippians 2:5-11. The verse says this:
2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
To have the very mind of Christ involves the process of humbling ourselves, and going through a process of being brought low. Literally, following after Christ bring us to our knees in both a sense of “fear and trembling” (vs. 2:12). So depression is not something that we look to acquire, and we don’t hope that we experience it, but when depression comes upon us we have the opportunity to grow from it, as it is one of those things that presses us to the ground, humbles us, and points us toward a life in Christ.
In an earlier post I reflected on the two sided nature of anxiety, and how Paul in Philippians 4:6 encourages us to not be anxious, but earlier in Philippians 2:20 communicates how anxiety reveals to us the things that concern us. That is, anxiety literally tells us what is important in our lives. Anxiety helps us understand what we care about, depression demonstrates a posture, and in the posture we learn what it means to follow after Christ and have the same mindset as him. Though Palmer’s words above say it so eloquently, I am grateful for the opportunity that I have to work with people everyday who model to me this posture of depression and how they use it as an opportunity to grow in their lives.
“What if you were to sit in your depression this week?” I asked my client.
He sort of looked at me quizzically, but wanted me to go on.
“What I imagine is this. You can do one of two things. One, you could intentionally set aside two to three times this week to sit in your depression, rather than trying to run from it, or distract yourself from it. What is you set a timer for five minutes each time during those times you have designated, and just allow yourself to feel. Nothing magical has to happen. Just give yourself permission to see what comes up. Or, two, you could go through your week, and as soon as you start to notice the depression coming on, rather than distracting yourself, what if you chose just to give yourself a few minutest to sit with it?”
My client still looks quizzically at me, but he’s intrigued and willing to try. Depression is something that often robs people of their ability to feel, and like trauma, it often creates an experience where one feels like they don’t quite inhabit their own body, but are instead watching and observing it from the outside, numb to any feelings or emotions. Sitting with the depression instead gives a person the opportunity to be present with it.
Henri Nouwen in his book Inner Voice of Love, which is really a journal he wrote in to describe and work through his own depression, says the following:
“There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal.”
It is important for us to learn to sit in our depression, but to do it in such a way that we neither jump completely into it, giving it all our energy, nor do we avoid, by constantly distracting ourselves. Instead, it’s a subtle dance of learning to move into and out of contact with the depression, almost like a dance, where the rhythm pulls the dancer into one position, and then out, and into another, but constantly moving, rather than getting stuck into one fixed position.
The Intermingling of Depression and Anxiety and Following After Christ
To my knowledge, Philippians is the only Biblical text that references both anxiety and depression in the same book, and within the same context. We read of anxiety as expressed as concern in 2:20, and of depression in 2:26, and then Paul encouraging us in 4:6 to not be anxious. This communication about depression and anxiety, set within the context of Philippians 2, in many ways point to the struggles that we all face as we wrestle with what it means to follow after Christ. Following after Christ is a journey that is full of varying degrees of ups and downs, and so it should come as no surprise when we experience bouts of depression and anxiety, often both at the same time. This is what makes us human, and it’s part of our journey of faith.
Recognizing the experience of depression and anxiety is important, as it helps us better understand the complexities of a life of faith, especially those concerning our mental health. Because of this, I recommend that Christians, churches, and faith communities work to do several things.
One, invite people into the larger biblical narrative, rather than isolating independent passages often out of context. Invite people into the journey that being depressed and anxious is often part of the Christian narrative, and that there are things we can learn on this journey through our experience of depression and anxiety. Anxiety often shows us what we care about, and depression brings about the posture to help get us there.
Two, give people permission to talk about their depression, and make it safe for them to do so. This is no easy task, but I recommend that leaders communicate from the top down, “I am giving you permission to talk about your depression, and we are going to work on having a community where it is safe to talk about it.”
Three, invite people to listen to their depression. Ask questions like “Where is God in the midst of this depression that I am experiencing?” “What am I possibly to learn about my life right now through this depression?” “What is going on in my life that makes me depressed right now?”
Four, encourage people to sit in their depression, rather than avoid it. I wrote about this above, but it is worth mentioning again. We only learn from our depression, and work our way through it when we have the courage to face it. And no mistaking, it takes courage to sit in one’s depression.
Depression is something that millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from. And it’s not an issue that is going away, but instead is one that must be addressed. I believe that the biblical text and the wisdom found within it can guide us into what it looks like to navigate the depression in our lives.
Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, TX. He specializes in helping people struggling with anxiety find new opportunities for growth, as well as spending a majority of his week with couples as they navigate relational issues. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and What It Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. Rhett lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can discover more about Rhett’s work through his writing and podcast at rhettsmith.com