In recent years, I’ve seen an increasing number of articles for a Christian audience about clinical depression and anxiety. Most have sought to explain why “just get over it” is unhelpful advice (amazing that needs explanation!) and why having clinical depression or anxiety does not mean that one is unspiritual. More than a few have derided the use of Philippians 4:6 “Be anxious for nothing” or Psalm 42/43 “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God” when talking to someone who is experiencing clinical anxiety or depression. These articles have served a necessary role of educating believers on the psychological conditions many believers suffer with. They have helped believers become more understanding of the multifaceted aspects of anxiety and depression. They have hopefully helped believers understand the benefits of physical and pharmaceutical approaches to managing depression and anxiety.
But I fear these articles have had an unintended (at least I hope it’s unintended) consequence of allowing believers suffering from clinical depression and anxiety to justify disobedience to God.
Now, lest anyone mistake what I am saying, I am not saying that using medication, talk therapy, or a variety of stress management techniques is being disobedient to Christ. I use medication, light therapy, and a variety of lifestyle management techniques to manage seasonal affective disorder and have used medication and lifestyle management techniques to deal with bouts of major depression. I do this with a clear conscience, seeing no Biblical evidence that using these tools to manage my depression is wrong.
But I fear we can easily take the leap from “clinical depression and anxiety are biological with biological cures” to “clinical depression and anxiety are biological therefore I don’t need to be obedient to God’s commands regarding my thoughts and attitudes.”
This, friends, is a lie from the pit of hell.
Just as a broken leg doesn’t exempt us from our call to “not neglect to meet together” (Heb 10:25), even though it makes assembling with other believers more difficult, neither does depression or anxiety exempt us from our call to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5), even though it does mean that there are perhaps more and more persistent thoughts to take captive.
You may need more than just taking thoughts captive to help you manage clinical depression and anxiety, but you certainly don’t need less.
When I am in the throes of depression, my thoughts often take a terrible turn. I contemplate my lack of energy and think “I’m worthless, I never get anything done.” I contemplate my seclusion and think “No one loves me.” I contemplate my thoughts and think “I’ll never be free of this depression.”
But I must not allow these thoughts to take over my mind. As fast as the arrows may volley forth, I must not surrender to them. Instead, I must take them captive to obey Christ.
When my thoughts say “You’re worthless. You never get anything done.”, I reply “My worth is not dependent on my accomplishments but on Christ’s, for ‘God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved [me] even when [I was] dead in [my] trespasses, made [me] alive together with Christ (Eph 2:4-5).'”
When my thoughts say “No one love you”, I reply “but God shows his love for [me] in that while [I was] still [a sinner], Christ died for me. (Rom 5:8)”
When my thoughts say “I’ll never be free of this depression”, I reply “Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25)”
Most of all, when depression turns all my thoughts inward – to myself, to my own shortcomings – I must turn my face resolutely toward God. I must say with the psalmist:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”
~Psalm 42:11 (ESV)
For those of you who suffer from clinical anxiety, this does not negate your call to “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Phil 4:6)” It probably means you have a lot more anxieties and requests to make known to God than I have, but just because it’s harder for you to be obedient doesn’t mean that you’re excused from that call.
Now, are you starting to feel like I’m bullying you? Placing a burden on you too hard to bear? Are you feeling the need to escape to one of those articles about the biological basis of anxiety and depression?
At various times in the midst of depression, I would be tempted to feel that. But this is not bullying or a burden.
Have you ever heard of cognitive-behavioral therapy? It’s the best proven form of therapy for anxiety and depression. And you know what it is, basically? It’s identifying untrue thoughts and unhelpful actions that contribute to anxiety and depression and replacing them with true thoughts and helpful actions.
You know what that sounds like to me?
“Take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience.” (2 Cor 10:5-6)
So to you, dear sister or brother who suffers from clinical depression, take every physical means necessary to deal with your condition. Take the medicine, go to therapy, get your rest, exercise, do any one of the myriad of things that can help you manage. But do not neglect to take your thoughts captive. Do not neglect to turn your eyes to Christ.