I’m a Biblical Counselor and I’m (Depressed) Sad

What ever happened to the word sad? It seems like it’s been lost. We don’t use the word much anymore but instead describe a variety of our emotional experiences with the broader word “depressed.”

Personally, I don’t really like the word depressed because it has various shades of meaning. I know my own personal experience can never be captured by a single word nor can one word describe this intense struggle many have and seek help for.

In my own life and in counseling others I don’t avoid the word depressed, but I’m careful to use Scriptures’ detailed word pictures instead when speaking to the experience. God’s Word throughout has a biblical language that tells of depression so by using His terms “depression” is packaged with biblical meaning.

  • Suffering, downcast

  • Despair, sadness

  • Apathy, numbness

  • Fear, anxiety

  • Emptiness, brokenness, loneliness

God speaks to depression

Trying to make sense of depression is no easy task, and if you struggle with it or are helping a loved one who struggles, it will take time, love, and mercy.

I’m so glad God’s Word gives us counsel and speaks to depression at length! The Bible describes the experience of depression from Genesis to Revelation. Just examine the lives of Job, Elijah, King David, Jonah, Cain, Hannah, King Saul, and Jesus Christ. Their lives reveal the experience of depression in an intimate and expressive way.

“My soul thirsts for God…why are you cast down O my soul and why are you in turmoil within me.” Psalm 42:2,5

She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly…’O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant…’”

1 Samuel 1:10–11

We live in a fallen world

There are those who think it’s wrong for believers to ever struggle with distress, sadness, heavy sorrow or even gloom that affects their daily life. They think of Paul who says, “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and see being depressed as not rejoicing in the Lord.

But throughout Scripture it teaches that joy and sorrow can exist in our hearts at the same time. We can rejoice in our blessings in Christ while feeling the distress of trials. The two can coexist. I know this because it hits personally. All this year I’ve been feeling the heavy burden of distress while rejoicing in my blessings in Christ. I have had joyful sorrow in the midst of a tragic loss.

“A time to weep and a time to laugh…” Ecclesiastes 3:4

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while if necessary you have been distressed by various trials.” 1 Peter 1:6

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed…” 2 Corinthians 4:8–11

Because we have fallen bodies and fallen natures depression can have a physical or spiritual cause, or combination of both. There is no doubt that true medical problems can depress a person’s mood, so we need to be obedient to Scripture; be a good steward of our bodies and make sure a doctor rules out an organic issue for the cause of our depression. With that ruled out, we then need to take a serious look at the spiritual cause.

A functional unbelief

What causes spiritual depression? Simply, it’s a heart and behavior issue. We believe but help our unbelief (Mark 9:23). What is functional unbelief? It’s belief that says “I must have something other than God and His promises.” It is hoping and trusting in _____ (fill in the blank). It says…

  • God is not good enough to save or

  • God is not good enough to satisfy

Spiritual depression is a functional unbelief that the Gospel justifies or satisfies. It is an unbelief in what the Gospel has done for a person applied to daily life. It is a struggle one has to believe and trust in God.

Regaining a Godward focus and bringing the Gospel to bear on a heart that is controlled by something or someone other than God is what’s needed. We are all prone to Gospel drift. When weary, crushed and despairing it is the Gospel which is the power of God that takes us from being weary and crushed. (Philippians 2:12-13).

What does it look like to functionally believe? It begins with a clear understanding that we are rebels who need rescuing by a merciful God.  

  • God is that good that He saved us and

  • God is that good that we can be satisfied in Him no matter what happens in our life

Turning from misplaced hope in loss

Let’s address one cause of spiritual depression—misplaced hope. We can have misplaced hope in sadness over loss. Loss of anything.

Our memory is powerful. It can both bless and haunt us. Loss can lead to depression if left unchecked. Loss of things like a valued job, good health, a spouse because of divorce, responsibilities due to aging, finances, a house, or in my case, a husband through death.

Depression can also result from a psychological desire that is lost or a desire for something that becomes a “need” and an unmet need can result in depression. This could happen if a desire for love or approval from others is unmet, wanting and not getting recognized in school or at work, a lack of respect from a spouse or child, seeking and not getting admiration from others, or the small daily losses of living with a distant spouse. These psychological losses can cause our hearts to forget the Gospel and drift to a focus on sinful desire – satisfying self through people and circumstances.

We need to turn daily from misplaced hope in loss and ask if our hope is in people or things instead of God? We need to examine our response in grief and loss and ask if we are depressed due to the effects of a loss or unmet desire? If so, how God honoring is our response to that loss – despair, isolation, hopelessness?

It matters how we think about all losses because our thinking produces emotions and actions. If we try to satisfy self outside of the Gospel and our ultimate hope is in things or a person, we will be controlled by what we desire most. Being controlled by anything other than God will not satisfy. Only Christ truly satisfies (Psalm 107:8-9).   

Fight, fight, fight

You and I need biblical thinking in all areas of life. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 119, I need to intentionally fight through daily bouts of wrong thinking caused by loss. If I don’t fight against wayward thoughts and rest in what truly satisfies and can never be taken away, I will despair.

When self talk has my ear, I begin to doubt that God is good and question what has happened.  My feelings can consume and my focus switches from vertical (God) to horizontal – my circumstances.

There is no doubt loss and sadness hurts. The feelings are real. But sadness has purpose (Joseph, Nehemiah) and hope is found in the One who knows and has a plan (John 11:4). We can press on in sadness and grow in grace.  

Only two ways to respond to trials

When trials and testing come we have two choices. Either we trust in the sovereign God who loves and cares for us, or we trust in self by listening to the lies of our heart. We trusted in Christ for our salvation, why do we find it so difficult to trust in Him for our sanctification (change)?

This trust IS A CHOICE. We must choose what to think about. Choose to be reminded of our identity in the Gospel (who we are in Christ) and speak truth about God, His redeeming love, His provision, and His character to our hearts. God has promised to provide for those who belong to Him and we must minute by minute choose to remember and preach that truth to our hearts.

Being downcast is not wrong in itself unless we are sinning because of it. Feeling depressed is not automatically sin unless we are controlled by these feelings. Jesus felt depressed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…” Matthew 26:37–38. But He intentionally (despite His turmoil) submitted His will to the Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” Luke 22:44.

The Gospel focus

Know this, the presence of faith gives no guarantee of the absence of spiritual depression. But God intends to use pain and trials to shape us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9–10) and always available to help.

We must learn how to fight through times of difficulty by mind renewal and heart change. Know that Jesus knows all our troubles. Reach out and seek help from your family of faith or find a pastor, elder, or biblical counselor. Daily be reminded of who you are in Christ. Serve others despite feelings because serving others will take the focus off of self—Christ came to serve not to be served. Cultivate gratitude in everything (Ephesians 5:15–21) and…

Fight the good fight of faith in His power.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

About the author

Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab…and sushi too.

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