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Editors’ note: 

The following is part five of a five-part series on depression and the ministry. The series is a joint effort of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and The Gospel Coalition.

Solution-Focused or SOUL-u-tion-Centered?

In ministering to ministers, near the end of our first meeting a pastor will often ask me, “How will I know when I’m ‘cured,’ when I’m ‘better’? What will ‘recovery’ from depression look like?”

In one sense, that’s a good question because it’s a hopeful question. In another sense, it’s not always the most helpful question. It can fit all too well with the typical pastoral persona of “Get it done. Let’s fix it now!” That question may have more in common with the world’s idea of solution-focused brief therapy than with God’s plan for SOUL-u-tion-centered lifelong growth in Christ.

Of course, it would be unwise to ignore the question, and it would be heartless to insist that “You’re always going to be like this—get used to it.” But it would also be disingenuous to imply that full “recovery” is guaranteed this side of heaven.

So, I typically say something like, “That’s a fair question. Everyone’s battle with depression is different. Everyone’s journey through the valley of despair is a unique relational process. Let’s talk about what it might look like for you to face your depression face-to-face with Christ.”

Set Stages or Personal Pathway?

In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, I compare and contrast the world’s “five stages of grieving” with the Word’s relational pathway for growth in grief. Whether we’re talking about grief, anxiety, depression, or any issue of suffering or sin, no two journeys are identical.

Ponder David, Elijah, Job, and Paul. They each faced what we might call “depression,” but in various ways with distinct causes and “cures.” David’s path in the Psalms, Elijah’s process in 1 Kings 19, Job’s journey throughout the book that bears his name, and Paul’s struggles in 2 Corinthians are each idiosyncratic—person-specific.

This is one reason that biblical counselors never simply take one verse or one passage and plop them down on every person as a one-size-fits-all model of cause, care, and cure. It’s also why biblical counseling is not an “exhortational event” but a relational process. We don’t simplistically exhort someone to “be anxious for nothing” or “rejoice always” as if those are magical words of instantaneous cure. Paul, who spoke those words, also said in another letter, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thes. 2:8). God calls us to share Scripture and soul—robustly and relationally.

Pastor—I can’t offer you a quick, easy, three-step answer that will “cure” your depression. I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all checklist that identifies “recovery from depression.” Instead, I encourage you to find a few trusted friends who will travel together with you in and through your unique valley of despair.

Victory Over or Struggling With?

Whatever Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, even after pleading with God three times, God chose not to remove it. Consider how common it was for Paul to “struggle with” rather than to experience “victory over.”

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8-9a).

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

“. . . in great endurance; in troubles; in hardships and distresses . . . sorrowful, yet always rejoicing . . . ” (2 Corinthians 6:4b, 10a).

Rare is the person who experiences miraculous, instantaneous, and ongoing victory over depression. Rather than being discouraging, the candid message of daily courageous struggles against depression is encouraging because it’s true to life as we live it in a fallen world in fallen bodies.

Pastor—in all integrity I have to share with you that God does not guarantee “victory over.” God does not promise “cure” or “recovery” if by that we mean the guaranteed removal of all symptoms of depression. However, God does promise to comfort and care (2 Cor. 1:3-5). He does promise that what cannot be cured can be endured (1 Cor. 10:13).

Self-Sufficient or Christ-Dependent?

But why wouldn’t God promise “happiness all the time”? Paul makes it clear.

“But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9b).

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Pastor—how will you know when you’re “better”? When you’re a more Christ-dependent person. When you’re increasingly relying on the God who raises the dead (and depression feels like death). When you’re increasingly demonstrating to an on looking world (including your family and congregation) that your power is from God. When you’re increasingly modeling the truth that God’s grace is sufficient for you, that his power is made mature in your weakness.

Removal of Symptoms or Growth in Christlikeness?

Praying for the removal of symptoms of depression is legitimate—just as Paul prayed for the removal of his thorn in the flesh. However, our ultimate goal is not changed feelings or altered circumstances, but responding to our feelings and circumstances in Christlike ways. Our ultimate goal is Christlikeness: our inner life increasingly reflecting the inner life of Christ.

In the garden, Christ prayed for the removal of the cup. He candidly expressed his abject sorrow to his heavenly Father. But even when the sorrow was not cured and even when the cup was not removed, Christ relied on the God who raises the dead!

Martin Luther, who experienced deep spiritual depression and anxiety, understood that suffering was God’s medicine of choice to cure us of our deepest sickness: self-sufficiency. That doesn’t mean that all depression is due to our personal sin. It does mean that God can use depression as a curative agent in the relational process of making us more like his Son.

Pastor—how will you know when you’re “cured”? When finding God is more important than finding relief. When knowing Christ and being like Christ is more important than finding a cure. When you’re facing your depression face to face with Christ so you’re increasingly reflecting the face of Christ.

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