When Christians Suffer from Depression

Even the most gifted, most intelligent, most capable Christians can suffer from depression. Here’s how the Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton, Ashbel Green (1762-1848) described his bouts of melancholy in his autobiography:

Having again mentioned my melancholy, I will saw a few words as to the manner in which it affected both my body and my mind. I was, during the various seasons of this afflictive complaint, entirely free from any imagination that my body had become glass, or of enormous bulk, or a fear to move lest I should fall in pieces. No conceit of this sort ever affected me at all. My complaint may have been attended, and I think it was, by some apprehensions that were delusive, as thinking that slight bodily affections might prove mortal; but after some experience I learned to disregard all these. No, my melancholy consisted in a settled gloom of mind, accompanied with spiritual difficulties of the most distressing character. (The Life of Ashbel Green, 301-302)

In his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Green goes into more detail about the “peculiar character of my spiritual difficulties and temptations.”

But there are some temptations and of the most terrific kind, sometimes called “fiery darts of the devil,” which seem to proceed immediately from this fearful enemy. A flood of blasphemous, strange, horrible, dismaying and overwhelming thoughts, or, as I would rather call them imaginations, are sometimes poured in on the soul.Sometimes such thoughts, in a more separate and unconnected manner, rise up in the mind, or are suddenly and unaccountably darted into: and having once entered they are renewed from day to day, till the sufferer is harassed and tormented almost beyond endurance; and perhaps is distressed with the apprehension of having committed the unpardonable sin, and is even tempted to self-destruction. (468)

Green goes on to say that people of melancholy or nervous temperament are most likely to suffer from these afflictions, but even people of the best spirits and most eminent piety are not immune to these temptations.

So what can be done? Green offers four pieces of advice borne out of personal experience, biblical insight, and common sense (469-470).

1. Keep in mind that the temptation itself is not sin. The Lord Jesus was afflicted with fierce temptations, and yet he did not sin. Do not confuse the fiery darts of the Evil One with your own moral failure.

2. Remember that we cannot reason away melancholy and unbidden thoughts. “All recalling them, or thinking them over–to which there is often a strange propensity–is to renew their impression and increase their strength.”

3. Keep lifting up your heart to “the once tempted and now glorified Redeemer.” Don’t run from Christ in your depression. Run to him for strength, for grace, and for protection. A broken heart and contrite spirit he will not deny.

4. Avoid idleness and solitude as much as possible. Don’t retreat. Stick with others. Listen to their sane counsel when your world feels like madness.

From my pastoral experience, this sounds like very wise counsel from a good and godly man who had experienced many dark nights of the soul. If nothing else, let if be an encouragement to you and those you care about that one as impressive and accomplished as Ashbel Green endured such deep depression. Even more encouraging: we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness.