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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

Six Disciplines of a Depressed Soul

Six Disciplines of a Depressed Soul

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part Four of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series on depression. In addition to today’s post by Paul Tautges, you can read Part One by Lilly Park: Depression and Imbalanced Approaches and Part Two by Pat Quinn: Depression, Catastrophizing, and Elijah, and Part Three by Sherry Allchin: Depression…Is It All in Your Mind?.

Spiritual Depression

Spiritual depression, or deep discouragement of the soul, has been part of the human experience since the fall in the Garden of Eden. Whether sin-related, suffering-responsive, or connected to a unique pattern on the fabric of our inner person (we are not all bubbly, crowd-loving people), depressive tendencies are real, and spiritual depression is a common struggle among God’s people.

If we have fallen prey to thinking that the hymn writer’s words were divinely inspired, “and now I am happy all the day,” and, as a result, concluded there must be something drastically wrong if ever we are the least bit sad, then a cursory reading of the book of Psalms will bring us back to the reality of life in a fallen world. Since depression is common in the human experience, we must know how to navigate through our “valley times” with the Lord. In order to fight for biblical joy—while at the same time working through depression—personal discipline is required in six critical areas.

Respect

“Respect” includes conscious consideration of God’s design for the orderliness of our life, bodily rest, and recreation. In other words, if God is mindful that “we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14), then it seems wise that we remember this as well. Relentless abuse of our minds and bodies through obsession with work—without cooperating with God’s design for Sabbath-like rest and recreation—will deplete our soul’s resources and dampen our joy.

We need to realize that we are made to live within a body, and world, which both have their limits. The person who shows little respect for his or her diet, exercise, sleep habits, work schedule, and financial obligations may very well battle depression from the burdens of an undisciplined life. Providential weights also impact us in more ways than we imagine, such as the 24/7 care of a special-needs child or aged parent.

Though less important than the pursuit of godliness, the proper care of our body is of some real profit (1 Timothy 4:8). If it’s been a long time since you had a complete physical with your medical doctor, including blood work, then that is an important step to take as you evaluate how your lack of respect for life’s limits may be affecting your spirit. Surely, all of these areas of life, and more, are included in what it means to walk in wisdom (Ephesians 5:15).

Repent

Depression may have a specific, rebellious, sin-cause (see Psalm 32, for example). When this is the case then surely we must repent.

But there is not always a sin-cause behind depression.

Somewhere along the line, regardless of the reason, biblical counselors gained an unfortunate reputation for running to a sin-cause as our default response to a fellow believer’s deep sadness. We need to learn from this erroneous conclusion without ignoring the biblical connection that sometimes exists between depression and sin.

When the sin-connection is true in our experience. then we must consciously and deliberately turn away from our rebellion and back to God for cleansing and renewal. Even if we are unaware of specific, unconfessed sin for which the Lord may be chastening us, the true Christian will pursue a lifestyle of spiritual health that includes ongoing repentance. He or she will regularly seek the Lord through prayer, asking “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24).

Replace

When the Holy Spirit employs the Word of God to reveal our need to repent, we must then replace our sin with righteousness. For example, one common sin-cause of depression is false thinking patterns that must be corrected. Unbiblical ways of thinking about God, or self, usually lead to misinterpretation of our circumstances and self-pitying responses to life’s troubles. Self-centered thinking patterns are often rooted in unbelief, which easily produce anxiety that overtakes the soul and kills our joy.

It is significant to notice that the apostle’s promise of indescribable peace, which comes as a result of thankful prayer (Philippians 4:6-7), is followed by a call to correct our thinking patterns by filling our mind with that which is true and honorable (v. 8). Usually false thinking patterns exist undetected in our lives for long periods of time. The Lord is gracious, therefore, to use even the trial of depression to reveal these patterns so that we may be transformed by the “renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

Remain

By “remain,” I mean we need to abide in Christ by remaining in fellowship with God and His people through keeping the major spiritual disciplines: the Word, prayer, God’s people, and close friendship.

  • Remain in the Word. By doing so, the depressed soul speaks truth into his heart which is ideally set-up to easily believe its own lies. Scripture passages that I have found especially helpful include Psalms 77, 73, 42, and 55. Another precious, soul-feeding study is the comparison of the Shepherd of Psalm 23 with the Good Shepherd of John 10.
  • Remain in prayer. The depressed soul must choose to discipline himself to cast his cares upon the Lord, through prayer, while knowing and choosing to believe the Heavenly Father truly cares for him. Praying Psalms 42 and 43, for example, is one way to remain in communion with God when emotions are less than supportive. When your own resources are depleted don’t be ashamed to borrow from others. When necessary, pray their prayers. Feed off of their faith.
  • Remain in fellowship with God’s people. There is a way to receive encouragement from other believers without becoming a spiritual leech. Without apology the writer of Hebrews identifies one of the purposes of the fellowship of Christians as “encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:35). Too often we forget that the word “encourage” means “to give courage.” The depressed soul lacks courage and, therefore, needs to get courage from other believers by remaining in fellowship with them. The believer who does not battle depressive tendencies should always be on the lookout for others who need their encouraging words and prayers.
  • Remain in friendship with faithful brothers or sisters in Christ. Those who battle spiritual depression must guard against their natural tendency toward isolation—even from friends. Though times of aloneness with God are necessary to the God-centered encouragement and feeding of the depressed soul, those times must not be divorced from intentional interaction with other believers whom they can trust. The friendship of David and Jonathan is perhaps the most treasured in the Bible. Their souls were knit together and they loved each other as they loved their own lives (1 Samuel 18:1; 20:17). Surely this friendship was a great source of help to David on his most depressed days. Every believer needs at least one refreshing Onesiphorus in his life (2 Timothy 1:16).

Remember

The depressed person must also discipline himself/herself to remember the Lord’s works of mercy, love, and grace. The psalmist exhorts us to “forget none of His benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

Most times we forget because we do not choose to remember. This has been true for me, personally. Recently, the Spirit led me to Psalm 103 for my own personal encouragement. It did not take long to discover no less than nineteen of the Lord’s benefits, which I must consciously choose to remember. When battling depressive tendencies we must choose to remember our past blessings and present gifts from God.

We must also remember who we are in Christ, which combats the “functional lies” that motivate us. Another helpful tool is to begin a “My God Is…” list. A sister in our church recently shared how this has helped her maintain Godward focus. As she compiles a growing list of the qualities of God she selects five per morning to meditate on for a brief time. I have taken her counsel to do the same and have reserved the last five pages of my current journal for my own list. Deliberately remembering God is a critical discipline for the depressed soul.

Review

Finally, the soul that fights depressive tendencies must continually review the truths about God that we know from His Word. The writer of Psalms 42 and 43 did this as he “talked to himself” instead of letting his “self” talk to him (see Lloyd-Jones on ‘Spiritual Depression’). For me, this means paging through my journal to review past entries that record God’s dealings with me in ‘valley times.’ This helps minister to my inner man and renew my mind by shifting my focus away from self.

Some days, I simply read back to myself journal pages containing lengthy Scripture passages that I once wrote out as my soul’s food for a particular day. One of the drawbacks of journaling is caving-in to the self-imposed pressure to write every single day, even when you really don’t have anything to say. Unless you have dreams of others one-day reading your “never-failed-to-miss-a-day” journal, take a day off every now and then to rethink old lessons. Let a past journal entry be your personal Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7:12). Review the times the Lord has helped you.

From my own personal experience, I must admit that the fog of spiritual depression does not lift on its own. It would be wonderful if it did. Instead, we must fight for our joy while working through depression by applying discipline in these six areas. As you follow these words of counsel, may the Lord strengthen you “with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).

Join the Conversation

How could you apply the principles of respect, repent, replace, remain, remember, and review to your life when you are battling spiritual depression?

How could you apply the principles of respect, repent, replace, remain, remember, and review to your ministry when you are helping another person battling spiritual depression?

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