Over the past couple of days I’ve been privileged to be teaching a group of Reformed Baptist pastors about giving help and hope to the depressed. I was greatly encouraged by their compassion and balance as we explored the causes and cures of depression. I believe the church in general is coming much closer to the mind of Christ in ministering to depressed Christians, due to a growing understanding of the complexity of depression and the need to adopt a holistic approach to recovery.
One of the questions that arose in discussion was “What are the most common causes of depression in our own day?” From my experience of counseling in this area over many years, I’d say the three most common causes are the following.
Many people, including many conscientious Christians, are pushing themselves beyond safe limits in the pace of their lives, the hours they work and the responsibilities they take on. When that is combined with a neglect of sleep, exercise, good food, friendship and a weekly Sabbath, it’s no surprise that the body and mind eventually say, “Enough!” The exhausted and depleted body and brain drag down thoughts, emotions and spirituality.
A significant proportion of people with depression have suffered serious sexual abuse in childhood or, even more commonly, excessive discipline from an authoritarian and hyper-critical parent. Although decades may have passed, the false guilt, the self-loathing, the shame, the people-pleasing and the sense of worthlessness can re-surface and pull people into a deep pit of depression and anxiety. This is not inevitable, of course; victims who refuse to allow their abuse to dominate their thinking or define their identity usually escape this vortex.
An Unforgiving Spirit
Although every sin depresses the spirit to some degree or another, an unforgiving spirit is by far the most damaging sin. Christians may have been forgiven by God for massive offenses; yet they can sometimes find it extremely difficult to forgive other lesser offenses. One pastor told me that he had held on to a bitter unforgiving spirit for 40 years, hardening his heart and harming his relationship with his wife and congregation, though they were completely innocent parties. Only when a counselor confronted him and led him to forgive someone in his distant past, did his heart soften, his darkness lift and his relationships improve.
There are of course other common causes of depression—the next on my list would be bereavement, post-partum, chronic ill-health, materialism, pornography—but burnout, abuse and an unforgiving spirit are the top three by far.