“I’m stuck, and I feel like God’s nowhere to be found.”
“I can’t get over how they treated me—like I’m something less than human.”
“There’s no hope for me. I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time.”
“This is just God’s will for me. There’s no use in praying.”
I frequently hear these types of emotionally charged sentiments from counselees who are experiencing a season of depression. On occasion, I’ve been persuaded that the roots were at least partly physiological, but more often, there’s been an identifiable circumstance that gave rise to the person’s change in mood (job loss, illness, death of a loved one or spouse, divorce, etc.).
In many cases I’ve advised counselees to seek a medical checkup and to follow their doctors’ orders to care for their bodies, while we enter the counseling process to shepherd their souls. In all cases I’ve secured the counselees’ commitment not to hide any thinking that could be described as “suicidal,” but instead to bring into the light what usually prefers to remain hidden (cf. Eph. 5:13).
These and other “front matter” issues have not usually proven to be the most difficult to address. Fortunately, medical issues and suicidal thinking have not been common. What has been more common and difficult for counselees to overcome is the ongoing heart-level dialogue they have within themselves. On this point Paul Tripp has written, “No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do.”
Depression, it seems, grows into an unruly preacher of a false “gospel” that robs counselees of hope as it progressively dominates their thinking and potentially influences their behavior. Embedded in this harmful pattern is a distorted view of who God is and a lingering doubt concerning the trustworthiness of His promises. In such cases, helping counselees learn how to take back ownership of that “inner-voice” and saturate their depression with the truths of Scripture becomes a key to the change process.
While taking care not to minimize the reality of a counselee’s suffering, we must recall that depression, like anxiety, often over-estimates the weight of the problem, while it under-estimates the abundance of hope available in Christ.
In the midst of depression, counselees may fall into this pattern of thinking where every disappointment serves only to reinforce unbiblical expectations. Ed Welch has written in Depression: Looking up from the Stubborn Darkness, “Depression can accumulate lots of inaccurate interpretations about ourselves, other people, and God himself. Scripture comes and corrects those misinterpretations and false beliefs.” The biblical counselor must specialize in helping counselees overcome the lies of depression with the truths of Scripture.
Taking Every Thought Captive
The apostle Paul wrote that as Christians, we are to take “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). As understandable as a counselee’s depressive thoughts and sadness may be in a given scenario, the nature of depression’s message is often in opposition to the gospel.
If depression is like a preacher of a false gospel, the depressed person is like a congregation that gathers regularly to hear its voice and receive its instruction. In time, the roots of depression dig into the deepest recesses of the heart. This helps to explain why it so often plagues otherwise healthy people. But it also gives us clues as to how we may best help the depressed counselee.
While we may all benefit from an encouraging word from time to time, those who struggle with deep-seated spiritual depression need something more than religious platitudes, clichés, or the all-too-common “I’ll be praying for you!”
Landscapers do not remove fully grown palm trees with plastic spoons. Likewise, biblical counselors does not attack spiritual problems with weak schemes and methodologies that deny the existence of the soul and the truth of Christ. Instead, they equip counselees with spiritual weapons that Paul said have “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).
We Fight for Change
Welch reminds us in Depression: Looking up from the Stubborn Darkness that the fight for gospel-driven change against depression is just that—a battle. He wrote, “These changes come only through a battle, and key to the battle is that we humble ourselves before the Lord and believe what He says.”
This issue of belief is crucial. It is not a half-hearted belief, but a confidence in God’s Word in the face of difficult circumstances. Will counselees trust in the lies or half-truths of depression or in the promises of God? Understanding how and why they arrive at their conclusions is often helpful for leading them in a hope-giving conversation.
When working with counselees who are choosing to believe in the false gospel of depression, one strategy that may be helpful is to ask them to make a list of the negative statements they hear being preached by their “inner-voice” (i.e., their depression). Either on their own or perhaps in counseling, search out key Scripture references that speak truth in response to the depressive statements.
Finally, lead the counselees in a conversation that examines the statements by way of contrast and comparison. The goal is to arrive at points of practical application and renewed hope in the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the end, preaching the gospel to ourselves is powerful in the fight against spiritual depression. Troubled emotions are not silent. They are always preaching to the heart and demanding to be heard. As biblical counselors we must teach our depressed counselees not to allow their enemy to get the last word.