The Roaring Lion – Depression & Suicide in the Christian Family
Have you ever watched a roaring lion? …the immense thunder of the roar… the reverberation of sound that seeps to marrow of your bones… the flash of teeth made for tearing flesh… The Bible warns us in 1 Peter 5:7-9: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
When we talk about spiritual warfare, sometimes I do not think we envision the roaring lion. Some of us have stereotypical images of the devil and others never give the enemy any thought at all. We know that ultimately God is victorious over Satan. But, God warns us very clearly about our enemy. Our enemy is looking for someone to devour. It makes sense for him to focus in on leaders of the Christian faith. Take down the leaders and cause doubt in the hearts and minds of others.
One of the ways I have witnessed and personally experienced a tearing of the flesh by a roaring lion is through the wily technique of depression and suicide – a systematic devouring of hope and distorting of reality. It seems as though we hear about depression and suicide in our Christian family more and more. There have been quite a few pastors and Christian leaders taking their own lives. My father was one of them.
I was asked many times by friends and family the ultimate question of whether or not my Dad would go to heaven since he ended his own life. (On this subject, I found great comfort and answers to this question in a sermon by John Piper found here.) My personal struggle with the way my Dad died dealt more with the incredible grief that such a godly man would leave this as his legacy. Over time, I have realized that my Dad’s legacy was so much more than that one tragic moment. He was a godly man who discipled me and countless others. He was a doctor who practiced medicine– both to the physical and the spiritual. His life sowed lasting seeds that continue to bear much fruit.
Depression widely affects humanity. Those who suffered from depression include giants of the Christian faith: Moses, Elijah, David, Hannah, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, John Piper, and countless others. So, how can it be that Christians battle depression? How is it that so many (even pastors) succumb to suicide?
There are several factors that we can list, but most of the time it is a combination of many. Burnout, Anxiety, Loss, Grief, Sin, Shame, Physical Illness, Hopelessness, Anger, Isolation, Depression. All of which come from us living in a broken world. On this side of heaven, there is brokenness. Thus, the need for a Savior.
Distortion of reality is the method in which the roaring lion uses to shackle us with hopelessness and depression. We buy into the lie that nothing will help and there will never be a reprieve. Our enemy gets us to believe the deception and distortion of reality and then turns around and accuses us the moment we fall. When the reality is that our God is mighty to save. He delights in His children and loves us relentlessly. (Zephaniah 3:17)
What can we do to battle this roaring lion? Specifically with regard to depression and suicide? I have nothing new under the sun to share. Just a bit of encouragement and few reminders.
- Put on the full armor of God. Do not leave your armor dusty in the closet. Can you imagine going into a lion’s den without any armor? And yet how many times do we nonchalantly go about our day without taking up our sword? Have we forgotten that we are in a spiritual war? Ephesians 6:12: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
- Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2). Make a list of those recurring lies that play over and over in your head and write out God’s truth beside it. Every time your mind lingers on the enemy’s distortion of reality, replace it immediately with a Scripture that speaks God’s truth over the lie. Set your minds on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. (Phil 4:8) Even when you do not feel like it. Fight for joy.
- Walk in Christian community. Walking in close Christian community helps in battling depression, grief, shame, sin, anxiety, isolation, anger, and other distortions. We need someone to spur us on in the faith and to remind us of God’s truths – even when we are numb to them ourselves. Now, I do admit that this takes WORK! Christian community does not usually happen instantly. Deep relationships must be cultivated and developed. In our ultra-busy, whirlwind culture, this is very hard work and must be deliberate and intentional.
- Seek godly counseling. First seek counsel from God. Psalm 16:7: I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. God counsels us through the Living Word of God and through the Holy Spirit. But, God also uses godly men and women to speak into our lives. It is healthy and productive to share your struggles and joys with others. In addition, it is extremely important to seek professional counseling when things escalate in your heart and mind. It is not “magical answers” that you receive from the professionals, but the entire process itself that is the true treasure – the struggle, the repentance, the healing, and the joy that comes from sharing verbally with someone who is trained in counseling. The process as a whole leads to healing.
- Take extra care of the physical needs. Exercise. Healthy eating. Sleep. Medication. Our body is a temple, and we need to take good care of it (1 Cor 6). There is a high correlation between serotonin levels and sleep. If one’s sleep is disrupted or erratic, then the result can be depression and fatigue. Often sleep disturbances and depression go hand-in-hand. So, make sure to get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, and speak to your doctor regarding medication if needed. Since there is a huge stigma against anti-depressants, this is often very hard to do. If your body is simply not making enough serotonin, then you may need a little help to get your body back on track. There is a place for medication in the process of healing. Both Piper and Tommy Nelson listed in the resources below discuss this more thoroughly. Let’s not judge one another for this medical decision, but encourage one another in our journey to fight for joy.
- Embrace time. There is a time to plant – a time to uproot. A time to weep – a time to laugh. A time for mourning and a time for dancing. (Ecclesiastes 3) There is a rhythm in life. A natural rhythm. Embrace it. Allow yourself to grieve, mourn, struggle, tear, and mend. Work through these inner and outer struggles mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The passage of time really does bring forth new perspectives, healing, and sometimes even wonderful things out of the ashes.
- Be a relentless friend. When others are struggling and the darkness will not lift, YOU be that friend that loves them with a fierce love. Stand in the gap when they do not have the strength. Relentlessly pursue them with the love of Christ and the truth of God – even when they isolate themselves.
God loves us and helps us to walk through trouble, calamity, persecution, destitution, or danger. Despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loves us. (Rom 8:37) The brokenness and struggles of the world still remain on this side of heaven; yet we can have bold confidence in Christ as we endure these difficulties.
Let us stand together – firm in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – against the roaring lion. We have victory in Jesus.
Here are a few resources that I have found tremendously helpful in my own season of depression. I also use these books as resources as I minister to others who battle depression:
- When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy, by John Piper.
- When the Darkness Will Not Lift, by John Piper
- Reaching out to Survivors of Suicide by Candy Arrington
- The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey from Anguish to Freedom, By Henri Nouwen
- The Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) Resources
- Message by Tommy Nelson, Pastor of Denton Bible Church, “Dealing with Depression.”
- Walking on Water (When You Feel Like You’re Drowning) – by Tommy Nelson & Steve Leavitt
- The Path: Walking Through the Wilderness, by Michael Saunders
Articles by Ed Stetzer:
- Mental Illness and the Christian: Scripture and Science
- Mental Illness and the Church: New Research on Mental Health from LifeWay Research
- Mental Illness & Medications vs. Spiritual Struggles & Biblical Counseling
- Mental Illness and the Church: Some Helpful Honesty from Christian Leaders You May Know
- Suicide, Stats, and Recovering in the Aftermath: Frank Page Shares About Melissa
- Freefall to Fly: An Interview with Rebekah Lyons on Anxiety, Depression, and Freedom
- How Churches Can Respond to Mental Illness (piece at CNN Belief)