Depression Vs. Grief

This blog series about mental illness is inspired by a session taught by Irma Janzen from Fort Garry EMC, presented at the Ministerial Day on July 3, 2015 at Ebenezer Christian Church in Brandon, MB. Thanks to Irma Janzen and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference for addressing this important issue, and for doing so graciously, while challenging us all to carefully consider our beliefs and actions in this area.

A while ago I heard a fascinating interview on the radio. It was on a program called Family Life Today, hosted by Dennis Rainey. It aired on May 29, 2014, and they interviewed Dr. Charles Hodges, who is both a family physician and a licensed counsellor. Through his years of treating and counselling people who deal with depression, Dr. Hodges made an interesting observation: there is a significant difference between grief/sadness and depression.

Depression is a disease. And medication can and does help treat this disease. Yet many of us mistakenly diagnose or seek a diagnosis of depression for ourselves or our children when we or they are simply dealing with grief, loss, and sadness.

We live in a society that is obsessed with “the pursuit of happiness,” which is a phrase not from the Bible but from the Declaration of Independence of the United States. We all too often seek to cut out anything in our lives that brings sadness. When we experience a loss, we will naturally feel grief and sadness. Yet, because of the air-brushed and glossy lives we see on television, we feel abnormal if we go through seasons of grief and sadness. 

One of my wife’s friends recently spoke out online about how many of us post photos on social media that only show our families smiling, or the fun and happy moments of our lives, when much of our lives are less exciting, and sometimes even sad or grievous. Many of our online profiles paint a picture of our own lives that misrepresents the reality, and as a result we all feel pressured to always be happy. My wife’s friend is now intentionally posting pictures of her family that show the reality of their lives in protest of this. And it is refreshing.

Changing a society is a huge task, and not one that I will suggest today. Rather, I will suggest that more of us realize that sadness and grief are normal in the life of the Christian, and normal in the life of every human being on the planet. But let us start with ourselves. Let us abandon the belief that we must always be happy, and embrace the different seasons of life. I’m not suggesting that we go out of our way to feel sad. Rather, when we face grief and loss, we shouldn’t run from the feelings. You should look around your life, see the grief and loss, and instead of fleeing from those uncomfortable feelings, take a moment and feel the pain. Cry. Scream to God in your hurt. And realize that sadness is a normal part of life. Even Jesus was described as a “man of sorrow”. 

Many who know me will know that I have a great appreciation for the Psalms in the Bible. Roughly 1/3 of the Psalms are classified as laments. If you add up the Psalms that are laments and the portions of other Psalms where there is lamenting, some estimate that 2/3 of the Psalms are laments. It is people experiencing pain, and bringing that sorrow and sadness to God. The full range of human emotions are represented in the pages of the Psalms, from vengeance and hate to love, elation, and incredible joy. This is the song-book of ancient Israel, the songs that God wanted his people to sing to him. Songs that represented the reality of their lives, not only the happy parts. The Psalms can be an incredible tool in helping us walk through difficult seasons of life.

Dr. Hodges mentioned a general rule-of-thumb for determining if someone is experiencing the complicated disease of depression, or the general sadness and grief that accompanies life on earth: if you can explain why you’re feeling incredible sorrow (a job loss, the death of a loved one, a broken relationship), then you are likely experiencing normal grief and sadness. If you can’t pinpoint any reason for you to be feeling sad, then you might be suffering from clinical depression.

Even here, however, it can get more complicated. People who suffer from clinical depression are also human, and so will also experience loss and grief, and so will sometimes have sad or tragic situations that happen alongside their clinical depression. 

Yet the point remains that most of us have bought into an ideology of happiness that has no basis in the Scriptures. And oddly, we sometimes use the Bible to reinforce this belief. Sometimes when we become uncomfortable with the struggles of others, as a way of dismissing them we tell people that the joy of the Lord should be their strength, which is a reference to Nehemiah 8:10. We use this passage as a way of saying, “Christians should never be sad”. There is a great irony in this, if you understand the true context of that verse.

In Nehemiah, the people of Israel had been exiled, and Jerusalem was mostly destroyed. Now the people have returned and have rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem. The people wept as they heard the Scriptures read, there was great remorse as they listened to the law. As the reading continued, it was discovered that by the Hebrew calendar, they were supposed to be celebrating the Festival of Booths, which was a joyous celebration. So, in the midst of people’s sorrow and remorse, they instructed the people, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). 

The word for strength (the Hebrew word ma`owz) in this passage means “place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold”. The people had just faced threats of physical violence from their enemies, and so build walls around Jerusalem for protection. If there was and never would be any threat of violence, the people would not need a wall to protect them. Yet the threat was real, and so the walls of protection were necessary, and provided them with a measure of security so they could live out their lives without constant fear. Now Nehemiah uses this same imagery to help the people have joy. He tells them to take shelter in the joy of the Lord. Not just happiness, as there was a lot for the people to repent of, since they were guilty of breaking the Lord’s law. Just like they took refuge in the walls of the city when the threat of violence was very real, so too, they were to take shelter in the joy of the Lord when their own happiness would not be enough. 

This story reminds us that our own happiness is fleeting, but that there is a deeper joy that transcends our current emotional state. Even if the people were scared of violence, they can take refuge in behind the protective walls of Jerusalem, knowing that their protection was greater than their fear. Likewise, when our feelings of sadness or remorse threaten to overtake us, we can take refuge in the joy of the Lord, which is greater than our own fleeting emotions and feelings of sadness. One can feel sad, even when taking refuge in the joy of the Lord, for God can bring us a peace that transcends understanding, as Philippians 4:7 reminds us. Interestingly, the only reason Nehemiah told them to stop the weeping was because they were supposed to be celebrating a joyous festival, not because sadness and weeping is bad. The reason was not to get people to stop crying because of a misguided view of how life is supposed to be, but rather in order to properly honour the Lord through the Festival of Booths. In the midst of this story we are reminded that it is okay to feel sad, but that God’s joy can help shelter us in the midst of our own sorrow. Yet somehow, this passage is often ripped out of context and used to tell people to simply “get over it” when they feel sad, which is a great irony, since it recognizes the reality of our sadness, and offers a place of refuge in the midst of our sadness, not a rebuke against sadness.

Just because you go through a period of grief or loss does not necessarily mean that you are depressed. But depression is real, and some people do need medication and counselling to properly deal with it. Interestingly, regular exercise is also an effective tool in properly dealing with depression, and is a great tool for fostering good mental health in general for everyone.

If you think you might be suffering from clinical depression, please be in contact with your doctor about getting a referral to see a psychiatrist to help you figure out if you are in fact suffering from depression. In Ontario, if you get a referral from a doctor, the visit to a psychiatrist is covered under OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan). You can try asking if you can talk to a Christian psychiatrist, because they are out there and your doctor might know one they can refer you to.

Remember that seasons of grief and sadness are a normal part of the human experience, and most of all, don’t forget to bring your feelings to the Lord. Also remember that we were not created to live our lives in isolation from one another, and that the church is supposed to be a place where we can support one another. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many Christians have incredibly unhealthy responses to mental illness, so it might be prudent to be careful about who you approach. I do know that people are out there in our churches who have gone through these struggles themselves, and so know what you are going through. It important for our faith that we find other believers who can walk through the difficult seasons of life with us. Then, in turn, we can walk with others through their difficulties.

New Life Christian Fellowship is a community of believers who seek to Reach Up in worship of God, to Reach Over to one another and to Reach Out to the world around us.