What Are The Causes Of Depression?




Part One - The Causes of Depression


In the last segment of our study, we noted that depression and anxiety are in and of themselves a medical condition, a chemical imbalance of the body. We demonstrated that medical treatment or periods of rest are often effective in reducing and in some cases eliminating the symptoms. With that said, unlike most physical conditions that require only medical intervention, depression and anxiety have an additional dimension that makes counseling and education an important part of the healing process. Because these disorders affect the brain, they impact the intellect, emotions, and spiritual aspects of the individual as well. Though the body may heal, these disorders often leave lasting scars that medicine alone can not heal. .

This point of contention, concerning depression and anxiety becomes extremely heated among Christians. Since the disorder is so complex and is associated with non physical aspects of human existence, questions arise over what causes it. Some believe that it is the deviant spiritual condition of the individual that causes depression and anxiety. In other words, sin is at the root of all depression and anxiety disorders. Remove the sin and the condition will go away. Others believe that the medical imbalance is what often fuels the deviant spiritual and emotion behavior of the sufferer. Treat the condition medically and the deviant behavior begins to right itself.

The complexity of determining the cause of a person’s depression can be best illustrated with a view of the symptoms of depression. Depressed people are usually very focused on themselves and their surroundings. They are consumed about what is going to happen to them, what they are presently experiencing, how can they get over it if they can, and how are they going to handle the responsibilities of the future. Even the smallest of mole hills suddenly loom in front of them as large mountains too great to handle. They tend to isolate themselves from others and become ineffective at performing the smallest of every day tasks and responsibilities.

Some would say from observing this behavior that depressed people are consumed with themselves or have a self-centered perspective on life. Self-centeredness is called sin in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; Phil 1:16; 2:3) therefore many conclude that the sin of self-centeredness is the cause of depression. I wish I had a dollar for all the times I have heard non sufferers say, “all they need is a swift kick in the rear and told to get over themselves and get on with life.” What these non sufferers do not realize is that the depressed person would love to do just that but finds they are unable. I am a firm believer that non sufferers’ attitudes and views would radically change if they could experience what I have been through for even one week. They would find that the condition is overpowering and dictates so much of one’s thoughts and attitudes. 

Yet, herein lays the controversy over depression. Is self-centered sin the cause of depression or does the condition of depression cause the individual to act self-centered? In the one case the individual is where he is because of sin and in the other case he is not sinning but a victim of the medical condition he finds himself in. 

The same dilemma finds itself in the case of anxiety or panic attacks. A person who struggles with this medical disorder becomes filled with fear so intense that he wants to run away in order to get away from these dreadful feelings. One woman when she experienced her first anxiety attack ran screaming from her home into the nearby woods where she was discovered by her family in a devastated condition. These attacks are extremely intense and cause some of the most severe emotional suffering imaginable leaving the individual fatigued and totally distracted. Now the Bible clearly declares that we should not be anxious concerning anything (Phil. 4:6-7) therefore can we not conclude that those who have this problem are bringing it upon themselves because they are not following the commandment of the Lord? On the other hand, could the uncontrollable fear be the outpouring of a chemical imbalance gone untreated rather than a sin issue?

Since there is no human alive that has enough knowledge to answer this question even though some profess they do, let us turn to the One who made us and see what He has to say. The following is not intended to be a complete and inclusive answer. I do, however, believe it will point us in the direction God would have us take.

1) Depression is not always the product of self-centered sin. It has been my personal experience that some who go through bouts of depression are often some of the least selfish people I have ever known. However, can we prove this from the Bible?

a. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah has a mountain top experience as God defeats the prophets of Baal and he prays and God restores rain to the land. However, the following day he is running from the threats of Jezebel and finds himself in a depressed state desiring to die (1 King 19:4). Elijah was not known for being self centered but rather he is viewed as a great prophet of God. So great that God took him to heaven in a whirlwind. It should be noted how God deals with Elijah’s depression in this chapter. God gives him time to rest, exercise, food and opportunity to express his grief. When Elijah is ready to return to service God gives Him instructions of what He wanted him to do. Please note, that in all of this, God never rebukes Elijah once for having sinned. God never says to him, “Elijah stop being so self-centered, get up and get going.” It is clear God did not see Elijah’s condition as sin but rather depression brought on by stress and exhaustion.

b. Even greater proof that depression does not have to be associated with sin can be found in the life of the one and only sinless man, Christ Jesus. Please note the following statements from our Lord.

Matt 26:37-38, “He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me." NKJV

Mark 14:33-34, “He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch." NKJV

John 12:27-28, “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name." NKJV

In Matthew and Mark the term “sorrowful” (intensely sad), “deeply distressed” (uncomfortable as not at home – not is a natural state which causes great distress) and “exceedingly sorrowful” (deeply grieved) even to the point he wished he could just die and have it over with are all used by our Lord to describe what He was going through. This is a classic description of someone who is depressed. To add to this diagnosis John adds His soul was “troubled” which means “confused” which is also a sign of depression. Some reading this still might not be convinced so I add the testimony of Isa. 53:3.

Isa 53:3, “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” NKJV

The word “sorrows” used here means mental grief or anguish. All of the Hebrew Lexicons I searched were in agreement on this point. In other words, as the Lord considered what He was about to face and exhausted from 3 grueling years of ministry, he became depressed in the garden. The descriptions of both Isaiah and our Lord Himself speak of a depressed condition.

2) Depression is therefore the result of physical, emotional, mental exhaustion, trauma,and stress to such a degree that the chemistry of the body is thrown out of balance resulting in depression. It is clear from the example of Jesus and Elijah that their depression was brought on by these factors and not from a sinful condition. Therefore, it can be concluded that depression does not automatically indicate that the sufferer is struggling with sin. Now with this said, let’s draw some conclusions.

a. Every individual is unique and has differing tolerances to exhaustion, stress, and trauma. This would explain why one person can handle a stressful job and another person folds under the pressure. This would also explain why depression runs in some families as there is a genetic weakness that results in a reduced production of the chemicals necessary to handle stress or exhaustion. 

b. A number of things can inflict exhaustion, trauma and stress that lead to depression. One thing that can inflict such injury is sin. Jonah is a great example of this as he sits outside of Nineveh and calls upon God to let him die. He is there because he is angry with God for not destroying Nineveh. Strong emotions, often associated with sin are a prime mover in causing conditions that result in depression. For example, anger, guilt, bitterness, and etc. However, there are some things that are not sin related that play a role in depression. The strong emotion of grief or sorrow can lead to depression. It is all too common that people who loose loved ones will experience periods of depression. Stress from outside forces that one can not control can also result in depression. Great persecution, bankruptcy, failure, difficult pregnancies and long term illness can all add more than enough stress to produce a depressed condition.

c. It is for this reason that though medicine can help with depression, counseling should also accompany the process to discover what has caused the condition and what can be done to remedy it.

3) Anxiety, like depression, is not always caused by sin. Our Lord not only experienced depression before facing the cross but also anxiety as well. Luke, a Doctor, shares this bit of information that we are all well acquainted with.

Luke 22:44-45, “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” NASU

I never fully understood the meaning of these words until an event 9 years ago. I had just moved to a new pastorate and was staying in a motel until our house was vacated and we could move in. I went to bed expecting a good night of sleep and woke up two hours later literally drenched in sweat. I had to change everything I was wearing. What had happened was the exhaustion of what took place before and during the move had taken its toll upon my body and I experienced an anxiety attack. For the next two months I had to put up with these attacks until they subsided. What our Lord endured was a surge of adrenaline that was more than His weakened body could handle and so He went through an anxiety attack. Isa. 53:3 confirms this when he writes “he was acquainted with grief.” The Hebrew word for grief means mental anguish or anxiety.

Anyone who has struggled with anxiety or panic attacks knows that it is not what Paul speaks about when he calls for us not to be anxious concerning anything (Phil. 4:6-7). Anxiety is brought about when adrenaline builds in the body. In most people there are enough other chemicals to keep adrenaline in check or from going to far. However, in one whose body has been depleted of these essential chemicals adrenaline has nothing to limit it and it sky rockets out of control taking the victim on a “hellish” ride. I know this is true from personal experience. I have begged God to take this away from me so I would never have to face it again and yet God, over the last 26 years has allowed me to occasionally fall into this state. 

In closing, I think we can see from Scripture that just because someone has depression or anxiety attacks does not necessarily mean they have sinned. If our Lord could experience these things without sin so can we. It can be the outcome of sin but it does not have to be. Counseling of such sufferers can help to weed out the true causes and can do much to help the individual cope normally with life. I am example of what help is available and how successful it can be.

Let us be careful that we do not put needless guilt trips on godly believers because they suffer mentally or emotionally. Likewise, as believers we do not need to go into hiding if we suffer from these disorders. God has created us the way we are and has control over what we experience. Our experiences may be meant to assist others who suffer in the same way.