Grief & Depression

In one of the most famous Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, Isaiah 53:3 tells us, "He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not." While the world is busy loudly telling us that we need to abandon ourselves to hedonism, pleasure, and nebulous "happiness," the God-man who is our savior is depicted in His own Word as afflicted and rejected.

What His Word does not say is that He spent His time on earth bemoaning His circumstances, complaining about His fate, giving in to angst, or even whining about anything. "Of course," many will say, "He was perfect." So then why do we so often cultivate our own depression, assuming we deserve to feel bad about the unfortunate aspects of our lives? If Christ is our model in all things, shouldn't we adopt His attitude in all things, even His attitude toward suffering?

To answer that, we need first to understand what His attitude truly was. Since all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction (2 Timothy 3:16-17), we need not go directly to the Gospels to find the answer. Indeed, the best answer to this question is found in 1 Peter 3:8-22, in which the apostle tells us that suffering on behalf of Christ is something to expect at the hands of the ungodly, and even that it is a blessing.

"For," Peter says, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water" (1 Peter 3:18-20).

Jesus Christ suffered and died in order that we might be reconciled to God. In this way, we ought also to view suffering for His sake as a suffering of reconciliation, not of punishment. Peter does point out that if we suffer for wrong-doing we get what we deserve, but when we suffer for our Savior we are identified with Him, and should even consider ourselves blessed. He even implies (in 3:21-22) that our suffering from Christ is a kind of baptism, by relating the passage to the sacrament of baptism.

Paul echoes these ideas in Colossians 1:24-29. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints" (verses 24-26).

Rather than simply bearing his suffering, Paul goes so far as to say he rejoices in it,because as it was pre-ordained for the building up of the body of Christ. The "filling up" he speaks of doesn't mean that Christ's suffering wasn't sufficient for our salvation, but that his suffering signifies fellowship with Christ; as Christ suffered, so Paul suffers, and thus can hope to share in the resurrection of our Lord.

This is hardly the attitude we cultivate. We are more prone to complain about suffering than to rejoice in it, whether it's suffering for righteousness or not, as though we as humans and as Christ's followers shouldn't have to experience anything painful or untoward. As the apostles Peter and Paul show us, we have no grounds for complaining about suffering brought on by our own sin; and as for our suffering for Christ's name and glory and truth, we ought to rejoice in it.

When Jesus is described as the man of sorrows, it isn't to paint Him as a gloomy man. As God incarnate, Jesus Christ knew all the suffering we experience as human beings. Speaking of Jesus, the author of Hebrews says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Isaiah proclaims Christ's human suffering; Hebrews proclaims His human nature.

Because He was human in order to truly identify with us, Jesus felt the full range of human emotions, including sorrow and grief. When His friend Lazarus died, although He knew He would bring Lazarus back to life, Jesus wept (John 11). Obviously, then, sorrow isn't a sin. Why? Because it's an expression of grief at the unnatural and evil effects of sin, of which death is the most universal and unavoidable.

And yet, Christ did not give Himself over to sadness. To weep for the effects of sin in the world, to grieve death, to empathize with the suffering of loved ones—these are natural and right attitudes and behaviors. But to wallow in them, to let depression become part of our existence and even to define us, is sin. Philippians 4:4 contains a command from Paul: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice."

This rejoicing isn't simple retreat into "happiness." Rather, it's surrender to Jesus Christ in faith, a focus on what He's done for us spiritually, an affirmation that although we are still prone to the dire effects of sin, we have no need of fear, knowing that on the far side of death and suffering we're destined for eternity with the triune God. When we suffer for no obvious reason, we weep even as we hope in faith for ultimate rescue; when we suffer for Christ, we rejoice that we may be counted worthy of such treatment at the hands of His enemies, among whom we once were.

We would like to note that the books you'll find in this section approach these topics from a biblical, rather than a medical or clinical, perspective. There is certainly such a thing as clinical depression, but the scope of our resources is limited because, whether you or a loved one is suffering clinical depression or not, the Bible is still the first place to look for answers. We'd also encourage you to seek counsel from a pastor or elder, in addition to a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care?
by Edward T. Welch
from New Growth Press
for 7th-Adult
in Christian Counseling (Location: XCL-COU)