Understanding Depression

November 2008

By Gerhard de Villiers

Depression is a very old illness. After Job’s catastrophes he manifested all the symptoms of severe depression. The Greeks described depression in the 2nd century BC.  Hippocrates described melancholia, another name for depression.

Causes and symptoms

Most depressions have mental or physical causes. The only time when it has a spiritual root, is when you live in known sin e.g. adultery.

Depression can occur on its own or as the result of a physical illness -  in parallel with other psychiatric illnesses e.g. obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias and eating disorders.

The symptoms of depression are:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest
  • Decreased energy
  • Loss of confidence or self-esteem
  • Inappropriate guilt or behaviour
  • Poor concentration
  • Slowness of action and speaking, or alternatively agitation
  • Sleep disturbances (increased or decreased – particularly early awakening)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Loss of affection
  • Hostility towards self and/or others
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness.

Depression comes in many shapes and sizes. While one person’s depression is marked by lethargy and hopeless­ness, another may have low self-esteem and poor concentration. In severe cases most of the above symptoms may manifest.

Sometimes a person may feel lethargic, has no energy, poor concentration and slowness of actions, but it may be caused by low blood-sugar levels.

No single symptom can be used to diagnose depression with complete certainty. It is important to consult a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist for proper diagnosis.

Depression also comes in degrees of severity. Some have major depression where suicide is a real danger and due to the debilitating effect of the disease, hospitalization is indicated. In the case of medium or mild forms of depression, treatment can be done within the community.

The Christian and depression

Christians often do not cope well with depression. Some of this is due to guilt – the feeling that “real Christians don’t get depressed”. They may feel that they are unacceptable, as a Christian is supposed to be full of joy. Aren’t you supposed to lose your worries when you become a Christian?

Self-talk may abound: “Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. So what is wrong with my spiritual life? I am depressed and also experience problems with other people. Perhaps there is unconfessed sin in my life.”

Satan can plant thoughts and doubts: “Were you really a Christian in the first place? Have you not committed the unforgivable sin? You have been predestined not to be a Christian.”

The person with depression then prays harder and longer. He confesses real and imaginary sin.

He spends hours reading the Bible, but nothing helps.

It is important for the counsellor to point out to the Christian with depression that this condition is not caused by his spiritual state, but it definitely has an impact on his spiritual life.

God is love and He assures believers that nothing can pluck us out of His hand (John 10:28,29). Our faith is based on what the Bible says and not our feelings.

Make them understand: “God loves you as you are, unconditionally. He loved you when you were a sinner, how can He possibly love you less now that you are a Christian, however shallow you feel your faith to be at the moment”. ?


Lockly, J: A Practical Work Book for a Depressed Christian.

LaHaye T: How to Win over Depression.

Albritton, B: Victory over Depression.

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Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. - 1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV)