Many believers have at times experienced a prolonged period of being spiritually cast down. It’s different from depression in a medical sense. It has mainly spiritual causes and relates to spiritual things. The delight and joy that they experienced in spiritual things seems almost a distant memory or at best an infrequent reality. Perhaps it is due to the inroads of sin and guilt or a weakened sense of assurance. Or it may be in relation to afflictions and sorrows that we or the Church experience. Elijah and David are prominent examples of this in Scripture. We need to understand why it takes hold and how, by God’s grace, the cast down can be lifted up again.
Perhaps the most well known statement of spiritual depression in Scripture is David’s cry of dejection in Psalm 42:11. David was mourning his enforced absence from God’s public worship (Psalm 42:2-4). He was cast down with a sense of the sin he had committed against God its effects. He felt a sense of an absence of God’s love and favour (Psalm 42:9). He also laments oppression by the enemies of God’s people (Psalm 42:4). He was more grieved by sin and the blasphemies against God (Psalm 42: 3 and 10). No doubt the activity of the evil one was in it too.
Christopher Love notes that in speaking to his soul David is reproving himself (Psalm 42:11). In asking the question he finds the reasons for being cast down in himself rather than elsewhere. He was in trouble because of persecution from wicked men and sorrows about the state of the Church of God. But he says to his soul, why are you casting yourself down? He is speaking to his soul about its troubling thoughts rather than listening to them. There may be many other factors in being spiritually cast down but sometimes we ourselves are part of the causes.
Spiritual depression is not the same as clinical depression and other related illnesses. It is related to spiritual things and has spiritual causes. Some connection where people are prone to clinical depression or similar ailments is, however, possible.
Like other puritans Love understands the physical factors that accompany spiritual depression. There can be physical causes that are companions of troubles of conscience, doubts, and spiritual distress. There is such a natural connection between the soul and the body, that lack of health in the one, causes trouble in the other. If there is a natural tendency to despondency, there will be trouble in the soul that is experiencing trouble of mind.
Love preached seventeen spiritually beneficial sermons on Psalm 42:11. In this updated extract, we can draw from this rich biblical counsel. He addresses the helpless condition that those in a state of spiritual depression often find themselves.
In emphasising that there are things that we can actively address, he is not promoting an unspiritual and legalistic dependence on our own works. Everything depends on grace and the working of the Holy Spirit but there are means that God has appointed for us to use in seeking more grace and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
1. Causes of Spiritual Depression
(a) Cherishing sin in the heart. Nothing in the world will keep the soul from the assurance of God’s favour more than indulging the soul in any known sin (Psalm 66:18). While David harboured sin in his heart and hid his sin from God, he lost the shining of Gods’ face on his soul. He prays to God to restore to him the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12). Righteousness and peace belong together (Isaiah 48:18; Ezekiel 14:4-5). Those who indulge sin in their heart will have no peace in their conscience. They will not enjoy the smiles and light of God’s face, but the sense of his wrath, much anguish, and sorrow, and perplexity of mind for sin.
(b) Failure to exercise grace. Little activity in grace will produce little evidence of grace. Strong comfort of God’s love goes along with exercising grace (John 14:21). Peace be multiplied If you do not multiply your graces, God will not multiply your peace. if you do withdraw the exercise of your grace, God will withdraw the comforts of your grace.
(c) Laziness in holy duties. If you are a spiritual sluggard who is not willingly performing your duties towards God, (Proverbs 18:9) you can be assured of having enough spiritual poverty in your soul to produce a lack of comfort. When you deny God your obedience, God is perfectly just to deny you the peace and comfort of His grace towards you. Grace is most noticeable in the soul when it is living and active.
(d) Looking for comfort more than grace. Some lack more comfort then they need to. They look more for marks of grace that may tell them what they are, than for commandments which tell them what they should do. When Christians seek privileges more than duty, it is just with God to keep their comfort from them. When Christians seek more to know that they are in a state of grace, rather than to use those means that are prescribed to get grace it may be why God keeps the comforts of the Spirit from them. (The means of grace are the Word, prayer, hearing the Word preached and other ways in which graces like faith, love and hope are strengthened).
2. Causes of Spiritual Depression We Can Remove
(a) Spiritual pride. Pride is the bane of grace and comfort. God resists the proud (James 4:6). The Greek word literally means that He sets Himself in battle array against it. If ever you would regain the certainty and assurance of God’s love, remove pride (Job. 33:17).
(b) Deadness of heart in holy duties. Comfort is diminished when we are less spiritually vigorous and lively in spiritual duties. Little duty, and small comfort go hand in hand. When the affections are dead, the heart constrained in duties, evidences and comfort of grace will be eclipsed. Careless spiritual activities are rewarded by God’s frowns, not His smiles.
(c) Worldly delights. Worldly joys debilitate spiritual joy. They take away the heart (Hosea 4:11). Those who are overwhelmed with worldly delights will never have joy in the Holy Spirit.
(e) Things that grieve the Spirit. Take heed of grieving the Spirit if you wish to have the comfort of the assurance of God’s love (Isaiah 63:10). If you grieve God’s Spirit, He will grieve yours. If you grieve the Spirit, by resisting the way He moves you towards holiness you will never regain the comforting work of the Spirit.
(f) Lack of compassion to others who are troubled in mind. A herd of deer abandon the wounded deer to fend for itself alone. Christians often abandon troubled souls to themselves in this way. They lack compassion and tenderness towards them. Pitying such will help you regain comfort for your own soul.
(g) Lack of fear towards God. If God always displayed smiles, it would breed contempt. God’s majestic sovereignty shows displeasure so as to correct the spirit of carelessness in His people.
(h) Worldly-mindedness. If your hearts are filled with the world you will never enjoy the comfort and assurance of God’s love. A worldly-minded man, can never be strong in assurance.
3. Recovering From Spiritual Depression
(a) Exercise grace constantly. Exercise grace, and it is then with God to give you comfort (2 Peter 1:5). God promises that He will multiply your peace if you increase your grace (Isaiah 32:17; Psalm 119:165; Psalm 50:23). Some Christians who lack assurance spend more time in complaining they lack comfort than they spend in exercising grace (e.g. faith, hope, love, repentance etc).
(b) Keep a clear conscience. This is the way to quieten the guilt of conscience (Job 11:15). Do not indulge the guilt of any known sin.
(c) Remember past experiences of God’s love. This is what David does (Psalm 42:6). Think of old mercies and loving kindnesses. This is the way encourage the heart (Psalm 77: 10-11).
(d) Argue by faith against your feelings. Abraham would never have believed God’s promise, if He had not used arguments of faith against what he felt and saw.
(e) Base your comfort on the unchangeable Covenant. If Christians build their eternal comforts on their changing feelings, their comforts will be up and down, ebbing and flowing; Sometimes their feelings are hot as fire, other times cold as frost. Base comforts on an unchangeable Covenant to regain and attain everlasting comforts.
(f) Seek counsel from others. Ask experienced Christians about your condition. Sometimes it is better to trust the opinions of others than our own.
(g) Never use wrong ways of pacifying the troubles of your mind. Some immerse themselves in wordly delights and affairs. If we are inflamed with a sense of God’s wrath and run to sin, it only increases the heat. It is like someone rubbing themselves with nettles to deal with a bee sting.
(h) Pursue duty more than comfort. Many Christians spend more time in fruitless complaints, that they lack comfort, then in holy endeavours to perform duties. If we spent more time in performing duties than in pursuing comfort, comfort would sooner be gained. When a house is on fire, the urgent work is to put out the fire not enquire how it happened. We are to engage with God not merely complain of a loss of comfort. David cried to God in prayer when He hid His face from him (Psalm 30:7-8).
(i) Spend more time strengthening than doubting grace. Focussing on the threatenings rather than the promises of Scripture will only weaken your comforts than strengthen them. If you cannot find comfort from acting grace, consider your general inclination. Perhaps you cannot pray well, but why are your praying? Is not to get more communion with God and more power against sin?
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