13 Reasons Why Depression Needs Discipleship

Part 1 • Blog Series
Is there ever a time a Christian walks through depression and doesn’t need a discipleship relationship? From personal experience as a sufferer, my answer is a resounding, “No.” However, because the experience of depression has been highly medicalized in secular culture over the decades, insufficient presumptions have seeped into our thinking as Christians. These false pretenses keep us from seeing the value of discipleship in addressing the issue of depression holistically.

It’s understandable why we would turn more quickly to medicine and secular therapy to cope with despondent seasons. Depression hurts—badly. Who volunteers for pain? Who doesn’t grab at the nearest and quickest source of heavily-marketed relief to try and make that pain go away? And when we are told time and time again that our bodies are mechanisms subjectively categorized as either “normal” or “disordered,” then what else are we to ask ourselves but the question, What’s discipleship got to do with it?

Sufferers are facing equally confusing messages from their local churches. I've heard from women who have made the effort to seek care at their church for despondency, only to be turned away. I've experienced similar rejection as well. Although intentional, one-another care is making a resurgence in today's church culture, the restoration of counseling to the church is painstakingly slow and some leaders are hesitant to adopt biblical counseling as a ministry worth investing in. The inevitable result is the subliminal affirmation that depression is an experience which falls outside the realm of the Holy Scriptures, and subsequently, outside the care of the body of Christ as well. And while the treatment of depression may require more than intentional discipleship, it certainly does not require less.

Christians must realize that things didn’t used to be this way. Depression is not something new. God’s people have grappled by faith with deep pain and darkness for generations. Yet, we have become so used to seeing despondency through world-colored glasses, that we are tempted to neglect one of the most helpful resources available to sufferers: Spirit-led, one-another care. Discipleship is not some flabby excess in the realm of treatment options. For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is a critical lifeline of sustaining grace meant to facilitate conformity to Christ for the glory of God and the perseverance of his saints.
While the treatment of depression may require more than intentional discipleship, it certainly does not require less.
I’d like to offer a series of blog posts designed to share 13 reasons why depression needs discipleship. I’m sure there are many more reasons than the one’s I’ve organized, but my sincere hope is to offer what I have learned during my nearly 20-year battle against depressive episodes (of which, more than half of that time was experienced as an unbeliever) and what I have gained as I have participated in discipleship and biblical counseling over the years. It is not my intention to condemn anyone’s present approach to depression treatment, but to simply shine a light on why discipleship is of utmost importance when someone is walking through despondency. While the world may see biblical one-another care as irrelevant frivolity, heaven forbid we who have been redeemed by Christ come to such a conclusion.

Today’s post will offer the first four points from my list of 13 reasons why depression needs discipleship:

1.) We need truth from outside ourselves.
Depression alters the way we perceive the world around us. Because of this perception problem, we must insist upon God’s word being preached to us from someone else, where it can be handled with more passionate vigor and assurance than we could muster up through our own musing (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the compelling observation that, “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” It is through this sure word, proclaimed by a brother or sister in Christ, that we can receive sustaining morsels of manna even while wandering through a spiritual desert (Matthew 4:4).

2.) Our hearts are deceitful.
Depression needs discipleship because our skewed perception will also desensitize us to the internal war being waged in our hearts. We may not know why we are cast down, or how we came to find ourselves in such a dreadful condition, but we must not fear giving our depression a voice so that we can find out what it’s trying to say. This kind of self-reflection is difficult to do alone—as Jeremiah 17:9 ESV says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” However, a biblical mentor or counselor can ask penetrating questions meant to guide us deep into the recesses of our darkness, helping to bring the redemptive light of Jesus Christ to bear on hidden strongholds of unbelief. 
Depression needs discipleship because our skewed perception will also desensitize us to the internal war being waged in our hearts.
3.) Lone sheep are more easily devoured.
Peter describes Satan as a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We know that lone sheep are a prime target for a predator’s attack because the animal is without defense. Likewise, when a despondent person succumbs to the temptation to isolate themselves in response to their melancholy, they give Satan an irresistible opportunity to dump doubts, accusations, and lies like a heap of burning coal over their head. Depression needs discipleship because of the spiritual defense it can offer the sufferer. When a believer is despondent, the devilish hounds pick up the scent and make haste to attack by any means necessary. It is wisdom, then, for the depressed person to align themselves with someone who is spiritually mature and capable of locking arms through prayer and fellowship. In this way, the shield of faith (Ephesians 5:16) can be hoisted to combat the enemy and help the sufferer to persevere through the darkness.

4.) Mutual fellowship benefits. 
It is easy to forget that the mentor or counselor also gains greatly through a discipleship relationship with someone walking through depression. In many ways, there is a mutual benefit transacted through the fellowship. While the despondent person is offered compassion, encouragement, truth, and love, the mentor/counselor gains greater understanding of what it means to wrestle with pain and suffering as a Christian—a helpful preparation for the future suffering they themselves are promised to experience in a fallen world. Mentors field the questions that a hurting heart asks and, as a result, practice preaching God’s eternal truths to a momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). They watch the courage it takes for someone walking through darkness to simply show up and do the next right thing. They gain a greater empathy for those who are melancholy but desperately want to be otherwise. Overall, if Christ remains at the center of the relationship, then both participants are stretched and matured in mutually fruitful ways. Not only does this discipleship relationship benefit the two participants, but it also serves to build up the local church by experientially equipping the saints for the work of ministry to others.

We need truth from outside ourselves in the battle against depression—and God designed it to be that way. Through intentional discipleship, sufferer and supporter come together in a beautiful display of the body of Christ, and encourage one another through the darkness. As Charles Spurgeon once taught, “Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in. He attaches far more importance to godly intercourse than we do. Since union is strength, he does his best to promote separation.” Let us make haste, then, to avoid separation when God has made so clear in the Scriptures that one-another care is a necessary function of Christ’s body, helping us to walk by faith as we groan for the light of dawn in the dark.

(This blog is part one of a three-part series on 13 Reasons Why Depression Needs Discipleship. If you are interested in learning more about biblical counseling training for yourself or for members in your church, I would highly commend to you the IBCD's Care & Discipleship material as an option for both individuals as well as groups.)
Discipleship is not some flabby excess in the realm of treatment options. For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is a critical lifeline of sustaining grace meant to facilitate conformity to Christ for the glory of God and the perseverance of his saints.
Christine M. Chappell
Christine Chappell is the author of Clean Home, Messy Heart and is the host of The Hope + Help Project podcast. She writes frequently about depression, sorrow, grief, and motherhood at her blog, has completed biblical counseling certificates with the Institute for Biblical Counseling & Discipleship, and is currently pursuing certification with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Christine's writing has been featured at Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, Risen Motherhood, Servants of Grace, Thrive Moms, Devotable, and For Every Mom.
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