What to Say to Comfort Your Depressed Friend

The moment when the counselor must respond to the pain that has been revealed by a broken person is one of the most sacred occasions in all of life.
– Heath Lambert
You may not consider yourself a counselor, but when someone you love is walking through depression, you're on the front lines. You have been placed in a particular position by God to be a comforter (2 Cor. 1:4), a companion (Gal. 6:2), and most of all, a source of encouragement for the fainthearted (1 Thess. 5:14).

No, you may not be an "official" biblical counselor, but if you are a Christian ministering to another Christian, you are offering counsel. The only question being whether or not it is wise and appropriate for the time and occasion. In his timeless book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
"Therefore, 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."
In those sacred moments, when the one we love has shared their burden and revealed that they are suffering from depression, a response of some kind is required. Here lies an opportunity to be a faithful comforter–but the words must be carefully chosen. When someone is stuck in the great Slough of Despond, there is much that is immediately hurtful, and little that is immediately helpful. However, with a compassionate heart, and an approach that doesn't seek to "fix" the other by "singing a song" (Proverbs 25:20), a tender moment of merciful care is possible.

As much as you wish you could, you can't part the clouds hanging over your friend like the Red Sea waters. Depression is something that must be traversed, a dark tunnel through which we must limp out of. Your well-chosen words should convey simple supports mixed with eternal truths–sustaining morsels for the journey ahead.
Our weaknesses and limitations are, in fact, the occasion for [God's] steadfast love and mercy. If you want to help a struggler, you need to know God's kindness for you in your struggles.
– Todd Styrd, CCEF
Be mindful that the sufferer is not looking to you to solve their immediate problem. They are hurting in a way that feels like a nuclear decimation of their soul. Psalm 88 paints this reality with the brush of morbidity:

Soul full of troubles (v.3)...counted among those who go down to the pit...a man who has no strength (v.4)...like the slain that lie in the grave...cut off from your hand (v.5)...in the depths of the pit...in regions dark and deep (v.6)...you overwhelm me with your waves (v. 7)...you have made me a  horror...I cannot escape (v.8)...my eye grows dim through sorrow (v.9)...afflicted and close to death...I suffer your terrors; I am helpless (v.15)...your dreadful assaults destroy me (v.16)...my companions have become darkness (v.18).

This is who you are about to speak to. Take the time to imagine what it would be to live one day in a Psalm 88 state-of-mind. A day where you cannot imagine a happiness or remember the last time you experienced the exhilaration of joy. Imagine being wounded, aching for a miracle that might make you feel normal again. This is who you are about to speak to: "I cannot escape." You don't preach platitudes to a gunshot wound: you treat as the moment requires. Attend to the bleeding. Shore up the tissues. Only when the crisis has passed do you investigate what led to the gun's firing.

An utter nuclear decimation of the soul. Tread compassionately.

Compassionate Responses to Those Who Are Depressed

I'd like to offer some simple phrases that may be helpful to you, should you find yourself in a position to minister to someone walking through depression:
"I'm committed to walking through this with you."

"God won't leave you this way."

"I'm sorry you're hurting so badly. I'm going to pray for you now."

"I love you, and I'm here for you."

"This must be so hard for you. What does it feel like?"

"God sees, knows, and cares about this pain you're walking through. Mercy is on its way."

"You are needed, important, and cared about."

"You are not alone. I am here for you, and so is Christ."

"You are not experiencing something abnormal for Christians."

"You have a special and unique purpose, and I know God will redeem this season of sorrow. Until then, I will wait with you."

"What are some of the thoughts you're most burdened by right now?"

"I know this is overwhelming. I am here to help you take the next right step."

"I want to shoulder this burden with you. Is there anything specific you'd like to share with me?"

"Thank you for trusting me with this information. Your bravery has ministered to me."

"I applaud you for having the courage remain faithful to small tasks while feeling this way."

Understanding a person's suffering is critical for having fruitful and God-honoring conversations. Remember, most people seek help from others because they are suffering and need hope.
– Michael R. Emlet, CCEF
Remember that with any mental/emotional/spiritual struggle, there is a time for comfort and a time for challenge. Those in the deep recesses of depression will struggle to respond to challenge because they are presently so wounded. Statements such as, "Fight back in faith," "Pray for healing," "Look on the bright side," "Things could be worse," may have truths in them, but as an initial reply to offering counsel to the broken, these statements do not reflect a compassionate understanding of suffering. 

The sorrowing are not able to lift themselves out of the pit through formulaic mentalities. Submit to the process, for the sake of you and your friend. Prepare for the journey ahead with Christ by your sides, ministering to your hearts in intimate, meaningful, transformative ways. Depression is too complex to be mended in a single encounter. What your friend needs most from you is compassionate faithfulness–a commitment to walk the length of the dreary road, hand-in-hand, side-by-side.
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Christine M. Chappell
Christine M. Chappell is a wife, mother of three, and the author of Clean Home, Messy Heart: Promises of Renewal, Hope, and Change for Overwhelmed Moms. She has completed her certificates in Biblical Counseling through the Institute of Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD) and is presently in the process of obtaining certification through the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). Christine is a guest contributor at Desiring God and served two years as a contributing writer at Thrive Moms.
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