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Out of the blue

A biblical treatment plan for those suffering from depression

Out of the blue

The person who is depressed doesn't need a doctor's note to certify it's clinical. We're talking about a state of paralysis, fatigue, critically low energy reserves, and flirting with the fantasy of one's annihilation. Those are the body's own internal certifications.

The nondepressed don't go scot-free. Physical and spiritual wellness have their own dangers: smug disdain ("In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune," Job 12:5) and breach of the benefit-of-the-doubt principle ("love believes all things," 1 Corinthians 13:7). Let the happy be humble and remember: "Who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person?" (1 Corinthians 2:11).

But what follows is addressed to the melancholy. Chipper readers will be voyeurs here.

First, pray, pray, pray. "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise" (James 5:13). Crying out "in supplications and prayers night and day" (1 Timothy 5:5) isn't just for widows. Anytime anyone says, "we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself," we should recognize that the burden "was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Repeat: He raises the dead.

Secondly, sort out sinful from non-sinful causes. How's your diet? How's your sleep life? Is there a chemical imbalance? I have had depression that a good night's rest cured. Figure out how much of your depression you come by honestly and how much is from attitude or behavior prohibited in the Bible. You don't rebuke a feeling of fatigue, but you rebuke a feeling of worthlessness, or envy, or fear of man.

On meds: Don't jump too quickly to medicate melancholia that might make you a more compassionate neighbor ("God . . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction" [2 Corinthians 1:3-4]). And grapple long and hard before you trade away the next Picasso "blue period" for a little Prozac peace of mind.

Mind your goals. If being rid of melancholy is your non-negotiable supplication, soul searching is in order to see if you haven't substituted a set of your own "virtues" for God's. What God highly prizes is prayer, faith, and endurance. To practice these is not just the means to the better Christian life; it is the better Christian life. Have you fixated on success, worldly approval, and independence from the need of daily grace, and made the disciplines of godliness mere steppingstones to them?

Depression calls for clear-minded thinking. I realize this is precisely the commodity you believe you can't muster, but you must. Depression thrives in foggy mental states like salmonella in a petri dish. I used to think I had to roll over when a depression came, at its first fluttering in the mind. Not so. You can talk to a depression, rebuke it. Rehearse the basics-you are a son or daughter, mightily loved by your Father.

Mentally separate out God's sovereignty from your responsibility: You are called to be faithful, not healthy. Make a list of what you can do right now: a load of ironing, clean out one kitchen drawer, prepare dinner. The beast will put up a fight, but it will not be your master.

If this can tide you over for an afternoon, you will be interested to find that the most acute depression (like the most acute emotion of being in love) cannot be sustained over the long haul. Afterwards, you will have only to deal with your baseline manageable melancholia. And at this stage, you might realize that depression is best handled by plunging in and helping others. Live as though you're not depressed (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

The happy discovery is that even when depressed, you can be controlled by the Spirit and not the depression. You can have a moment-by-moment dependency on the Lover of your soul. You can say, "I'm depressed. So what?"-and carry on with the energy God supplies. All the while you keep in mind that your one neighbor has chronic back pain and your other neighbor has neurofibromatosis. You are not a tragic special case, cut off by a chasm from the rest of humanity. The condition is just what is common to man, the prescription is still faith, and the grace for it is inexhaustible.