Depression and the Church Community (Part 1)

When suffering comes our way, many often turn to religion or spirituality for quick relief. In our desperation, we will believe or do anything if it will ease our struggles. We want an instant remedy for the pain. But there are no such instant guarantees when it comes to the Christian faith.

Now, while it is certainly true that our God is able to miraculously heal and to deliver, that he has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that one glorious day he will make all things new, trusting in him for salvation is not the answer for a pain-free life. Rather, the Bible teaches that we have been saved in hope. Paul writes in Romans 8 that, for those who belong to Christ, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23-24). Until that day when faith turns to sight, we often cry out: “How long, O Lord?”

So, as we hope in God and believe the gospel of his beloved Son, we still suffer, but we don’t merely suffer. Our God has promised to graciously supply us with all we need to suffer well.

For those who suffer with depression, this is what I want to ask: how can we suffer well? The most important question you can ask is not “How can I get rid of my depression?” but first, “How can I be saved, forgiven of my sin and justified?”; and then second, “How can I continue to trust my Savior Jesus while struggling with depression? How do I rely on God’s abundant grace to suffer well?”

There are several ways to do this. The two most basic means of grace are the word and prayer. Our God has promised to strengthen us as we encounter him in his word and in prayer. But there’s another means of grace that is essential if we are to struggle well, and that is community. We must be in the word and prayer with others. Believers must be devoted to the fellowship of a local church community, for this is vital for our encouragement in the faith.

You see, the devil is always looking for someone to deceive, to discourage, and to devour; for someone to lose sight of the glory of Christ. And both anxiety and depression can all too easily become an occasion to doubt God, to reject his gospel, and to fall away from promised grace. Thus, believers must be encouraged if we are to suffer well and hold fast the confession of our hope. To be strong in the Lord, to stand firm in the faith, we need to put on the whole armor of God and pray always. But we don’t stand alone; in Christ, we stand arm in arm with others.

Over the next few weeks I want to look at what the Bible has to say about depression, to do this I want us to look at a rather unusual story found in the book of Acts, chapter 20. In this passage, the author (Luke) provides us with a seemingly unimportant travel summary and an often-misunderstood miracle. But here, we will see that we encounter the God of all comfort in gospel community. It is in the fellowship of a local church that we find the strength we need to suffer well.

The Ministry of Encouragement (Acts 20:1-6)

In the first three verses of Acts 20, we get an incredibly brief summary of Paul’s travels after a riot that took place at Ephesus. He travels around the Aegean Sea through Macedonia and into Greece—visiting the churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and others—and then back through these regions again. During this time, he writes 2 Corinthians (v.2), and his epistle to the Romans (v.3).

But notice what Paul does in each of these places: he encourages the disciples in Ephesus before leaving (Acts 20:1); he goes through Macedonia and gives them “much encouragement” (Acts 20:2); and he spends three months in Greece to encourage the Corinthians and even the Romans by letter (Acts 20:3).

This word “encourage” has a range of meaning. It can mean “to urge or exhort,” encouraging someone to action; it can also be the sense of instilling someone with courage or cheer, bringing comfort. In essence, biblical encouragement is strengthening someone to continue in the faith and bringing comfort in the midst of affliction. It’s to have our doubt-filled minds recalibrated, to have our hope set fully on the grace in store for us when Jesus Christ returns in glory.1

Watering the Church with the Word

So, far from being just a routine travel summary that Luke reports often in Acts, these verses imply a rich ministry of encouragement—Paul’s labor of shepherding, teaching, bearing burdens, prayer, and enduring suffering. Why? All to strengthen and comfort the churches. One 16th century pastor put it like this:

“The church is like a garden or a vineyard. A garden must be watered . . . otherwise it will go to ruin from heat and drought. In the same way Christian congregations also wither through tribulation, affliction and persecution. So then, they must be watered and sustained with the water and consolation of the Holy Spirit.”2

Now, the encouragement we’re talking about here is not some kind of motivational pep-talk to boost self-confidence, with shallow phrases like “Hey, you look great today!” The kind of comfort we’re talking about is not just a few kind words to those suffering such as “I’ll be praying for you.” No, we’re talking about a supernatural strength that comes from the ministry of the word. If the church is to grow and bear fruit, then we need the water of the word. We need, as Romans 15:4says, “the encouragement of the Scriptures” to hold fast our hope. The encouragement we need is that which only comes from the promises of God held out to us in the gospel. Biblical encouragement begins with reminding one another of promises such as

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

Encouragement and Exhortation for Depression

But having been reassured of our hope, comfort turns to exhortation as we urge one another to walk in step with the truth of the gospel, to live as though Jesus really is the King of the world. Paul does this often in his letters. After the good news of Romans 1-11, he writes “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, [ I urge, I exhort you] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). After the sound doctrine of Ephesians 1-3, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge [exhort] you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).

But who’s responsible to do this? Who’s responsible to speak the truth in love, to build up the body of Christ, to give counsel, to encourage and exhort to the weak? First, It’s the ministry of elders. Paul tells themto Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). But encouragement is also the ministry of every disciple of Jesus. Paul tells the Thessalonians to encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). The author of Hebrews says: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12-13).

Encouragement is Verbal and Relational

Don’t miss what all these verses imply: The ministry of encouragement—strengthening the weary, comforting the afflicted, including those suffering with depression—is both a verbal ministry and relational ministry. It’s a verbal ministry in that it requires proclaiming the word, speaking the truth in love to one another. But it’s a relational ministry in that it requires fellowship and community! Look how the author of Hebrews sums it all up in Hebrews 10:23-25:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

In fact, this idea of mutual encouragement is something I think we see inActs 20:4-6.Notice the list of Paul’s companions. Most likely, these men were representatives of the various Gentile churches assisting Paul in bringing the offering to the Jerusalem church. But I think there’s more going on. From what we see in Acts, we know Paul always preferred travelling with others on his long and difficult journeys. But was it simply for physical help and support? guys to carry his bags? I don’t think so. If you consider the extensive greetings found in several of Paul’s letters and how often he expresses his love for those who labored alongside him in the work of the gospel, I think it’s clear that Paul himself needed these brothers for encouragement and comfort! He was often discouraged, afflicted, burdened beyond his own strength, despairing of life itself, weak and weary. But he always sought the fellowship of the believers, whether he was going or staying. His heart needed to be encouraged just like theirs did, and just as all the churches did.

These verses are a brief but powerful proof of the believer’s need of encouragement. For those who suffer with depression or anxiety, it’s especially easy to lose sight of the love of God in Christ, the empty tomb, and the hope of our salvation. This is why the ministry of encouragement is so vital. We need to remind one another of God’s loving faithfulness. We need to remember what Jesus has done to forgive our sins and make us acceptable to the Father. We need the encouragement of his gospel word to find strength for today and hope for tomorrow.

  1. 1 Peter 1:13.
  2. Johann Spangenberg “Der Apostel Geschichte, 181v, 182v” in Esther Chung-Kim, Todd R. Hains, et al., eds., Acts: New Testament, vol. VI, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 275.

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