It's challenging and even heartbreaking. A Christian friend confides, sometimes with furtive whispers, that they've been feeling really low, that they're wondering if they're clinically depressed. Would you please pray for them, and do you have any advice? And then comes that awkward silence, where you feel compelled to say something, anything, that might be of help. You didn't mean to be clumsy, to palm them off with a cheesy slogan. But before you even had time to say 'cliche', one popped right out of your mouth.
Remember that intentional, focused listening can be more helpful than just saying things with the view that what we utter is going to 'fix' everything for a depressed person. Your interest, compassion, presence and care matter more than any words that you might say. Remember the advice that comes, not from the book of Proverbs, but from Ronan Keating. Sometimes, we say it best, when we say nothing at all.
But when it comes to what we say, here's five possibilities that will likely make your friend even more depressed than they already are. If you don't want to qualify as a 'friend of Job' (and those guys were seriously unhelpful) avoid these oft-used remarks:
1. 'Get over it'.
You know that if they could, they would. That's the point. People don't decide to be depressed, any more than a victim chooses to get mugged. While a depressed person might well need a very gentle nudge to take some action: see a doctor, consider medication, consider diet and exercise, reflect on sleep patterns - what they don't need is an aggressive cheerleader with a megaphone hollering, 'get a life!'. They want a life.
2. 'Come out, in Jesus' Name'.
Incredibly, some Christians are rather quick on the draw when it comes to linking satanic attack - even demonic possession - with depression and other forms of mental illness. Who knows what untold damage has been done by people who, armed and dangerous with the latest book on deliverance, 'try out' their theories on people who are not laboratory rats, but priceless human beings. We are involved in spiritual warfare at times, and we should all remember that. But suggesting that dark forces are always the source of their darkness is unlikely to help. On the contrary.
3. 'Stir your faith'.
People who have been rather famous for their faith, like Elijah, ended up depressed, camped in a cave, and wanting to do nothing but sleep and possibly stop living. Add to the list the apostle Paul, Jeremiah, Jonah, and, yes, Jesus (he was hardly happy in Gethsemane) and you'll see that faith doesn't guarantee exemption from emotional turbulence. Elijah had faith to raise the dead, call down fire from heaven, and control the weather. Be especially hesitant about telling someone who is low to have more faith, especially if you have not called down fire, controlled the weather, or raised the dead this week (waking a teenage son in the morning doesn't count).
4. 'I'm going to be there for you'.
It's not that you should never say this, but you should only say it when you really mean it, and you know that you can deliver. Depressed people don't need to add disappointment with their friends to their list of things to be less than cheerful about. Offer support by all means, but make sure that a) you don't create unrealistic expectations and b) that you deliver what you promise. This includes that pledge that you're going to be praying for them. If you say it, do it.
5. 'Everything will be fine, you'll see'.
Everything does not always turn out fine. Ask the disciples of Jesus, who, for the most part, ended their lives as martyrs. There's no guarantee that life is going to get sunnier, just because we say it will. Life can be hard, We're not promised anything different, but are told that, with God, we're never going to be alone again, regardless of what we feel. We do have hope and help to offer, but let's make sure that it's real.
- Jeff is touring England with Searchlight Theatre Company in November and December, presenting an evening called 'Faith in the Fog'. Based on his recent book with that title, the event will explore issues like faith when we have more questions that answers, depression and burnout, the connection between love for God and our emotions, and handling disappointment with God and church. The evening will be a mixture of music, conversational story-telling, theatre, and teaching. Go here for venue details and to buy tickets.