Battling Spiritual Depression: A Letter to a Friend

The following is a response to an email I received a while ago.  A dear brother contacted me and asked me if I could expand on an entry I had posted.  Specifically, he wanted to know if and how the Lord had helped me make progress in dealing with unhealthy introspective tendencies and spiritual depression. Below is the letter with a few slight edits for clarity.    

Dear Friend,

Thank you again for your email. An inclination toward severe introspection and spiritual depression is something that has affected me since early in my Christian life, and I still find myself battling introspective tendencies and spiritual depression.

When I first came to Christ, I noticed immediately that I tended toward a severe examination of my inner-life—my motives, my affections for God and for others, my faith in Christ, my holiness. Far from bringing me peace and assurance in my relationship with Christ, this propensity to question every inner-working of my heart instead brought much doubt, confusion and, inevitably, depression.

Yet, I can say that by God’s grace I have made significant progress in this area. As I reflect on the past several years, I can see specific means of grace that God has used to help me turn from an unhealthy preoccupation with self and sin—with the depression that inevitably follows—to a growing focus on the gospel and others. The following are several disciplines I have found to particularly helpful in my fight against what Martin Lloyd Jones calls, “morbid introspection” and the resultant spiritual depression.

A few words, first, about the following points. First, it is important to remember that overcoming introspective tendencies does not mean that we are to disregard all forms of self-examination. Sober-minded, thoughtful, doctrinally informed self-examination is required for believers (II Corinthians 13:5), and is, when conducted correctly, a means of real joy and peace.

Second, the following list are those things I have found to be beneficial to me. It is a personal list. I hope and trust that much of what I offer here is grounded in Scripture. Nevertheless, it will be important for you to not receive this as an infallible map to spiritual health, but as helpful suggestions as you continue to walk daily with the Lord, learning from his Word and from other counselors. The first point (“A Robust Understanding of the Gospel”), however, lays the foundation for everything else. Without this important point, our battle against morbid introspection and depression will malfunction at a fundamental level. With those two cautions in mind, let’s turn to considering these few points.

1) A Robust Understanding of the Gospel. I put this first because it is the most important. I have found that my tendency toward severe introspection is compounded to the degree that I am not seeing the gospel in all its beauty and doctrinal fullness. Specifically, this has meant understanding and embracing important doctrines like the doctrine of justification, sanctification, and indwelling sin.

a. Justification: Scripture teaches that justification is the act of God by which he declares us wholly forgiven and righteous in his sight and on the basis of Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross (Romans 3:21-26; 5:1; 8:1), not upon any work that we have done or will do (Romans 4:5; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-7). This declaration is based solely on the work of Christ and his righteousness which God credits to our account; it is not based upon the righteousness the Holy Spirit works inside of us when he regenerates our hearts. Nor is faith our righteousness; faith is only the instrument by which we receive the gift of righteousness—a righteousness wrought by Jesus Christ and him alone. This declaration of justification by God occurs at the moment the sinner puts genuine faith in Christ (Romans 4:5; 5:1) and cannot be undone (Romans 8:33-39), since it is a work God planned from all eternity (Romans 8:29-30).

b. Sanctification: Sanctification is the gradual work of the Holy Spirit in our lives by which he cleanses our hearts from sin, purifies our affections and desires, and makes us more like Jesus Christ. This aspect of our sanctification is often referred to as progressive sanctification. There are several important truths about sanctification that I have found to be particularly helpful in my battle with unhealthy introspection.

First, whether one currently feels like it or not, when they placed saving faith in Jesus Christ, they died to the dominion of sin in their hearts and lives (Romans 6:6-11). This is called definitive sanctification. Scripture does not say that we have to die continually to the dominion of sin in our lives; it says we already died to sin’s dominion when we trusted in Christ: sin no longer has dominion over us and it never will.  This does not mean that genuine Christians will not sin! True saints can and do sin; sometime even grievously. But what it does mean is that true Christians are not held sway by sin the same way they once were.

Second, our right standing with God is not based on our level of progressive sanctification; our right standing with God is based only on Christ’s life and work on the cross. This is an important distinction to make. Romans 4:5 tells us that God justifies the ungodly. This means that we are in right standing with God on the basis of Christ’s work on our behalf and our union with him by faith and not on the progress we have made in sanctification. If we are confused here, we can never have any real confidence in our standing with God. If we think our right standing with God is based in any way upon the progress we have made in personal holiness, we will despair when we commit sin or when our affections are not where the should be. Justification and sanctification cannot be separated—when justification occurs, sanctification inevitably follows—but they must be kept distinct in our overall understanding of salvation.

c. Indwelling Sin. Understanding what Scripture teaches about indwelling sin is particularly important for those of us who tend toward intense scrutiny of our hearts. If we think sin has been utterly eradicated at our conversion, the only logical conclusion we can draw when we find sin in our lives is that we have not been converted, a conclusion which typically leads to more despair and depression. On the other hand, if we recognize that sin, although it no longer holds dominion over us, is still powerfully active and pervasive in our hearts, and that our responsibility is to kill this indwelling sin by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13), then we will not despair when we find sin in our lives—we will do battle against it.

One of the most helpful discoveries I have made is the truth that the sinful flesh, though not dominating me as it once did, is still alive and active—sometimes powerfully so!—and must be mortified. Notice in Colossians 3:5-8 that Paul exhorts his readers to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…But now you must put them all away, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from you mouth” Paul’s exhortation to mortify the sinful flesh is given to those who have already been “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1). The implication is unmistakable: sin still resides in believers. Believers do not “walk” or “live” in these sins anymore (Col. 3:7), but these sins still reside in the believer and must be dealt with. Again, however, sin is only dealt with by rightly understanding what Scripture teaches about justification. As Michael Horton has written, “[J]ustification is not the first stage of the Christian life, but the constant wellspring of sanctification and good works.”

A growing understanding of the gospel is the most important component in our battle with unhealthy introspection. We need to understand what God has done for us in Christ so that we will look to Christ and his completed work for instead of constantly looking to ourselves. With this in mind, I would like to recommend a few resources to help you grow in this understanding of the gospel.

2) An Unremitting Pursuit of Fellowship in the Local Body of Christ. My tendency toward introspection and depression can often lead to the temptation to neglect fellowship with other Christians. On the other hand, regular worship among and fellowship with believers and active involvement in ministry tends to turn my eyes away from dwelling on my sinful heart or my disappointments or my struggles. I have found that cultivating the discipline of regular fellowship and ministry has been a significant means of grace in this regard. We need each other. That is why Scripture says, “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” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Without regular worship, fellowship, and service, we will only wallow by ourselves in our depression, and our introspection will only get worse.

This fellowship should also include regular confession of sin to other brothers in Christ (James 5:16). The practice of confession of sin to other faithful brothers in Christ, in correspondence with confession of sin to God (I John 1:9), exposes our sin, weakens it, and helps us truly repent of it. This weakening of sin and promotion of real repentance most often helps us with our introspective tendencies since our introspection usually narrows in on personal sin.

3) Much Time Spent Outdoors. Morbid introspection is, by definition, a preoccupation with self—characterized by a focus on one’s own sin, disappointments, struggles, and personal problems. There is a need, then, to turn the focus away from ourselves. I believe God has ordained the glory of the created universe to be a means to this end. If the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), then we should spend much time gazing upon that glory. I have found that time outside—among the trees, in the mountains, walking beside streams and lakes and in parks—refreshes my soul and has the power to bring me out of myself. Too much time inside, surrounded by walls and computers and cell phones, tends to sap my soul of joy and often turns the eyes of my heart upon itself, instead of upon something much greater.

4) Adequate Sleep and Regular Cardio-Vascular Exercise. Adequate sleep and regular exercise have been unexpected yet significant means of grace as I have battled unhealthy introspection and depression. Whether we recognize it or not, our bodies affect our souls. When I am neglecting sleep or regular exercise, I find it much easier to fall into unhealthy introspection and depression. When I get adequate sleep and exercise, I find that I have the energy and the spiritual wherewithal to turn my eyes away from myself and onto Christ and others. (For more on the importance of caring for the body for the sake of our souls, see Gregg R. Allison, “Toward a Theology of Human Embodiment.“)

5) Careful Balance Between Time Spent Alone and Time Spent with Other People. If we are already struggling with introspection, our tendency will be to guard ourselves from time with other people—and the more time we spend by ourselves, the more we will find ourselves falling into morbid introspection and depression. It is a downward spiral. Therefore—and this relates to #2—it is important for people like us to make time with others a priority that we intentionally pursue. If we don’t pursue time with others, we run the risk of drawing back into ourselves and succumbing to our introspective tendencies. We were never meant to be alone, especially for long periods of time.

6) Profitable Work. We are made, by God, to work (Genesis 1:28; 2:15; Proverbs 6:6-11; II Thessalonians 3:6-12). When we neglect this fundamental component of our personhood, we tend, in most cases, toward introspection and depression. Profitable work, however, draws us out of a fixation on ourselves and brings us to concentrate on something outside of us for the good of others. For those of us who tend toward severe introspection, the discipline to pursue faithfulness in work and productivity is especially important since our tendency to become preoccupied with our inner-life can sometimes tempt us to justify laziness as a cloak for super-spiritual “soul-searching.”

7) Proactive Love Toward Others. As I have already noted, those of us who tend toward introspection will, in most cases, also tend toward pulling away from people. Conversely, a proactive love toward others—family members, friends, neighbors, and enemies—is a powerful weapon against an unhealthy preoccupation with our inner-life. Love is considered the distinguishing mark of the Christian (Matthew 5:44-49; John 15:17; I John 3:11-15; 4:7-12). Consider these words from Isaiah 58:10-11: “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall you light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”  It appears from this verse that giving ourselves for the welfare of others is a means of spiritual refreshment.

8) A Recognition that Some Self-Examination is Necessary. Some self-examination is necessary and expected (II Corinthians 13:5). It is natural for a Christian to have some concern over his motives, affections and faith. But these concerns cannot become the overwhelming or even primary focus. Robert Murray McCheyne provides us with wise counsel when he writes, “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely.” That leads to #9.

9) Looking to Christ, not to Faith. Related to #8, John Piper provides us with solid counsel when he writes, in When the Darkness Will Not Lift, page 41,

Or, second, we might say, ‘Stop looking at your faith, and rivet your attention on Christ. Faith is sustained by looking at Christ, crucified and risen, not by turning from Christ to analyze your faith. Let me help you look to Christ. Let’s read Luke 22 through 24 together. Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness of our Savior.

This is a helpful word for me. I have a tendency to examine my faith—to see how well or how much I am believing—instead of fixing my eyes on Jesus, the One who sustains my faith. As Piper observes, it is by not focusing much on faith that we begin to experience the joy of faith. We must look to Jesus, primarily, not our faith in Jesus.

10) Locating Assurance in the Appropriate Place. One of the most important truths I have learned from Jonathan Edwards is that Scripture does not encourage us to find assurance primarily by self-examination, but by obedience. Edwards writes,

It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it. And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet, it is not the principal means by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination, as by action. The apostle Paul sought assurance chiefly this way…He obtained assurance of winning the prize more by running than considering [I Corinthians 9:23-26; Philippians 3:12-14, emphasis added].

This is not to say that we ground our security in our obedience. Our security is rooted in the finished work of Christ and his promise to keep us (see my article on assurance here). This is why it is vital to understand the doctrine of justification as I noted above. Our obedience, however, testifies to our conscience that we have been the recipients of a secure and everlasting salvation. The objective truth, “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:29), is subjectively felt as we walk in faith and obedience.

Those of us who tend toward introspection can easily drift into intense soul-searching as the means to finding assurance. What we need to hear is the summons to obedience. Until we start acting on the truth was know, we may not find the assurance for which we are desperately searching, no matter how much reading and heart inspecting we do.

For further help in this area of introspection and spiritual depression, I would recommend the following excellent resources:

I hope this is a help to you. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Warmly in Christ,

Derek Brown

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