8 Ways Preachers Harm the Depressed

In a church of 100 people, 20 people will likely experience an episode of depression at some stage in their life. If you are in a church of that size, there are probably 5-10 people struggling with anxiety or depression right now. But instead of finding comfort and consolation in the preaching of God’s Word, these suffering souls often find themselves battered and bruised by insensitive preaching.

What kind of sermons harm depressed and anxious Christians?

Sermons that over-stress the moral evils of the day. They are anxious enough through hearing the daily news without every church service ramping up the “we’re doomed” rhetoric. A steady diet of gloomy sermons is not going to lift up the head or heart of the cast down.

Sermons that include graphic descriptions of violence. They are deeply traumatized by preachers reciting the gory details of shooting massacres, abortion procedures, persecution of Christians, child murders, etc.

Sermons that extol constant happiness as the only valid and virtuous Christian experience. The deep pain of depression is multiplied when a depressed person is repeatedly told that sadness is a sin.

Sermons that question the faith of anyone who doubts. A lack of assurance is not necessarily a lack of faith. Believers who hang on to God despite feeling no assurance sometimes have the greatest faith.

Sermons that demand, demand, and demand.The depressed person already feels like an inadequate failure. To be regularly berated for not doing this ministry, or failing to engage in that Christian service, only crushes what’s left of their spirit.

Sermons that are too loud for too long. When a preacher pours out high-decibel words with hardly a breath between them for 45 minutes, it’s not just the nerves of the depressed that are frayed.

Sermons that condemn anyone for using meds to treat depression or anxiety. These are often preached by pastors whose medicine cabinets are overflowing with pills and potions for every other condition under the sun!

Sermons that overdo the subjective side of Christian experience. Depressed people need to focus most on the objective facts of Christianity, the historic doctrines of the faith. Facts first and feelings follow. There’s a place for careful self-examination, but remember McCheyne’s rule: “For every look inside, take ten looks to Christ.”

And that really brings me to the best way to preach to the depressed, and that’s to preach Christ. Preach His suffering and sympathizing humanity. Preach His gentle and tender dealings with trembling and timid sinners. Preach His gracious and merciful words. Preach His beautiful meekness. Preach His miracles to demonstrate His power to heal. Preach His finished work on Calvary. Preach His offer of rest to the weary. Preach the power of His resurrection-life. Preach His precious promises: ”A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.”

Preach Christ! Preach Him winningly and winsomely. Preach Him near and ready to help. Preach Him from the heart to the heart. Preach Him again, and again, and again. Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.

In what other ways can preachers inadvertently damage the depressed? And how can preachers better minister to them?

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This is an outstanding sermon

You MUST listen to this superb sermon, Sorrowful yet always rejoicing, by John Piper. It also happens to be his farewell sermon after 32+ years at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His last message was: “What the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.”

Although you can quickly read it at the link, if you listen to it you will probably never forget it. What a tremendous combination of teaching and exhortation, of careful exposition and passionate proclamation, of simple profundity and profound simplicity, of painful realism and soaring optimism. He not only expounded this vital message, he embodied it.

Thank you Pastor John for your years of serious-joy-filled Gospel proclamation. We come from very different traditions and we probably differ on a few matters. But I want to publicly and gratefully acknowledge that you had a hugely beneficial impact on my life and ministry 11-12 years ago when I came across your book, The Pleasures of God, in the midst of some painful life and ministry circumstances. God greatly used you and your book to restore my joy in Jesus and in the ministry.

I hope and pray you will have many years of family joy and fruitful service in your new spheres of labor.

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Where have all the positive Americans gone?

When I used to vacation in America, I was always hugely encouraged by the massively more positive attitude to life than I was used to in Europe in general, and in the UK in particular. There was an optimism, a hope, a confidence that throbbed throughout American life, and especially among American Christians.

Sadly, I’m writing in the past tense. Because that up-and-at-’em, can-do spirit has gone, largely. And it’s absence is especially noticeable in the church. It was still quite evident when I first came here to work 5-6 years ago, but it’s slowly diminished since, and for many it completely evaporated on November 6.

In some ways, this emotional decline is understandable, especially among non-Christians. America has taken a few hard blows in recent years. However, what’s not understandable nor acceptable is the way that many American Christians are leading the way in joyless, smile-less despair. And no surprise, because many have been feeding themselves on a diet of negativity, defeat, cynicism, and pessimism;

A new diet
The American church and individual American Christians need a long and concentrated dose of Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

We’ve been gorging ourselves way too long at the media’s trough as they’ve happily served us up an unremitting diet of the false, the base, the wrong, the filthy, the ugly, and the destructive.

But we’ve then gone and regurgitated that mess into our families and churches. We sit around our dinner tables moping and moaning. Preaching and praying sound more like whining and whinging. Our Facebook pages are full of frowns and fears. Garbage in, garbage out, as someone subtly put it.

We need to change our diet. Good in, good out. Philippians 4:8 in, Philippians 4:8 out.

But what does that look like in practice? Let me give you five equations that I believe will make us more biblically balanced and more counter-culturally optimistic.

More salvation than sin
Yes, we need to preach, write, and talk about sin. Without the doctrine of sin and conviction of sin, the Gospel makes no sense and has no power. Despite many wanting to downplay sin, minimize God’s law, and soften God’s anger, the Gospel message must begin with “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” 

But for every minute spent on sin, let’s spend more on salvation. Sure, we must visit the prodigal’s pigsty – to see, smell, and even taste the evil of sin – but let’s not linger there any longer than we have to. A welcoming father is waiting.

Most Christians don’t need nor want to hear about homosexual marriage or abortion or the latest bloodbath in every single sermon and prayer. We do need to hear about Christ, and grace, and redemption at every possible opportunity.

More truth than falsehood
Just as banks train tellers to spot counterfeit money by over-exposing them to real money, and doctors are trained to detect heart and lung disease by listening to thousands of healthy chests, so Christians would be more edified, and also better prepared to spot falsehood, by focusing most of their reading and teaching on the truth rather than trying to know and counteract the innumerable errors, heresies, false religions, and cults that fill our world.

Sure, we need Apologetics. But I’d like to invent another subject area whose whole purpose would be to positively promote truth as aggressively as we tear down falsehood. Maybe seminaries could set up “Philippians 4:8″ chairs. We certainly need them.

More wooing than warning
Every preacher must woo and warn. Every hearer needs wooing and warning. However, in general terms, we need more wooing than warning, more carrot than stick, more of the beauty of holiness than the ugliness of sin, more of the drawing of Christ than the danger of the devil, more of the attraction of heaven than the fear of hell.

Let’s present Jesus to our congregations and families in all his beautiful saving glory. Let’s make sure that they know how much Jesus is willing to save, able to save, desires to save and delights to save.

More victory than struggle
“Trial, suffering, backsliding, defeat, temptation, etc.,” are all biblical words, but so are “victory, growth, maturity, progress, usefulness, fruit, service, opportunity, advance, assurance, and encouragement.”

Paul wanted to know “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings,” but he also wanted to know “the power of His resurrection.” He knew the continuing power of indwelling sin (Romans 7), but he also knew the breaking of sin’s dominion and the power of life in the Spirit (Romans 8). Yes, “in this world we shall have tribulation,” But that’s not a full stop there. It’s a comma. …”, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Do our sermons, blog posts, prayers, and songs reflect this biblical emphasis?

More celebration than lamentation
There’s a time to mourn; but there’s also a time to laugh. The note of celebration should sound louder than the note of lamentation. Of course we may complain about government policies and cultural decline, but we must also praise God and thank Him for giving us far more than we deserve. We have so much to be thankful for in the past, in the present, and even more in the future.

If we’re going to pray for five sick people, let’s make sure we also thank God for the health He gives to hundreds more, and the restorations of health for many we’ve prayed for but never thanked for. If we’re going to mourn over backslidings and apostasies, let’s also celebrate the steady progress, beautiful faithfulness, and deepening maturity of millions of Christians.

X more than Y
Please, please notice, I’m not saying, “X not Y.” I’m saying “X more than Y.” 

How much more? I’m thinking maybe even a 60/40 split would give a massive boost to our mental and emotional health.

What are you feeding on? And what are you feeding others?

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