Depression and Interpersonal Relationships – What Does the Bible Say?

In the previous article “Depression and the Believer,” the importance of differentiating between clinical and spiritual depression was examined. It was concluded that many believers likely suffer from medical depression but attribute it to spiritual reasons. This could lead to months or years of silently suffering from a disorder that could have benefitted from medical treatment.

There are, however, spiritual means by which a believer may help avoid or improve the course of a depression. The health of our relationships contribute significantly to our mental state of health. The purpose of this article is to examine Biblical principles relating to this area.

First, it is important to understand that in many cases people become depressed due to factors over which they have no control. For example, the tendency to depression can be genetically inherited from our parents. This predisposes a person to develop depression and, although it does not mean that everybody with a family history of depression will become depressed, it has been shown that there is an increased possibility of developing this disorder. Another predisposing factor would be a person’s upbringing. Child-rearing is under the parent’s control and only with maturity does an individual start to gain some control of his life as an independent person. Thirdly, we are faced with the circumstances of life. Due to the “fall” of man, sin has devastated mankind, leading to all the sadness and disappointment in this life. No one is exempt from human suffering, illness, and death. These three factors that are beyond our control can play a significant role in the development of depression. However, in the realm of relationships, a believer has significant control that can help determine mental well being. With this in mind, let us examine this important area of relationships.

Relationship with the Lord

The Bible has a lot to say about relationships. Of course our primary relationship is with the Lord Himself. He is the fundamental source of help for the believer. Unlike others, He is unchanging and always reliable. Not only this, He is the greatest “counselor” ever. He has healed more broken hearts and stabilized more lives than any psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. A relationship with Him is the basis for any believer who struggles with, or hopes to prevent, a depression. A depressed believer can always turn to Him knowing that He completely understands all the circumstances and all the difficulties surrounding his state. The Word of God is filled with guidance and solace for distressed and cast-down believers.

Relationships with Others

Our relationships with others can also be a determining factor in preventing or handling depression in our lives. There are three main factors that contribute to successful interpersonal relationships. Again, for each of these we have to look to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself as the supreme example.

1. Outward Focus

A sense of purpose and well being results from positive involvement in the lives of others. The Lord Jesus was totally devoted both to the will of His Father and to the blessing of others. His life could be summed up in one word – “others” (Phil 2). The gospel accounts are filled with one example after another of the Lord Jesus attending to the needs of individuals. Therefore, a life that is lived for others or more engaged with others can help to prevent depression. This helps to change the focus from an overly inward analysis that can lead to depression to an emotionally positive experience in helping others. Little acts of kindness or a few words of praise will not only be encouraging to others, but will lift your own spirits. It is truly more blessed to give than to receive!

2. Clarity in Communication

The ability “to think before we speak” can also help prevent the downward cycle in relationships that may lead to depression. James could write, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). It has been remarked that we have two ears and only one tongue because the Lord meant for us to listen twice as much as we talk! Often, negative assumptions are made in our conversations with one another and things are said that only inflame the relationship. The need to listen and to clarify what you are hearing in a conversation beyond just the words takes attention and patience, but it is amazing how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions and respond in a way that invites argument or withdrawal. If this theme is repeated in our relations with others, it may lead to arguing or, at the least, a decrease in any meaningful conversation. This misinterpretation of what people are really trying to say and the subsequent withdrawal are factors that may lead to depression. For example, if you feel that people do not understand you or that they are always “down” on you, the natural tendency is to quietly nurse your hurt feelings, withdraw from further engagement, and proceed down the downward depressive spiral. How many episodes of misery and depression have resulted from misunderstanding and wrong thinking!

This leads me to emphasize the tremendous impact we may have on the feelings of others. We should all take heed to 2 Corinthians 1:17, “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.” Criticism, sarcasm, offhand remarks, and even jokes can be open to misinterpretation and be toxic in relationships. It is sad, but true, that Christians can be very hurtful in their communication one with another. Even nonverbal communication such as the tone of voice and facial expressions can relay messages that are open to distortion.

3. Empathy

Finally, it is important for all of us to develop the ability to empathize or “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This differs from sympathy in which we acknowledge the suffering of others and express our sorrow. Empathy requires effort. It is a paradox that those who believe that they are good at empathizing are usually the ones that are least able to do so. It requires humility and a “giving” of oneself to another to try to enter into feelings of the other person. Paul wrote in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with them that rejoice, weep with them that weep.” The reason that believers can turn to God in any situation is that we know that He truly understands. When we empathize we are actually displaying an important aspect of godliness. Remarkably, the willingness to try to appreciate how somebody else feels can actually improve your own mood. (Just try it and see!)

In summary, our day-to-day relationships play a large role in our mental well-being. An understanding of God’s interest in our relationship with Him, taking an interest in others, and nurturing our relationships though clarification and empathy will yield large dividends in improving our own mental state, dealing with depression, and contributing positively to the lives of those around us.