Depression and anxiety are everywhere in our culture. Pick up a magazine, watch a football game, or listen to the radio and you’ll hear advertisements of all kinds targeted at those suffering either with anxiety or depression. Not only are they a common theme, they’re on the rise . It’s very likely that either you or someone you know is familiar with the often-unspeakable suffering that goes along with anxiety and a downcast soul. Counsel is cheap in our culture and everyone has an opinion, but as a God-fearing man, how should you respond when someone close to you admits they are suffering in this way?
While that’s an important question, let’s first start by examining our own heart. When your wife, sibling, child, parent, coworker or close friend admits to struggling with anxiety or a downcast soul, how do you respond in your heart? What words do you quietly speak in response to their admission? “Oh brother, not you too!” “Oh crap, this is going to put a burden on me” “Oh no! I have to look like I have all the answers.” “I’m terrified because I have no idea how to help, and don’t want to make it worse.” I can admit that I have had these same thoughts when I have encountered loved ones struggling through this type of suffering. The subtle dialogue that ran through my heart was oozing selfishness. These are the thoughts that drove my initial responses. They were self-focused words intended to shut down, quickly fix, or outright ignore the person in front of me. I allowed my heart’s desires for comfort, ease, or control to drive my responses.
When you first hear that admission of an anxious heart or a downcast soul, listen to your own heart. Discern carefully what is going to drive the words you’re about to say. Do you want to quickly fix it? What if that’s not God’s plan here? What if God wants this person to suffer and cutting it short is not best? What if God appointed their suffering for you? So, I’ll ask again, what will motivate your responses to the suffering loved one that God has put in your life? What is your aim?
It might sound trite, but 2 Cor. 5:9 answers the question of our aim, “…whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [God].“ Our aim should be to glorify God in our response. This means thoughtful and intentional interactions that faithfully represent Christ and the truth of Scripture. (If the one suffering is our wife, then all the more we should be Christ-like in our response. See 1 Pet. 3:7)
In Rom. 12:15, Paul tells us to weep with those who are weeping. How do we do this? We must do our best to understand what they are going through, to sympathize with them. To, as best we can, see the world from their eyes. In one sense, their suffering is unique to them, because you haven’t experienced the specific events and thoughts they have. You aren’t inside their head. So, firing verses at an individual without an understanding of the situation is reckless and often unhelpful (Prov. 13-17). However, Scripture is clear that the temptation that comes along with this type of suffering is common among humanity (1 Cor 10:13) and Jesus understands suffering (Heb. 4:15). This can be a magnificent source of hope.
So, what can we do? Well, volumes have been written on the subject and there’s no way a short article could do justice to the topic. Seek out Biblically centered authors like Ed Welch, David Powlison, and Wayne Mack for some great resources.
However, here are a few things to get you thinking: First, humble yourself and cry out to God asking for wisdom (James 1:5). Be sure you don’t take the suffering of another lightly, because you don’t know exactly what they are going through. Listen, hear, and understand what they are experiencing. This will give you helpful information to begin interacting with. Remember, your goal isn’t to solve their dilemma, or end their suffering. Another consideration is to make sure the person sees a doctor to get a physical examination. This is a very important and often overlooked step. We live in a fallen world and our sin-broken-bodies can act as a intense amplifiers to the deep waters of our heart. Furthermore, we should always give them Biblically informed hope from Scripture. You can get into Scripture with them, and the Psalms are rich with truths to mediate on (Ps 23, 30, 32, 40, 42, 43, 46, 73). As we engage with them in Scripture, try to help them see their own heart. Ask open ended questions beginning with “What…” and “How…” to help them illuminate their heart in contrast to the truth of the Gospel and their identity in Christ. For those deeply struggling with an anxious heart and downcast soul, try to make these questions require lower amounts of mental effort to allow for meaningful engagement when a focused attention is difficult. Lastly, God has given you a church body that invests in and cares about Biblical counseling, so make wise use of the many counselors who love the Lord, love his word, and love his people.
Remember, God has put this suffering person in your life. It’s for your good and God’s glory. God’s sovereignty and providence don’t end with the other person’s experiences. Nine times in the Old Testament that God reminds us that he is “…gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps 145:8). God’s mercy, grace, love, and faithfulness are shown through Christ’s work for us. Will you be the patient, truth-filled hands and feet of Christ in their lives?