Although we could derive much teaching from the Old Testament about the joy promised to believers (e.g. Deut. 12:12; Ps. 16:11; 51:12; Isa. 61:10; Jer. 15:16), for the sake of brevity I am going to restrict our study here to the teaching of the New Testament, and even then I will only be able to scratch the surface. Let’s begin, then, with Jesus’ teaching about joy.
NKJ John 15:8-11 “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. 9 As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Jesus knows the joy of walking in the Father’s love and keeping the Father’s commandments in a way that we could never know it, at least not without Him. That is why He speaks of His own joy that He wants to share with us as we learn to abide in His love and to obey Him. He wants His own joy both to remain in us and to be full in us. In other words, He wants us to have joy that doesn’t go away and that is not hindered in any way.
But what about the depressed person? Can a depressed person know such joy? Well, according to Jesus, anyone who is His disciple and who thus abides in His love may indeed have such joy. To exempt the depressed person from the expectation of joy here would also entail exempting them from the ability to abide in Christ and to obey Him, wouldn’t it? Yet, many Christians assume such an exemption, apparently thinking that, although Jesus still requires depressed people to abide in His love and obey Him, He does not grant them the joy that He says will come with such abiding and obedience.
Here is the point: Anyone who has entered into a genuine relationship with Christ should expect to have the joy that comes with knowing and following Him. And because it is His joy that is shared with them, they should expect to experience it even in their trials and even in the midst of the challenge of depression. The implication of Jesus’ teaching here is that we will have our joy hindered only if we fail to abide in His love and to obey Him.
NKJ John 16:16-22 “’A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.’ 17 Then some of His disciples said among themselves, ‘What is this that He says to us, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me”; and, “because I go to the Father”?’ 18 They said therefore, ‘What is this that He says, “A little while”? We do not know what He is saying.’ 19 Now Jesus knew that they desired to ask [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] Him, and He said to them, ‘Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me?” 20 Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.’”
Here Jesus was thinking of His coming death and resurrection when He said, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” And He was telling the disciples that their joy would be interrupted because of His death but that later – after His resurrection – when they would see Him again, their joy would return and that no one would ever take it from them. No one can take away a joy that God promises and gives to us as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf!
NKJ John 16:23-24 “And in that day you will ask [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” [But see also 1 John 5:14-15, which makes explicit what Jesus assumes here, namely that to ask in His name is to ask in accordance with the Father’s will and that we can expect to receive only that which is in accordance with His will.]
I think William Hendriksen is on the right track in his explanation of verse 23 when he points out that:
In order to grasp the meaning of this passage we must first of all connect it with verse 19 where the same verb inquire [ἐρωτάω, erōtáō] is used …. The disciples had been searching each other to find an answer to Christ’s dark saying about the little while. They had been filled with a desire to inquire of him, but they had not dared to interrupt him again. Now, in verse 23 Jesus declares that in the dispensation of the Spirit these men would no longer be at a loss what to do, desiring to ask questions and yet not having the courage to do so. In the light of Christ’s resurrection, as interpreted by the Holy Spirit poured out on the day of Pentecost and present with the Church ever afterward, the meaning of all such matters would become perfectly clear. Then these men would know why Jesus had to die, why his death was advantageous for the Church, in what manner the source of gloom had been turned into a source of joy, etc. Peter would no longer have to ask, “Where art thou going?” (13:36); nor Thomas, “How can we know the way?” (14:5); nor Philip, “Show us the Father,” (14:8); nor Judas the Greater “Lord, what has happened that thou art about to manifest thyself to us and not to the world?” (14:22); nor any of them, “What is the little while?” (16:18). (BNTC, e-Sword)
Keeping this in mind, Jesus must be referring in verse 24 to the disciples’ questions about the meaning of His teaching, and He assures them that the Father will always give them the answers they need to these questions so that their “joy may be full.” This means that Jesus connects fullness of joy not only to obediently abiding in His love (as in John 15:8-11 above) but also to a right understanding of spiritual things. This is why Jesus earlier promised that the Holy Spirit would come to be their teacher, when He said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). And, of course, the Holy Spirit then inspired the Apostles to write the New Testament Scriptures that we possess today, and these Scriptures provide us with the knowledge we need to have the fullness of joy Jesus promised. Indeed, it was this same Spirit who had inspired the previous authors of the Old Testament Scriptures as well, as Peter was sure to express in his epistles:
NKJ 1 Peter 1:10-12 “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things which angels desire to look into.”
NKJ 2 Peter 1:20-21 “… knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, 21 for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
This is one reason why we have spent so much time going through so many parts of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) in our endeavor to ascertain how we should think about the issue of depression. It should be a great help for those who are depressed, for in this way they too can have fullness of joy with the answers the Father provides them in His Word.
NKJ John 17:12-13 “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.”
Here again Jesus spoke of the fullness of joy that His followers may have as a result of His Word, only this time He was praying to the Father on behalf of the disciples. He was praying for their fullness of joy, and He wanted both them and us to know that He was thus praying, which is why we have it in our Bibles. But doesn’t He still intercede for us as well? And can’t we assume that He still asks the Father for the fullness of joy that He has promised us? (See, for example, Rom. 8:34 and Heb. 7:25.)
NKJ Galatians 5:22-25 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
Notice that part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy (vs. 22), which is one of those traits that will be manifested in those who know Christ and who “live in the Spirit” (vs. 25). This means that any and all Christians should experience this joy, just as they should experience the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit such as love, peace, kindness, or self-control. Why, then, do so many depressed Christians assume that such joy is not for them? Why should we ever assume that this particular fruit of the Spirit just isn’t available for a person who has been diagnosed as being clinically depressed, for example? Is our faith to be in the diagnoses of modern psychologists and psychiatrists or in the promises of God? Or does our joy in the Holy Spirit ultimately depend upon some *pill rather than His power? I think not!
NKJ Romans 14:16-17 “Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
This verse is significant for our study because in it Paul associates the experience of joy so closely with the experience of God’s reign in one’s life that he can actually say that “the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (italics mine).
William Hendriksen is again helpful in his commentary on this passage:
The essence of God’s royal reign, the evidence of that blessed reign in your midst, says Paul, as it were, is not affected by the kind of food a person consumes, whether ceremonially clean or unclean, whether only vegetables or also meats, but is attested by one’s possession of the state of righteousness before God, consciousness of peace with God, a peace resulting from reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:1, 10). It is characterized by the experience of Spirit-wrought joy, a joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:18). (BNTC, e-Sword)
If a depressed person is truly a member of God’s kingdom, then wouldn’t he also experience the joy that belongs to that kingdom and is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? Of course he would! And to expect it of the depressed person is no more nor less than to expect it of any other Christian, for in any case such joy is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit! To assume that the depressed person should not expect to experience this same joy is to disbelieve God’s Word and to assume that He is unable to do for them what He has promised to do for all of His children.
Now, moving right along, we have already seen that both Paul (in Romans 5:1-5) and James (in James 1:1-17) connect our experience of joy to our enduring trials and sufferings for Christ. So here I would just like to add Peter’s testimony to theirs.
NKJ 1 Peter 1:6-9 “In this you greatly rejoice [ἀγαλλιάω, agalliáō, “as feeling and expressing supreme joy be glad, rejoice exceedingly, be very happy,” Friberg #25, BibleWorks], though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice [ἀγαλλιάω, agalliáō] with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith – the salvation of your souls.”
Peter agrees wholeheartedly with Paul and James that we believers may experience great joy even in the midst of – indeed even because of – great trials, for it is through these very trials that we discover the genuineness of our faith. And this fills us with joy because, as we see the genuineness of the faith that God has given us (for faith is a gift of God), we are also receiving with it the ultimate goal of such faith, the salvation of our souls. In other words, we are witnessing God’s work of salvation in our lives as we see the genuineness of our faith, and this brings with it great assurance. No wonder Peter says that we “rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory”!
Simon Kistemaker is quite helpful in his discussion of the importance of this assertion:
Already in this present life believers experience indescribable joy; they do not have to wait until they leave this earthly scene. Even now they are filled with joy that is “inexpressible and glorious.” The emphasis in this part of the verse is on the joy that fills the hearts of Christians. A literal translation conveys this concept in both verb and noun: “You greatly rejoice with joy” (NASB). This is the second time in this first part of his epistle that Peter introduces the subject joy. Peter repeats the word he used earlier, “you greatly rejoice” (v. 6). The word depicts shouting for joy that cannot be contained.
Besides, Peter qualifies the noun joy with two unusual adjectives: “inexpressible” and “glorious.” The first word, “inexpressible,” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Peter uses it to describe the activity of a person who possesses great joy. That person cannot express his joy in human terms. In fact, he copes with not only an inability but also an impossibility to convey the depth of his joy. The second word, “glorious,” signifies that which has been glorified and continues to be glorified. It connotes the presence of heavenly glory that characterizes this particular joy (compare 2 Cor. 3:10). (BNTC, e-Sword)
Now, if depression be regarded as a trial – as I think it should be – then it too is a chance to discover the genuineness of our faith and to be filled with inexpressible joy. Seen from this perspective, then, depression is actually an opportunity for a deeper joy than we might otherwise experience!
This brings us to the end of our attempt to discover a Scriptural framework within which to understand how believers should think about and react to depression. Along the way we have examined a number of Scriptural case studies of depressed people (whether they all would qualify as what we would refer to as “clinical depression” or not doesn’t matter). We have examined a number of passages that speak directly to the issue of depression. We have examined a number of passages that teach about trials in the Christian life, among which depression in all its forms may be included. And, finally, we have examined a number of passages that teach about the joy God promises to believers even in the midst of the most difficult trials.
I hope it has become clear to all of us that depression is not viewed in Scripture as a problem that should rob us of our joy or even necessarily diminish our joy. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Depression can actually be a tremendous opportunity for growth in our walk with Christ and for a greater and deeper experience of the joy of the Lord than we might otherwise have known. It is also thus a tremendous opportunity to be a better witness for Christ as people see in us a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) and a joy that is “inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8), one that does not depend upon our circumstances.
In fact, because we are created in God’s image we are also at times capable of experiencing a number of emotions at once, such as when we experience a mixture of both sorrow and joy upon the death of a loved one in Christ. Because we do not sorrow as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), we may experience the joy that such hope brings even in the midst of great sorrow. So it shouldn’t surprise us that a depressed believer may know peace and joy in spite of or in the midst of his or her battle with depression.
Now, all of this will no doubt sound like nonsense to unbelievers – or perhaps even to believers who take their cues more from pop psychology than from Scripture – but it is true nonetheless. And the sooner believers begin to realize this the better it will be for them as individuals and for the Church as a whole.
*Note: I do not intend to imply that there is no proper role for medication when dealing with people who suffer from depression due to some physical problem, whether it be a physical problem with the brain or a chronic ailment which may bring depression in its wake (such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, for example). I am, however, suspicious of many diagnoses of depression and of the overuse of medication. And I do not believe that a Christian should ever substitute mood altering drugs for dependence upon the Spirit in any case.