It’s part of our lot in life as artist-types that many of us tend to be built with a wider emotional range than the rest. We feel highs higher, and we feel lows lower. Great music and great art often come from a deep place of catharsis, and sometimes it’s the good kind and sometimes it’s the bad kind. I’ve been leading worship for over a decade now, and I’ve come to realize that life cycles of various forms of depression are inevitable and constant. I experience big and small waves of the kind of heavy-spirited apathy and soul-sluggishness. Sometimes, it’s a hazy sky that blows by in a few hours or with a good night’s sleep. Other times, it’s a heavy cloud that hangs over my heart for much, much longer. I want to offer some thoughts to worship leaders about depression that will hopefully be helpful if and when the times come.
1. Know that depression is normal in our fallen world.
Worship leaders are not exempt from the fall. The biblical doctrine of total depravity means that no part of the human being is left untouched by the brokenness of sin. This means that whether depression is spiritual, emotional, psychological, physiological, or chemical, it is certainly a part of what it means to be a “child of Adam.” One of the most helpful things to reduce the shock of depression is to realize that most, if not all, human beings experience it. Depression is one of the fall’s many bruises.
Some of the battle of depression is tied up in being aware that it will happen and when it will happen, as we’ll see below.
2. Recognize when depression is “emotionally circumstantial” to the highs and lows of your job.
One of the best combatants to depression is knowing and being ready for the seasons where depression hits in a worship leader’s job. Most experienced artists know that after a big event like an art show or performance, there’s usually a quite normal crash. You’ve invested yourself so heavily in preparation for something, and especially when it is related to artistic expression, your emotions are extremely charged. It’s not uncommon to experience such “let down” after peak seasons. I often gird myself up for the weeks after Christmas and Holy Week / Easter. I’ve learned to expect that I’ll doubt whether I’m cut out for my line of work, whether I truly enjoy what I’m doing, and even whether I’m called to this vocation of worship leading. I’ve learned to anticipate lethargy, a lack of motivation, and just plain old sadness. Sometimes our depression is understandably circumstantial.
3. Depression can be a symptom of not really believing the gospel and clinging to our idolatry.
Depression is sometimes the fruit of a lack of fulfillment. We look to things, people, or circumstances to provide for us the security our soul is searching for. As worship leaders, things can subtly switch over from being engaged in “hearing” the needs and responses of the congregation (good ol’ fashioned pastoral work) to seeking their approval (good ol’ fashioned idolatry). I can start to wrap my identity around whether or not people liked or were engaged with a worship service I had planned and led. I can begin to enter into the performance race of planning services to satiate my loudest criticizers. I can arrange music so that the musicians I work with will think I’m a respectable artist. I can speak with big theological words so that people will know I’m not just some “dumb rock star.”
The irony of these pursuits is that they can never satisfy. Our idols can never fulfill what they promise, and they never deliver what they demand. The approval I seek, the perfection I aim toward, can only be fully found in who Jesus is and what He’s done. This is why depression in this instance (the heavy disappointment of perpetually unmet expectations, dreams, and goals) is fundamentally a gospel issue. Some of us don’t realize how beholden we are to the opinions of others, the approval of our fellow brothers and sisters, or the reputation we try to uphold. And our slavish attempts at maintaining those things produces a perpetual depression.
4. Depression can be the work of the enemy.
“Satan,” in Hebrew, is actually (contrary to popular belief), not a name but a title. It means “the accuser.” The enemy revels in the business of accusation and discouragement. I’ve experienced many seasons where, losing sight of God’s promises in Christ, I’ve been bombarded by strong senses of my own failure and inadequacy. Or, I’ve been sitting under the weight of guilt and shame because of real, horrible things I’ve thought, said, done, or left undone. It is not that “I am a failure” and “I am a sinner” are really untrue statements. The Bible tells us they are quite true (just read Romans 3). But when those realities weigh on us so heavily that they crush our spirit and become debilitating, it is often the sign that the enemy is at work, clouding the gospel from our sight. In reality, the above statements are half-truths that become un-truths when the gospel is not present. I am a failure, but Christ is my success. I am a sinner, but Christ is my righteousness. Satan likes to lop off the latter end of those sentences and then tie the former ends around our neck.
Keep this in mind, too. The accuser hates God’s worship. He wants it for himself. So he’s going to do anything in his power to rob God of His just due. Worship leaders need to know that they have a big target on their back because they facilitate one of the things the enemy hates most. Sometimes depression is nothing short of spiritual warfare, and the weapons we fight with in that arena aren’t of flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). Put on the whole armor of God (which is nothing short of “putting on Christ,” as Dr. Jono Linebaugh of Knox Seminary preached not long ago at Coral Ridge), pray fervently with others, and name the darkness for what it is.
5. Depression can be the work of God.
This is the flip side of the previous point. In all truth, God is sovereign over all things, meticulously superintending over every detail of life, working all things to His good ends…so I’m one of those who believe that everything, in some sense, is the work of God. But what I mean here is that sometimes God may be walking with us “through the valley of the shadow of death” for His mysterious purposes of His glory and our refinement.
As is often said from the pulpit of Coral Ridge, the law must do its “killing work” before the gospel does its “saving work.” There can be no resurrection before death. One must first die before being born again. Sometimes, our dark nights of the soul are, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, God’s “severe mercy” to painfully till the hard soil of our heart so that the Spirit can swoop in and plant the seed of Christ in fertile soil. Coming to the end of ourselves is a prerequisite for the liberating power of Jesus Christ to flood our souls. Some of our depression may be God’s gracious work in bringing us to that end. In this instance, we can certainly pray with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
6. Sometimes we need professional help and even medication.
This is controversial to some, but not for me. I am married to someone who specializes in marriage and family therapy and who has walked with clients and friends who have greatly benefited from certain types of depression medication. Sometimes, the effects of the fall reach very core levels for us–chemical imbalances, imperfect DNA, predispositions, or even full blown mental illness. I do think that for some forms of depression, the best treatment is to engage the worlds of medicine and therapy, which God has given to us in His common grace.
The above is not meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully these points expose a few angles on the real difficulties that we worship leaders can and do face. What we want to avoid are simple, blanket answers, because the truth is that depression is deep, dark, and multivalent. “It’s all spiritual” is inadequate. “It’s all mental” is inadequate. “It’s all physiological” is inadequate. May God grant us grace for the journey.