Happy Clappy?


Guest post from Glen..

I’ve heard it from a few people now… stories of depressed friends going to their GP and at some stage being asked, “Are you, by any chance, an evangelical Christian?” Have you heard similar tales?

I’m not sure whether we’ve ended up on any official lists of “predisposing factors” but it certainly makes you think.

So let’s ask a tough question: Is there anything about evangelicalism (as opposed to other kinds of Christianity) that makes depression even harder? Or even, perhaps, more likely?

Is it worse to be an evangelical Christian when you’re depressed?

I can think of two reasons it shouldn’t be and two reasons it might be.


Evangelicals are good news people (the “evangel” in Greek means the ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’). It’s about a victory that Jesus has secured entirely apart from us, apart from our works, apart from our feelings. It takes the darkness of our sin and helplessness with complete seriousness and it promises a genuine hope that doesn’t depend on any of our spiritual resources, only on Christ’s.

Now I know that some of the foulest works-righteousness in Christendom gets preached from evangelical pulpits. I know how evangelical mission and pietism and activism gets twisted in some truly horrendous ways. I also know how judgemental certain churches and groupings can become. Grace – you may have noticed – is not always what evangelicals are known for!  But it really, really should be. And right now I’m looking at the positives. So let me say that I rejoice in belonging to a movement centred on the good news of Jesus. That is a major positive – especially if you’re feeling ‘poor in spirit.’


Depression (as with so many mental health issues) thrives in the darkness. We need each other. And evangelicals believe in community.

Yes there can be a very unhelpful individualism within the movement – the gateway into the Christian life, according to so many evangelicals, is kneeling silently by your bed and giving your life to Jesus, all by yourself. And that individualism can carry on into the whole of the Christian life. But against this, there tends to be real emphasis on life groups / home groups / community groups / growth groups. Call it what you will, evangelical Christianity is not simply a Sunday phenomenon. And if you’re not there Sunday, your brothers and sisters should follow you up. And if you do show up but aren’t “all there” (if you know what I mean), an evangelical Christian is the kind of Christian who’ll ask if everything’s really ok. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

BUT… here are a couple of negatives:


Your church may not be “Happy Clappy” but speaking more broadly of evangelical culture… if we were a radio station we would be one of those “feel good” FM stations playing shiny, happy, radio-friendly pop. And it’s hard enough being depressed, but when the expectation is emotional effervescence, that can be crushing.

It’s a problem that goes wider than evangelicalism but compare the song books of our churches with the song book of the Bible – the Psalms. So many of the Bible’s songs are about hanging on by a thread, or indeed falling completely into the pit. Recently I was listening to sermons on the book of Job. The preacher decided there would be no singing for some of the services because singing would be inappropriate. It made me think “None of our songs seem appropriate, but plenty of the Bible’s would be.” It’s a lamentable fact that our hymnals – and our collective spirituality – is more Feel Good FM than “Out of the depths I cry”.

So that’s a real problem when you are in the depths. Related to this is another problem:


What is evangelical spirituality anyway? Well, the “quiet time” is industry standard. But on our best days this can be a struggle – let alone if we’re feeling depressed. More than this, I think a real spanner in the works is our allergic reaction to “going through the motions.”  I write about this more here but, as a rule, evangelicals are dead against “going through the motions”. No, we have to really mean it.  And of course nothing is more wearying to a depressed person than being told to mean it. Yet our aversion to ritual persists and it goes hand in hand with a view of faith which I’ve discussed earlier.

Essentially the problem is this: the gospel says we’re not saved by ourselves but entirely by Jesus. We translate that into: I’m not saved by my works (by which we mean external acts), instead I’m saved by my faith (by which we mean our internal devotion).  Do you see what’s happened? We have turned faith into a work.  And faith is the last work a depressed person can summon up!

In other church traditions there’s a more developed sacramental theology, daily offices, rosaries, rituals that keep you going when you don’t really feel it. In evangelicalism, largely, we do without external supports to our spiritual life. And when we’re depressed we’re not carried by a spirituality that fixes us on external truths. Instead we are pointed within to our internal state.  And for the depressed person (not to mention any common or garden sinner!) that’s not a good place.

What do you think? Is evangelical faith and practice a help or hindrance in handling depression?

26 thoughts on “Happy Clappy?

  1. very much both. There’s the horrid tendancy to think “it’s ALL my fault – I’m not praying/doing enough” which seems to be much more present in the evangelican tradition – I think because we have a weakness for fucussing on us, and our relationship to Jesus – rather than Him first. If that makes any sense?

  2. Makes a lot of sense and sounds very familiar Lizzi! Looking to Jesus shifts so easily to “looking to how much I’m looking to Jesus”. Sounds subtle but it’s actually all the difference in the world.


  3. When i first started antidepressants, we sang ‘break my heart for what breaks yours’. I couldn’t honestly sing those lyrics so I didn’t sing that bit of the sing for years…I was broken enough..! Also around that time was when I discovered how helpful liturgy like the daily office could be, when you just didn’t have the words to pray yourself…my church friends were unimpressed!! On the other hand I had friends who started a prayer triplet to pray with me.

  4. Great post Glen, thank you. Very helpful. God bless you both for your faithfulness in ministry.

  5. I can certainly seeing the emotional expectations factor being one. Combine that with people presenting the I’m-all-sorted mask and you can end up feeling like you’re the only person in the room who’s not ‘feeling it’. I often felt that way at my university’s CU meetings, because there were a lot of charismatics, who are naturally more publicly expressive than me. Mind you, there are rocks that are more publicly expressive than me…

    I think you’re right about the songs – even the ones that are usually brought out during troubling times like You Never Let Go or Blessed Be Your Name are quite positive in their outlook, there are none I know of a ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ sort. So I think that exacerbates the problem because then you feel like you’re in an abnormal state of being.

    I do wonder if an evangelical tendency is to treat everything as a spiritual problem – so if I’m depressed it’s because I’m not doing spiritual things right, and I can just fix it if I pray more. Except I don’t feel like it… On the other hand, a correctly understood gospel is very uplifting.

  6. I’ve noted this trend too. Many ‘modern’ hymns and songs are focussed on being happy, being content, or ‘always’ hanging on to Jesus. I regularly struggle with all three of these! It feels dishonest saying ‘Forever I’ll stand’, when I have days when I know I don’t, and days when I want to metaphorically throw the slipper at God. But He and I agreed long ago that on hard days, I would bring to him whatever I could, whether that was that was misery, my tears or my laughter. And judging by the Psalms, this seems to be okay.

    I use the Daily Office sometimes; I have half a dozen prayer books, protestant, catholic and free church that I dip in and out of. I skip or reword the non biblical parts! Going through the motions has kept me going on many occasions. Sometimes on a bad day, reading the prayer of humble access and then sitting in silence just thinking about Jesus is just what my soul needs. Even if I feel like there is no one on the other end of the phone line, someone else’s words reminds me there is:

    “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

  7. the most difficult thing i find when im depressed is that the holy bible teaches us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This makes me feel very guilty.

    im trying not to compare my life with other peoples – in adverts on tv etc. i know that some people are in far worse situations than me – that doesnt help me either.

    Facebook is a really difficult one – all the happy photos of families and friends out together. As for me im divorced and my children dont live with me. Although i get on very well with them.

    But i try very hard to hide how i am “feeling” from them.
    I am told not to rely on my feelings. Im told not to feel sorry for myself. Im told there is something so much better in heaven.

    Ive been well for 9 months this time but its coming back and im really scared.

  8. I think the worst culprit of all in this concept of “spending time with God” or “putting God first in your life”. I’ve never understood what this means, nor have I really found anyone else who could really articulate it without falling back onto buzz-words.

    If the Spirit of Christ has indwelt our hearts, that changes everything, not just adding a capstone to the top of our list: “groceries, call mom, read a little bit, see how Jon’s doing, and..oh yeah, spend time with God”. It seems like just another task to do, one that is seldom, concretely, defined.

    I’m across the pond, but evangelicalism here, God (I try not to use the word as a proper noun since it’s so nebulous) fills in, almost, a psychological function.

    Anyway, I’ve got no problem with using wrote prayers to help direct thoughts, or perhaps silence directed before the cross. But Jesus tells us clearly that we show we love him when we obey his commands, which many times have to do with loving others, caring for the weak, and providing needs. This ain’t the condition of love or a new legalism, but the fact where Rome et al. comes up with all sorts of chants, rosary use, sacramental additions, is to try and fill up being obedient to Christ. That is that it usually makes you an obedient son of the church rather than an obedient son/servant/friend/brother of Christ..

    This all comes from someone who doesn’t do a good job at all that. I survive day to day on His mercy.

    2 pence/cents,

  9. Learning2Float, a little trick I have when the emotional register of the song is way above what I’m feeling (which can be quite often indeed with some modern songs)… I imagine the One singing it to be Jesus, and I’m just joining in. Essentially it’s how we ought to read the Psalms too, but when the white-hot devotion is way beyond me, I sing it “in Christ” and trust Him to feel it when I don’t.

    For more on that, I wrote a post called “When I don’t desire God… the King does.”


    Thanks Susie.

    Jon, yes “treating everything as a spiritual problem” can be a real issue (given some pretty silly views of “spiritual” versus “physical”). I was at a sceptic’s society this week where a neuroscientist gave a fascinating lecture on brain chemistry. It would be a very healthy thing if more Christians also acknowledged that we are flesh and blood and full of frailties that can’t simply be worshipped away.

    Pip, that’s probably my favourite prayer in all liturgy. (Though the second post-communion prayer is also up there, “Almighty and everliving God…”) Actually taking communion is so precious – it’s a pity evangelicals, as a rule, don’t do it more.

    Katherine, loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength is law. It’s law in its purest form. As such it’s good, but it’s something so infinitely high above us, even at our best, let alone when we’re depressed. The good news is that Jesus has loved God and given up everything for Him – He’s done it in your name and on your behalf. And He’s done it when you didn’t love God at all, but were His enemy. Right now, sinner though you are, you are loved by God and saved entirely in Christ.

    “This is love, NOT that we loved God but that He loved us and gave His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

    Cal, yes ‘putting God first’ can be so meaningless and so commonly used it makes me mad. And you’re right about loving others. While the religious may tell you to turn within as some kind of penance, the therapists will tell you to turn within to nurture yourself, but actually serving others gets us out of ourselves. And that’s what we really need.

  10. Being depressed can make you feel really out of place, especially when you go to a Church where it’s all happy clappy, we meet and tell you to go pray at home more and read the Bible while you’re at it, when you just about made it there and all you want to do is dissolve in the rain you feel surrounds you.

    Being depressed doesn’t always fit in with the optimism that comes with the faith of the non-depressed Church families.

  11. Just want to say I shared this on my Facebook and unlike blog posts I’ve shared before this one got comments back!!

    Interesting reading.
    Beautifully put and a great perspective…..
    And from my vicar – Very good piece… have copied it into my resources folder…

    Be encouraged!!

  12. Thanks Tears and Raindrops. I hear you. Hopefully though we can find some brothers and sisters to be real with. That’s the idea anyway.

    Thanks learning2float – encouraged!

  13. Thanks for posting this, Glen! A friend recommended it to me. When I read it I experienced one of those moments in which I feel understood. I’ve been struggling with depression for some time and I completely agree with your thoughts on community. My friends have been amazing at supporting me through this – one of the things that encourages me daily is knowing that there are people praying for me and that they are available to talk or just keep me company.

    In terms of Sunday meetings and activities at church, I am now feeling the weight of it. I am finding it really hard to see God in his true character at the moment and singing at church and listening to sermons seems to much. Especially because my head is heavy with immense questions (e.g. why am I even here?) and all I’ve taken away the past few times I’ve been to church is when they talk about the darkness and sinfulness of the human heart, and I am very aware of my darkness :S

    I think your comments on “going through the motions” are very insightful. For some time I have experienced that language used in prayers and devotions has gradually lost meaning in my head, it’s a strange experience. And it may be because I expect words like ‘Gospel’ to trigger an emotional response on my part. I have been thinking about this, how do I even read the Bible when I just don’t see meaning in the words?! How do I deal with my linguistic apathy? (You must understand, words are very important to me). Your comments on how evangelicalism emphasises that we ought to mean it helped me see that I am not the one who infuses words with meaning, especially not words in the Bible!

    I don’t think evangelical practice is necessarily a hindrance to handling depression. Something I’m learning as I wade through this mess is that, if anything, I am becoming more compassionate – seeing how thoroughly broken you can be inside, deciding to be kind to that person and seeing others actually caring changes you for the better. If people in evangelical churches are struggling with depression it also means that, when we get through this, we will be able to help other people. Yes, there is pressure and expectations that seem huge at times but there are also many loving and compassionate brothers and sisters who will help us along. Maybe it’s also a question of how out in the open this issue is in churches.

    PS: I’m so sorry for the massive comment. I love your blog Emma, thanks for sharing your story.

  14. Thanks Victoria – that’s so true about compassion. I think that’s at the heart of what God is teaching us through our suffering – to know God’s comfort and pass it on to others who are suffering – 2 Corinthians 1.

  15. This is a good post. As a teenager I grew up in an evangelical Anglican church (so it wasn’t ultra-hard line) and for me the biggest negative (being a bit depressive) was the gospel.

    Every Sunday I’d hear that I was rubbish, so bad and we couldn’t do anything about it, that someone had to die on our behalf to save us… and because he did we were to be filled with awe and joy we’ve been redeemed and give our lives to him, like someone trying to pay off a debt they can never repay. I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s death, and I still don’t. It was bad enough being responsible for how bad the world is, for having caused it, for never being able to not mess up… I used to leave church feeling weighed down and so much more depressed than beforehand, wishing life was over and then at least everything would be perfect and I wouldn’t have to keep striving any longer.

    Funnily enough Glen that vicar was Australian and didn’t see my viewpoint. He is an awesome man of God and we’ve kept in touch; he’s mellowed a bit in the last 15 years…

  16. Thanks Peter, glad to hear that both of you seem to have come to a better place now! I hope church is a positive experience for you today.

  17. > I hope church is a positive experience for you today.

    It’s more positive, but I’m still not comfortable in church, or particularly relaxed. I keep expecting people to be judgemental, and feeling the pressure to keep up appearances.

    If I can get my thoughts down in an orderly fashion I’ll blog about church…

  18. There are lots of good points in this article and the comments. I came across this in an attempt to find anything which recognised a major issue for me, which I’m surprised I’ve never found mentioned in Christian books or discussions about depression.

    Namely – one of the hardest things for me to bear as a depressed person is the belief that friends, family, colleagues, and others I meet are likely to spend eternity in Hell. Discussions often mention the problem a friend of mine struggled with (as John Bunyan did) – a fear that he had committed the unpardonable sin and was condemned – and in that situation we can assure believers that they are saved by God’s grace. Again, when I feel “I’ll never achieve anything ever again”, people can reassure me that I’m being unrealistic and catastrophising. But if I’m overwhelmed at the infinitely worse thought that people are headed for eternal punishment, the answer is “Yes, you’re right to belive that”.

    On top of this – while in evangelical circles, it’s made clear that our salvation does not depend on our own works, we’re often made to feel that other people’s salvation does depend a large amount on our works – we have a responsibility to speak about our faith, pray for the Spirit to work, etc. When you’re depressed, this is doubly hard – it’s harder to step out and speak about the gospel to other peoples, and then the faith you’re commending to them is one you’re struggling to believe yourself.

    So the main issue for me now is – how as a depressed person is it possible to live day by day with the reality of other people’s dire future hanging over you? This should be an issue for non-depressed Christians too, but they seem to have stronger minds to cope with (or suppress) it.

  19. Hi Michael

    Great question – and I wish I had a neat answer (for you and for myself). What I keep coming back to is this – that it’s about pressing in to realise that the God who judges the world really is Jesus – the Judge who was judged. We can totally trust Him to do right on the last day, just as we trust Him to do right on this day. Here’s a sermon from Glen on hell, which looks at this issue:


  20. Thanks for your reply. Yes, I think we all need to hold onto the view expressed in the verses: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” and “he entrusted himself to him who judges justly”. Otherwise the enormity of it is too much. I look forward to watching the video.

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