In Europe, one in twenty people suffer from depression, and one in four will experience depression during their lifetime. In the United States, major depressive disorder affects about five percent of the population.
Depression has become the leading cause of illness and disability on a global scale, according to the World Health Organization. In 2017, over 300 million people (i.e. 4.4% of the world’s population) suffered from depression and, in 2007, the economic cost of depression amounted to over 135 billion euro within the European Economic Area alone.
Depression changes how our brains work
When people suffer from depression, some major changes occur inside the brain that affect the way they work. The activity within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases below normal levels, affecting people’s ability to concentrate, think clearly, plan, solve problems, and handle stress. The activity in the anterior cingulate cortex also drops below the optimal level of functioning, inducing a feeling of emotional distance from others, in addition to disorientation, and difficulty in making decisions.
The orbital and medial prefrontal cortex are the areas of the brain responsible for making us aware of our errors and helping us realise what is and what is not acceptable. If we were in a store and the thought occurred to us to take our clothes off, this region of our brain would activate, causing a feeling of shame to prevent us from performing that action. When we are depressed, these two areas of the brain become hyperactive. This means that a depressed person feels intense guilt and inadequacy and believes that everything they do is wrong.
The amygdala, our brain’s central alarm system, also becomes hyperactive due to depression leading to a loop of fear, anxiety, turmoil, or always feeling in imminent danger. Depression also affects our pleasure centre—inside the hypothalamus—which is no longer active, making us feel overwhelmed with sadness, guilt, insufficiency, fear, and anxiety. We feel separated from those around us, our ability to think clearly decreases, and it becomes more difficult to solve problems. We feel overwhelmed, and we feel we are not able to make decisions or rejoice when something good happens.
His truth heals us
Depression causes overwhelming emotional pain, but it also affects the body by undermining its physical health. Any activity that pushes the brain toward imbalance is unhealthy, just as any activity that helps keep neural circuits in a normal state is good and healthy.
Therefore, any conception of God and religion that chronically activates the circuits of fear within the brain will lead to the destruction of both brain and body, and ultimately increase selfishness. On the other hand, learning the truth about God will heal fear, and remove selfishness from our body and mind.
When we accept the truth about God as it was revealed through Jesus, lies disappear, and truth is restored. Because we trust Him and open our hearts to Him, the Holy Spirit begins a supernatural process of regeneration and restoration of heart and mind. As we feel love, fear subsides and eventually disappears. Instead of living only for ourselves, we seek to help others. We feel different, because we are now driven by something other than ourselves, something that gives meaning to what is happening around us. As our level of stress and fear decreases, our level of peace and confidence increases. We spend more time with the loving God, and thus become more and more like Him.
Even if we start to give in to selfishness again, the mind will notice our tendencies and we will be able to bounce back, regretting our weakness and wanting to be freed from it again. It is in this trust-based relationship that we experience forgiveness. God’s grace and presence lift us when we start to slip and put us back on the right path. We become more and more like Him until we see Him face to face.
Steps to imitating Christ
There are some practical changes we can make to be successful in this process of healing and drawing closer to Him.
1. Exercising the mind
Only those who exercise are able to reap the benefits of physical exertion. It has been wryly observed that a football match is an event where tens of thousands of spectators in desperate need of action watch twenty-two players in desperate need of rest. The spectators, even they are enjoying themselves, get none of the physical benefits of playing football.
Similarly, only those who develop their ability to reason can reap the benefits. Because of its very nature, sin destroys everything it touches, including our ability to think. We can no longer discern good from bad, or what is healthy from what is unhealthy. This loss of moral sensibility makes room for immorality.
In fact, this is Satan’s purpose: to destroy our intellectual faculties, to dethrone reason, to disturb conscience, or moral sense, and to control our will through intense passions and feelings—his path leads only to death.
These are some signs that our reason may be suffering:
1.1 “If God said so, I believe it, period.”
Although it sounds very spiritual, this way of thinking makes our faith unstable. God does not ask us to blindly believe. He wants us to believe that He is love, not only because He said so, but because He proved it. God does not rely on empty statements or maxims. He wants us to believe the truth on evidence—He has given us enough evidence. When we accept statements that are not based on evidence, we do not exercise our capacity to analyse, and this weakens our reasoning abilities, making us dependent on others.
1.2 “If it worked for our parents…”
Unfortunately, there is a Christian tradition of tying one’s faith to the beliefs of people one loves and trusts. This habit nullifies critical thinking and prevents the mind from being responsive to changes in the future, changes our parents could not have foreseen.
1.3 “They can’t all be wrong…”
An appeal to the majority as justification for belief is illogical. It does not take into consideration biblical examples, such as the flood in Noah’s time, or the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, that show that just because many people walk a path does not mean it is a good one.
1.4 Anger and refusal to answer questions
Seekers of truth are not afraid of examining anything, and those who know this do not feel threatened when questions concerning their beliefs are raised. On the other hand, a lack of being challenged on one’s beliefs can lead to anger and a refusal to discuss—a sign that someone is not sure enough of what they believe, and that they have not tested the arguments on which their beliefs are built.
1.5 Blind faith
Many believe things that do not make sense, or cannot be argued, and claim that they accept everything “by faith”. In fact, only lies demand acceptance without any proof.
This means claiming knowledge without investigating evidence or using reason, allowing supernatural experiences and powerful emotions to replace our study of the Scriptures.
2. Search for the truth deliberately
We need to grow continuously. We are limited, but God is infinite, which means that there is an infinite amount of truth to be discovered. We can never claim to have reached the end of it, because that only means we refuse to grow. The mind must be kept open to accept evidence that harmonises with all three realms of knowledge—Scripture, science, and experience.
3. Live like Christ
Because studying the evidence helps us to understand that God is trustworthy and loving, we can begin each day by nurturing our desire to be like Him, and to be with Him. We do this by reflecting on His character, trusting Him with our life and future, and giving others what we have received from Him. In fact, the more we give, the more we receive.
The path of love
Most things that exist in the universe work according to the law of love: not much exists only for itself. Everything is closely interconnected, and each serves the needs of the other. The human being is the only being who lives only for himself. But love is living for others.
I am always cautious when talking to young people who want to get married, who insist that they will be so happy once they get married. I look at them lovingly but at the same time I know that happiness only comes to those who endeavour to make their partner happy, regardless of the circumstances.
Getting married and waiting for your partner to make you happy, no matter what happens, is a recipe for unhappiness. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13), says the Bible, redefining the dimensions of true love so as to include the idea of sacrifice.
Violating the law of love also changes our characters: the seeds of selfishness emerge, fear is stimulated, reason is unbalanced, consciousness is disturbed, and our will ends up being controlled by our feelings. Survival of the fittest takes over, and we lose our ability to love.
God’s plan is to restore His image in mankind, even though we have been degraded by sin, and born with a natural inclination toward selfishness. Re-created people live differently—they do not complain about their living conditions, they do not lose hope, nor even fear pandemics, the end of the world, or death.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, before His crucifixion—history’s greatest proof of love—Jesus experienced suffering to the point of agony. If He had made a decision based only on His feelings, He would not have died, and today we would not be preaching hope. If His decision had been based on the support given by others, including loved ones, our hope would have died. Love is not a feeling. It is taking action sometimes even in opposition to feelings.
The crisis we are going through can be a good time to decide that we want to be His and like Him. It is a time to decide that we want to live differently, to be able to distinguish between truth and lies, to choose truth over the opinions and approval of others, and, especially, to love as He loved us.
Marius Andrei serves as a pastor within the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is a licensed psychotherapist.