Is my depression really part of God’s plan?

Somebody asked me yesterday whether I thought my getting depression was part of God’s plan. I thought that was a really interesting question and thought I would share my view on that here. If you can’t be bothered to read past this sentence, the short answer is, yes I do.

Here is the thing, I believe God is ultimately sovereign. He is sovereign over all things. There is not a single thing, in the whole of creation, that does not happen without God’s permission to do so. The Bible is unequivocal about God’s total and complete sovereignty.

If that is true, then simply the fact that I have depression means that it is, in some way, part of God’s plan. If God is sovereign over all things (and he is), then there isn’t anything that happens that is not part of his plan. Even his decision not to act, not to intervene, is a sovereign decision. If God chooses not to stop something that he could otherwise stop, he must be allowing it for his greater purposes. If God is sovereign over all things, there is nothing that happens that he could not stop and nothing that doesn’t happen that he could have chosen to make happen. Everything that does happen, happens because God either actively causes it or sovereignly permits it. It is as the Bible says, he is the one who ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’.

The issue is, when it comes to stuff like depression, the inevitable question is: do you think God is happy that you’re ill? The short answer is, no. I don’t think God is any happier at the thought of me being ill than he is at the thought of people sinning. This inevitably leads to a follow up question, then why doesn’t he stop it?

The answer is that God orders his priorities. The Bible tells us, for example, that God does not wish for any to perish, but longs for all people to be saved. At the same time, we know that not everyone is saved. How do we account for this? Philosophers, at this point, like to posit the principle of sufficient reason. God wants all people to be saved, but he has a sufficient reason to allow them not to be. Depending on your particular theological bent, you will offer different answers as to what that sufficient reason is. But it is no different to us saying I would like to save £200 every month, but I would also like to buy a load of stuff too. One of those priorities tends to trump the other, meaning that though I would like both, I order my priorities, which is why my bank account is less full than I might otherwise like it to be. Similarly, God orders his priorities such that, though he may want all to be saved, he has higher priorities that mean all are not in actuality saved.

So, where does that leave us when it comes to my depression? It is certainly something that happened in actuality, so I consider it part of God’s plan. Does God want me to have depression? I don’t think he is pleased at the thought of me being sick. Nevertheless, that it has happened tells me he has some greater purpose in allowing it to happen. But, let’s be honest, we all want to know what that greater purpose is.

As a Reformed believer, I think God orders all things so that he will receive maximal glory. So, God’s highest priority is his own glory. What this means is that God has setup the world so that the world as it is – out of every possible world he might have created – brings him the greatest glory.

I cannot explain how each and every thing works ultimately to the praise and glory of God. I can have a guess at how some things – even some pretty heinous things – might ultimately work to his glory. But I am ultimately only guessing. I can highlight how some objectively terrible things definitely work to his glory because the Bible expressly tells us so. The cross of Jesus Christ – which was a gross injustice of the highest order and severe suffering of the very worst kind – was the very means by which God glorified himself most. It was his means of salvation for his people, the means of glorifying Christ, the means of becoming both just and justifier. Through something so heinous, God was ultimately glorified. But I must admit I can’t explain how every terrible thing that ever happens works to God’s glory that way. I trust what God’s word says, that such things will brings him more glory in the end than if it hadn’t happened at all, and I can have my guesses about what some of that might be, but that is all they are likely to be.

What does that mean for my depression? Given my depression exists in this actual world, I believe there must be some way in which God is more glorified by me having it than if I had it not. But inevitably, we want to ask, how on earth does something like that bring God glory? It doesn’t seem all that glorious to us and typically doesn’t feel very glorious to me.

There are lots of things I could say, and to some degree, we are in the world of guesswork here. I believe because of what scripture tells me that God works my depression for his glory and he is ultimately more glorified through it. I have to make my own guesses, based on what I see now, as to how any of it might have glorified him already, might be glorifying him now and might glorify him in future. I am convinced it brings him more glory, but I have to offer my own educated guesses as to exactly how right now. And there are several reasonable things I can say to that end.

I am – for several reasons – convinced I would not be in ministry now if it were not for my having had depression when and how I did and do. I am convinced – not least because nothing happens apart from God’s sovereign will and this is what has happened – God wants me to be the pastor of Oldham Bethel Church right now, and has done for the best part of 10 years. Why did he want me in particular? I don’t know. I have my particular educated guesses about that (that I will choose not to share), but I don’t ultimately know. I just know he wants me here now because I am here now. I am also fairly confident that I would not be here now if I had not had depression. God knows what it takes to get the people he wants to the places he wants them.

There are other guesses I can make as to why God has given me depression. I am losing count of the number of times the Lord has used it to allow me to minister to other people facing depression. I’m not implying I have necessarily done that very well, but I have nonetheless been there to do it and trusted as someone who knows, at least a bit, what it might be like. My church is chocabloc full of people with various mental health problems. Some insight into what that is like has not been at all unhelpful in my ministry up to now. Again, these are just guesses, but they seem like educated guesses as to how the Lord is more glorified through something seemingly less than excellent than he would be if it had never existed.

But let me perhaps end on something more sure and certain. This is not a guess because it is something I read in scripture. Romans 8:28 teaches explicitly that ‘for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ If all things work together for good for believers, then even my depression must, in some way, work in conjunction with everything else, for my ultimate good and to God’s ultimate glory as a result.

The question is, when the Bible say ‘all things work together for good’, what is the good to which they are working? Because I don’t think any old good is in view. The passage goes on to tell us the good to which these things work in the very next verse: ‘For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.’ This is the good to which all things are working. They work to conform us to the image of Christ. So, if nothing else at all, we know that whatever happens works to make the elect more like Jesus. That can happen in one of two ways. It may work to cause someone to trust in the Lord Jesus by faith and become a believer or it works to grow our faith and make us more like Jesus in our character. But everything happens so that the elect will be conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus and God will receive all the more glory as he takes broken people and makes them like his son and as he takes even the most heinous and terrible things and uses them to mould his people and make them more beautiful.

So, what of my depression? Given it has happened, it must be part of the ‘all things’ that God is working for the good of those who love him. It must, in some way, be working for my good to make me more like Jesus. If you think I don’t seem all that much like Jesus (and you would be right), just imagine what I was like before! And bearing in mind I am not the only believer in the Lord Jesus, my depression is working in some way to help others become more like Jesus (and, if you think I’m not that much like Jesus – and you’re still right – maybe that is specifically how!)

What I know is that God is completely and utterly sovereign. Nothing happens outside of his sovereign good purposes. All things occur in order to maximise his glory in some way. Even heinous things like my depression serve God’s glory. I know, because the Bible tells me so, that all things work together for the good of those who love Jesus. They work to the end of making us more like him, conforming us to his image. My depression is a thing that exists. Therefore, God is using it to conform me more to the image of Christ, to conform believers around me more to the image of Christ, to potentially bring other elect members of the kingdom to the point of faith so that they become more like Jesus, and in some mad way to do something or other for people I have never met but who in God’s infinite and intricately weaved tapestry of history and circumstance, are somehow affected for their good too and they will become more like Jesus through it.

Backing away from what we know, back to the world of guessing, perhaps even if someone I’ve never met, who only reads this blog because I’m in ministry because I had depression, or read this because they know I’ve had depression, and reads something that leads to them becoming more like the Lord Jesus somehow, isn’t that all part of God’s glorious sovereignty at work in causing all things to work together for his glory and the good of those that love him? What if someone read this blog, it did nothing major but prompted a thought to someone else, and by dozens of degrees of separation, it ended up impacting someone somewhere decades from now? Even in these tiny, bizarre ways, isn’t God using all things for the good of those that love him, even those I’m never going to meet and have nowt to do with me? Isn’t that a way the Lord might use even terrible things like depression for his glory? I think so, and it blows my mind when I even begin to think about it. But it helps me when asked is my depression part of God’s plan, to joyfully affirm on those grounds, yes it most certainly is!