My vehicle’s headlights curved through a mountain pass as tears dripped onto my jeans. My husband had watched the kids while I stood absently in a used bookstore, seeing but not seeing the shelves. The conflict in my head was loud: a plunge into spiritual depression, catalyzed by an unwanted return from the mission field in Uganda.
It was hard to remember a more bewildered time with God. A time where I’d strained harder to hear something. Anything.
I couldn’t have known it was only the beginning of nearly four years of spiritual regrouping.
Didn’t the work I thought I was doing with God matter to Him? (Or was it only my work that mattered to Him?) Why did I feel … benched? Where did I fit here beyond the ways I served people? Why couldn’t I form meaningful connections with others?
Sediment swirled in my heart around a mysterious God, beyond my grasp in ways holy, troubling, and outright painful.
My husband, however, refused to be rattled by questions we couldn’t answer. In a time ominous and turbulent, he both anchored and harbored me.
Place your trust where trust belongs
My husband created a place where I could be emotionally “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25), where questions became part of my worship, rather than me hiding them (see Job 13:15).
And like any wise, faith-filled friend, my husband trusted the Holy Spirit in me (see John 14:26). Prayed for me. He believed wrestling would result in strength. He facilitated encouraging relationships and alone time where I could just be sad—rather than “doing” or appearing “just fine.” Midwifing my grief, he sometimes just sat and shook his head about what wasn’t right in this world.
But he’ll tell you: A friend or spouse’s spiritual depression—that spiritual disconnection or listlessness—can be scary. It’s easy to lack patience or belief in God’s long game.
You fear for their soul, spiritual health, or maturity. You could be grieving hopes for your friendship. Your ally in the foxhole, a teammate.
We can cry out to God with such legitimate losses. “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).
Yet rather than tenderly leading, compassionately listening, and calmly influencing, we may worry or manipulate. Distance can balloon between us amidst disparate spiritual paths.
But ultimately, our trust can’t be in our friends or ourselves—including our ability to cajole, win back, be a good example, or serve up enough hope and truth. Even more, my soul wasn’t my husband’s, or any other friend’s, to fix. Our friends are God’s. He is their soul’s gardener, who alone gives growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). He’s not alarmed by searching or even rebellion resulting from spiritual anger or disillusionment.
Walking with someone we care about through hard questions or spiritual depression can rattle our world.
Seek the ‘‘whys’’ beneath their spiritual depression.
What do you understand about your friend’s spiritual depression? Are they experiencing alienation, anger, loss?
Until you truly comprehend what’s broken, you could compound your friend’s hurt or anger by attempting to fix symptoms—or blindness to what your friend is doing to pursue God, prevent their emotions from managing them, and keep moving forward. (None of us is the sum of our weaknesses.) Creating a safe place for your friend to get honest and heal is critical.
Trust me. You want your friend to associate you with the solution for their spiritual depression. Not the problem. They will sense any underlying disrespect, manipulative agenda (“You’re doing this so I’ll be the friend you like again”), or reactionary impulses (“Why aren’t you doing your quiet time? How do you expect to get answers if you never show up?”).
And your friend will shut down.
You could start with questions like these:
- What question(s) do you sense your soul keeps asking right now?
- What kind of answer are you afraid of getting, or trying to avoid?
- How do you imagine God responding to your struggle right now?
- I know it just takes a lot of time to think or pray or talk through heavy stuff like you’re wading through. How can I help you create space to hear God and have the time you need to heal?
- How does what you’re experiencing change how you’ve been seeing God?
- What emotions and events do you associate with this struggle? What is this (or was that) like for you?
- What do you wish I would understand?
Be ready to listen more than you talk.
Tip: Your friend will be 100% more likely to take ownership of any “solution” if they come to the conclusion on their own. Don’t short-circuit this path for either of your comfort.
And it’s easier for them to be honest—when they divulge dark places in their souls—if you keep your expression compassionate and/or neutral, capable of hearing their fears.
When your friend needs to manage your negative reactions, they may sense less of a safe place to process what may already be fearful or grief filled. If emotional safety is lost, the passport into your friend’s heart around this issue is also lost.
Communicating complete acceptance and lack of shame speaks the gospel’s light into spiritual depression: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). His kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).
And don’t expect healing to emerge overnight.
- Giving non-individualized, cliche, or pat answers. (Truth: Sometimes there is no answer we can give, no easy fix to be had.)
- Finishing sentences.
- Talking immediately after they stop.
- Planning your responses rather than listening (see Proverbs 18:2,13).
- Proving yourself as wise or helpful.
Understand that God is working through their pain.
Healing begins with listening to understand. (As in, not instructing.) Like Job’s friends, denying the heart’s real questions, we can press a friend into further desolation. (You can likely recall a glib, pat answer to a painful question your soul was asking. How did it affect you?)
Henri Nouwen writes in Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, “The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch … struggles, doubts, and insecurities—in short, to affirm your life as a quest.” Your friend’s spiritual depression is part of God’s mercifully authored journey for both of you. How will your faith galvanize in authenticity and depth?
In fact, He uses our pain and questions—hunger He creates in us—to pull us to Himself: “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna … that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3, emphasis added).
So the goal isn’t for all this to just stop! Nouwen reminds, “Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.”
Personally, my husband did what he needed to create a fertile place for authentic spirituality, and then trusted God with the growth.
And emerging from the other side—from pain God had planned for closeness, maturity, and strength—I’m more beautiful for it.
Show your friend Jesus.
In John 20’s story of “Doubting Thomas,” I see a bruised man adamant he won’t be snookered into hollow, false faith: “Unless I … put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
After nine days of Thomas sifting through his Christian brothers’ enthusiasm, Jesus gently welcomes his doubts (“Reach out your hand and put it into my side”).
The result? Thomas’ wholehearted worship: “My Lord and my God!”
The lack of a spiritually unwavering friend can feel powerless. But you can be your friend’s closest representation of God’s presence in his life—a time when they may not be able to discern His presence in their darkness (pray for this!). God is not bitter, fearful, disappointed, or waiting for your friend to “get their act together.”
He is patient and at peace, arms wide open.
Like Thomas, your friend witnessing Jesus and the gospel—when they’re hurting and may not “measure up”—starts as you meet them in mutual weakness.
They’re accepted 100% because of Jesus’ work. No matter how long this lasts, let them witness His beckoning embrace.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write On Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.