I appeared on Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson’s radio show a few weeks ago to talk about my recent post, “What your friends with depression want you to know, but are afraid to say,” and instead of it being a dialogue about understanding the illness, my appearance became a lecture about why depression is a spiritual deficiency and why medication is evil.
With all due to respect to Rev. Peterson, I vehemently disagree. Apparently, I disagree with a lot of fellow Christians. According to a 2013 Lifeway survey, roughly half of evangelical Christians said they believe people can overcome a serious mental illness with prayer and Bible study alone.
Half of all evangelical Christians have it all wrong.
As both a Christian and a person who has faced a lifelong battle with this illness, I believe their attitudes make things worse for people experiencing depression.
Here are four of the biggest Christian misconceptions that hurt us:
Depression is the result of unrepented sin or lack of trust in God.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: People with depression have done NOTHING to bring it on themselves. It is NOT the result of unrepented sin or lack of trust in God, so please, stop the passive-aggressive comments about how we’re not praying enough or how God would cure us if we truly believed. No one would dare tell a cancer patient her disease was caused by a faulty prayer life, so what makes this OK to say to a person battling a mental illness?
Here’s the reality: Depression is an illness triggered by genetics, hormones, traumatic life experience, disease, exhaustion or a myriad of other uncontrollable factors. No one DOES anything to get it; it just happens, and it can happen to anyone.
God’s people don’t experience depression.
Take a second look at the Bible. Jesus never told the hurting, “Get over thy problems. Others have it much worse.”
Two heroes of the faith battled depression, and God did not chastise them for it. I’m not a theologian, but I have read the Bible, and it says David, a man after God’s own heart, wrestled with depression. There are 10 psalms that talk about it, and these verses from Psalm 38: 8-10 pretty much nail it:
I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart.
Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from You.
My heart pants, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes, it also has gone from me.
The prophet Elijah was so depressed after running from Ahab and Jezebel that he asked God to take his life in 1 Kings 19. God didn’t rebuke him about his lack of faith; He listened and provided him with both safety and rest. He then sent an angel to take care of him. Twice.
So, yes, God’s people DO experience depression, and God does not beat or blame them for it.
Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Saddleback Church’s pastor, Rick Warren, committed suicide in 2013 after a lifelong battle with clinical depression. The elder Warren himself experienced a year-long bout with the illness shortly after forming Saddleback. Today Saddleback is one of the few U.S. churches that actively ministers to people battling this illness.
Of course, some Christians would say Warren, his son and the people helped by Saddleback have weak faith. Listen to what Warren had to say about his son’s battle:
You don’t need medication.
People with thyroid cancer must have their thyroid gland removed to stop the cancer from spreading. Once the gland is gone, the body is no longer able to create the life-sustaining chemicals that are responsible for everything from heart rate to metabolism, so, they must take pharmaceutically-made replacement hormones to keep their bodies functioning. For the rest of their lives. As an added bonus, the medication also helps suppress the growth of remnant natural thyroid cells that could turn cancerous. Without the medication, these patients WILL die.
The same can be said of other life-saving medicines for potentially fatal conditions – insulin for diabetes, albuterol for asthma, antibiotics for infection, nitroglycerin for heart attacks, and antidepressants for depression.
Without these medications, people can and do die. Whether we like to admit it or not, without adequate psychiatric drugs, many people with depression can and do die – via suicide.
If the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, Christians are OK with people taking insulin; if the heart is not beating properly, they’re fine with people taking nitroglycerin; but if the brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin, taking anti-depressants is unacceptable.
While the medications are not perfect, they enable thousands of people have “normal” lives because they correct very real chemical imbalances in the brain, and by doing so, these drugs also suppress or minimize subsequent depressive episodes.
People tend to overlook that depression often comes back. In fact, according to the CDC, just one episode of depression makes a person 50 percent more likely to have another. A second episode ramps the probability up even more, and thus, there are many people like me who deal with recurrent depressive episodes. Thankfully, the medication helps make those episodes fewer, farther between and less intense.
You don’t need therapy, you need Bible study.
As the Lifeway survey noted, roughly half of evangelical Christians believe depression can be cured with just prayer and Bible study. Unfortunately, depression isn’t a mere spiritual condition; it’s an illness that aggressively attacks the body, mind and emotions as well. Proper use of medications can help heal the body, prayer can help the soul, but many people neglect to treat the mind and emotions. That’s where therapy comes in.
Depression is a brain disorder that changes thinking, and a good therapist can help a person battling depression understand and redirect their flawed thought processes. Unfortunately, the damage caused by flawed thinking is cumulative and can take many years to work through. For example, if a child grows up with an abusive parent, they may think their behavior brought on the abuse, so the child does whatever it takes to please the parent in hopes that the beatings stop. The beatings don’t stop, but the child continues to believe that if he can become “good enough,” the parent will love him. That can lead to lifelong problems with co-dependency and other disorders related to depression.
A good therapist, secular or faith-based, can help a person with depression heal by helping them process past experiences and complex emotions. They do this by listening without judgment, honoring feelings, redirecting negative thoughts, revealing lies and replacing them with truths, and providing tools and techniques for self-care. Christian therapists also weave Biblical teaching into therapy, but it’s not Bible study. They use Scripture to help reinforce concepts and provide hope.
While pastors and other Christians can provide some basic counseling and guidance that address the spiritual elements of depression, few are trained to handle the complex mental and emotional components of therapy. If faith is an important element of your recovery, seek out a licensed Christian mental health professional. You can find them through programs such as:
- Focus on the Family: Provides referrals to family counselors in your area.
- Employee Assistance Programs: Many of these programs offer several free counseling sessions and discounted rates for other sessions. You can request a professional who specializes in Christian counseling, but don’t automatically assume the person is committed to faith beliefs. It’s important to ask the practitioner a few basic questions about their beliefs and therapy tactics before booking an appointment.
- American Association of Christian Counselors: Provides referrals to professionals in your area.
- Meier Clinics: Offer Offer counseling, psychiatry and other mental health services in California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
My interview with Rev. Peterson ended with him encouraging me to repent for the childhood sin of harshly judging my mentally ill father for abandoning me at 8-years-old. If I repent, God will free me of depression. Until then, I will continue to suffer.
His efforts were well intended, but hurtful and harmful nonetheless.
What Rev. Peterson didn’t know was that I pursued reconciliation with my father for 22 years after his abandonment, and he finally allowed me back into his life 15 years ago. I forgave him long ago and gave the eulogy at his funeral earlier this year.
He and half of all evangelical Christians believe I need to pray harder if I want to be healed.
No, they need to judge a little less and understand a lot more about depression to help others heal.
Some great books on depression that have helped me (Affiliate links):
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life