Edgar Degas, Melancholy/ c. 1874, oil on canvas, Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
The sadness flows from this painting. Degas caught the dark despondency of his model. Her inertia becomes something we can gaze on carefully and at leisure.
This is one of my favorite paintings. For me, it captures an essence of what depression “looks” like. The anguish and the whole sense of being is seen in the expression of her face. She is frozen in her despair.
Depression immobilizes and then lays waste all that it touches. It is a vicious blight on the human soul.
I remember as a boy seeing a prehistoric bug caught in amber. It struck me as a bit macabre. This poor insect frozen for all to see.
Little did I realize that this was going to happen to me.
For almost 20 years I’ve tangled with clinical depression. It was initiated by a brain tumor in 2002 and has been evident since then.
Depression to me is like being frozen in a deep sadness that clings to my soul. It shows me no mercy when it is active, but I can go several weeks at a time without it being an issue.
There is a dual aspect to this. My experience is like a complete suppression of the good and optimistic, combined with an increase of despair and despondency. I despair of any future good that might occur. Everything becomes bleak and black.
My life becomes a meltdown; a cascading effect of worsening feelings.
A few points that have helped me:
A main point for me is to doubt the “certainties of despair.” I believe that God’s promises to me contain a “future and a hope.” This is vital. At times I feel too far gone, and completely irredeemable. I must doubt the lies of the enemy.
Freedom come through a real faith in God’s grace. I believe that His Holy Spirit empowers the weak. He holds my hand as I stumble in the path. My confidence is in His promises to this “weak lamb.”
Scripture tells me that Jesus’ present ministry is one of intercession for my soul. “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34.)
Jesus has the power to keep His flock. He also gives me a few select companions. I meet with some of “my fellow sheep” at my local church. These know me, and their friendship encourages me. They don’t condemn.
I hope that some of this helps, if anything I hope you have a window into my convoluted faith. I don’t want pretend to have all the answers. I’m not a guru. I’m a “work in progress,” and some ways far behind you, the reader.
“Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.”
From an article in Christianity Today, February 9, 1998
“The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army,” said the speaker, a psychologist who had just returned from an overseas ministry trip among missionaries. He summed up the philosophy of the group he worked with as:
1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them.
2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family.
3. If both of the first two steps fail, we still don’t seek professional help.
I have been a Christian for 50 years, a physician for 29, and a psychiatrist for 15. Over this time I have observed these same attitudes throughout the church—among lay leaders, pastors, priests, charismatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals alike. I have also found that many not only deny their problems but are intolerant of those with emotional difficulties.
Many judge that others’ emotional problems are the direct result of personal sin. This is a harmful view. At any one time, up to 15 percent of our population is experiencing significant emotional problems. For them our churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where they must hide their wounds.
THE EMOTIONAL-HEALTH GOSPEL
Several years ago my daughter was battling leukemia. While lying in bed in the hospital, she received a letter, which read in part:
Dear Susan, You do not know me personally, but I have seen you in church many times….I have interceded on your behalf and I know the Lord is going to heal you if you just let Him. Do not let Satan steal your life—do not let religious tradition rob you of what Jesus did on the cross—by His stripes we were healed.
The theology behind this letter reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Health and Prosperity: Your Divine Right.” The letter writer had bought into a “healing in the atonement” theology that most mainstream evangelicals reject.
According to this traditional faith-healing perspective, Christ’s atonement provides healing for the body and mind just as it offers forgiveness of sins for the soul. The writer meant well, but the letter created tremendous turmoil for my daughter. While evangelicals have largely rejected “health and wealth” preaching—that faithful Christians will always prosper physically and financially—many hold to an insidious variation of that prosperity gospel. I call it the “emotional-health gospel.”
The emotional-health gospel assumes that if you have repented of your sins, prayed correctly, and spent adequate time in God’s Word, you will have a sound mind and be free of emotional problems.
Usually the theology behind the emotional-health gospel does not go so far as to locate emotional healing in the Atonement (though some do) but rather to redefine mental illnesses as “spiritual” or as character problems, which the church or the process of sanctification can handle on its own. The problem is, this is a false gospel, one that needlessly adds to the suffering of those already in turmoil.
This prejudice against those with emotional problems can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. We pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer or a heart attack or pneumonia. But rarely will we pray publicly for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister’s son with schizophrenia. Our silence subtly conveys that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have.
The emotional-health gospel is also communicated by some of our most listened-to leaders. I heard one national speaker make the point that “At the cross you can be made whole. Isaiah said that ‘through his stripes we are healed’ … not of physical suffering, which one day we will experience; we are healed of emotional and spiritual suffering at the cross of Jesus Christ.” In other words, a victorious Christian will be emotionally healthy. This so-called full gospel, which proclaims that healing of the body and mind is provided for all in the Atonement, casts a cruel judgment on the mentally ill.
Two authors widely read in evangelical circles, John MacArthur and Dave Hunt, also propagate views that, while sincerely held, I fear lead us to shoot our wounded. In his book “Beyond Seduction”, Hunt writes, “The average Christian is not even aware that to consult a psychotherapist is much the same as turning oneself over to the priest of any other rival religion,” and, “There is no such thing as a mental illness; it is either a physical problem in the brain (such as a chemical imbalance or nutritional deficiency) or it is a moral or spiritual problem.”
MacArthur, in “Our Sufficiency in Christ”, presents the thesis that “As Christians, we find complete sufficiency in Christ and his provisions for our needs.” While I agree with his abstract principle, I disagree with how he narrows what are the proper “provisions.” A large portion of the book strongly criticizes psychotherapy as one of the “deadly influences that undermine your spiritual life.” He denounces “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he asserts, “There is no such thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes.
God supplies divine resources sufficient to meet all those needs completely.” Physically caused emotional problems, he adds, are rare, and referring to those who seek psychological help, he concludes: “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”
A PLACE FOR PROFESSIONALS
When adherents of the emotional-health gospel say that every human problem is spiritual at root, they are undeniably right. Just as Adam’s fall in the garden was spiritual in nature, so in a very true sense the answer to every human problem—whether a broken leg or a burdened heart—is to be found in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. The disease and corruption process set into motion by the Fall affected not only our physical bodies but our emotions as well, and we are just beginning to comprehend the many ways our bodies and minds have been affected by original sin and our fallen nature. Yet the issue is not whether our emotional problems are spiritual or not—all are, at some level—but how best to treat people experiencing these problems.
Many followers of the emotional-health gospel make the point that the church is, or at least should be, the expert in spiritual counseling, and I agree. Appropriate spiritual counseling will resolve issues such as salvation, forgiveness, personal morality, God’s will, the scriptural perspective on divorce, and more. It can also help some emotional difficulties. But many emotional or mental illnesses require more than a church support network can offer.
I know it sounds unscriptural to say that some individuals need more than the church can offer—but if my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it? Or if I break my leg, do I consult my pastor about it? For some reason, when it comes to emotional needs, we think the church should be able to meet them all. It can’t, and it isn’t supposed to.
This is why the emotional-health gospel can do so much harm. People who need help are prevented from seeking it and often made to feel shame for having the problem. Thankfully, more and more people in the Christian community are beginning to realize that some people need this extra help. If professionals and church leaders can recognize the value of each other’s roles, we will make progress in helping the wounded. Forty percent of all individuals who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and some of these will need to be referred to mental-health professionals.
Church leaders should get to know Christian therapists in their communities so they can knowledgeably refer people with persistent emotional problems.
Self absorption is one of the traps that we can become ensnared. Many sociologists and psychiatrists are united at this point. Mental health is improved by thinking about others, instead of yourself. We are healthiest when we put others first.
My biggest issues are a result of my preoccupation with myself.
The times when I focus on the Lord, and on others are a blast of cool relief to my overheated soul. Healthy thinking can be evidence of what our gaze is set upon.
Healthy periods of self-examination are necessary, to a point. But prolonged focus can only be injurious.
My own flirtations with suicide have caused me to reflect on how I arrived at such a point. Suicide is the inability to construct a future and feel loved. I get ensnared by all of my ponderous issues and can see no light and have no hope. I become hopeless; despair is all I can see and feel.
But we must never trust the seemingly “certainties of despair”. The promises of God and the steady witness of the Holy Spirit are to be our very life. Especially in this matter. Miring yourself in your problems will only damage your heart and mind. You may have a mental illness, but we can reduce the tension that life is giving us.
I have both bipolar disorder and epilepsy. I have experienced the “mega-ton” kind of depression. I know that I stay healthy when my attention is not on me, but on my family, my church, and my community; and my God. I gain nothing when my soul is mesmerized by my issues. (This isn’t humility– it’s the opposite.)
For the disciple of Jesus Christ what is called for is self-denial. A committed self-forgetfulness that energizes the “basin-and-towel” service to all those around us. Healing comes when we give ourselves completely (Isaiah 58). Our mental illness doesn’t nullify our discipleship. If anything at all, it enhances it.
I realized there is a fine line here. But I believe that my despair is “anti-God.” When I feel like giving up that should become my finest hour. God is closest to those who need Him most.
“For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite.”
“It is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
As a broken believer this happens. I breakdown, my faith is questioned, and I feel all alone. Issues like a simple hot shower and eating something seem impossible. I’m embarrassed to say I once went 34 days with a shower. I laid in bed unable to function. That is the insidious truth about chronic depression, I know it well. God seems far, far away from me. Life doesn’t matter anymore.
There is much I can do before it gets to this point. And although life seems insurmountable. Clinical depression kills people. It slowly devours “a sound mind.” It cripples before it takes away your life. There is nothing quite like it; people tell you it will pass, and that you’ll see the sun again. But at the time that seems to be the worst advice ever given.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
2 Timothy 1:7
Meds help a lot. I take Zoloft and that is a godsend. I never miss a dose. I know I’m not bulletproof. I’ve taken it for several years now. (It’s like insulin for a diabetic).
Afflicted souls are special to God. And that truly comforts me. Sometimes it seems like there is an invisible tether that holds from completely dropping off the edge. When I do pray, it is desperate and brief. More like a quiet scream for help. There are no frills and no eloquence, but I know I’m being heard by Him who guards my soul.
People for the most part, are of little help. I admit that my attitude can be less than stellar. “Unless you have been lost in this section of hell yourself, it’s best if you just shut up.” (I don’t really say this, but I’m tempted to.)
But there are a few that can speak. Almost always these are the ones who have been through some affliction themselves. They have been hurt and they ‘walk with a limp.’ I’m convinced that they can speak in direct proportion to the pain they themselves have suffered. I once woke up to another pastor praying prostrate on my bedroom floor. He didn’t have to do or say anything else. He left without saying some ‘pious’ word to me, what he did was wonderfully done.
“I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain.”
John Henry Newman
Take care of yourself. If this isn’t your first major depression, prepare in advance spiritually for the next. Identify those ‘dear-hearts’ who can help you in advance. Keep taking your meds, even if you think your o.k. And speak often with the Lord, and learn to listen to His voice. That “sound mind” is a promise for those who truly need it.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.38 This is the great and first commandment.39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love is the ultimate response God is looking for from us. It is the currency of Heaven. The Kingdom’s economy is ‘the gold standard’ of love. It’s the way business gets done in eternity. Love! Without love ruling our lives now, we will arrive there as paupers and beggars. We will disobey Jesus.
God is our primary target to love. And the quality of it can be appreciated from its ‘source point’. Heart. Soul. Mind. These are the starting places for our affection. The caliber of our worship is summed up by the word, “all.” That word has a totality, and a significance to it. It further intensifies love to the only acceptable place. Love indeed is the perfect “make-up.” We’re never more beautiful then when we love God or another person.
As disciples who are indeed flawed and broken, we can still find a place where we can minister from. I can’t do a lot anymore, but I can love. Loving God is something I can do, even with my issues. I can always love. I can always give my all, my heart to someone else. I can always love!
And actually, this disability strips my discipleship to a simpler and basic level. At the “lowest common denominator” my faith is still valid and vital. I love Jesus, even when I can’t be a senior pastor or teach at my Bible School anymore. I accept this. I can even rejoice in this new “inadequacy.”
Loving Him and following Him can be done, even with a limp.
Several years ago I sat waiting for my bus at King’s Cross in London, England. I was all alone, and felt it. There was a strong sense of brokenness and I was aware of my disability. I was coming a bit unglued by the enormity of my mental illness. I sat staring at the floor just in front of me. I could do nothing else.
But in my field of vision, just in front of me, hopped a bird with a crippled foot. Something had damaged him. The thing that profoundly spoke to me was that bird was not at all devastated, not at all. And the Lord spoke to me about that bird, and His comfort pumped through my veins. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be. I had become the ‘broken’ sparrow, and I could still follow. Maybe, even better now, because of my ‘limp’.
It’s strange to be in the position of being older. A whirlwind of days and nights swirl from this human drama, and I think I may be starting thinking about my exit— Lord willing, stage right.
I’m supposed to be a ‘veteran’ now– a mature believer. I’m not supposed to get stressed. However, age is a brutal teacher– and it seems we have to learn so dang fast, it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. (Just the other day three teeth almost came out from the blast.)
Getting old is great in some ways. I only wish I could do it more gracefully.
On top of it all, it seems to me like my sin has poisoned the air that others must breathe. I have contaminated so much. You might just say, I have ‘soured’ everyone’s milk. “Learning to live with the regrets” is a class that we should add to the local high school’s curriculum. It certainly would be useful.
A old friend is celebrating her birthday so I volleyed a semi serious “tongue and cheek” regret at her. But then, I suddenly realized that there is a point when we realize that behind every older person, is someone else wondering what the hell has happened, and how did it get this way so fast? It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
As a Christian, I tentatively believe that this world I’m in, has folded open for me, and God has specified a direction. I do contend though, unbelief is easier on a certain level, but I do not intend to take any detours. Perhaps the real trick about reading a map in the car is that you most likely won’t get it folded back the same way ever again. You must learn to accept this. And as a rule, maps seldom reveal the best detours.
“I will be your God throughout your lifetime— until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”
Isaiah 46:4, NLT
I must admit to having a connection to “Bumble”, that crazy, loveable, abominable snowman in one of those schlocky, animated children TV classics from my youth. I guess I identify with that ‘misfit’ yeti– someone who finally sees the light, but only when all his teeth are pulled! Somewhere in that show he seemed almost good, but didn’t we all wonder for a while if he would come around or not?
I also wonder about the thief on the cross who got his ticket punched by Jesus at the last possible moment. When we finally make it to heaven, we will find him there laughing and celebrating like everyone else, just like he belonged. I guess grace does that to a person.
23″Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Psalm 73, ESV
Continuity is a medicine for us who are always on the edge of losing control. One patriarch in the Book of Genesis was told that “he was unstable as water.” And this pretty much describes me as I struggle with Bipolar Disorder. But the promise from Psalm 73 is for a continuous presence. There is no flickering, no jumping about. He is steady. He does not flit or fluctuate. He is always, and forever, constantly focused with you.
He provides guidance, ‘free of charge’. We can experience many confusing days. We make the attempt to walk through them, but we quickly grasp our ineptitude. It goes very much better when He is speaking into our hearts. Since He is present with us on a continuous basis anyway, let us turn to Him for direction.
There is a realization in verse 25.“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” This statement declares “point blank” who and what is real.
The psalmist has an ‘umbilical cord’ attached to heavenly places. This feeds him and gives him a radical strength to stand up and ‘to be’. He is completely over with the things of this earth. He desires only heavenly things, that which really matters after looking down the long corridors of eternity.
In verse 26 he admits a desperate weakness. He understands the foolishness of his flesh. He knows that it is pathetic and feeble. There is absolutely nothing he can do about this. He has tried and tried repeatedly. His heart is like a colander that drains away all the grace and mercy that comes. He can hold nothing. He must stay under the faucet.
But still, there is a profound realization that God is strengthening his heart. He has done this on an eternal level. What this means is this: He has touched me and by that touch has made me eternal, like Him. The rest of this Psalm extends and states certain things that the Psalmist has learned himself.
27″For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
Psalm 73, ESV
Proximity determines everything. Some will bounce to the other end of the spectrum. Being close to Him confers life. Moving away from Him brings nothing but certain death. The issue in this Psalm is of ‘unfaithfulness’. This is a biggie. Being unfaithful means treachery, and a wagon load of deception, and nothing good will ever come from it.
“Every man is as holy as he wants to be.”
The Psalmist again deals with proximity. God draws a person, but coming near is always your choice. The Psalmist sees that his “nearness to God is my good.” He realizes that by taking refuge in God there is something that will be quite wonderful. There is some effort that must happen. So he makes God his refuge. The Lord God is now a ‘bomb shelter’ or a covering for our souls. He continues this process with the deep commitment to sharing ‘the works of God’.