“Then they went back to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in Pisidia. 22They encouraged the followers and begged them to remain faithful. They told them, “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom.”
Acts 14:21-22, CEV
Paul and Barnabas, together are perhaps the most gifted men ever to minister the Gospel. They have an amazing love for the Church. They operate out of great difficulty, but the deep work they do, proceeds out of encouragement. I looked at a dozen or so translations of the Bible–all of them translate this, “encouraged.” Every single one!
Earlier in chapter 14, we can read about the brutality and ugliness they had to walk through. It was very bad, beyond belief. But these two never ever lose their love for the Lord, and for His people. Their ministry continued to be full of optimism and comfort. They simply can’t be poisoned by the nastiness and bitterness just days before.
They understand something. What they have to say (as they minister that comfort) kind of boggles everyone’s thinking.
They said, “We must suffer many things to enter God’s kingdom.”
Comforting and strengthening, isn’t it? Sometimes when I read this passage I can’t believe what they are saying! It doesn’t make any sense at all. I believe there are three things we must process to fully understand these verses.
1) What comforts us is not always comfortable.
I’m slowly coming to the place of accepting pain and sickness as my personal doorway into the Lord’s kingdom. I know my mental illness has opened an entrance into something wonderful. My months of being institutionalized in different hospitals has seemed to have filled me with grace, gentleness and love–in other words, the kingdom. At least that is what I think.
2) What we think is the best way often is not.
No one chooses one’s particular path. If we could we would all be driving a BMW and our homes would be palaces, we would win the lottery on a regular basis. Our children would be little angels. We would never be sick, or have a chronic illness. But–we can’t enter His kingdom, unless there are trials. They have to be there, they must. Somewhere it says, if we suffer, we will reign.
3) What we need from our elders and pastors is the truth.
Often the leadership of the Church keeps this one in the closet. They communicate very well other subjects that are enjoyable. And we pressure them to do this, gently and subliminally of course. And everyone wonders why we don’t mature in our faith. Paul and Barnabas are tremendous leaders, but they don’t roll things in sugar, and their ministry carries on the sufferings of Jesus.
Often it seems, when God chooses to bless a man or a woman greatly, He will send a trial to prepare them deeply.
“Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.18 And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me.”
Nehemiah 4:17-18, ESV
Nehemiah was supervising the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. He gathered the men and assigned them to various parts of this. His focus was on building as fast as possible.
But there was enemies who threatened to disrupt the work. There was a conspiracy that directly threatened the work that was taking place.
Nehemiah had to act. He prayed and then posted protection among the men in strategic places, These stood guard to defend the workers. Nehemiah then ordered those who labored to wear swords while they worked.
We who are building God’s kingdom need to arm themselves against our spiritual enemies. We are called to give diligent attention to this, and defend God’s people.
“Take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Furthermore we are “may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). We’re not working against “flesh and blood.” but the “spiritual forces in the high places.” This is an unseen war that really does exist.
God’s Word is our powerful defense. We’re called to handle it skillfully. This is a mark of maturity. The sword must be engaged to help those who aren’t really aware of this present darkness.
Nehemiah understood. He was diligent and very aware of the evil that swirled around him and his people. He wouldn’t minimize this problem, but met it head on.
We must be like him. We are to be aggressive defenders of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot afford to look away or pretend the enemy is not resisting us. We see his work daily.
“Father, thank you for the Bible. The Word is alive and active as we yield it. Teach us to overcome the enemy as we protect our selves and our loved ones with it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
Three things are critical for the New Testament believer:
To rejoice out of a real hope,
a deliberate endurance,
and a prayer life that is unceasing.
These three are vital for us if we want to be authentic saints. These three aspects must become foremost in our discipleship.
Of the three, the first is to rejoice out of a real hope is the most important. It seems like I take the most “hits” over this one. There is a constant erosion over my joy and my hope. I encounter the false belief that I will be one of the damned. A variation is that I’m ‘cursed’ by God and my life from this point is always going to be hellish and miserable. Frozen like a mosquito in ancient amber.
For me, my mental illness is a sin– the sin of despair. I don’t insist on the right terminology or of definitions. Some believe these issues are demonic. Some wonder about the use of meds, or the value of seeing a psychiatrist or going into therapy. These are all valid, but it seems like polishing the brass rails as the Titanic is seeking.
I won’t try to give answers, because there isn’t a single one to be found. There’s a complexity about the human heart, and God’s sovereign plan that I can’t venture anything. I will only suggest we give room for our own misunderstandings. Perhaps it’s the presence of Jesus we can agree on.
“Rejoice in hope,” goes a long ways to combat the enemy, our own fallenness and our own sin of despair. A ‘song to the Lord’ breaks our souls free and is the brokenbelievers true hope is the best antidepressant. But I vote we keep singing out of our cells (Acts 16:25).
“There must be something wrong with your spiritual life.”
Yes, depression CAN be a result of sin. BUT depression is NOT always a result of sin! If it is, God will tell you loud and clear what the problem is. This saying piles on the guilt for the depressed Christian. It’s unlikely that their depression has a spiritual cause, and this implies that they are not good enough spiritually.
“Repent and ask forgiveness for your sin!”
Depression is a result of sin, in that if there was no sin in the world depression wouldn’t exist. But then, neither would diabetes, or cancer, or any other illness… Sin caused the word to be not-perfect, therefore illness exists. It is not a sin to be depressed, any more than it is to have any other illness. Depression can be used by God to encourage repentance, but in that case, it will be crystal clear exactly what sin you should repent of. If you don’t know, or have just a vague sense of guilt, your depression is not the result of a sin. Accusing someone of having depression because you think they committed some random sin is arrogant. It wouldn’t be the act of a loving God to refuse to tell you what you need to repent of.
“Real Christians don’t get depressed.”
The implication behind this is that someone with clinical depression is not a “Real Christian”. That hurts, especially if it comes from someone who holds authority. It is hard to be depressed and Christian, very hard. I’d say it takes more faith to hold on to the fact that God exists when your situation is screaming out that even if there was a God, he hates you, than it does when all is going your way.
“You need to have more faith.” “Have faith in God.”
Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is the substance [or realization] of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. How much faith does it take to hold onto the basic tenets of the Christian faith when emotions scream at you daily to give up, get out and avoid God? Very often a depressed Christian will be hanging onto faith by their fingernails in a situation that requires more faith than the average.
“Taking antidepressants is playing God, He can heal you.”
Yes, God can heal. Sometimes he doesn’t just flick a switch make the illness vanish, sometimes the healing comes through the conventional ways of doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists and medication. By persuading someone not to take their medication in preference for a fast, supernatural healing that God may not have in store for them, the sufferer is being denied something that will help them, right now. In John 5:1-15, Jesus only healed one man out of the many who were gathered. Not everyone will receive supernatural healing. We don’t always understand why God does as he does, only that he is God and will do what is right.
“Scripture says everything that happens is for your own good!”
The actual verse says: Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse in no way implies that the sufferer should sit back and accept the illness for the rest of their life. It also does not say that illnesses are not to be fought with the intention of a cure. While God may well have things to do with a depressed person, the illness is not a good thing of itself, and it may take years before you see positive results from it.
“You’ve been prayed for, why has nothing changed?”
This can be expressed in several ways and spoken by one of two different groups of people: either the person who asked for prayer, or those who prayed for them. We’ll break the underlying situation into two areas: something definite was experienced in the prayer time: chains were obviously broken and a new freedom gained, or, nothing apparently happened at all. That is, “I know God set you free, [as testified to by experience, or, simply accepted by faith] why are you not walking in that freedom?” When God steps in and answers believer’s prayer for a person to be freed from the influence of unclean spiritual influence there may well be a noticeable sense of having been freed.
Why is it then that we don’t all immediately change?
The Bible speaks of our lives as being like clay; we are molded through everything we go through. There are 3 sources of spiritual influence on our lives:
God’s Holy Spirit,
our own human spirit,
and unclean demonic spirits.
Take, for instance, temptation – it might not always be the devil himself tempting us, it may be our own human spirit / human nature having issues. Lots of things work to shape this clay, the onus is on us to give ourselves progressively more and more to God and open our lives to His molding process.
Let’s expand on the clay metaphor some more. Clay is not a very elastic substance. If you press a thumb into it and pull it away you’ll get a thumb print. A balloon, on the other hand, would spring back immediately when the outside influence is removed (the thumb). God’s word talks of us as being like clay, not balloons. Clay is solid, has substance, is useful for creating utensils that can be used in his service. Balloons are insubstantial, have nothing solid inside and are full of hot air. So, take away the outside “thumb” pressing on our life and we are still left with a thumbprint: habits that have formed, certain ways of thinking or reacting to things, etc.
God can (and does) change things like these instantly in some people, however, there are times when such a fundamental change would shatter who the person is and a longer, more sustained healing process is needed. That is, we are freed from the oppressive spiritual influence but over the course of weeks, months and years following the prayer time we see a gradual change as the unsightly “thumbprint” is smoothed out.
God wants us whole and healthy, it also says in Scripture that “the prayer of a righteous believer avails much” but it also says that one the fruit of God’s Spirit dwelling within us is patience and endurance. Prayer gets the job done … it’s just that the process started by the prayer may be an ongoing one.
“Depression is a self discipline problem.”
Self discipline is important to a Christian. We have to be disciplined enough not to break the laws of the land, and to obey our God. But no amount of self discipline will get rid of a medical problem. This statement implies that the sufferer is lazy and could become better by sheer force of will. This is not possible, and causes a lot of guilt.
“You’re depressed because you choose to be.”
Why would anyone choose depression? It is a hell on earth. It destroys everything it touches. Families, marriages, jobs, churches, ministries– not to mention faith, peace, hope and love. Depression corrodes all that it touches.
Does an diabetic or cancer patient choose their disease? Does the blind or the deaf person wake up in the morning and decide they aren’t going to keep being handicapped? These are the questions I would ask.
“You should be praying about this.”
Implicitly, whoever says this is also saying “This wouldn’t have happened if you’d been praying enough.” That’s a big assumption to make about someone. To a person with depression, it can seem like God left town a long time ago without leaving a forwarding address. It can seem as if your prayers bounce straight back off the ceiling, and that prayer is as fulfilling and satisfying as yelling at a block of wood. When you’re depressed, you may not “feel” God as you had before. Often you don’t feel anything but numb and hollow. For me, and for many people, depression had a shrivelling effect on my faith. I found it hard to hang onto anything but the most basic elements of Christianity, and sometimes lost my grip on those. When I did manage to pray, it was a yell of pain and confusion. This is why we are supposed to base our faith on facts (God loves you, he loved you when you were a sinner too, Jesus paid the full price for all our sins, etc.) rather than feelings, which are fickle at the best of times. It can be incredible hard to hold onto those facts in depression, like trying to run into a very strong wind.
John Lockley says: “In Christians, spiritual effects follow from the depression, and seldom the other way round. I repeat – in Christians, nearly always the depression comes first, followed by a sense of remoteness from God, rather than depression being the result of “falling away.”
One of the most eloquent and heartfelt prayers a depressed Christian can pray is “Help me God, I’m hurting!” This is a better prayer than the thirty minute meltdown that doesn’t actually say anything. It’s honest, open and sincere. God is listening, even if everything within you is screaming that he isn’t. Prayer during depression can take an awful lot of effort. One comeback to this saying is “I am praying, as best I can. Will you pray for me too?”
“You just need to rebuke that spirit of depression and tell it to leave you. Don’t let Satan steal your joy.”
There are two problems with this statement. One problem is the assumption that depression is caused by demonic oppression. The other problem is the assumption is that joy and happiness are the same thing. Blaming a “spirit of depression” can be a wonderful cop-out. Just cast out the spirit and you’re cured! No need for long term support, for prayer, for counselling, for anything at all! And with this statement comes the implicit assumption that once again it’s your fault you’re depressed, this time because you’re not “spiritual” enough to get rid of the troublesome spirit yourself. Yes it is possible that demonic oppression can cause depression. No, demons are not responsible for every case of depression. Imagine what would happen if this statement was directed at someone with cancer, or hemophilia, or osteoporosis (“Just cast out that demon attacking your bones and be strong again! God wants to see you running marathons!”).
The second problem with this statement is that joy is equated with happiness. People with depression are not going to be the happiest souls in the church. I’ve heard it said that happiness depends on what happens, whereas joy can exist in very unhappy situations.
“There’s no such thing as mental illness, it’s all in your mind”
Saying this denies that there is anything actually wrong with the depressed person, and implies that they are just making it up. This piles on the guilt again! A mental illness can be defined as one that affects the mind; the brain is allowed to get ill, just as the liver and lungs are.
“You’ve got nothing to be sad about”
Depression isn’t about being sad, often the real situation may well have no effect on the disease at all. This statement misunderstands the disease, depression can have an origin that has nothing to do with the surroundings of the sufferer. Depression may make you feel as if your emotions have been switched off, leaving you less sad than numb and empty.
“It’s your own fault you’re depressed”
This is the kind of thing that Job’s “comforters” said, and it didn’t help then either. Bad things can happen to good people. Denying this hurts the sufferer.
“Pull yourself together”
If you’ve been trying, someone saying this to you comes across as “You haven’t been trying hard enough, do more, and more, and more until you get it right. ” So back you go, trying more and more, and still getting nowhere because you cannot pull yourself out of depression by your bootstraps, and you can’t fix a medical problem by force of will.
“You’re just being lazy”
One of the common features of depression is a disturbed sleep pattern. This can often take the form of waking early each day (say 2 AM) and being unable to get back to sleep. Multiply this over several months, and the results can be severe. On top of this, everything is screaming that the world is a horrible place and nothing is worth the effort any more. It is not laziness, it is a consequence of the illness.
It is a good thing to be helped by friends. It hurts deeply when they take on these comments and drill you with them. Understanding is critical, and a little bit goes a long way.