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.
“The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense.”
Proverbs 27:9, NLT
“Wise words are more valuable than much gold and many rubies.”
I’ve discovered that good counsel invariably comes from a good person.
But its more then that, not everyone can do it. At one time I thought any mature Christian believer had a right to give guidance, but that really wasn’t the case. I also believe that every believer will receive a minimum of a ‘spiritual semester’ in counseling. The Holy Spirit will come to teach you. We have to learn there is wisdom, and there is counseling. And at times, “wise counseling.” Choose your rainy day people carefully. Mark them out beforehand; before things get out of hand.
“From a wise mind comes wise speech; the words of the wise are persuasive.”
Proverbs tells us that giving good advice is as rare as gold or silver. I have met so many people who have an opinion about my problems, but few want to listen. And listening skills are what my counselors need. Job’s friends were the best counselors when they sat quietly in the ashes with him. They were sterling silver until… well, you know what happened next.
I need to unload my issues. Personally, I need someone who has been profoundly depressed and finally stumbled out into the light. It’s not that I don’t love certain believers, but they haven’t been “checked out” on this particular problem. It’s like flying a plane, or operating heavy equipment. If they haven’t suffered, then leave me alone–but, please do pray for me.
I read this somewhere, “Unless you have been lost in this particular section of hell– just shut up!” I don’t want to be rude, or ungrateful, but I really need someone who has visited hell on occasion. And especially down this specific corridor. People who have been damaged by life know what I mean.
Often counselors are offering a very small part of the needed wisdom. They must accept this. I place a premium on the counsel of a few dear friends, even though I have hundreds of Christian relationships. I don’t diminish those relationships, but I do know that certain people are not tested on certain problems. This may be simplistic, or a little harsh. But when I had my brain tumor, I did not want my car mechanic to fix me, I wanted a neurosurgeon. And both are wonderful people. I’m fortunate to have them.
If you’re reading this, and you have a mental illness issue that’s starting to escalate, you need to reach out. Realize, that 1 in 70 people, [more or less] are qualified to deal with mental illness. Ask the Holy Spirit for his help in this. He is the Comforter and the Wonderful Counselor. He will direct you, and help you. That is what He does.
“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.” –Thomas Fuller
“A saying I heard years ago: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do. Just do something, even if it’s wrong!’ That’s the most stupid counsel I’ve ever heard. Never do what’s wrong! Do nothing until it’s right. Then do it with all your might. That’s wise counsel.” –Chuck Swindoll
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.”
With wheelchair users making up only 5% of disabled people it has become a poor way of acknowledging those of us with a different type of disability.
More than 1 billion people in the world are living with some sort of disability, according to a new international survey. That’s about 15 percent of the world’s population, or nearly one of every 7 people.
The numbers come from a joint effort by the World Health Organization and the World Bank. The last time anyone tried to figure out the prevalence of disabilities was back in the 1970s, when WHO figured it was about 10 percent. The current report suggests the 15 percent estimate will grow as the world’s population ages.
Like the 1970s numbers, today’s figures are at best an approximation. Many countries don’t collect numbers carefully, and definitions of disability differ from place to place. The World Bank/WHO folks sought out tabulations of people who have trouble seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, taking care of themselves or communicating. Worldwide, the most common disability in people under the age of 60 is depression, followed by hearing and visual problems.
The report includes a foreword by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who can’t feed himself or get dressed or speak without assistance because of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating and usually fatal disease. He says there’s a moral duty to help disabled people.
The head of WHO, Margaret Chan, offers up another reason: “Almost every one of us will be permanently or temporarily disabled at some point in life.” An editorial in the medical journal The Lancet points out that accommodations for people with disabilities, such as curb cuts, help the non-disabled as well (such as people with strollers).
Why even come up with a number? Knowing the prevalence of disabilities helps organizations set priorities and figure out what it will cost them to set up the kind of programs called for by WHO and the World Bank — programs that make it possible for people with disabilities to take care of themselves, to work and get around.
The report didn’t estimate the total cost of establishing such programs. And it offered no solutions for perhaps the biggest challenge: finding the money
“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.
Have you ever “preached to yourself?” I’m referring to the act of fighting negative and unbiblical thought patterns with the Word of God. It’s also called “biblical self-talk,” reminding yourself of truth that counteracts Satan’s lies. In Future Grace, John Piper illustrates how the Psalmist battled despondency by preaching to himself:
In Psalm 73:26 the psalmist says, “My flesh and my heart may fail.” Literally the verb is simply “My flesh and my heart fail!” I am despondent! I am discouraged! But then immediately he fires a broadside against his despondency: “But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”The psalmist does not yield. He battles unbelief with counterattack.
The poem that follows is a type of sermon delivered to myself. The stanzas are painfully realistic about the hopelessness that accompanies my depression. Yet the poem ends on a more positive note, citing another verse from the Psalms in which the author talks back to despair and exalts God as the object of hope. What makes preaching to myself effective is reminding myself of God: Who He is, what He has done and what He had pledged Himself to do.
Fleeting, it’s like a bird in flight,
Or like a shooting star at night,
Or lightning that spans the sky—
Gone in the blink of an eye.
Elusive, like the fog that lifts
When morning sun sends its gifts;
Or the zigzagging butterfly
That you can’t catch. No use to try.
That’s my relationship to hope:
It’s like a wet bar of soap
That keeps giving me the slip.
Can’t keep it within my grip.
Hope that a blinding beam of light
Will penetrate my soul’s dark night.
Hope that it won’t seem so strange
That habits of the heart can change.
Can God plant hope within a heart
For peace of mind and a fresh start?
Though right now I am without it,
God shouts “Yes!” Should I doubt it?
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance, and my God.”
When inward or outward trials come, what are some Bible truths or text that you “preach to yourself”?
Terry teaches in the areas of Church Ministry and Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. He has served as a Christian Education staff member for three churches, and he’s a licensed preacher in the Presbyterian Church of America. His current books in print are Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, and Now That’s Good AQuestion! How To Lead Quality Bible Discussions. Terry has been married for 46 years, and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, one grandson, and a dachshund. His constant prayer is, “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am!”