What do you think of Christians taking antidepressants?
By Pastor John Piper, given on March 30, 2010
The following is an edited transcript of the audio.
What do you think of Christians taking antidepressants? I have been on them and have been accused of not relying on God.
That relates to an earlier question about how any physical or personal means that you use can signify that you’re not relying on God. So eating might be a failure to rely on God, because he might just fill your stomach by miracle, and you don’t have to eat. Or not sleeping would be a way of relying more on God, since you don’t have to have your psyche made stable by sleep at night. And so on.
God has ordained physical means. Aside from the ones that seem more natural, like food, there’s medicine: aspirin, Nyquil, etc. This water is helping my throat right now. [Sips it.] Was that sip a failure to rely on God?
Could be. “Just throw this away and rely on God! He will keep your throat moist. You don’t need to be drinking. You’re an idolater, Piper. You’re idolizing this because you’re depending on it.”
Well, the reason that’s not the case is because God has ordained for me to thank him for that. He created it and he made this body to need a lot of fluid. And it’s not a dishonor to him if I honor him through his gift.
Now the question is, “What medicines are like that or not like that?” Taking an aspirin?
My ophthalmologist told me about 4 years ago, “Take one baby aspirin a day and you will postpone cataracts or glaucoma or something.” He said, “I can see just the slightest little discoloration, and the way it works is that circulation helps.” So he told me to pop one of these little pills in my little vitamin thing. And I take it every day. And I just said, “Lord, whether I have eyes or not is totally dependent on you. But if you would like me to use this means, I would.”
My answer is that when you start working with peoples’ minds, you are in a very very tricky and difficult situation. But I think I want to say that, while nobody should hasten towards medication to alter their mental states—even as I say it I think of caffeine, right?—nevertheless, I know from reading history, like on William Cooper, and by dealing with many people over the years, that there are profoundly physical dimensions to our mental conditions.
Since that’s the case, physical means can be appropriate. For me it’s jogging. I produce stuff in my brain by jogging. But that might not work for somebody else, and they might be constantly unable to get on top of it emotionally. I just don’t want to rule out the possibility that there is a physical medication that just might, hopefully temporarily, enable them to get their equilibrium, process the truth, live out of the strength of the truth, honor God, and go off it.
When I preached on this one Easter Sunday a woman wrote me, thanking me that I took this approach. She said, “You just need to know that I live on these things, and I know what it was like 20 years ago and the horrors and the blackness of my life. And now I love Christ, I trust Christ, I love my husband, our marriage is preserved, and I’ll probably be on these till I’m dead.”
So I’m not in principle opposed. I just want to be very cautious in the way we use antidepressants.
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#3 The Devil will try very hard to condemn you for your past.
There are some days that are harder then others. You see, I have lived profligately, harmed many, and influenced others to do evil. I have wounded and hurt people very deeply. There are days when I have this mental image of myself– I’m a ‘Fountain of Feces’ spewing and polluting my filth to anyone passing by.
But I am also the Prodigal. I’ve squandered everything. It’s gone. I’ve been to the pig pen. Filthy and starving. Coming to my senses, I decide to return home, and sell myself to the employ of Him I once called “Father.”
But the most outrageous thing has happened. It is so wildly fantastic that it defies any reason. (I hardly dare to think it real). The man who I once called “Father” refuses to listen to my list of sins. He has embraced me, dressed me, established me as a son. I have new shoes, and a signet ring.
I am a wonder to behold. A feast of unparalleled joy is waiting. I pinch myself– is this really happening to me? Those days in the pig pen, what a stupid waste. I want to weep and shout for joy– all at the same time! It doesn’t seem real.
The subject of my grossness and sin has been forgotten. I have not been interrogated or punished. (Since then, I’ve learned that Someone else took this on.) But my perversity and my iniquity has never, ever been discussed. Their is no list of my sin, no cataloging has taken place. The promises tell me that my past sin has been put on a big barge, and shipped to the deepest part of the ocean– and dumped!
“You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
As critical-thinking believers, with just a modicum of divine truth, what we do with our personal sin is huge. It determines much about our walk. We function out of our past. The plant is rooted in something. But our Father has turned our prodigal past into our personal future of total redemption.
Look at your greatest pain. The Holy Spirit will very likely take that deep, deep bruise and turn it into your greatest ministry. And He does it without resorting to a list of your ugly, ugly sin. You see, He has already forgotten it.
“The question is who are we going to side with? God says our sins are past, cleansed, and gone. You cannot go on with God until you stand on His Word as cleansed with the heart made pure.”
“In one of the villages, Jesus met a man with an advanced case of leprosy. When the man saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground, begging to be healed. “Lord,” he said, “if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.”
Luke 5:12, NLT
Let’s jump right into this passage from Luke 5. A very sick man desires to become well. The Bible text reveals that his condition is agonizingly desperate. His leprosy has advanced; he is covered with it from ‘head-to-toe.’ He is completely infected; he is ‘unclean’ and without hope. There is no treatment for what he has, doctors can do nothing, so he comes to Jesus.
We must emphasize this, the leper has no illusions of wholeness. He knows it; he doesn’t need to be convinced, or persuaded by anyone else. It occurs to him, that Jesus the healer (of lepers, and the like) may provide healing, or at the least a morsel of comfort. This leper approaches the presence of Jesus, with such humility it is almost painful to witness. This man is completely broken; he has no hope, except Jesus.
There is a fellowship of misery–some of us are “card-carrying” members.
Our diseases differ, but they have affected us completely. Our pain, and our darkness vary. Some have physical pain, others have a mental illness. When we meet, there should be a secret handshake or a password. We share a comradeship— we are all part of the same community. We are a broken club of tired and decidedly unclean misfits.
How do we measure our pain and desperate darkness? What do we use to measure it? For the most part, our lives have been destroyed. I think we can understand it by looking up at Jesus. Lying in the dirt, we believe the unbelievable. Our faith doesn’t activate his healing as much it guides it to our greatest need. The presence of Jesus drives away the pain. His love for us echoes into our emptiness. And he wants to do this! He has come for us. He carries us through this.
I struggle with deep depression and despondency. I have been on meds for a long time. But when I come into Jesus’ presence, all this melancholy is driven out. He comes and injects a true hope into my spirit. Am I a stellar example of perfect discipleship? I think not. (My wife could tell you this.) But isn’t about us becoming “angels”, it’s about us becoming intimate with Jesus.
“The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws. The Church is not made up of whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.”
The leper would be healed by the authority (and touch) of Jesus Christ. What is impossible with men, is possible with God.
“Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!”And instantly the leprosy disappeared.” (v. 13)
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.”