Originally posted in 2011.
The other day I was reading a blog that will remain unnamed. I’m not interested in interacting personally with the author or “answering” his post. I simply want to use his take on a particular subject as an illustration to make a point here today.
That point is: The Bible simply does not speak to many aspects of our lives.
Even when we think it does. Even when we can take verses and passages and apply them to certain situations and conditions in our lives, the bottom line is that they were not written for that purpose. The fact that we think the Bible is God’s detailed instruction manual for life, containing information, counsel, and specific advice for every bit of need and mystery in life can lead us astray in many ways.
Today I want to talk about one of those ways — about how this view of God’s involvement in our lives and the nature of the Bible’s counsel can lead us to be way too hard on ourselves and to seek “spiritual” answers when in reality, all we may need is a bit of common sense and simple attention to earthly and human realities.
The subject is depression.
The post I read was about battling depression. It got off to a good start, first giving two sensible disclaimers in its counsel to people, especially Christians, who suffer from this malady: (1) See your doctor, (2) Go talk to your pastor.
The blogger rightly notes that there may be physical causes of depression that a doctor could diagnose and treat (an observation that he unfortunately dismisses later, calling all anti-depressant drugs “happy pills”).
His advice to see one’s pastor is helpful in the sense that it is wise to seek out counsel from someone known and trusted. Unfortunately, I suspect this blogger is recommending the pastor and not a counselor because he views depression as primarily “spiritual” and because he advocates a “Biblical counseling” approach, with its heavy emphasis on Bible verses as the cure for all that ails us.
He makes one more helpful point. Depression can get comfortable for many people and start feeling like a friend that embraces us, when in reality it is draining all our strength. So we must be aggressive and determined in battling it. This is wise and helpful advice.
But from that point on, the writer’s emphasis is all “spiritual” all the time.
The blogger starts by saying that if you’re not a Christian, you should be depressed. He has no good news whatsoever for the nonbeliever until he/she gets right with God.
Really? Is this where we have to start every conversation?
I’m in full agreement with sharing the good news about Jesus with people, but is it right to say to someone, “You can have no relief from debilitating depression until you embrace saving faith in Christ”?
Have I no comfort and support to offer this person as a friend and companion on the human journey? Aren’t I implying that faith (and faith alone?) will solve the problem; that as a Christian my friend will be able to overcome this life-controlling disorder?
Would it not be better to listen to her complaint, to sit in silence as Job’s friends did, and let her know that someone cares and will not abandon her? Are there no words of encouragement I can share? No simple deeds of love and support that I can perform? No practical ideas, no counsel about ordinary means that I may share? No common grace I may extend? No cup of water for the thirsty?
The piece then addresses Christians, and says it is our Lord’s clear word, revealed in the Bible, that God’s gift to us is joy, and that God’s will for us is to rejoice. Because we are in Christ, we have every reason to be the happiest we could ever be, right now. He then says straight out: if we are not experiencing this joy, it is possible that we do not want it. He goes on to question whether we are really believing Jesus if we say we don’t or can’t seem to find joy. The remedy he suggests is repentance. Of course, he has Bible verses to go along with all of these points.
This author next pinpoints another potential spiritual problem — perhaps we are bargaining: demanding that God change things first so we can then receive his gift of joy. This will not do, and to make his point he brings out Scriptures that condemn “testing” God. He warns that staying in unbelief will lead to more depression, as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Then our blogger has the reader examine himself, realize and “own” various sins that accompany depression: laziness, stubbornness, pride, wanting to see ourselves as “noble sufferers” or victims, and, the ultimate sin: trusting in our own perceptions and feelings rather than in the Word of God and what it says. All these things are sins, plain and simple, to be repented of and mortified. We must stop embracing them and coddling them.
Bottom line? Depression is the result of lazy, stubborn, habitual unbelief. The Bible says so.
And I say…
It may be.
Certainly a person’s relationship with God can affect one’s mood, emotions, and ability to participate in life with energy, purpose, and optimism.
But it may not be.
I object to the idea that all or even most depression is a “spiritual” problem and that the Bible specifically deals with it and provides remedies for it.
It does not.
The Bible does not directly address our moods and feelings and tell us how to straighten them out. When Paul wrote churches and encouraged them to “rejoice in the Lord,” he was not speaking of personal depression and how to overcome it. When Jesus told his disciples that he had told them certain truths so that their “joy might be full,” he was not saying that if they ever found themselves depressed, all they had to do was go over their memory verses, believe really hard, fight the devil, and everything would be alright. The Scriptures are not a therapeutic handbook.
The story and teachings of the Bible speak to something deeper than the emotional vicissitudes of our human experience, whether we find ourselves happy or sad, or whether we struggle with clinical depression or some other psychological malady. The “emotion” words of Scripture evoke eschatological realities. “Joy” is a “kingdom” word, not the opposite of “depression.” Joy is ours in Christ no matter how we feel. It speaks to God’s ultimate reign in Jesus that has begun to take root in our hearts through the Spirit, to be consummated in the new creation. I can be depressed and still have ultimate joy. I can be depressed and still believe.
The article I read represents a superficial “Biblical” approach that I find does much more harm than good.
- First, it robs me of being a real human being, shrinking my humanity to my “spiritual condition.”
- For another thing, claiming to be “spiritual,” it actually takes my eyes off God, off Jesus, off the power of the Gospel, off the newness the Holy Spirit brings, off the promises of God’s Word, and puts them on myself. In focusing on “spiritual answers” to my therapeutic needs, it turns my attention away from God’s story and the acts of God which bring me the deepest assurance and hope.
- It calls me to self-examination, to a microscopic focus on my own sins, weaknesses, failures, and flaws. It enrolls me in SMI — ”the school of morbid introspection” — and puts the onus on me to learn my lessons, repent, and get right.
- It enlists me to “battle depression” as some dread spiritual enemy, thus raising the stakes for any setbacks or defeats.
- It intensifies my fear of spiritual failure and bases the way I grade myself on my feelings.
- It takes the real Bible away from me: it takes the Psalms away from me, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a thousand passages that portray faithful people coming to God in bothdepression and faith.
This approach is ultimately docetic and world-denying. There are so many things the Bible doesn’t directly address in life.
Now to be sure, the good book sometimes speaks of our daily lives and experiences through its Wisdom literature. Scriptures like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and so on contain ground level observations about life, people, family, finances, character qualities, decision-making, and other aspects of living in this world. Wisdom has a overall “spiritual” context: there is a good God who created us and the world in which we live, and there are ways by which that life works best. Wisdom passes along observations that arise from “great discernment and breadth of mind” like Solomon had (1Kings 4:29). That means it draws understanding from the entire world of experience — the experiences of all people who share in the human condition — not just from “religious” teaching or special revelation concerning “spiritual” matters. Wisdom literature reflects “secular” as well as “sacred” perspectives.
So, let’s deal with matters like depression from the perspective of this earthy, recognized wisdom. Take a person’s full humanity and life in this world into account. If someone should come to us to ask about how to overcome the depression that is disabling her, ask a different set of questions:
- What support do you have? The first and main thing I always want to find out is whether you have good help from other people in your life. My primary fear is that someone feels completely alone and without resources. And guess what? I can be part of the answer to that.
- Have you seen your doctor? I recommend getting a full physical and talking with your doctor about your symptoms. There may be a physical cause or causes, and if so, this should be treated, including the treatment of chemical imbalances through anti-depressant drugs.
- Tell me about your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. Our daily routine and taking good care of ourselves has a lot to do with our mindset and how we feel.
- Talk to me about the stressors in your life and how you deal with them. The way we handle pressure can contribute to depression and anxiety.
- What losses or changes are you grieving over? Grief is our natural reaction to losing something or someone important to us. Even normal life changes involve loss. We may not even recognize the sadness we feel and how it inhibits us from full engagement with life.
- What makes you angry? In many cases, depression involves anger turned in on oneself. Helping people find healthy ways of dealing with anger and conflict can help.
- What’s happening in your key relationships? Do you have someone to talk to regularly about what you are thinking and feeling? Are there people in your life you can simply relax and “hang” with? Withdrawal from this kind of companionship can deepen depression.
- What do you do for fun? People who are depressed can have a hard time enjoying life’s pleasures. It may be just as “spiritual” to prescribe pleasure as some spiritual practice for the depressed.
- What are you looking forward to in your future? Hopelessness is one key feature of depression, and helping people find hope in a better tomorrow is a key part of relieving it.
- Tell me about your faith background and how you practice your faith. A general question like this gives people permission to talk about God and spiritual matters without feeling like you have identified their problem as failure of faith from the start. If they reveal spiritual problems that are contributing to their depression, by all means point them to Jesus and God’s promises. Pray for them and let them know you will walk with them on their journey.
Can we please just learn to be human beings with our neighbors?
Can we please discard this semi-gnostic notion that the Bible holds the secret keys to overcoming life’s mysterious and intractable problems?
Can we please stop blaming those who are hurting?
Can we stop putting the burden on them to make things right?
I can’t think of any approach more antithetical to the Gospel. There may, of course, be times when we confront stubbornness and pride, and will need to do so directly with a strong word.
But most of the time, I would think we are called to be like Jesus. When he dealt with the afflicted, it was said of him, “He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.”(Matthew 12:20, NLT)
Now there’s a Bible verse that speaks to us.