Depression And The Christian by
Depression and the Christian
by David W. Horn
Nearly everyone has had some sort of experience with depression at some time in their lives. Depression is a common mental health problem that occurs in different people for different reasons and to different degrees.
Among Christians and non-Christians alike, depression remains one of the most misunderstood emotional problems. As a minimum, depression is considered a destructive emotion. On the far other end of the scale, many uninformed Christians consider the onset of depression as symptomatic of a demonic condition. The fact is that depression is neither of these things. Depression is a biochemical imbalance in the brain that can be caused by emotion and external stimuli, or it can be endogeneous, that is, it can manifest itself for no apparent reason at all.
Symptoms of depression are as varied as the persons that it strikes. Generally, there is a “blue” feeling or a feeling of futility. Depression can manifest itself in such physical symtoms as headaches, muscle or body aches, weakness, malaise or lack of “pep,” digestive trouble, a decrease in appetite, a lack of interest in sex, and a general withdrawal from persons or things that the patient heretofor had found interesting or diverting. Depression may also cause any number of other physical symptoms that will fully baffle the patient and the family physician because these symptoms will persist despite a lack of evidence pointing to any clear organic cause.
For the sake of simplicity, we will limit our discussion of depression to two basic types. The first type is referred to as a “reactive” depression. A reactive depression is precisely what the term implies. It is a depressed state brought on by a reaction to a particular emotional stimulus. Reactive depressions result from a variety of life events such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or the trauma of a child leaving home for the first time. These emotional events cause certain changes in brain chemistry which result in the depressed feeling and the accompanying symptoms. Reactive depressions may last anywhere from a few days to several weeks; but in most cases the patient recovers fully and resumes a normal life. For those that warrant treatment, reactive depressions can usually be dealt with through counseling or some other form of psychological intervention. Only the more severe reactive depressions generally require medication.
The second type of depression that we will discuss is known as an “endogeous” depression. An endogeneous depression is a more long-lasting, more serious form of depression. An endogeneous depression can be triggered by a reactive depression or it may occur for no apparent reason at all.
Endogeneous depressions can be the results of life-long difficulties with life events that manifest themselves suddenly into a depressive episode, or they can simply be caused by an organic brain dysfunction, often genetic in origin, which results in a chemical imbalance. They may also be caused by automobile accidents or some other form of physical trauma. Endogeneous depressions, as the term implies, are “buried” deep within the subconscious, and usually require both counseling and medical treatment–the prescription of a number of drugs to combat the effects of the depression. Endogeneous depressions can be very severe and can last anywhere from several weeks to several years. Furthermore, there are other dangers from such long-term depressions. Research has shown that the immune levels of depressed people are often well below acceptable levels and chronically depressed people are often struck by a variety of debilitating illnesses, including many forms of heart disease and cancer. Those with severe forms of depression may medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs or may commit suicide in order to escape their conditions.
Depression may be experienced by any of us in any number of ways. It may simply manifest itself as a mild “downer,” or it may be blacker than the deepest abyss. Depression is not something that we can avoid forever. Either we will experience it ourselves or we may be called upon to assist someone who suffers from it. Chances are that both will occur to you sometime in your lifetime. The purpose of this article is to provide you with some understanding of the mechanics of depression and how it may be dealt with. In most cases depression is an emminently treatable condition; and “forwarned is forarmed.”
There has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of diagnosed depressions within the last generation. A number of Christians also suffer from this malady; and often the well-meaning members of the Church are of little or no help. This is because there are many misconceptions among Christians as to what depression really is and what the causes are. The fact that certain segments of conservative Christianity have been trying to paint psychology in general and depression in particular as evil hasn’t helped; and the depressed Christian finds that he has few alternatives. In this section, I would like to discuss some of the misconceptions that many in the Church have about depression.
Many Christians believe that depression is not a state that can be suffered by the faithful, Christ-following Christian. A number of television preachers have declared to a gullible audience that to be depressed is to be in sin, and Christians are not supposed to be in sin. The advice, generally, is to “Pray, and it will go away.” Many influential Christian writers parrot this sort of advice, often denigrating psychology professionals along the way. A client of mine said that she once called a famous Christian preacher’s “counseling line,” and was told that her depression was brought on by a vengeful God who was punishing her. The telephone counselor told her that her depression was the result of unconfessed sin; and all this person needed to do was to confess this sin and the depression would go away. Failure to do so properly would indicate lack of “faith in God” and that, if the depression continued, it would be indicative of the sin of “lack of faith.”
What is wrong with such generalizations and the advice that follows? First of all, they oversimplify the causes of depression and offer very little in the way of advice regarding constructive treatment. They presume that there is only one type of depression and only one way to treat it. However, depression is not just a sadness or a “blue feeling,” it is a unique psychological condition; and all depressions are not the same. Furthermore, proponents of these simplistic ideas ignore the weight of the scientific research into depression and the myriad effective treatments that exist to combat it. Finally, they mistakenly assume that if one cannot see the cause of the problem–in other words, if there is no evidence of organic disorder–the problem must be spiritual. They “spiritualize” any problem that is not understood or cannot be readily seen.
Not only does this sort of position within the Church abound with scientific flaws, it has Biblical flaws as well. Depression occurs countless times in Scripture and these depressions are not always the results of sin. In the “Gospel According to St. Luke,” we read of Jesus’ experience prior to his arrest. While the disciples slept nearby, Jesus knelt to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane: …and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if Thou are willing, remove this cup from Me”…And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood…(Luke 22:42, 44) Being fully God, Jesus understood the importance of his
impending arrest and execution; but being fully man as well, he was clearly very depressed at the prospect. In fact, according to St. Luke, Jesus’ depression was so intense that his agonized prayer resulted in the bursting of the small blood vessels in his forehead and the mixing of the blood from them with the sweat from his sweat glands. This rather uncommon medical phenomenon is known as “hematidrosis.”
Another example of depression in the life of Christ occurs in the eleventh chapter of “The Gospel According to St. John.” At the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus discovers only limited faith. This discovery is underscored by the shortest passage in the English Bible: Jesus wept (John 11:35).
Is depression always the result of sin? One would be hard pressed to find any conservatve Christian who would claim that Christ, himself, was guilty of “unconfessed sin.”
Another erroneous idea perpetuated by many in the Church is that depression is God’s punishment for sin, but this argument has theological flaws as well. In the Bible we are told that if we reject the vicarious sacrifice of Christ we will be judged in our sins (John 12:48) and punished. If God enforced his punishment now, what would be the point of repentance? This would allow for a cycle of repentance and punishment and this concept is not Biblical. Though God has, can, and does rebuke his children (Rev. 3:19), he does not punish them in this life through depression or anything else. Though depression can be aggravated by our turning our backs on God, it is not caused by God’s turning his back on us and punishing us.
Some folks in the Church believe that depression is caused or perpetuated by a lack of faith. The implication of such a hypothesis is that depressed Christians are, in some way, spiritual failures. It is true that many depressions are caused or aggravated by our inability to deal with God’s standards for our lives or our inability to adjust to conditions in which God has placed us; but the fact is that most depressions have little or nothing to do with these things.
This article has been written to provide the Christian with some basic information about depression, the types of depression, and the many misconceptions about depression that permeate the conservative Christian church today. It is not intended to replace the good counsel of a qualified pastor or a Christian psychologist or psychiatrist.
Although many in the church accept the biochemical and/or genetic nature of many depressions, they also tend to feel that the cure is within God’s purview alone. This is not so. It was never God’s intention that he, alone, should cure all our illnesses and sufferings. We are told to “Bear on another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).” Obviously God never intended that he, alone, should directly provide all of the cures. He moves in any number of ways, and his tools are many. The Christian counselor is but one of them.
If you or someone that you love suffers from depression, see your pastor and get a referral to a good Christian psychologist. Above all, pray about any decision you make, and you can be sure that God will provide good guidance.
A word of caution: Simply because someone claims to be a “Christian psychologist” does not mean that he is either “Christian” or a qualified therapist. Insure that you check the qualifications of your therapist before beginning therapy. Don’t be afraid to question the credentials of your therapist. An honest psychologist will have no problem verifying his credentials with you. A serious problem in “Christian” psychology or counseling is that a number of well-meaning laypeople have obtained “credentials” through institutions which are not fully accredited nor are these institutions fully qualified to grant such credentials. Especially suspicious should be those “credentials” obtained from institutions which “see no need” to seek any form of accreditation. A number of these institutions exist.
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