Pentecostal Research Results
Earlier this year, Joy Allen used the Mind and Soul website to collect participants for a research study she was doing on thoughts about depression in the church. Here is a summary of what she found.
Rhetoric and Responses : Current thoughts on depression and the church.
Deborah Joy Allan. (PhD Student, University of Aberdeen)
Question -- ‘So, what do you think then? How do we as a church respond to depression?’
One of my many friends in ministry asked me this recently, looking up at me with expectant eyes, forming a metaphorical queue behind family, friends and casual acquaintances made on trains. I deserve such a question. I spend my life fulfilling PhD requirements for a thesis for which the central research question is, ‘How do Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians respond faithfully to depression?’ It’s hard, but then any PhD is hard, and as I am learning through every conversation and moment, life is hard. In the midst of that life and that PhD I am learning. This essay is my response, not my answer, but my response, given in love.
I am currently wandering the country speaking to Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians who live with depression, probing into their spiritual and emotional lives, asking them to relive their most horrific experiences. I spend my life wallowing in other people’s sorrow, and more often than not I find painfully reflected in it my own moments of depression and darkness. You’d think then that I would be burdened, weighed down. You’d be wrong. For, though there are definite moments when I grow angry with God and tired with myself, though there are moments when I mourn the loss of life and energy, the soul-sapping drain which is living with depression, those moments are fewer and further between than I had worried upon my entry into all this. Academia is a lonely place, and when you are one of the few charismatic Christians and one of the only women on your program, it is lonelier. Thus, to spend a few hours of each day chatting with people both articulate and passionate alleviates my own depression, and (so I’ve been told) brings them healing in the midst of theirs. There is a lot of laughter to be recorded in my transcripts, and there have been moments when the Holy Spirit’s presence has made itself tangibly, beautifully real in the testimony and witness of these faithful individuals. I suppose that despite the depth and solemnity of my subject I am at heart (on my good days) a rather light-hearted person, and I am relieved that we can enjoy this process together.
Yet there is one moment when that joy sadly disappears. Consistently, through the majority of my interviews, one moment occurs when eye contact is lost, body language changes and a look of sadness, anxiety and agitation crosses the faces of those before me. Before I tell you when that moment is, let me tell you a little something about the faith of those with whom I study. In years of ministry and months of academia I have never been more impressed with the authenticity and passionate desire to follow God’s call than I have in the lives and stories it is my privilege to hold. They are assured in their faith and in their commitment to it. They hold on when it is rough, and it is incredibly rough for some of them. When they wanted to lose their lives, they did not lose their faith, believing the mandates of the gospel to be true even when they did not know what truth was. For, as ‘Gary’ said to me, ‘...just because you feel like there’s no hope doesn’t mean that there’s no hope...’ Thus, they hold on tightly, tenaciously, and I respect them for that more than I can say. I may be the researcher but they have been and continue to be my teachers. That’s how research often works.
Knowing that about their faith we may now move to the question, what then caused them sorrow? What then caused the atmosphere to change and their body language (if not always their words) to shift?
Yes, the same faith to which they held on so tightly and tenaciously. That is the cruel paradox of the theology we as a church are peddling. The faith which should have and did feed them also caused them to fidget and frown. Why? You probably already know the answer. It’s the answer which the Bible describes as the opposite of faith: fear. Yet it’s not faith that casts out fear, it’s fear which comes hand in hand with faith, particularly for those of us who are ‘spirit-filled,’ ‘charismatic,’ or ‘Pentecostal.’ Let me explain.
My interviews for this thesis are semi-structured which means that they are fairly informal. They take place in coffee shops and river front cafes overlooking the Thames, the Clyde or the Severn. We eat and enjoy one another’s company, slowly working our way towards the main crux of the thesis which is the question, ‘how do Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians respond faithfully to depression?’ I ask people to tell me about themselves, their faith, their lives and their experiences with depression. We laugh a lot and sometimes we cry as they talk of electric shock treatment, psychiatric units, suicide and the ways in which they walked side by side with death. Yet in all this there is no fear, but rather a comforting acceptance and grace. It is not until we start talking about their personal faith and the response of others who share that faith that body language and atmosphere changes, and for this my heart breaks, more than I thought it ever could over a PhD project.
My first participant showed this most clearly. A beautiful, articulate young woman whose very eyes spoke, she had been through immense pain and tragic emotional circumstances. Yet joy flowed from her and through her conversation, until I asked her about her faith in the time of her depression. When I did this, her body language changed, she avoided eye contact, she started to well up and I had to catch myself from doing so too. I saw in that instant that her faith, which was as strong and robust as any I had seen had been both a help and a hindrance to her recovery and well-being, and that the hindrance was something for which we, the church, the fellowship of believers, must take responsibility.
Again and again this was re-iterated, either the faith of sufferers or the faith of those who should have been caring for them was burdening them, dragging them down, heaping guilt upon their circumstances and fear into their frailty. The very habits of Christendom seemed to drag upon their souls, the need to read, the need to pray the need to ‘claim their healing.’
In all of my research, which took place across a wide range of Christians from mainstream Pentecostal denominations to quiet Charismatic Christians in other Evangelical denominations, they spoke articulately and with great enjoyment of their God, their goals and their experiences of baptism, in-filling and active tangible presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet, alongside that came fear. Fear of what? Fear that they shouldn’t be feeling the way they were, that Christians, especially spirit-filled Christians didn’t have depression. On top of that fear was guilt, which they attributed to teaching they had heard, direct things which had been said, that they should be praying more, reading more, claiming more. Yet, for those of us who have had depression, we know that sometimes getting out of bed seems like an insurmountable mountain for which we need faith. Our supply is already exhausted when we wake up, to dance around the room claiming verses is well-nigh impossible, and often only exists to cause further guilt and tears as we struggle through the feelings of inadequacy we have for not feeling it right.
There is good in all this, many of my participants speak highly of literature which speaks to them, of a God who speaks to them, and of family and friends (more often than not non-Christians) who care for them with compassion and joy. In all of this they see the great goodness of God. These are no bitter curmudgeons seeking to take chips on their shoulders and groove a research thesis into the gap. These are men and women active in ministry, serving their churches in ways both big and small. Every single one of them spoke with enthusiasm and deep joy about a personal, tangible relationship with the living God. Beyond their faith, beyond their words, I could read the truth of that relationship in their eyes. And yet, of all that I interviewed, not one had found instant healing. In fact, out of all those whom I interviewed, not one had found the rhetoric of instant healing, of ‘claiming’ that healing and indeed of healing as ‘cure’ even vaguely helpful. Not one, and yet when questioned every one of them believed in instant healing, in the power of the spirit and in God’s ability to bring beauty into broken lives.
So, what does all this mean? Well, for a start, it means that we should look more closely at what we mean by ‘healing.’ In my book-lined study beneath the glistening of my own tears I gain the privilege and honour of getting to do just that. Yet, what does it mean for the church? For us, the Pentecostal/Charismatic church in particular? For, though a researcher, I am first and foremost a child of God, a practicing and praising as a ‘Pentecostal Christian.’ What do we do in this circumstance?
Suffering happens. We see that in the stories and tragedies which roll across our screens every day. To say that the children beheaded by ISIS should have ‘claimed their faith’ in order to see suffering end is a sick and crass mutilation of the gospel. To say that one with depression needs to claim more faith is harmful, even if we believe it is true. So, how do we deal with this...thing which affects ONE IN FOUR of the population?
Again and again, the words which I hear in and between those of my participants are this. ‘You don’t need to explain it, just sit with me, just be with me, be a presence, that is healing, that is Christ. ’ Healing may happen, and at times it may be cure, but if it does it will be God who does it, not us. To render us so important is to nullify the work of the cross. I think we can all agree that though tongues may end, though gifts may cease, the love, that love which was shed in blood and salt water, that love will never end.
So, healing may look like this. It may look like a church which arranges meal plans for someone with depression as they would for those having babies. It may look like someone taking their friend to the gym or the shops. It may involve praying and laying hands on them, it equally may not. It may involve prophecy, and it may involve listening to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit as he nudges us towards his will for his child.
I had a friend recently ask me if I was closer to ‘solving the problem of depression’ through my thesis. I shook my head and she looked at me as though I were wasting my money and time, suffering for no purpose. The truth is, I’m not sure that the ‘problem of depression’ can be ‘solved,’ at least not until he solves all of our problems and wipes every tear from every eye. I am sure of this though, he loves me. He loves us. He loves my participants, and the greatest way that I can respond to their suffering and his love, is by loving as I have been loved.
This seems very simple, and yet it I write because it is happening in some of our churches, but it is not happening widely. I see that not just from my participants, but from my constant involvement in Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, my chats with leaders, and my own time spent working for and with the church. It is happening, but it is not happening enough.
Every time we consciously or unconsciously speak fear over someone’s life we are not responding in love. Every time we chose a commitment to dogma, however right or wrong, over our commitment to a person, we are not responding in love. I say this in the midst of trials and tribulations in my own life, and I say this not to oppress but to encourage. It’s hard. We walk away because we don’t understand depression; we are scared to respond in any way in case it’s the wrong way. Let me tell you this, people don’t want an eloquent response or an articulated view of serotonin and dopamine, people want your presence, people want you to respond in love. We may believe in prophecy, we may believe in tongues, we may believe in a thousand vibrant life-giving gifts, but love believes in us. Let’s respond in that.