Christians Shouldnt Get Depressed?
“Be strong in the Lord”
“You are an overcomer and more than a conqueror in Christ”
“You have the victory in Christ”
“No weapon that’s formed against you shall stand”
These are all great truths from Scripture but if you are a Christian struggling with depression the words may seem to ring hollow and leave you feeling more guilty and worthless than you did before. Even if you feel able to accept and believe these truths in a notional sense (“Yeh of course I believe that!”) there may be little or no impact on your sense of emotional wellbeing. Your mood may remain clouded in darkness and your heart feel as heavy as a stone.
One of the greatest myths that haunts many churches is that Christians don’t get depressed and if they do all that is required is a few Scriptures or a few minutes’ prayer ministry and they will be automatically and miraculously healed. Of course, it is possible that God could miraculously heal but part of the reason that so many Christians leave church is that some churches peddle unreality, guilt and despair in the name of God. If the prescribed quick fix doesn’t work, then responsibility is left with the person who has “lack of faith” or even worse “a demon”. For the believer who is struggling with depression this can compound the agony of their situation. Instead of meeting with the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep, we can find trite one liners and very little understanding about how depression actually impacts the whole person.
How on earth could this have happened when the Gospel is supposed to bring hope, healing, mercy and grace to those who feel lost and broken? How could the church bring further harm to the very people who are desperate for hope and healing?
A Christian understanding of the self involves the acceptance that we have been created as integrated whole beings. This means that all of the parts of who we are have an impact on the whole. In fact it is not possible to isolate body, soul, mind or spirit in a living breathing person. They are all integrated to make up the whole and one part cannot exist without the other. The dangers of hyper-spirituality involve a suggestion that all that matters is the “spiritual” bit of who we are. The definition of “spiritual” can often be narrowed down to a set of performance based activities such as praying enough, reading your Bible enough, going to church enough, taking the sacraments enough, sharing your faith enough. This type of approach produces very driven Christians who never quite make the grade. And others who struggle with low mood, anxiety or depression may simply opt out altogether.
There may well be a spiritual dimension to depression in that our perception of God and understanding of who he is may be impacted. The Psalmist speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death and cries out to God in Psalm 13 – “How long O Lord will you forget me forever!?” This was how the Psalmist felt and his honest outpourings are part of the biblical text. The Psalms invite us into the raw reality of life with God. We too can take up the words and prayers of the Psalmist and identify with them without being labelled as unspiritual or a second-class Christian.
Hyper-spirituality usually involves a narrow definition of what spirituality is and offers a distorted gospel where all the redemptive power of the kingdom of God is realised here and now. This is a false gospel because it over promises and under delivers. It leads to disillusionment. It’s not realistic in the sense that it fails to present a biblical view of reality. Healing and redemption are possible. The kingdom of God is at hand. But we have not yet seen the fullness of that kingdom. We still live in a world where many suffer and struggle and die. To deny this reality is to deny large swathes of both the Old and New Testament. An over-realised eschatology leaves the weak, broken, suffering and ill feeling like second class failures. Surely this is the opposite of the compassionate heart of Jesus shown to us in the Gospels.
Invited to process
The path into victorious Christian living involves process and formation. Gradually the character of Christ and power of his kingdom are seen in our lives. And for some this path will involve coping with and living with both physical and mental health related issues – some for a short period and some for longer. When I was 22 years old I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Twenty-three years later I still have Type 1 diabetes. I have received prayer for healing several times but have not been healed. Diabetes is a condition I have to live with and manage on a daily basis. I have also suffered from depression off and on over the past 17 years. I have received prayer for healing and not been fully healed. I have periods when almost all the symptoms of depression seem to be gone. And I also have other times when the dark clouds gather and I feel very low indeed. I believe in the power of Christ to completely heal and restore and redeem, but just like everyone else, I have not fully arrived yet.
The science of depression suggests that part of the reason for depression relates to a chemical imbalance in the brain. For some anti-depressants can be beneficial and help in the process of recovery. For others a combination of treatments may be helpful including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Mindfulness meditation and anti-depressants. This multi-pronged approach can address chemical imbalance through medication AND explore how to challenge thought patterns and behaviours with CBT. Mindfulness is slightly different because it changes the way we relate to ourselves and our own thoughts and feelings. Instead of feeling constantly submerged in more difficult thoughts and feelings mindfulness gradually enables detachment from potentially destructive thoughts and feelings. We step back and learn to observe thoughts and feelings with kind eyes. Some have renamed mindfulness as kindfulness because the approach is very much about learning to be kind to yourself as you develop awareness in this area. In the process of becoming more mindful we lay down new neural pathways in the brain which activate areas associated with a sense of wellbeing and dampen down those areas associated with anxiety, fear and depression.
Part of the reason I have developed Christian Mindfulness, Christian Contemplation and Christian CBT resources is that I want to make available to Christians an approach to mental health that seeks to acknowledge the whole integrated self and offer some teaching and practices that will help us in the process of change. Of course, this does involve prayer and relationship with God. But it also looks at how we can develop greater self-awareness and take control of our lives with positive and achievable goals for change. If you struggle with depression, please get the help that you need. Speak to family and friends. Speak to your doctor. Try out the online resources available at www.christianmindfulness.co.uk. There is hope and there is a way forward.
Richard H H Johnston is Director of Christian Mindfulness, Christian Contemplation and Christian CBT and can be contacted via the website at www.christianmindfulness.co.uk