We were sitting in a room at the church—a classroom by day, a meeting room for our Anxiety and Depression Support Group on Wednesday nights. As the leader, I started off with a few welcoming remarks, checked in with each member to see how their week had gone, then introduced the next topic for discussion. When I used the phrase “people suffering from anxiety and depression,” rather than “anxious and depressed people,” I saw a sudden light go on in Gloria’s eyes. She couldn’t hold it back.
“I am suffering. I am suffering from depression.”
Her condition had gone on long enough and was serious enough for her to be seeking help in my group. But in all that time no one around her—not her family, not her friends, not her church—had recognized the obvious: she was suffering. She was hurting. She was living every day with the deep pain that clinical depression brings. And yet she had not been permitted or encouraged to see herself in that light. Others would describe her as being self-pitying, lazy, disobedient, out of touch with God.
What is clinical depression? Many among the evangelically correct would say that it’s a character defect or a spiritual disorder. If you just get right with God, if you confess your sins, if you spend more time in Bible study and prayer, if you obey God’s Word, if you develop the fruit of the Spirit, you’ll never be depressed. You will live every day in the joy of the Spirit. Despite your circumstances, nothing will get you down.
At one time, I’d agreed with that point of view. When I became a Christian, I thought all I was doing was getting a ticket to heaven. Life would go on pretty much as it had up to that point. I’d go to school, hang out with friends, learn to drive, go off to college, and basically live a typical American life, with the added bonus that when I died someday, I’d get to go to heaven.
I had a lot to learn about this thing called the Holy Spirit. About how He’d come to live in me and start changing everything from the inside out. First the desire to read the Bible. Then a new interest in going to church.
The biggest difference, though, was the joy and peace within. It wasn’t perfect, and it certainly wasn’t there one hundred percent of the time. But I found that I had a new ability to cope a little better with the stresses and challenges of teenage life without the usual teenage overreactions. I was happier than I’d ever been before.
Looking back a few years later, I realized that this was all God’s doing. It was a natural result of having the Holy Spirit inside me. Wasn’t it only logical to assume that every believer would have the same experience? How could any Christian ever get depressed?
Then my own depression hit. One result was a deeper understanding of the biology of our moods and emotions. So what is clinical depression? It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be triggered by genetic predisposition, childhood trauma, stress, drug or alcohol abuse, loss, medical conditions including hormone changes and side effects of medications, and/or spiritual factors.
Regardless of the trigger, once the brain chemistry changes, many of us require specialized treatment for the biological condition in order to return to normal functioning. As with any medical condition, God often says no to prayers for supernatural healing, like He did with Paul, the author of much of the New Testament. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
And once the brain chemistry changes, it releases a cascade of physical and emotional symptoms involving painful suffering. Hopelessness. A mood that drops several times lower than what a normal brain is capable of experiencing. (See pages 25 to 27 of Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? by Dr. Dwight L. Carlson.) Guilt. Unrealistic expectations. Fatigue. Difficulty concentrating. Despair. Suicidal thoughts. Loneliness. Negative thinking. Anxiety. Loss of the capacity to sense God’s presence and love. Helplessness. Apathy. Even the ability to move at a normal pace can be hindered.
Accepting the treatment
The suffering is real. Spiritual practices can help a person to cope better, as they did for me. If the symptoms are mild enough, they might even pull the patient out of it. But in a more serious case, often some kind of medical treatment for this medical problem becomes necessary. Many evangelically-correct Christians refuse to accept this fact. Many evangelically-correct Christians refuse to describe Gloria as actually suffering.
The situation is slowly changing, though. More and more evangelicals are speaking out about the realities of depression and suicide in the Christian family. But in those circles where the old evangelical correctness prevails, the suffering continues unrecognized, unacknowledged, and untreated.
11/13/18 - I recently discovered this webpage with a more biblical view of anxiety and depression.