Depression, Anxiety, And The Bible.
Depression, Anxiety, and the Bible
"If you only had more faith..." "The world is medication hungry, and that is a crutch..." "Christians shouldn't be depressed..." "Be anxious about nothing..." Depression, anxiety, and mental health are topics that are too often ignored in the church, and one of the consequences are unhelpful responses like the ones above.
What Is Mental Illness?
Mental illness means that a common struggle has crossed a threshold and become "clinically significant." The term is an assessment that outside help is needed; that (a) the passing of time and (b) continuing in the same life pattern will not result in the desired relief from these struggles. Mental illness may have its cause in the physical body (i.e., brain chemistry, habituated neural pathways, genetics, glandular system, viral or bacterial infection, etc...), environmental causes (i.e., trauma, poor socialization, abusive- neglectful home life, etc...), personal choices (i.e., the consequences of sinful or foolish decisions on a spectrum from isolated bad choices with significant emotional-relational implication to addiction), or a combination of these causes.*
What Does The Bible Say About Depression And Anxiety?
It seems like we are hearing about depression and anxiety all the time in our culture, but how are Christians supposed to understand these topics? Shouldn't Christians be overflowing joy in the Lord? Hasn't He made us new creations? If we find ourselves suffering from anxiety and depression, does it mean God's Spirit is not in us? Does it mean we aren't trusting God enough?
The Bible never addresses anxiety or depression. Because of that, many poor interpretations of how we handle mental illness have been made. I would argue that although the Bible doesn't say, "If you are depressed just ______," there are indicators within the Biblical narrative of how to handle anxiety and depression.
Before looking into a Biblical understanding of mental health, I want to share my story briefly.
May, June, July, August, and September 2020 were the worst months of my life. Weighted darkness followed me everywhere. Most could not see it, but my wife and a few others did. On weekends I would constantly pace the house, my kids would quickly frustrate me, and there was always this pit of despair in my heart. I knew God was good, with me, had blessed me, and there was no reason to be in this state of frustration. I chalked my darkness and emotional weight up to the chaos of coronavirus and homesickness. (Leading a church amid social unrest, no one knowing what they are doing, and everyone having an opinion of what I should do, and people leaving the church because________). After a few months of continual digression, my wife and I decided it was time to seek counseling. My counselor was excellent and helped me process my tensions, and began giving me a plethora of helpful tips to work my way out of the funk. Two months into counseling, he mentioned I was an ideal patient because I would take everything he recommended, apply it, and come back the following week hungry for more tools. At the end of each counseling session, he prayed over me for healing. Two and a half months into counseling, I came downstairs on my day off to start my day with breakfast. My wife and I had an interaction that ended with her firmly asking, "What is wrong with you?" I quickly finished my cereal and walked back upstairs, crawled into bed, and cried myself to sleep, asking myself the same question: "What is wrong with me?"
After sharing my continued struggle with my counselor and the evidence of continued despair and struggle, my counselor recommended medication. By God's grace, with medical intervention, medication has brought clarity and normalcy to my mind. I quickly realized (And my counselor confirmed) that in the past few months, I had been in a state of depression, and over the last few years, I have battled bouts of depression and continual anxiety. In other words, medication both calmed the depression and revealed my normal was not normal.
I could fill many pages with stories of thoughts and actions I thought were normal that I now see as abnormal. Still, one significant breakthrough has come in the area of sin in my life. There have been prayers I've been praying for years about things that consume my mind (pride/ comparison). Things I've I was incredibly frustrated with because of the lack of progress I'd made. I would regularly ask God to move me away from these tendencies. I would practice many different disciplines to fight these sins. I would often be frustrated with myself and God because my mind would continue to engage in these sins with no sign of ever getting better. While I still battle things like pride, comparison, jealousy, I now know those sins were encased in anxiety and depression that wouldn't allow breakthrough to happen. I can say now, and all glory to God, my mind is much less consumed with those sins, and when they do rise up, I'm able to deal with them quicker. In other words, for the first time since I can remember, there is a sense of progression away from those sins. There is hope! All this to say, though I cried out to God month after month, asking Him to relieve me of the darkness, I now realize that God had to keep me in the darkness as long as he did so I would get the help I really needed: help that has brought great hope.
A Wholistic Biblical Approach to Depression and Anxiety.
We are both physical and spiritual beings. We are both spiritual and physical beings. There is often an underlying and improper Christian assumption that we are primarily spiritual beings, and our physical-ness is temporal, only for our life on earth. This is untrue. In the Genesis story, God creates man and woman as both physical and spiritual beings. Eden is how things were meant to be and how things will eternally be at the consummation of the new heaven (spiritual) and new earth (physical). These are intertwined at the beginning, at the end, and in-between (now). This understanding is so important because we need to approach mental health in the same way. Too often, we swing the pendulum of how to deal with mental health to polarities that don't treat the order of God's Kingdom properly. We either treat the mental illness as purely spiritual with statements and actions such as:
-Pray it away
-Cast out the demon
-"You need to have more faith."
-"Jesus is in you so the darkness can't be"
On the opposite side, we can approach mental illness in a purely physical way, dismissing the spiritual reality:
-Rushing too quickly to meds
-Not reflecting on sin in your life and how that may be inviting darkness
-Not asking God for healing
These are just a few examples, but I think a healthier, more Biblical approach is to assess our mental health struggles through the lens of BOTH physical and spiritual. In other words, we need to know that all physical struggles have spiritual implications and all spiritual struggles have physical implications.
What Does HELP Look Like?
With whatever you are struggling with, you need to look (and have others look) at your circumstance to evaluate if there are things in your life you need to add or remove to move from your struggle. My counselor gave me many tools to help me process my circumstance. These tools helped calm some of my anxiety (Even though those tools fell short of what I needed, I still use many of them today). Evaluating your spiritual, emotional, and physical environment, in tandem with putting in the hard work of changing behaviors and patterns in your life, should come first. You also need to realize there may come a time where the hard work and equipping you've been given has not quelled the anxiety and depression, and medication can help. Sometimes medication isn't simply a tool to silence depression. It can also be the tool that allows the chaos in your mind to calm down so you can adequately deal with the spiritual. With that in mind, you also need to assess the spiritual reality of your struggles. Invite God into the struggles. Ask Him for help and healing. Invite others into your struggles. Ask them to pray for you. I know this may sound weird, but it shouldn't be; ask them to cast out an evil that may be attaching itself to you. Treat your mental health with the reality of your mind being a physical and spiritual battleground.**
** You'll find questions to help you assess the physical and spiritual below
A Final Encouragement To You.
As a pastor, I've counseled many people who have shared their struggle with mental health, and I've always attempted to free people of the embarrassing stigmas of being medicated for mental health. I've assured people over and over there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I now know what it means to need medication for my mental health, and I have to say, admitting it and sharing it is sooooo tough. Despite my encouragement to others, I found myself embarrassed to share because of the stigmas around medication. God has strengthened me to share my story more and more, and as I share it, two things happen.
1) The stigma seems less and less like a big deal
2) My story brings freedom, hope, and help to others who feel as dark as me.
So, my encouragement is: Share your story. Share the journey God has taken you on, and know you are not alone!
A Final Encouragement to Pastors.
2020 was hell for many of us, and pastoring is HARD. I hear you! I feel your pain! I'm with you! You, pastor, pour into so many people. Make sure you have someone who is pouring into you. If you feel the weight of ministry crushing you, please seek counseling. Please be open to the help of others. You may be able to work through your issues for a season, but unless you get continued counseling, you'll find yourself here again. Invite others to help you process your mental health spiritually and physically- don't do this alone!
Here is a link to expanded teaching on this subject as well as more of my story:
· When did this struggle begin?
· What events or changes occurred just before and after the struggle began (for children and teens, include changes in their physical-emotional-social developmental stages)?
· Have I experienced this struggle before? If so, when and what did I learn?
· What are the most common/obvious /simplest explanations of this struggle?
· Stress, foolishness, conflict, self-control, expectations…// trauma, change, bullying, rejections, mid-life,
· What potential causes can I most easily eliminate by simple life changes (i.e., getting more sleep) or tests (i.e., going to the doctor for a broad-spectrum blood exam)?
· Who should I pursue to come alongside me in this assessment process?
· Is there unrepentant sin in my life?
· Have I taken this to God in prayer?
· Have I asked others to be praying for me/ checking in on me?
· Is there something in my past that may have allowed spiritual oppression to linger?
· What environments are you in that you may need to eliminate that invite evil?
· Who should you ask to pray over you/ cast out/ call out evil gripping you?
*This definition as well as the above questions come from BRAD HAMBRICK. Other great, in-depth resources can be found @ http://bradhambrick.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Towards-a-Christian-Perspective-on-Mental-Illness.pdf