If you’re reading this, and you’re planning to go into pastoral ministry or counseling, I beg you to read what I’ve written to the very end. Not because I want Christ and Pop Culture to get clicks or because I’m being paid to write this. I want you to read this because early in my ministry, I made some terrible mistakes because I was ignorant. I was ignorant about life, pain, and suffering. Actually, those things weren’t foreign to me, but early on, I was foolish enough to believe I had overcome them because my faith and character were strong — and I failed to see that grace and faith are not the same thing.
He looked me in the eye and said, “If you do not stop teaching like this, you are going to kill someone.”I began in my first church right after seminary, and while I learned so many helpful things in my classes (e.g., Greek, Hebrew, Church history), I did pick up one thing that was harmful. I picked up the idea that since depression was a “spiritual” matter, it can and should be overcome by repentance and faith alone. After all, Paul commands us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and the Church is there to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), so why should we need anything else? There were those who flatly taught that taking medicine for depression was like putting a band-aid on a deadly wound. Those folks were anti-psychiatry and anti-psychology, and they taught that those things had absolutely nothing to offer. The Bible was all that we needed to help people. I loved that idea because I love the Bible, but it was wrong.
In my first pastorate, I said some stupid things. Stupid things like, “You don’t need Prozac! You just need Jesus!” (God have mercy.) So one particular brother rightly called me aside to teach me a more excellent way. He invited me to his office, and after some short pleasantries, he looked me in the eye and said, “If you do not stop teaching like this, you are going to kill someone.” He saw that I was one step removed from a faith healer who teaches that cancer treatments are for the faithless who do not believe in miracles. The brain, he said, is an organ like anything else. It can malfunction. It can do strange things. He said I should no more condemn medication for depression than I should condemn medication for blood pressure.
Several weeks after this conversation, I got a call from a friend who said his wife was in depression. He wanted to know if I could come over and talk to her. I have never seen such a change in a person. My friend’s wife had gone from a happy, vibrant lady to a woman who could barely rise out of bed. I asked her what was wrong and she said she didn’t know. Her husband had done nothing wrong. She didn’t know of anything that she had done wrong. She just sat in her bed, completely despondent, all day long. When she marshalled the strength, she would go sit in the den with the TV on, but she wasn’t really watching it. I talked to her for a while, tried to encourage her as best I could, and prayed for her and her husband.
As I went to leave, her husband told me that she had stopped taking her medication. I froze. I had no idea she was on medication or that she had a history of depression. I went back and told her to take her medication. She said she didn’t want to; she didn’t want to have to have her medicine to be “happy.” I begged her to take it and she said she would. Two weeks later, she was back to the lady I had known before. Absolutely nothing had changed except for the fact that she’d started taking her medication again.
It is true that the brain is very much a mystery. It is also true that medication does not always work for everyone. It is also true that sin can cause depression. But depression is not always caused by sin any more than lung cancer is always caused by smoking. Sometimes it is a physical problem, and when that is the case, medication can help. I have seen it help.
In the past eleven years, I have known many people on medication for depression. I have seen them take it and feel better, and because they feel better, they sometimes think that they no longer need their medication. So they quit taking it without the oversight of their doctor or counselor and they wind up in depression again.
I am not writing this to belittle the need for sound, Biblical counseling. Nor am I saying that medication is always the answer. Rather, I’m writing this for two reasons.
The first reason is to beg anyone out there who believes that depression is always rooted in personal sin to reconsider. Please, can you not entertain the idea that depression springs from a physical issue in the brain? If that’s the case, can you imagine how cruel it is to tell such a person that their problem is because of their own sin? Isn’t that a bit like saying, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that this man was born blind?” (John 9:2). Do you have any more evidence for the idea that depression is a faith issue than you do that diabetes is a faith issue?
If I could spend ten minutes with my past self, these are the things I would tell him. I would look him straight in the eye and say, “If you do not stop teaching this, you are going to kill someone.” Please, friends, be sensitive to those who are hurting. Remember that it is said of the Savior, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Matthew 12:20).
The second reason I write this is for anyone who is dealing with depression. Friend, it may no more be your fault that you are depressed than it is a person’s fault that they get a blood clot. In the midst of your pain, I hope that at the very least you can be freed from the specter of guilt that says it is your fault that you are this way.