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The Christian and Depression
by Dr Alex Tang
Mary T. is depressed. After working for 5 years for a publicly listed construction company, she was retrenched one week ago. After a week of emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs, but mainly down, Mary has started to look for a job. She is still tearful when she share with her friend, June S. about how sad she feels.
Mrs. Shirley W. knows she has to get up and get lunch ready. Her children will be home soon. But she just could not summon enough energy to get up. The whole morning has been dull and gray. She is feels worthless and at times she has thought of ending her life. Then she would feel guilty because she has a loving husband with a successful career and three healthy beautiful daughters. She knows she should be thankful and happy but there is just no joy in her life. She cannot get to sleep at night and would wake up early in the morning. She is losing weight because she has no appetite. She has been struggling with this for a year now.
Both Mary T. and Mrs.Shirley W. are suffering from depression.
What is Depression ?
All of us experience a range of good and bad feelings, sometimes many times in a day. Figure one shows the range of feelings in a ‘normal’ person. When we are feeling down, we describe ourselves as depressed. This can be regarded as ‘normal’ depression.
Figure Two compares ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ depression in the lives of those with serious emotional problems. The pain of burnout is more than that of ‘normal’ grief. Compare this with the level of distress of a person with moderate clinical depression ( dysthymia ), major depression or manic-depressive illness. Depression is a range of conditions.
As we have seen from the case histories of Mary T. and Mrs. Shirley W., depression can present in many ways. John White, a Christian psychiatrist in his book, The Masks of Melancholy describes the many different ways depression can present. Sufferers say things like “ I feel down - discouraged”, “I feel like giving up”, “God isn’t real”, “My prayers bounce off the ceiling”, “I feel like a failure all my life”. All of us have such feelings from time to time. Depressed persons feel that way all the time.
Mary T suffers from ‘reactive’ depression. Her depression is a result of an external cause – that of losing her job. Her symptoms are milder compared with those of Mrs. Shirley W’s.
Mrs. Shirley W. feels tired all the time, a sense of weakness, slowness in movement or difficult to initiate actions, fear, tension and anxiety, unable to concentrate, unable to make decisions, difficulty in falling asleep and waking up early at about 4 am and unable to get back to sleep, loss of interest in sex and loss of appetite.
The Bible tells us that Moses, Elijah, Job and Jeremiah suffers from depression, often to the point of being suicidal ( Num11;Kings19; Job 3; Lam 1-5 ). Martin Luther, the great leader of the Reformation struggled with depression. Charles Spurgeon, considered by some to be one of the greatest preacher of all times was unable to preach two to three months out of a year because of depression.
Causes of Depression
The human brain is a wonderful and complex creation. After extensive research, we are just beginning to understand the causes of depression.
1. Personal Factors.
Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning coined the term noogenic neurosis which is depression arising from “the pointlessness and meaninglessness of life”. Failure of the human drive to find meaning in life can lead to depression.
2. Psychological Factors.
Unresolved childhood experiences, trauma and stress can cause depression in adult life. This has been documented in many cases of childhood trauma like kidnapping, sexual and emotional abuses.
3. Biological Factors.
Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Spanish histologist improved our understanding of depression by discovering the role of neurotransmitters. For that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between brain cells. Depressed persons have low levels of neurotransmitters. It may be a genetic cause in that production of neurotransmitters were reduced or when the person has other diseases, for example cancer which may also reduce the level of neurotransmitters.
The Bible teaches us that Satan prowl like a roaring lion (1Peter 5:8). In Mark 9: 14-29 we are given a vivid description of Jesus healing a deaf-mute epileptic by casting out the demon. On another occasion, Jesus expelled an evil spirit from a deaf and blind man (Mt 12:22-24) to cure him. Both blindness and deafness are ‘physical’ condition, yet we are told that demons were behind the illness. Yet on other occasions, Jesus cured blindness, deafness and other illnesses without casting out demons, treating them as physical infirmities, related neither to personal sin nor to demons ( see John 9:1-7).
Hence the Old Testament and New are consistent in attributing that all illness ( physical and mental) are either arising from demonic activity or human mortality. Caution must be exercised in not to attribute too much to demonic influence.
Approach to overcoming Depression
1. Personal Choice.
We can choose to be happy or sad. As persons, we are much affected by our surroundings and our inner life and beliefs. Dr. Willaim Backus identifies 3 misbeliefs in depression in his book, Telling The Truth to Troubled People :
Misbelief #1 : “I’m no good” The belief in personal worthlessness is found in several variations.”I’m a failure.” “I haven’t got what it takes”. The changes on the theme of self-devaluation are endless.
Misbelief #2 : “My daily life is no good”. The belief that nothing is really rewarding, that life is not worth the effort is another theme in those who are depressed.
Misbelief #3 : “My future is hopeless”. Most depressive believes that they will not recover.
We are influenced by our perspective of God. And our perspective of ourselves. Unresolved sin needs to be deal with. As we seek the Lord through prayer and personal bible study, the Holy Spirit will transform us to the following truths.
Truth #1: “You are a creature of infinite worth and value.” The fact that God created you in His image and sent His Son to give His Life a ransom for your freedom establishes that you have worth and value.
Truth #2: “Even a depressed person can find meaning and reinforcement in activity.” One of the keys to treatment is to get the depressed person activated and doing things. Nearly always, the depressed person finds that the doing of the activity is very rewarding. The daily life of the Christian comes from the hand of God and is lived by God’s call. It has worth because of that.
Truth #3 : “God’s Word says that the future is not hopeless.” On the contrary. “ we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”(1 Peter 1:3 RSV).
Mary T. found that praying and reading the word of God is a comfort to her. She again reaffirm her dependence on God and claimed Romans 8:28 ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who has been called according to his purpose.’ Her depression disappears as she learns to cope with her present situation.
Mrs. Shirley W. however could not find comfort from prayers and reading the bible.
2. Talk to a Friend.
Supportive friendships are important help in dealing with depression. The opportunity to talk with another person, to express the hurts and frustrations, to get encouragement and honest feedback are therapeutic in itself. Paul wrote in Gal 6:2 “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”(NIV)
3. Get a Group to Pray.
Small cell groups and the Church itself can help a person suffering from depression by prayerful intercession. At times, practical tangible assistance such as babysitting, grocery shopping, a bag of grocery and even gifts may be helpful.
4. Talk to a Pastor or a matured Christian.
James told us to look to our church leaders for prayers (James 5:14-15). A pastor or a mature Christian can help in counselling and offer guidance (spiritual direction). If available, the gift of discernment should be used to discover whether there is demonic activity and whether deliverance is needed.
5. Seek Professional Help.
One should never be ashamed to seek the help of professional counsellors and psychiatrists. When we break a leg, we do not do not expect our pastor to heal it. We look for an orthopaedic surgeon. As we have seen, there are psychological and biological causes of depression. The counsellors can help us to resolve our psychological problems. Psychiatrists have medications that can help. Antidepressants have proven valuable in the treatment of depression. It enables the affected person to lead a normal life. Lithium is valuable for the manic-depressives.
Mrs. Shirley W. consulted a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as suffering from a major depression. He started her on imipramine ( an antidepressant). Shirley responded well to the medication and within a week was back to her normal self. She was able to cope with her family life and begin to enjoy church activities again.
Christians and Emotional Problems
There are many misconceptions that Christians do not have emotional problems. That Christians cannot suffer from depression. Dr. Dwight Carlson writes in Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? that the Church in general has not been sympathetic towards its own members with emotional problems. Their general attitude is that prayer and bible reading will heal all emotional problems. As we have seen in this article, certain depression such as reactive depression can be helped by prayers, bible reading and friendship like in the case of Mary T. Others like Mrs. Shirley W. need the professional help of a psychiatrist and medication.
Let me end with a La Nina story. A woman was alone in her house during a flood. She prayed that God would spare her life. A man came along in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and urged her to come with them to shelter. She declined, saying “ God will rescue me.” It kept on raining until the water came up to the front porch. She continued to pray.
Soon some other men came along in a rowboat and urged her to come with them. Again she insisted, “God will rescue me.”
Before long the water flooded her house. Forced to perch on the roof with her pets at her side, she pleaded with God for deliverance. A helicopter came along and threw her a rope, which she refused.
The woman and her pets drowned. When she got to heaven, she asked God why he didn’t rescue her. He said, “I sent you a man in a four-wheel-drive, two men in a rowboat and even a helicopter- and you refused all those efforts. What more do you want?”
Related helpful articles
Connecting with Hope. An excellent interview with John Ortberg on depression and what his church is doing about it.
The Depression Epidemic (Dan Bazer). Good article in Christianity Today March 2009 issue
When You're Depressed (Mark McMinn) from same issue.
Light When All is Dark (Kathryn Greene-McCreight) also from the same issue.
The Gospel According to Prozac (Barshinger, Larowe and Tapia) Christianity Today August 1995
|posted 1 May 2002|
|updated 25 March 2009|
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