Most of the time when I write about Depression I do so hoping that it will help someone who is going through a place I have been. Other times it is to come alongside people who are in recovery and just share experiences. Today my article is for me. I need to write this. I’ve needed to do something with this subject since the day I reached out to a pastor in my area and was absolutely floored (and crushed) by his response.
Why I’m Writing This
Jenn and I were in the market for a new place to do church. I searched the internet for a local place that we might be able to heal in. I was a pastor who had stepped down due to complications with depression, anxiety and bi-polarism and needed a church that could accept who I was and what I and my family were still going through. I emailed this pastor a brief overview of our story and what we were dealing with. I wanted to see if he would accept us. We’re going to go through the reply he sent me.
I do not wish to single out this pastor. I see him as a type of person rather than a particular one. He has come to represent all of those in the church who feel the same way as this man, but haven’t had the platform to share it. They say when you see one roach that there are hundreds more behind the walls. In the same way I operate daily believing that most people in the church view depression, it’s cause and cure as this man does. This is my attempt to answer their condemnations one-by-one. We’ll see how it goes.
“I believe the Holy Spirit and the Word of God with all my heart. I believe that God is rich in tender mercies and loving kindness. I believe that Christ came to give us abundant life. If these things are not true then we are to be most pitied and suicide would be most appealing.”
A basic introduction with a very strange reference to suicide thrown in for emphasis. Note the key phrases here: “I believe”, “all my heart”, “tender mercies”, “loving kindness”, “abundant life”. All good stuff on the surface, but already we’re establishing that one of us is spiritually superior to the other. Hint: It’s not me.
“I believe that as a man thinks, so is he. I believe that those whose mind is stayed on Him, He will keep in perfect peace.”
The message here: “Depression is caused by the way you think. If your mind was on God he would give you perfect peace. Since you don’t have perfect peace, your mind must not be on God. This is why you’re depressed.”
Except that my mind was very much on God. Here are some relevant journal excerpts from 2012:
“God, you have been so good and so faithful. You’ve gotten me to where I am and have maintained me. Your patience [with me] is proven wise yet again. I desire to know you more. Please bless my efforts and see them as attempts to honor you. Assist me well and I will never stop growing or praising your name.”
“Yesterday started with a sleepless night. Woke up to my wife disappointed with me. I couldn’t face anyone. Couldn’t even text a lame excuse in to Pastor. I didn’t care if I got fired at the time. Would have been a relief actually. No one to let down again. I HATE these down days. I don’t even know what else to call them. I prayed like a madman for God to deliver me from them, or if he won’t, to help me through them.”
“If anyone else read about how hard it is for me to handle the basics of a typical day they would think I was crazy. The only one who understands is Jenn. She knows how hard I struggle (when I can) and sees it as strength rather than crazy, disturbed weakness.”
“I’m not bi-polar!! I am under an attack from my enemy! God I pray that you will free me from false feelings. Imaginations that are not from you. Give me your mind, your thoughts, your feelings. I need your grace and love so much.”
I believe very strongly that a positive mindset and God-centered thinking are strong and valuable standards for living, but I do not believe they make you depression-proof.
The pastor quotes two different verses above. The first, Proverbs 23:7 (KJV) is plucked from a paragraph of scriptures in the 23rd chapter of Proverbs. Those of you who follow this blog know that “A Text Without a Context is a Pretext“. The context of verse 7 is in reference to “the bread of a miser”:
Do not eat the bread of selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten,
And waste your compliments.
The pastor used the verse seven in this way: “Whatever you think about you become.”
When you read the verse in context we see that the man who is thinking is the selfish man, not the reader. Therefore, I would interpret verse seven this way: “A selfish man has a selfish mind and so does selfish things.”
The second verse he quotes is Isaiah 26:3 (NIV) which is the third verse in a song about trusting God’s protection.
We have a strong city.
God’s saving power surrounds it
like walls and towers.
Open its gates
so that those who do what is right can enter.
They are the people who remain faithful to God.
Lord, you will give perfect peace
to anyone who commits himself to be faithful to you.
That’s because he trusts in you.
The pastor used the verse this way, “If you keep your mind focused on God, he will keep your mind at peace.”
From context I would interpret it thusly, “God gives perfect peace to those who are committed and faithful to the things of God because they are showing their trust in God.”
Both of these verses have value within their context, but neither of them have anything to do with mental health. Side note: Perfect peace is not the absence of turmoil, Peace is the clarity that comes to a person whose trust is in Christ. You can be depressed and have perfect peace.
“I have been a Pastor for 25 years and served in ministry for over 35 years. I have encountered tragic circumstances too numerous to list. There were many occasions I could have chosen pills as a means of mental and emotional and physical aid. I do not fault others who do so. But I have sought God and found that He has a much better answer, a more permanent solution for me without side effects. I have chosen to live with pain and wait out depression and anxiety through prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. I find when I serve others I am served best. My needs are met when I do my part.”
That’s a huge chunk but we have to take it as it comes. Let’s break it down.
“I have encountered tragic circumstances too numerous to list. There were many occasions I could have chosen pills as a means of mental and emotional and physical aid. I do not fault others who do so.”
There is no doubt in my mind that 35 years of ministry has caused him to experience nearly every negative thing that can happen to a person. I’ve only been doing it for just over 13 years and I can make the same claim. The first 10 of my years were spent working in inner-city Kansas City where I learned a lot of hard lessons, experienced absolutely devastating things. More than my share I would argue due to the tragedies that befall those living in the urban core. All that to say, I can relate. There is a chance he’s referring to personal tragedies, but the context seems to be ministry related circumstanced that have happened to those he has ministered to.
He says there were many times he could have chosen medication to help him through these times. He references three ways he sees that medication could have helped him: mental, emotional and physical.
I never once ever thought about taking medication to dull the pain of any of the circumstances I encountered as a minister. When I did my first funeral, that of an 8 year old girl lost in a car accident, trying to answer the question “Why God?” I struggled every step. Never thought to take a pill. Listening to the horror stories of inner-city youth, the things they go through and consider normal, it breaks your heart and makes you question everything you believe, but I never wanted any pharmaceutical relief.
There’s a point he’s trying to make here: he believes that I want to rely on medication to solve my day-to-day problems rather than relying on God. That simply is not the case.
Here are some relevant journal entries:
“I believe God has given me some directions . . . Stop meds [an antidepressant] for one month to see if I need them. They don’t seem to be helping much at this point anyway.”
“I will stop the meds tonight. That means I won’t crash until Friday and will have the weekend to get over the weirdness.”
“I started tapering the dosage three weeks ago and the ringing [in my head] and “brain zaps” are still going like crazy. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath this morning. Also noticing some extreme emotions.”
“I’m getting a new doctor. He’s not very nice to begin with then he treated me like a leper for wanting to be off [the medication]. He said the side effects weren’t side effects . . . that it was Anxiety . . . then wrote me another prescription.”
…Which I tore up in the car.
I started taking a basic antidepressant because I was experiencing a general sense of doom and despair. Everything in my life was great. There were no horrible circumstances that I was attempting to dull the pain of. Even if I were, what I was taking didn’t do that anyway.
My journal shows a man who wanted to be medication free during some of the worst times of his (mental) life, not doping himself to numb the mind or emotions. Again, nothing negative at all was going on in my world at the time.
He claims not to judge those, like me, who have used the assistance of a doctor who manage their depression. Yet the judgement is in the very words he uses. “I could have chosen pills” to handle my own problems, he says. Then…
“I have sought God and found that He has a much better answer, a more permanent solution for me without side effects.”
Here’s what I read, “I sought God, you did not. I found a better way, you did not. My solution is perfect, yours is not.
“I have chosen to live with pain and wait out depression and anxiety through prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor.”
We finally get here. The solution. The solution to major depression, a medical condition is prayer, fasting and giving to the poor.
More Journal stuff:
“I talked to God a lot yesterday. I was in the prayer room alone and just talked out loud. He knows that I’m frustrated with this whole thing [feelings of depression] and that I pretty much blame myself. But it’s most likely an attack since I’ve been seeing some fruit from my prayer requests coming out. …I’ve been praying that my passion would come back and I truly believe that is going to happen.”
“God whatever you are doing in me, please continue!!! I will continue to obey and follow your lead to the best of my ability… with the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain me when my ability fails. Thank you for everything.”
“I laid 1,000 bucks on [someone’s] desk, just like you told me to. Thanks for the opportunity. Thanks that it was a mutual thing between Jenn and I. [It] would stink so bad to have a wife that didn’t hear from you OR not listen when she did.”
So we’ve got prayer and giving to the poor covered. Sorry, no references to fasting. I don’t suppose continual personal sacrifice counts. Naaaa.
“I find when I serve others I am served best. My needs are met when I do my part.”
Here I read, “When you quit wallowing in self-pity and stop looking for help with your own problems and serve other people instead, THEN God will take care of you. Do your part and your depression will go away.” in other words, “You’re depressed because you’re not living right.”
I will never claim to be a great Christian. I struggle with nearly every single thing involved but I have served people in ministry from my childhood. Those who know me would confirm that even in my hobbies I try to point people to a God that loves them. Jennifer and I have always been faithful with the tithe and offerings, particularly to missions. I trust God completely and have fought to maintain a connection even through the darkest days. We have always, always obeyed when God has asked or demanded something from us. He says move, we move. He says do we do. He says give away your bonus, we give away our bonus. I hate even writing all this out for fear that it will seem prideful… when I am only doing so in my own defense.
I could look God in the face today and if he said, “I will take your depression away if you can tell me you’ve done your part,” and I would say, “Yes, I have.” Am I finished? No. But have I been faithful… yes.
Let’s Read more
“I also believe in a real devil and real fear and real sadness and real breakdowns and a real hell.”
He believes the Devil is real. He believes that fear and sadness and breakdowns are possible. He believes in Hell. I chalk this part up as “pastor chat”. The whole thing is written like a sermon, but it seems a bit out of place here.
I guess is that he is equating the anxiety that I mentioned in my email with fear and the depression to sadness. Anxiety is not fear, it’s an extreme, overwhelming panic that that causes sweating, chest pain, irregular heartbeats. And as an added bonus, since you know that nothing’s wrong, you get to feel crazy as well. It happens due to chemical deficiencies in the brain, not because a person has forgotten to put their trust in God. Being sad isn’t the same as being depressed. Sadness is caused by something sad. Depression is caused by internal chemical imbalances in the brain. In both cases he’s comparing an emotion to a medical condition.
“I believe in being proactive and not reactive. Therefore, I believe Psalm 1:1-3.”
Allow me to share Psalm 1:1-3 with you:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
It’s a great bit of scripture. I believe it too. The scripture speaks of how living God’s way, enjoying God’s ways, and thinking about God’s Word grounds a person’s life. That grounding helps them do good things and what they do is blessed and is productive. I suppose he means that he doesn’t wait for “fruit” to grow in his life, he does God’s will, focuses on it and feels that he is properly grounded. I, by contrast, am apparently ungrounded and have no desire to follow the will of God. I’m a lazy [beep] who’s just waiting for good things to happen.
Relevant journal entries:
“Your ways are best my Lord. I like the effects you have on the parts of me that are unaffected by anything else. Thank you for all of your blessings and the way you are guiding us on our way through this life.”
“Please help me to guard my own heart. To watch what comes in my ears, eyes and what comes out of my mouth. Actually help a lot less to come out… less to worry about that way.”
“I am an example of his endless patience. Thank you God for your patience and guidance and forgiveness and grace. Don’t stop pouring it out on me. I need it constantly and will till my days are done.”
“Help me to function on my worst day. To treat others (especially those in my family) with love and respect. Calm my mind and heart. Give strength to my aching body.”
That doesn’t sound like a guy sitting back with his feet up passively experiencing God. I was suffering like a beast and sought a spiritual solution to my issues for years. My relationship with God, my seeking him was not in vain, but it did not make me depression-proof.
The pastor shares a story:
“My Granddad was born in 1901. …Do you know what he told me his secret was whenever he became sad, fretful, angry and anxious?”
“He prayed to the living, hearing, prayer answering God who loved Him. He prayed in tongues, an unlearned language… He said that when he prayed, the joy of the Lord would rise up within him. He was able to go on. He never missed an opportunity to gather with others of like faith and worship Christ. even when he needed a cane to walk and a hearing aid that wasn’t much good. His heart was at peace and his mind was sound all the way up to his death. He went to Doctor Jesus before he went to a practicing physician. Often times he did not need the practicing physician.”
I’m not about to disrespect a dude born in 1901. That’s a heck of a birthday… even if he’s not around to celebrate it. It is the pastor’s belief that his grandfather holds the key to depression-free living. That is what I’m going to be poking at.
Grandpa was spirit-filled. He spoke in tongues which I understand and fully appreciate. When he prayed the “Joy of the Lord” would rise up in him. Having the Joy of the Lord is to know that God is in control, that he loves you, has a plan for your life and will never leave you or forget about you. You experience the Joy of the Lord when you are living according to his will. It’s not a feeling or an emotion, it’s a state of being. I believe that grandpa got happy when he prayed, but he experienced an emotion most likely brought on by a rush of serotonin to the brain which also happens after exercise and even talking about your problems. It helps you feel better, but is temporary. I’m glad grandpa found a way to feel better but grandpa was depressed. He was sad, angry, fretful, anxious… these are emotions. They are not a medical condition.
The pastor’s message to me in this story is, “Pray in tongues, go to church and go to Doctor Jesus (*shudder*) and I won’t need medication or a doctor. This actually makes me feel a bit better. He and grandpa are the type of people who don’t believe you can take medicine and have faith in God at the same time. My own mother went through a phase where she wouldn’t even take Tylenol for her headache because she was believing God for a healing. Taking that pain reliever would have been a lack of faith. There was a point in my childhood we couldn’t even say that we were sick because somehow saying “I think I have a fever” was a bad confession and gave the devil power over us.
“I love you and pray you will walk confidently in the power and the authority of Christ our Lord. His Name is Wonderful! His Name is healing. I love the Name of Jesus. I love the Father and the Holy Spirit. I love the unfailing Word of God. And I mean unfailing!”
You don’t love me. You think I’m a moron. Love is like faith sir. It has to be in motion to be seen. If you loved me you would have accepted me, no matter our differences, and helped my family and me heal up. Instead you chose to sit on a spiritual high-horse and talk down to a suffering soul. You allowed your personal convictions to overpower the mandate we have to love one another (especially those in the household of faith). You found an enemy in someone from the same team.
I realize that he is an extreme case, or at least I do now that I’ve written it out. He is the Fred Phelps of Depression. I can see the picket line now: “God Hates Sads”, “Thank God For Dead Depressed People”. You’ll forgive my sick sense of humor. But I’m glad he represents an extreme. That means that most people in the church fall somewhere between my view and his. Most are probably closer to his side than mine, but it’s better than nothing.
So why am I defensive about my depression, especially in regard to the church? People like this guy.
I was serving God. I was in his will. There was no lack of faith in God, no hidden sin, no demonic influence. I was ministering to kids every week, leading and training volunteers, supporting my pastor, loving my wife and kids. I handled my disorders without medication for a very long time. I struggled. I prayed. I asked God for help over and over. Sometimes relief would come for a time, but it was apparent that if I didn’t get some professional medical help, my entire life was going to fall apart.
I tried to keep up the image that everything was fine going as long as I could. I was horribly ashamed of my depression. I didn’t want anyone to know. I even hid it from my wife for quite a while. I got good at faking it, putting on a face, but after a while I just ran out of the energy, the ability and the desire to keep the facade up. I never wanted to have to go to a Psychiatrist, but it got so bad that that my pride died and I became downright eager. We waited way too late to start treatment. I had to step down as a pastor before the treatments started working properly. It’s not a simple or easy process.
I believe in having faith. I believe in praying for healing. I also believe that it’s God’s prerogative how he wants to answer our prayers. People will often have faith that God will heal them, then when he doesn’t, they fall apart. Our faith is in God, not in what he does for us. Many people’s faith limits God to only one outcome… a positive one. But when your faith is in God himself, even when the crap hits the fan, you faith remains. Someone very wise once told me, “Faith isn’t when the check comes at the last minute. Faith is when the check doesn’t come.”
I recall the point where I realized, “God has chosen not to heal me. I’m going to have to put my head down and just go through it.” and so I did. It was horrible, miserable, humiliating, life-changing and easily the most painful period of my life.
My faith in God kept me alive. My medication made me well. Judge me if you will, I don’t give two craps. I’m doing great now and getting better every day. The only part that still hurts is how those in the church reacted. Some of them just didn’t know what to do. Others didn’t want to be bothered. Then there were some, like this pastor guy, who judged me as spiritually inferior and judged me as deserving of depression. Maybe I was… but my family certainly wasn’t.