Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Are Not Spiritual Issues


Major depressive disorder and Anxiety are not Spiritual Issues. They are mental issues. Depression and Anxiety are no more spiritual issues than a broken leg is. Do you know how I know this? Because honestly prayer, activities, church, ministry, life changes, attempts to flush out sin, none of those things improved my depression and anxiety. Medication did. Medication that alters the chemicals in my brain so that it functions as it should. If it were a spiritual issue… would medication work? I would say no. I am not aware of any spiritual issue that medication has any effect on.

It makes me nuts that someone can have cancer and we’re 100% supportive. No one in the church would ever dream of accusing them of being out of the Will of God or in a situation where they need more faith. But those who struggle with depression in our more traditional or ignorant churches find themselves inundated with input that is not only completely unhelpful, it actually compounds the problem.

So what’s set me off? The first would be a year of self-righteous people happily turning their backs on myself and my family. The other would be a mass email from a local pastor who had the following to say about fasting (the act of giving up food and drink for religious reasons).

(Using Isaiah 58:6 as his reference scripture he says:)

“Maybe you struggle with the emotional bondage of depression or anxiety. Elijah also battled negative emotional feelings. When Jezebel sent word that she wanted to kill Elijah, he became distraught (1 Kings 19:4). He was depressed and even suicidal. That’s when an angel came to Elijah and instructed him to journey back into the presence of God. The Bible says that Elijah fasted for 40 days and 40 nights as he returned to Horeb, the mountain of God. God delivered Elijah from feelings of suicide and fear. He gave him hope, courage and direction.”

First I must point out that the story and scriptures referenced have very little if anything to do with depression. The context of the passages have to do with Elijah remembering that God is the same whether you feel on top of the world or ready to die. So though Elijah does deal with depressive feelings… they are quickly remedied through two meals and rest.

It is important for all Christian people to understand Depression and Anxiety (and mental health issues in general) differently than we do. Why? Because we are hurting those who are already hurting so very badly by placing undue guilt and pressure by claiming that they are somehow out of touch with their Creator.

Time to knock out this way of thinking line by line.

“Maybe you struggle with the emotional bondage of depression or anxiety.”

Depression is not emotional bondage. The assumption here is that Satan has our emotions in his grasp that we have somehow allowed it. Depression and anxiety are binding, I’ll give him that. It is outright crippling. But the emotional issues that accompany anxiety and depression are the symptoms, not the cause. If a man died from a spider bite that itched like crazy, we wouldn’t say that scratching it caused his death. The scratching was a symptom of the real problem, the bite! But every day truly depressed people are judged by their outward appearance and judged harshly. “Get up and do something constructive!” “Think happy thoughts!” “Take a shower you’ll feel better!” “You need to fast and pray!” “Don’t give the Devil an inch!!” We are not depressed because we are sad. We are sad because we are depressed. It’s not an emotional issue. It’s a mental one!

Yes, there are depressive episodes that are sparked by horrible things and sometimes they are hard to get over: loss of a job, death of a loved one. Medication may even be prescribed in some cases but that is different from major depressive disorder. It’s normal to be sad when sad things happen. It’s not normal to be sad when everything is going great.

“Elijah also battled negative emotional feelings…”

The Bible is full of Men of God who struggled with depression in their lifetime. Typically it was after a major move of God. Elijah had just called fire down from heaven, he asked to die. Jonah had just been coughed up by a fish and preached to an entire nation who then repented. He wanted to die. Every pastor I have known also struggles with this, as do artists, writers, performers and I would assume clowns. Once we’ve done some big project complete with all of the practicing, preparation, and performance it takes it out of us. We feel empty. There’s this anti-climax deal that really knocks you on your butt. Hemingway called this “the artist’s reward”. Multiply that times about a thousand and that’s what Elijah was dealing with. I would agree that Elijah battled negative emotional feelings. But again I would repeat that this is not the same thing as major depressive disorder.

“He was depressed and even suicidal.”

He was depressed, not suicidal. He said “Just let me die.” That’s not the same as planning the terms of your own death. He was stressed, malnourished and had a death warrant out on himself. He didn’t want to kill himself… he just wanted the elements that he was in (the desert, lack of food, sun, etc) to finish him off. If he really wanted to die why not just stay in town and let the Queen have her way?

“That’s when an angel came to Elijah and instructed him to journey back into the presence of God.”

The angel came to feed him and to give him a push in the right direction. Elijah’s depression ended once he had eaten and rested. It was situational depression. Not Major depressive disorder.

Here’s why changing our view on depression matters. Imagine you’re me. A guy who’s in recovery from a major bout of depression, anxiety and bi-polarism. A guy who’s finally got the meds just right so that he can start to function normally again. A guy who’s been through hell for the past year and has drug his family along for the ride. Imagine that… then read that quote above. Here’s what is says…

“If you’re depressed you need to get back into the presence of God. You’re not currently in the presence of God because if you were you would not be depressed. Because depression is a malfunction that happens when you are somehow lacking in your spirituality. So go on a fast and get your crap straightened out and get right with God and THEN you’ll be normal like the rest of us.”*

The “only” flaw with this is that I struggled for years before the bottom finally fell out to find a spiritual answer. I thought it was sin. So I prayed and asked God to show me what I was doing wrong. I thought it was lack of sleep. So I prayed and asked God to help me get tired at night instead of all day. I thought it was an attack from Satan. So I prayed that God would free my mind from the feelings of doom and despair. I tried exercise, dieting, nutritional supplements, and read self-help books and articles. All the while I refused to accept that I was bi-polar, depressed, and suffering almost constant panic attacks. I didn’t want to be one of those people. I felt the same way about depressed people as most folks do. I thought they were weak, listless, useless people who used their sad feelings to get out of having to do something with their life. I fought for years against the symptoms and tried to hide what was happening from my church, my friends, my kids and especially my wife. My point? I did everything in my power, spiritually, mentally and physically to try to beat my mental issues and keep my life going. I struggled against my issues for years with every bit spirituality I had, every bit of willpower I could muster, and with every bone in my body. The ONLY thing that brought relief, and it took nearly a year to do it, was medication prescribed by my psychiatrist, a medical doctor.

“God delivered Elijah from feelings of suicide and fear.”

God did do this, but as I stated above, he did it through meals and rest. Elijah’s depressive episode was caused by a real issue… not a spiritual one. You can claim that he had a failure of faith in God, and I wouldn’t argue with you. The problem with the interpretation of the text above is that again depression and anxiety are defined as simple feelings. Anxiety isn’t fear. Anxiety is your brain telling your body that there is something horribly wrong and that the reaction should be to completely fall apart.

So let me say it again… just in case someone is reading this and you’re struggling so much more than you should because of the added guilt of “not being spiritual enough” or “not having enough faith”: Major depressive disorder and anxiety are not spiritual flaws. No more than being diabetic, having athlete’s foot or a particularly painful papercut. Not everything that happens to us is so easily categorized. My shirts aren’t spiritual, for instance.

The critic of my article (and there will be many I’m sure. They love to kick people who are down.) will say that it is a spiritual issue if only because the Devil is using it to try to destroy your life. Satan hates us all. I would say that I agree with that. He would use a puppy to drag us to Hell if he could. I would not agree with someone saying that the Devil caused the depression. It’s not a spiritual issue with a spiritual cause. It’s a mental issue with a physical cause. It’s simple brain chemistry. You’re works great. Mine doesn’t. That doesn’t make me a spiritual second class citizen. It makes me a person who needs the opposite of judgement, accusations, shunning, and side glances. Depressed people just need to be accepted and loved just like everyone else. So stop judging, stop trying to fix it, start supporting and caring.


* My words and my impressions NOT the words of the minister or his true intention.

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