Monday, April 8, 2013

Some thoughts on processing depression, medicine, and the gospel


Saturday I received the terrible news on my twitter feed that Rick Warren's beloved 27 year-old son took his own life. Hopefully most of us will never know that the feels like; hopefully we can only empathize from a distance and speculate. Yet such tragedies happen to children who may truly believe the gospel and to parents who may truly believe the gospel. Tony Dungy, I would imagine, has probably tried to reach out to Warren, since he knows exactly what it is like to lose a son to suicide.

There will probably be a plethora of thoughts and blogs coming out today. So I'll just consider this my contribution, as someone who has battled with depression.

State vs. Trait Depression/Anxiety

Warren's own words are that his own son struggled with depression almost from birth. Sometimes there are easily observable situations which can trigger such depression. Sometimes these aren't so easily observable, but nevertheless are there. This is "state"depression/anxiety. Something, some event, person, crises, or series of events/crises/persons have led to such depression. It seems from Warren's opinion, that this was more of "trait" depression/anxiety. For such folks, no true joyous event or circumstance shakes you out of it. There is nothing which triggers it. It is just there.

Power of the Gospel?

I believe the gospel has power to deliver us from the punishment of sin, enslaving power of sin, and one day the total presence of sin. There are undoubtedly folks who end up experiencing bi-polar depression who through faith experience very few debilitating affects. But I feel it is dangerous to assume this to always be normative. There are many others who will battle with debilitating depression their entire lives. Some may succumb to ending their lives. Some may go seriously insane. 

One well known hymn writer William Cowper went insane while trying to compile a hymn collection with his friend John Newton.

Did he not believe the very words in his own hymns which have offered Christians today such comfort? Why should we sing them if he didn't?

Was there something wrong with the gospel or his faith? Obviously, in a black and white world, those are the only two conclusions. But obviously we don't live in a black and white world. We live in a world stained with sin, which only makes things more complicated. Sin muddies the water. And even though we (us today) didn't start the fire technically, we live in a world still ablaze with the curse of sin. 

Folks do die of hunger. Christians do. Proverbs is not life's little promise book, that guarantees if you have faith, then _______ will happen. Even training up your child.... Folks commit suicide even though when they believe the gospel. Do they believe it fully? No, but thank God he doesn't require perfect faith (Mark 9:24). Mental illness is real, and Christians are not immune to it. We live in the fallen world as well, even as we experience redemption living under the Kingdom and reign of God.

Ed Stetzer used to live in a black/white world until his first pastorate. He writes

The first time I dealt with mental illness in church was with a man named Jim. I was young and idealistic - a new pastor serving in upstate New York. Jim was a godsend to us. He wanted to help, and his energy was immeasurable. He'd visit with me, sing spontaneously, pray regularly and was always ready to help.

Until he was gone.

For days and sometimes weeks at a time, he would struggle with darkness and depression. During this time, he would withdraw from societal interaction and do practically nothing but read Psalms and pray for hours on end. I later learned that this behavior is symptomatic of what is often called bipolar disorder or, in years before, manic depression.

I prayed with Jim. We talked often about the need for him to take his medicine, but he kept asking God to fix him. Eventually, at his lowest point and filled with despair, he took his own life.

Medicine isn't necessarily evil

Just because people have been over-prescribed drugs to numb pain doesn't mean that all medication is bad. Sometimes it may be helpful for a season of life. Sometimes it be helpful and needed one's entire life. Because the church (and this is a good thing) is willing to reject the world's first solution for all pain, it can sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater. In every season, turn, turn, turn, I think there is a time where medicine can be helpful. It has helped me. Not as a first resort but as a last resort, I believe there may be a season. Turn, turn, turn....

Medicine isn't THE cure

Medicine isn't THE cure. In fact it may not even be A cure. I would imagine Rick's son was on medication. But medicine can help some of the chemical issues, at least for a season, SO THAT one can focus on the liberating truths of the gospel and comfort it provides. The world views medicine as THE solution. If it doesn't work, go find another medicine. But I think a more responsible form of action is the option of potentially supplementing the real hard work of gospel dynamics (believing/applying the gospel to your specific situation) with medicine. Supplementing and not replacing. Medicine cannot replace regular repentance and belief but must serve to aid it.

Counseling

There are thought patterns that many folks often develop which are simply unhealthy. But you might not recognize these thought patterns by simply reading your bible and hearing good sermons. Trained Christian counselors/psychiatrists/psychologists can sometimes bring these things to light. And in turn, folks can see real change.

For instance, from a very young age, I always assumed the worst would happen, and then hope to be surprised by a better outcome. If not, could the question then turned to, "Well, can I deal with it?" That is why I was sick before every track meet even though I was virtually guaranteed of winning my almost every 800 meter race my senior year in high school. But this coping mechanism doesn't work with things more important than track meets. Can one deal with Hell? Nope. That type of thinking needed to be jettisoned. That type of thinking cannot be jettisoned overnight but it takes community, and sometimes professional community.

Link betwixt depression and creativity

There seems to be a connection with creative brains and depression. I don't have stats to prove this, but simply examples of people I know. Very creative comedians like Robin Williams deal with mental illness, and in fact, such " manic states" can often be times when their best "material" comes to them. In additions, numbers of artists I've interacted with have also been folks one could recognize as "depressive." Think about or check here to read about the aforementioned William Cowper.  It's by no means a one-to-one, but it seems to me there is probably some connection betwixt the two.

Don't wast your depression/anxiety
I've alluded from the pulpit, on my blog, and in one-to-one settings (that's how the Aussies' speak instead of saying "one-on-one") to struggling with depression. You'd be surprised how many people have gone through the same thing but aren't willing, confident, or just won't  come forward until you take the first step. Not only that, but if you struggle in this area, you have wisdom that others who haven't struggled in this area, frankly, will never have. That doesn't mean they have nothing to offer, but you have more. They may possess a "normative" perspective on depression (what they may gather by searching the scriptures and studies). They may have possess a "situational" perspective of depression (what they can see and observe in the world). But they lack the "existential" perspective (how one experiences depression). You have much to offer.

Jesus experienced a despair of which depression is only a foretaste

All Christians have a Savior who has experienced the ultimate gut wrenching sense of the world crashing down upon Him. It might be that most people don't know the trouble you've seen, but Jesus does.

2 comments:

Melanie Phelps said...

Christians are not immune to it. Wow, this would have been good to hear earlier in life. (Instead of that I just needed more "fixing". Thanks...passing this along to some folks.

Geoffsnook said...

Yeah, it would have been helpful for me to know as well. But hoping it helps some folks!