Depression in the Church

The World Health Organization says, “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.”

Jesus told us in John 16:33 that “in this world you will have trouble.” So what did He mean?

The greek word “thlipsis” that is translated “trouble” refers to “distress” or “the pressure of circumstances or the antagonism of persons.” Wouldn’t you say most of our heartache comes from either relational conflict or the inability to control our circumstances?

It is also interesting that Jesus did not exempt believers from what is part of our universal human experience as a result of the fall. Even David, a “man after God’s own heart” cried out, “Why are you downcast O my soul?”

So if having “trouble” and the physical and emotional damage resulting from the trauma is to be expected, why is it believers and non-believers alike hit dead ends when they seek answers in our churches or are looking for help in times of anguish and suffering?

What is hindering the modern church from being responsive to the world’s leading disability?

There are many reasons, but here are at least eight for your consideration:

1. Counseling and Medical Treatments Are “Secular.”

There is pressure within many church traditions to limit themselves purely to prayer solutions and admitting otherwise would be seen as a lack of faith. Suggesting people pursue help from a counselor or physician puts them on a path fundamentally antithetical to the purposes and ways God has ordained for us to become spiritually mature.

Seeking help for physical ailments like high blood pressure or diabetes is acceptable, but since depression is caused by emotional and spiritual issues, intervention beyond reading the Bible, confession of sins and prayer is only “treating the symptoms and not the cause.” Unfortunately, when people are limited to only these options, when they don’t find relief, they are told it is because of “lack of faith”—i.e., their own fault. Now they are in a double bind; if they seek medical help, which many need because of biological and genetically predisposed physical hormonal imbalances, they risk the rejection of their spiritual community and support system.

2. The Real Issue Is Sin or Spiritual Immaturity.

All feelings of depression are an attack from Satan that needs to be resisted. It is a tactic of the enemy to get people focused on themselves rather than God and other people who need to hear the Gospel. You just need to “take every thought captive”; say “no” to Satan, “yes” to God. Resist the devil and he will flee. There are times when the enemy harasses us with a “spirit of heaviness” and resisting him and drawing near to God causes this to lift and symptoms subside.

Living in disobedience can result in depression, and it is one of the possible reasons. But that does not mean sin or satanic attack is the underlying cause for all people who experience depression.

If we are not exempt from physical illnesses, and the Bible is clear we will all die at sometime, on what basis can we conclude Christians are exempt from all mental or psychological illness? Most of the people who had significant roles in biblical history struggled with discouragement and depression and as a result were motivated to trust God to give them insight. Even Paul was not granted healing of his “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him from “becoming conceited.”

3. Confusion About the Purpose of Depression in Our Lives.

There is a difference between feeling sad or discouraged and the medical illness of depression. It is often difficult to distinguish a “normal” temporary grieving or learning to “persevere through our trials” so we can be mature from an actual medical illness that needs specific diagnosis and intervention either with counseling or medication or both.

Feeling depressed, hopeless or discouraged is like an alarm system that alerts you to something needing your attention. Depression is to the psychological self as pain is to the physical self. Rather than view feeling depressed as the enemy, see it as an ally to initiate a search for the underlying cause to find insight and healing.

4. Lack of Staff and Expertise.

If the topic were to be discussed openly, there would be such an outpouring of need that the staff would be overwhelmed with requests for help and counseling. There is not enough time or qualified people available to even suggest our church could be a healing agent for people with enormous needs.

Therefore, it would be unfair to encourage people to seek help and then not come alongside them and assist them in their healing journey. The task can be overwhelming both in terms of emotional and financial resources.

5. Wanting to Play It Safe.

Even though the Bible speaks extensively about depression and anxiety, no matter what you say, someone is going to take exception or be offended, so why even go there? It will probably be too controversial and polarizing.

It takes a lot of effort to preach a sermon that integrates our emotional, spiritual and physical lives in a biblically balanced way. Aren’t the pulpit messages to be positive and uplifting? So who wants to be in a “no win” situation?

6. Americans Are Already Over-Medicated.

Using drugs to artificially feel better and avoid the real issues is counterproductive and results in drug abuse and addiction. Even though some people use certain drugs like Valium inappropriately to treat symptoms and not the underlying cause, avoiding all medication results in under-treatment of a medical condition that can be dramatically helped with medications that are not addictive. For those with the medical illness of depression (not just feeling sad), appropriate medication in combination with counseling can be life changing. It takes time.

Many feel that taking any foreign substances into our bodies should be avoided because of the potential of future unknown harmful effects. Some people do not respond to certain anti-depressants or experience unwanted side effects. Using medications during pregnancy or when nursing a baby are legitimate concerns that need to be carefully addressed. At the same time, why are so many willing to ignore the potential dangers of some herbs and supplements simply because they are considered “natural,” which does not guarantee they are necessarily safe or effective? Refusing optimal medical treatment can have serious long term consequences like an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease as a result of atrophy or shrinkage of the brain tissue from depletion of the brain hormones called “neurotransmitters.”

7. Unnecessary Distraction and Diversion.

We don’t talk about it or provide something “in house” because we don’t see it as necessary or relevant to the focus and purpose of our ministry. There are other places people can go to get help. The church should not get distracted and burdened with trying to help people deal with emotional issues. The church is to focus on spiritual issues.

But why not be a resource to fill the void when hurting people outside the church need to know there is a God who loves them and wants to transform their lives? Is this not an opportunity to impact our communities for the kingdom by cultivating a culture of grace where people see themselves as “healing agents” one to another, and then stick with them through the healing journey?

8. Too Close to Home.

People in the congregation may assume the pastor or staff person is talking about this subject as a subtle way of crying out for help, and he or she might be depressed themselves. This could put a career in jeopardy. The statistics reveal than in fact more than 60 percent of pastors are suffering from some degree of depression or stress-related illness. Some may call it “burnout,” but the result is many are leaving the ministry or living with continued frustration.

So if Jesus warned us we would have “trouble,” what should our response be to our brothers and sisters in the human family who are suffering the emotional and physical consequences of life’s heartaches? There continues to be a stigmatization of depression in the Christian community that says if you are feeling depressed, it is because of sin or lack of faith.

How is this different than what Jesus said in Matt. 23:4:

They tie up heavy loads and put them of men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them? What good is our faith without actions? James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? . . . Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

In Luke 4, Jesus describes His mission as Messiah that includes “to heal the brokenhearted,” which implies a role to mend broken hearts that have been crushed by calamity like pieces of broken earthenware. Think about brave firemen who, when others are running away, run toward the fire in order to rescue those who are in crisis. Can we not agree to emulate the heart of Jesus and come alongside those who are hurting and be their companion in encouraging them to seek help?

Depression has many degrees of severity and many triggers. Should we not pursue and investigate the many interventions and treatments available? As Romans 6:19 says, “How much different it is now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness” (The Message).

No patient has ever sent me a “thank-you” note because I prescribed a medication to lower their cholesterol even though I suspect strokes or heart attacks were prevented from occurring as a result. The medical interventions did not fundamentally change how they experienced life in contrast to the transformation that takes place in the lives of people who are released from the bondage of depression.

Why not take an honest assessment of where your church is in regards to its attitude toward those who suffer from depression and other illnesses of the soul? May the Lord bless your efforts as you reach out in His name to help those who are hurting!

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