Meeting the blues with grace
Some Christians believe that all forms of mental illness or emotional distress are really spiritual problems in disguise. It’s a Gnostic notion if you think about it, the not so subtle dismissal of anything that is physical or material. It’s an easy notion to dress up with Bible proof texts and spiritual language, but it does a lot of damage. Not every problem can be reduced to secret sins, or a failure to pray regularly. God also created us with bodies, that he called good, and these too have been vandalized in the Fall. We are unitary persons, made in God’s image, body and soul, broken and needing redemption. It’s true that I might feel down because my devotional life is so out of whack that I’ve lost the sweet center to my existence. It might be equally true that I feel down because my brain chemistry is out of synch. Who knows—both might be true simultaneously.
It’s important that those we listen to about such topics be clear in their worldview about what it means to be human. One such voice I commend to you is that of Richard Winter, a psychiatrist, former L’Abri Worker and now professor of counseling and practical theology at Covenant Seminary (St Louis, MO). In 1985 he published The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope. It was a sensitively written, biblically wise, medically informed, and thoughtful study. Now he has revised and expanded that study in When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in the Midst of Depression.
Over the last forty years of my career, I have counseled many people whose struggle is somewhere on the spectrum between discouragement and severe depression. A large part of my calling as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist is to listen to people’s stories. Almost every day I hear new stories from my students or clients of their struggles to deal with the pain of life. In each of their stories there is woven a unique tapestry of beauty and brokenness, of dignity and depravity, and many of these threads lead to an endpoint of deep emotional distress and depression. Each person’s story is different but simultaneously absorbing, fascinating, disturbing and heart wrenching. There is no neat formula for recovery from depression, so I cannot prescribe some ready-made package of things to think and do or pills to take. Often, it takes many weeks of talking for some of the factors that have played into a person’s depression to come out into the open—so hidden are they underneath layers of shame and fear. It then takes more time to understand the relative contribution of personality, attachment issues, early-life events, trauma, current stresses, genes and biology so that the client and I can work together toward turning a seeming ‘breakdown’ into a ‘breakthrough’ of new ways to see, believe and be. This is the privilege and wonder of counseling and psychotherapy, being able to walk alongside someone for a while and see God’s gentle but persistent work of transforming and healing.
Even if you are not troubled by depression, you would do well to read When Life Goes Dark. It will make you more aware of life, more responsive to the silent creeping shadows that afflict so many, and more understanding of how hope—real, substantial, plausible hope—is not merely a nicety but a necessity.