This is a complex and difficult subject to discuss; what, apart from anything else, is meant by the term? It could be anything from feeling rather down in the dumps to feeling so awful that a person is almost completely incapacitated; anything from sadness to complete physical debilitation. Its causes could be emotional, spiritual or purely physical; it can be temporary, for a period of a few days or weeks, to the battle of a lifetime; it can be treated by disregarding it and pressing on with hard work or, more commonly, by regarding it as a call to stop the work, rest, seek God and, in our modern age, a variety of medical means may be appropriate. In this article the intention is to talk about some aspects of depression, relating them to a number of different books I have read.
Personally, I have had to deal with issues of depression over a 40 year period, at one point in my early twenties having been very ill, so I will talk about some things that have been good for me as well as some general reflections. By contrast, a friend of our family, normally a strong, very hard-working person, in her mid-fifties suffered a shock of sorts at work which precipitated her into a three month horrible depression. Apparently what happened is that she stayed at home, took drugs, got better, completely back to ‘normal’, whatever that means. In fact the story was rather different from a Christian perspective. She was working in an aged-care centre where there was a lot of unpleasantness going on; out of the blue, she was accused of stealing; when this happened, she very suddenly became ill, something fell on her; clearly from the Christian perspective she was suddenly vulnerable to an evil spirit, it attacked her and proceeded to squash her for a period of months. She was really sick, thoroughly incapacitated, but under medical care, and with a number of people praying for her….and then suddenly, as suddenly as it came, one day the oppression lifted and was gone. The diagnosis here would seem to be straightforward. (A very interesting personal account of depression and the demonic will be found in Derek Prince’s book They shall expel demons; he tells how he was healed.)
Now a quite different account. This is taken from The handbook of Spiritual Warfare, by Dr. Ed Murphy. The author was very active in Christian ministry with a particularly strong activity in the area of dealing with demonization; however his lifestyle was not well measured; he found it hard to say no to requests for ministry, and simply overworked. He was travelling internationally, found himself in some highly stressed situations and suddenly found himself unable to do anything, having a complete breakdown; he felt that God was rejecting him. For a considerable period of time he tried to overcome this by his own efforts, but simply got worse. He read a book by a famous Bible teacher who said that depression resulted from sin, unbelief…and that medical treatment was simply wrong. Certain friends told him it was spiritual in nature; they supposedly broke demonic powers and told him he was healed; he got worse. Finally, he gave in, followed advice, and went to a psychiatrist; he had to be sedated on his way there! This man told him that he knew exactly what was wrong and that it was definitely not demonic. He gave him antidepressants, ECT and counselling. The drugs and ECT soon had him beginning to feel better; the counselling told him he was performance orientated, legalistic and angry. 25 years of breaking God’s law of Sabbath rest had caught up with him. Murphy does not say quite what the outworking of all this was, but evidently he now learned to rest.
So, on to another case. Margaret Court was world champion tennis player and is still way out front as the leading winner of grand-slam titles. Margaret started a church in Perth, which I attended for a good while; she is a truly lovely person (which does not however mean that I go to the church now – this for a number of reasons.) At the height of her tennis career, a Catholic girl, she met Jesus, was born again. As she left the tennis career behind she sought to draw closer to God and fell in with a charismatic type crowd who engaged in all kinds of supposed inner healing activities when there was nothing much really to heal, and the resultant introspection in a very sensitive person caused great distress and a breakdown of health both mentally and physically. (She does not ascribe this to the demonic, but from all that I have heard, solely to the teaching. I should have said that there is a good biography A Winning Faith by Barbara Oldfield, and a nice book on faith, which I don’t have to hand). During the day she longed for the night, and during the night she longed for the day! Then the faith teaching came to town; she enrolled in Bible studies. ‘The entrance of thy word brings light’; she began to meditate the Word of God, and people were praying…. there was hope…and then, one fine day, there took place what she refers to as The Great Exchange – there came an understanding that Christ was her life, and from that moment she was free. Free – substantially; no longer depressed but fully functional and growing. In her church and people associated with her, such stories are not unusual; American preacher Mark Hankins tells of his mother’s deliverance from horrid depression in much the same way – meditation in the Word. All this is great….but it is not the whole story, and unfortunately, constantly talking about faith, and making it a person’s responsibility to have faith, can actually be the very worst thing for a depressed person because faith is the one thing they ‘know’ they don’t have. It is very true that ‘faith comes by hearing’; but quite the form the ‘hearing’ is to have is not always that simple; hammering away on this one point alone, which many faith people are apt to do, did not help me. For myself, I actually needed to get away from that teaching.
So now I turn briefly to Viktor Frankl and the so-called third school of Viennese psychiatry. His easily accessible and very well known book is Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a must read; Frankl was not Christian but was a strongly theistic Jew, sent to Auschwitz. The book recounts his experience there, and the formation of his thinking; the key for people to survive is to have meaning. It’s a wonderful book; the reason for mentioning it here is one story he tells. A man came to him in his professional capacity; this man hated his work for the American government and had spent years of psychiatric care on the basis that he had a problem with authority, with ‘father’. Frankl counselled him to quit his job and do something he liked instead. The man was quite well within days. The point here is simply that the correction of circumstances can be crucial. Personally I have found it very helpful not to be striving away to conform to charismatic churches full of non-educated people; I found my way to a group of people with similar backgrounds with whom it was easy to be friendly; I got away from upsetting noisy rock style music with drums; I found friends in the beautiful American north-west; I found books that talked gently about God’s love and humility….I found more amenable work…We can also bring out factors like diet and physical work – for me, hard work in a gym has been very beneficial. I might add that the importance of speaking in tongues must not be underestimated….
Then we have to consider the idea that some people are ‘temperamentally’ set up for melancholy and depression (I would be one). In a moment I am going to quote from HA Baker; first a little background. This is the grandfather of Rolland Baker of Iris Global renown; he grew up a poor farm boy in Ohio; was very very hardworking. Encountered God; got an education; started a church; went to China…everywhere he was followed by miracles and wonderful activities of the Holy Spirit, some of these chronicled in Visions from beyond the Veil. Here is what he says about ‘despondency’ in his autobiography Under his Wings.
One of my greatest and most persistent difficulties in my work in Ka Do Land was my despondency. My despondent disposition goes back almost to childhood, as I have said.
During the eight years Josephine was in America I was always lonesome and plagued by the spirit of depression. I do not mean that this discouragement had the victory, for I sometimes lived on mountain peaks, as my writing shows. Neither does it mean that I could never pray until the clouds of darkness rolled away, leaving a sunny sky. Yet this fight with depression has been life long and the fight is still on. It brings a sense of being absolutely worthless.
I suppose this is due in part to my natural disposition and probably due in no small measure to needless anxiety, but due mostly to devil power in our wrestling with the powers of the devil enthroned in the heavenly places. At the present time, I believe the Holy Spirit on some occasions has a part in causing us to see and feel that, as Paul says, there naturally dwells in us no good thing. We need to feel and know that we are naturally useless. We need humiliation.
The sense of being ‘worthless’ would absolutely accord with the notion of depression, and would be identified with immediately by a sufferer! An interesting little item in Baker’s life is ornithology; watching birds helped take him through some tough periods!
Yet another outlook on depression can be found in the inner healing type environment – please see the article ‘Emotional Healing’. A highly recommended author here is Agnes Sandford. Her books include her autobiography, Sealed Orders. A remarkable woman, very sensitive, thoughtful and artistic, she recounts childhood in China, marriage, return to New England and endeavour to conform to the role of pastor’s wife – she couldn’t do it and became very ill. In the depths of her pain, she finally saw someone pray for the sick and recovery ensue; she began to believe she could do this…and as she did, and her heart began to reach out to the healing God, so she recovered. In her case, confession of a sacramental nature proved a key to healing, as did writing, and yet she could relapse….and did, needing the help of the prayers of others to climb back out of the pit.
So, what can we say by way of conclusion? Firstly, we might suggest that life is not all sunshine and roses! False expectations can be ruinous; ‘we must through many tribulations enter into the kingdom of heaven’. There is a godly sorrow and a worldly sorrow. (see 2 Cor 7.10) Godly sorrow does not necessarily mean repentance over sin, though it can mean that and does so in Paul’s context, but may just be acceptance of self and the world we live in as fallen. Repentance is pretty much a gift of God and cannot be forced out of depressed people. “Be reconciled to God…” is a rather key statement here – it includes being reconciled to the whole biblical set up that life here is not as it should be. Secondly, there are no hard and fast rules with depressed people; one person might in fact need a kick in the backside – administered of course in the power of the Holy Spirit and in great love!! – another might need great patience. Some of us need years to recover; for others there might be one little key. I’m sorry to say that there are casualities, but failing does not mean God loves us any less. I don’t think it quite washes to say that Jesus was a failure, but the cross is not exactly a picture of success; ‘he loved not his life unto the death’, might well be another key. I’m not sure that we should press too hard the idea that ‘before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept thy word’; but if Jesus had to learn obedience, we should not repine (worldly sorrow) too much if things don’t work like we want.