Exciting news– I’m in the process of writing a book! It’s called “All Who are Heavy Laden: Hope in the Gospel for Anxiety and Depression.” I’m nowhere near finished, but I want to begin gaining feedback on the content I have written. Here’s a snippet from chapter 1, which is entitled “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way.” Please share your thoughts in the comments!
The rise of clinical depression in America has sparked a debate within the church: can Christians be depressed? If we truly have the joy of the Lord within us, how can depression creep in? If we have God’s listening ear, how can we be anxious?
Honestly, I hate this debate. I hate that we’re still having it.
Thankfully, much of the church has come around. They understand that joy and peace are more than fleeting feelings that can be destroyed by mental illness — a truth to which I will later devote entire chapters. But if we’re still asking the question, that means there must be a rebuttal. As recently as 2013, a survey conducted by Lifeway reported that 48% of evangelical Christians surveyed believe that serious mental illnesses can be overcome through “Bible study and prayer alone.”
One of the most staunch defenders of that idea is Malcolm Bowden, a fundamentalist biblical counselor and author of “Breakdowns Are Good For You: A Unique Manual for True Biblical Counseling.” According to his website, except in the case of drug use or brain damage, he contends that “there is no such thing as ‘mental illness.’ The bizarre and anti-social behaviour of people is only a cover for their guilt and sin.”
Ouch. Clearly this guy is not in “the club.”
Much of the stigma surrounding mental illness comes from the idea Bowden posed: ‘there is no such thing as mental illness.’ Some are willing to see cancer, diabetes, and the common cold as legitimate medical conditions that need medical treatment. But not mental illness; the mentally ill just need a bible verse, a pat on the back, and to “pull it together.” To blame sin for mental illness is not only theologically unsound, it’s also cruel. Yet it’s closer to the truth than its advocates know.
Sin is responsible for mental illness in the same way that it is responsible for diabetes, cancer, and the common cold. But that will make more sense if we start at the beginning.
In the Beginning
What happened in the beginning? “God created the Heavens and the Earth.” If you grew up anywhere near the church, you know the story. The Earth was nothing but a void, until God said “let there be light.” And there was. He separated it from the darkness, giving us day and night. The second day he took on the sky, and the third, creating land and sea. Refusing to leave the land bare, he planted every species of plant with the sound of his voice. Wanting the sky to match the fullness of the newly fertile land, He spoke the sun, moon, and stars into existence on the fourth day. Day five saw the first signs of animal life, from the birds of the sky to the fish of the sea. Each day, God looked at what He had made and called it good.
Oh, but day six. The creation of day six held a special place in God’s heart. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” he said. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Though the account of that day begins much like the others, it has some striking differences. God called his other creation good. But when he looked down at mankind, he called it very good. Man is also the only creation that God created in his own image. We are also the only creation he blessed or spoke to directly:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”
Do you see this? God created a beautiful world and gave it to the newly-formed human race as a gift. The world was meant to be our oyster. We were meant to care for this paradise and experience uninterrupted communion with God. Sin and pain were not a concern. Depression and anxiety were nowhere to be found. This picture is a far cry from how our lives look today. So what happened?
Where it Went Wrong
Today’s imperfect world began as a twinkle in the devil’s eye. You probably know the story: God told Adam and Eve that they may enjoy the fruit of any tree in the garden but one, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Enter the serpent with his twisted words and deceptive logic. “Did God really say…?” he whispers in Eve’s ear. “He’s holding out on you,” he tells her heart. Eve caves to these lies and her husband follows. Suddenly, everything changes; the couple sees things they never did before. They’re both naked. Not only do they realize that, but they feel something new and ugly in response: shame. For the first time, they feel the need to hide from God. But no one can outrun Him; when He inevitably finds them in their sin, the verdict isn’t pretty:
“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.’
And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”
Once again, ouch.
Yet these verses are about more than just birthing pains and hard labor. Nothing on earth would remain the same after this proclamation. Romans 8:20 says it best: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it…”
Creation is groaning, striving to be what it was once meant to be. It longs to be an oasis free of pain, disease, sin, and death. Mankind searches for cures to terminal disease. We pray for an end to war and world hunger. But because of Adam and Eve’s sin, those afflictions are an inescapable reality. Creation is broken, and by extension, so are we.
Doesn’t it make sense, then, that that brokenness can extend to our mind? Just as sometimes our fallible bodies malfunction, so can’t our brain? For so long, we’ve treated depression and anxiety as a character flaw, but what if it is just what happens when a once-perfect world goes awry?
Before I sought help for my anxiety and depression, I defaulted to believing that there was something deeply wrong with me as a person. None of the other first-graders at school cried for their mothers, unnerved by their brand new classroom. No other middle schooler I knew avoided sleepovers, irrationally afraid that the night they chose to have fun with friends would be the night something happened to their family back home. I longed desperately for an explanation. “If I could just figure out why I feel this way,” I thought, “maybe for once I will feel like a normal kid.”
If I could travel back in time, I would give that scared little girl a hug and tell her that it’s okay. I would tell her all about the fall, and let her know that she is no less valuable because of the way it has impacted her. I would also tell her to stop being stubborn and see a doctor, but that’s neither here nor there.
Most importantly, though, I would remind her that her precious Jesus is coming again one day to set all things right. Though depression and anxiety are nasty, misunderstood realities here on earth, in heaven, He will wipe away every tear.
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