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A human Christian response to depression

05 November 2022 By Rod Wilson

Rod Wilson reflects on how to avoid secular and spiritual missteps

en français

While many of my Sunday mornings have revolved around preaching a sermon, I still remember the paradox of one particular Sunday. I’d been feeling desolation mixed with sadness for weeks. Sleeping was my refuge – my blanket protected me from the world. An ache in the lower part of my chest would not go away, as if all my emotions centred in that one spot. I felt dark and hopeless.

But I dragged myself out of bed, somehow got to the pulpit and preached, only to return home later to my hiding place. A woman in the church told me that it was one of the best sermons she had heard me preach. She had no idea what was going on.

My name is Rod. I struggle with depression.

Persistent darkness

I have lived with dysthymia – a persistent depressive disorder – for most of my life. What do you think of when you hear the word persistent? Maybe a family member has an annoying habit. Possibly you have a boss who repeats the same clichéd phrases every day and it’s exhausting. That’s a glimpse into dysthymia. It never seems to stop, and its repetitive quality is relentless and wearying.

Sleeping was my refuge – my blanket protected me from the world.

Major depressive disorders are acute, debilitating and intense. Proper intervention can help many people find equilibrium and increased health. But with dysthymia the suffering lived over an extended time brings a unique kind of pain.

When I was in grade school, there were times I felt flat. I struggled with energy, motivation, shame and the feeling there was something wrong with me. My self-worth was low. I minimized successes and maximized failures. Some of my feelings were strangely unrelated to what was happening in my external world. The sky could be blue, literally or metaphorically, but I felt like I was in the midst of a punishing storm.

I didn’t grow out of dysthymia when I reached adulthood. There’d be seasons when it seemed gone, but then I would be confronted again by the battle. Internal and external triggers would bring issues of value and worth to the surface, and shame would resume its accusatory posture.

I’ve spent most of my life in the public eye and leadership. My noonday demon has been a hidden disability. You’d think I was doing well, but at times a darkness lurked behind the activity, a lack of motivation and energy lived in my inner core, and nagging doubts plagued me.secular and spiritual missteps

Secular and spiritual missteps

As dysthymia and I have walked together, the shortcomings of some secular and spiritual approaches to mental health have become apparent to me. I have yearned for a more helpful third way.

Many secular contexts offer a healthy acceptance about the reality of depression, but they assume a relationship with God is unimportant. I’m not at home in a space where the spiritual is extracted from the human.

In many evangelical contexts being depressed is not accepted because of an assumption depression must be antithetical to a strong relationship with God. I’m not at home there either in a space where the human is disconnected from the spiritual.

Both these approaches fail in the same way – they assume battling depression and having a robust connection with God can’t co-exist.

But I know better.

And I think there are many others like me who would love to find a third way characterized by wisdom – an approach that allows for brokenness and vulnerability in tandem with mystery and transcendence, so that I can be thoroughly Christian and a depression combatant at the same time.

Proverbs can help us dig into these issues.

Wisdom from Proverbs

To answer before listening – that is folly and shame. Proverbs 18:13

Listening is a lost art in our culture. It’s much easier to speak and influence rather than hear and attend. Those who battle depression and value our relationship with God need a context where both are understood.

Our spirituality matters to us. While our depression is multifaceted both in causes and manifestations, God is not absent. Often when we are depressed, we miss the feelings of connection and intimacy with Him. But in mysterious ways we catch glimpses of God’s presence and care.

We’d like nonreligious people to listen to us long enough so they can respect our convictions. We’d like religious people to hear our experience so they don’t quickly conclude our depression means our relationship with God is lacking.

Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions. Proverbs 18:2

Most people today, religious and nonreligious, have a perspective on depression. This is a drawback of social media. Google searches, videos and documentaries create an omnicompetence in all spheres, including mental health.

Today when everyone is now an expert on everything, it’s easy to be what Proverbs calls foolish. In Proverbs fools are disconnected from God and others, and have no accountability to anyone. Expressing their own opinions is more important to them than gaining deeper understanding.

We who fight the demons of depression need competent and wise understanding rooted in accurate knowledge of God and His Word. Scripture doesn’t elevate thinking and devalue feeling, nor does it divorce the human and the spiritual.

That perspective may not make sense to nonreligious people, but as Christians we should be able to grow in our understanding of it.

Like a broken tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble. Proverbs 25:19

We often take our healthy body for granted. Even after a tooth breaks, we can forget, bite down and experience the pain of unpredictability. The same with a lame foot. Imagine suddenly needing to outrun trouble only to have your body betray you with disability and pain.

When those who battle depression are in times of trouble, we want and need reliable and predictable friends and family members.

Don’t bail on us, show little interest in talking to us or try to make it better. Work at being a faithful friend and try to understand what matters to us. If you believe in God, don’t use Him or His Word against us, but express His faithfulness to us through your own.

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Proverbs 25:20

Sit with those images for a few seconds.

Sometimes people will offer happy interventions in a well-intentioned desire to lift us out of our depression. But happy songs or words risk alienating those of us struggling with depression. They can make us feel colder and make our wounds hurt more.

The third way I seek doesn’t try quick fixes of happiness, but instead helps me walk forward. I can walk forward when there are people beside me who are not threatened by conversations on mental illness, who are willing to be vulnerable with me.

Prevalence of depression 22%

Mental Health Research Canada reported recently that 22 per cent of Canadians had been diagnosed with depression, 3 to 6 per cent of them with dysthymia. Shalem Mental Health Network tracked those who were coming for psychotherapy from various denominational churches. Depression was the presenting issue for 14 per cent of that population. –RW

Balm on a wound

I am grateful to God for His hospitable provision of such people – my spouse, daughter and specific other friends and family members.

I have also been helped immeasurably by many hours of counselling with competent therapists who have not just explored my historical dynamics, but offered perspectives and practical strategies.

And antidepressant medication has made the journey more bearable.

While the relentless nature of depression is exhausting, its presence has helped me reflect on how God works through pain. I understand something about God because of how I’ve lived. The cross, the central symbol of our faith, links agony and anguish with hope and joy. In some mysterious way, because of God, I believe dysthymia has the same potential.

Recently, I read a letter that affirmed that possibility.

I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God. But through the prayers of the saints, God began to have mercy on me and pulled my soul from the inferno below.

In 1527 Martin Luther experienced one of his many seasons of human anguish and spiritual struggle. He put into words what many of us feel. His letter gives me hope that there is indeed a third way. I will keep searching.

Rod Wilson of Vancouver is a senior writer for Faith Today and author of Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More: How to Change the World with 3 Sacred Sayings (NavPress, 2022) and other books on counselling, fundraising and anger. Photo: Milada Vigerova

Diagnosing depression

Professional help should be pursued when most or all of these characteristics are present over a period of time. The list would be expanded for some forms of depressive illness, including bipolar disorder:

  • significant change in appetite, sexual drive and weight
  • significant change in sleep pattern
  • loss of energy and excessive fatigue
  • feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach and excessive guilt
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions
  • loss of motivation and enjoyment of regular tasks
  • general slowing down of all motor tasks
  • suicidal tendencies. –RW

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