This blog series about mental illness is inspired by a session taught by Irma Janzen from Fort Garry EMC, presented at the Ministerial Day on July 3, 2015 at Ebenezer Christian Church in Brandon, MB. Thanks to Irma Janzen and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference for addressing this important issue, and for doing so graciously, while challenging us all to carefully consider our beliefs and actions in this area.
According to statistics, about 5% of people globally suffer from depression. That is one in every 20 people. Does your church have 40 people? Then, statistically people, it is likely that 2 people in your midst suffer from depression. In a church of 100 people, it would be statistically likely to find 5 people that suffer from depression. That is a significant number. Though it is not the majority of people, it is enough that most of us will know someone who suffers from it. Because of its prevalence around the world, when we talk about mental illness, many of us are specifically interested in learning about depression.
Occasionally I have heard Christians claim to know the “real reason” why people suffer from depression, and then they go on a rant claiming that if only people would pray and read the Bible more then depression would disappear. To be honest with you, when I hear people say that, I cringe—not because of the suggestion that prayer and Bible reading is bad, because I surely believe it is good for all of us—but rather because it reveals an over-spiritualized, ignorant, and misguided understanding of mental illness.
Like most dangerous lies, the lie that depression is always the result of a lack of faith is one that has some truth in it. I do believe that depression can sometimes be triggered by poor spiritual health. If we continually and habitually believe the lies of the devil that tell us we are worthless and that nobody could possibly love us, then it is very easy to spiral into a dark pit of despair. Stay there long enough, and it could turn into depression. But in the vast majority of cases, clinical depression is caused from other things, and there are people who have incredible faith who still suffer from depression.
One of the most talked about examples in the Bible is Elijah. Read 1 Kings 17-19. Within 3 chapters of the Bible, Elijah miraculously and prophetically announces a severe drought is coming to the land, which happens. He is miraculously fed by ravens in the wilderness, then he goes to a widow, and God miraculously fills the widow’s jars of oil and flour every day to provide for both Elijah along with the widow and her son. Then her son dies, and Elijah, by God’s power, raises him from the dead. After this, Elijah has a showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, a competition to see who’s deity will bring down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice to prove which divine being is stronger. Though the prophets of Baal were unable to accomplish this, Elijah covers his sacrifice with a lot of water, then calls on God to bring fire from heaven, and God does. The fire consumes the sacrifice despite all the water on and around it. After all of this—seeing God’s power and faithfulness again and again—Elijah says, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah was so depressed that he no longer wanted to live, or was worthy of living, even after seeing such incredible and miraculous things. He had the faith to raise someone from the dead by God’s power, and had the faith to stand alone against 450 false prophets, and while standing alone, had the faith to call on God to bring fire from heaven. Elijah had incredible faith in God, yet even he suffered such despair and anguish to the point of wishing he could die.
People of great faith sometimes suffer from depression. (Also check out a testimony posted below from Pastor Tommy Nelson from Denton Bible Church)
There are a variety of causes of depression. There is a substantial amount of evidence to point to chemical imbalances in the brain as one cause of depression. For more information on this, check out this article from Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital,the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
There are also other things that can trigger depression. Living with long-term stress, living with unresolved grief, trauma going back as far as childhood, and not dealing with issues well can also be causes for depression. And yes, sometimes, possibly, sin might also trigger depression. But in case you might be tempted to over-simplify this, I would like to point that sin can also result in long-term stress and trauma. As was just mentioned, long-term stress and trauma can also trigger depression, regardless of if it is the result of sin or not.
In short, we usually don’t conclusively know the cause of each and every individual case of depression. In the middle of the sermon on the mount, Jesus reminds us to love not only those who are good to us, or those who are like us, but to love even our enemies. In the middle of this reminder, Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). The truth is, depression happens to people of great faith and people of no faith. It happens to good people and evil people.
Due to the variety of causes of depression, some environmental factors (outside factors), and some physiological factors (and other internal factors), there is no one root cause of depression, which makes it a difficult illness to diagnose. In short, depression happens, but we don’t always know why.
For some, depression is happening to them right now. And for the majority of us, we will know someone who is suffering from depression, whether we know it or not. If you have never suffered from depression, it can be hard to know what to do with friends or loved ones dealing with it. Their illness is beyond your control, and outside of your realm of experience and understanding. It can be hard to give any advice without sounding overly simplistic or trite.
But here is the verse I shared earlier, with a few of the surrounding passages:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
Friends and family members who suffer from depression are definitely not your enemy, but it may feel like their illness is preventing them from showing you the love that you want them to show you. And they most likely know that they are failing to show you that love, which makes the struggle even harder for them. But Jesus reminds us to not only show love to those who are like us or those who can love us back. Everyone does that, but Jesus wants us to rise above what is “normal”, and to love people even when you don’t get a reward for showing them love, and even when they are different from you. Loving people who suffer from depression might feel like you’re not doing any good. Loving them might not make everything all better for them. It might feel awkward and cause you to wonder if you are doing any good at all. But think about them, and not just yourself. Think about Jesus’ words, and not just the reward of feeling like the hero who rescued them from the darkness of depression. Don’t dream of being a hero, just love them without expecting them to love you back.
And if their depression seems like it will never end, keep loving them anyway. After all, isn’t that what you would want if you were them?
Bonus: Check out this testimony from Tommy Nelson, the pastor of Denton Bible Church, as he speaks at Dallas Theological Seminary about his experience suffering from clinical depression.