Christians with Depression
by Father Dave
Churches tend to be places of happy, smiling, well-healed people, which is a pain in the neck when youíre depressed.
Indeed, a church is generally the last place youíd want to be if you were feeling psychologically or emotionally unstable. For not only do you have to put up with being the sour face in the midst of a sea of joviality, but thereís that added element of guilt associated with the fact that you have failed to be as confident and spiritually robust as your peers in the next pew.
The problem is built in to the theology of most churches. We, the church, are the community of people who have found healing and wholeness in Christ. Being mentally and emotionally stable therefore isnít just a sign of good fortune. Itís a stamp of spiritual authenticity!
Now we could argue this point at a theological level, but itís the facts on the ground that put the lie to this way of thinking. For one thing, if Christian people are all so mentally and spiritually together, why is it that so many of the greatest saints in history have been basket cases?
Martin Luther is a classic example - constantly struggling with his íblack dogí, in regular bouts of tortured rage. Mother Theresa is a more recent well-known struggling saint - confessing posthumously that she constantly battled with depression.
And not only amongst the saints of Christian history, but within the pages of the Bible itself we find so many of our most prominent spiritual heroes struggling to maintain mental equilibrium. And Iím not just thinking of parabolic figures like Job, but of depressed prophets like Jeremiah, and of characters like Ezekiel, who R.D. Laing diagnosed as schizophrenic.
John the Baptist is another figure who comes to mind. I suspect heíd be labelled as Ďbi-polarí nowadays. Certainly he strides across the early pages of the Gospels full of manic fire, as he calls down judgement on tyrannical King Herod and confidently proclaims Jesus as Ďthe lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!í Next thing we know heís in prison - sullen, alone, and not sure what he believes. ďAre you the one weíve been waiting for?Ē he asks of Jesus, ďor do we look for someone else?Ē
John of course not only acted bizarrely but dressed and ate and (no doubt) smelt like a crazy man as well. Yet the Lord Jesus said of John that Ďno man born of womaní was greater than he! He was a little bit crazy, but one helluva guy! And the question is, would he have been an equally great man, and an equally effective man of God, if heíd been more balanced as a human being?
This is the key question, so far as Iím concerned, as Iím guessing that itís more than mere coincidence that so many of the funniest, cleverest, godliest and most effective people in our world have always been amongst the most psychologically unbalanced?
I wonít bother going into case studies here, but I believe youíll find that itís true across the spectrum. Great artists, great thinkers, great comedians and great saints all tend to have this in common - they struggle.
They struggle with family, with friends, with a world that is not ready for their ideas, but most of all they struggle within themselves, and the question is whether their struggle is essential to their genius?
I remember reading a psychoanalysis of Martin Luther done by Erik Eriksson (the popular neo-Freudian psychologist). I have no idea whether Eriksson got Luther right, but the more important question for me is, if Eriksson had been Lutherís contemporary and if, through a series of sessions on the counselling coach Erickson had been able to help the German priest resolve his struggles, would there have been a Protestant reformation?
Iím not pretending I have the answer to this, and Iím certainly not wanting to suggest that mental illness is either a good thing or that it is always a prelude to greatness. But what I do want to suggest - to those of us who find life in this world to be a struggle - is that our pain and our potential for greatness may be deeply interlinked.
At any rate, no matter how we understand depression, thereís still room for the church to reform its ways when it comes to dealing with the depressed and mentally ill.
Letís get rid of this idea that the church is the community of the healed and the whole and replace it with an understanding of the church as Ďthe fellowship of sinners who live by the Grace of God in the cross of Christí (Bonhoeffer [I think]). Thatís a far more Biblical understanding of church so far as I am concerned, and if you donít agree with me, you can take it up with Martin Luther.
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