The phone rang at 2am again. I knew who it was before answering. In recent weeks, Anita (not her real name) often called in the middle of the night.
She claimed to feel the fires of hell all over her body with no desire to live.
My wife or I would drive to her home and sit down and pray with her. We would speak to Anita and rally the church to pray for her. After a couple suicide attempts through overdoses, she was hospitalized for several months. We rallied around Anita as best we could. We would encourage her and read her Scripture, but it felt like talking to a wall. It was a discouraging time, but also a time when my wife and I felt utterly helpless. We were frustrated with Anita for not listening, and yet, grieved for her inability to listen. We felt defeated as if we had let Anita down.
Anita is not a unique case.
Although her depression was severe, 1 in 5 people in the UK will suffer depression. This highlights the importance of the role of the local church in helping sufferers of depression. But how do we help? Should we feel as helpless as my wife and I felt with Anita several years ago? There are many ways the church can approach depression.
In this three-part series, I would like to briefly look at three things we can do as the church by: Promoting Culture, Providing Training, and Practicing Priesthood.
A culture is the way in which groups of people live and think.
Everyone brings their culture into the church, and as the church, we have developed an Evangelical culture that is more based on moral excellence and stoicism than on the realities of our humanity. On Sundays, it is not uncommon for a family to be falling to pieces, yelling at one another in the car, and then walking into the church building with smiles, hugs, and handshakes. Typical church culture relegates life’s hardships and sufferings to behind closed doors. The emperor’s new clothes are “I’m ok, you’re ok.”
Any sufferer in that context can scream on the inside, but fear being viewed as inferior for having a quivering upper lip. In many ways we have an anti-suffering (and anti-depression) theology within the church.
The purpose of suffering is often not considered, and so when suffering strikes (and it will), many find difficulty weathering the storm. Suffering seems an obscure stranger, and our legalistic bent suggests that intense suffering comes upon those who are not trusting God. David Murray is right when he says in his book Christians Get Depressed Too that, “There is still a stigma attached to mental illness and to depression in particular.” Sometimes that stigma is not just that a person does not seem to be coping well, but that he/she fails to trust God.
In promoting a biblical culture, the local church must promote a culture of progressive sanctification. In other words, we are all in process.
We put on a sanctified show for others to see whilst ignoring the fact that we are not as together as we portray. Truly, we make sure the scaffolds of sanctification are erected on the inside of the building rather than the observable outside. This is why D.A. Carson wrote his book on suffering, How Long, O Lord? Carson begins by saying, “This is a book of preventative medicine. One of the major causes of devastating grief and confusion among Christians is that our expectations are false.” Suffering is a human problem, and depression is a form of suffering. People suffer from depression because of others (abuse, expectations, etc.), Adam (the curse, physiological factors, misery in work, death, etc.), and Satan (conspiring with the curse, spinning lies, etc.). These contributors work along the grain of our sinful hearts.
There is no single cause for depression.
Every one of us finds him/herself living amongst the same brokenness vulnerable to its effects. When Paul speaks of overcoming temptations, he points out that they are common to all (1 Cor. 10:13). Thus we must promote a new culture in the church—a culture that recognizes our likeness to one another. Truly, our struggles and temptations are more alike than different. That means that we are not a church that loves to help people with problems, but a church of people with problems.
In other words, we need a church culture that locates ourselves in the community of sufferers, rather than the community of the perfected.
Practicing such a culture would help invite openness about struggles, including depression, so that the sufferer receives care. In many cases, it may provide a preventative dynamic as the community can help hear and carry one another’s burdens before they break an individual’s spirit! This allows us to see ourselves included as sufferers; thus, we can enter into the world of the depressed without excluding them from our world.