Due Depression

I am currently attending at my church an adult Sunday School class called “Depression and the Christian.” It is being led by my friend Phil, who is an MD; and it is following as an outline the chapters of my friend Gary’s book, Light On the Fringe (which I have referred to in earlier posts).

I finished Gary’s book a few months before the class began, but I know my grasp is pretty feeble—not my intellectual understanding in this case, just my ability to appropriate the ideas in my life. So I thought I would go to the class just to listen.

But in the last two sessions to which I have gone (I missed it on the 7th), I did end up saying a little bit. On the chance that someone out there might also see what I see or feel something like what I feel, I will try briefly to explain the substance of what I shared in the class.

Whenever Christian conversations about depression or low self-esteem happen, it seems that there is always an emphasis on the need to believe what God says about us. There is often the thought that we feel unlovable and therefore we struggle to believe that God really can love us.

I certainly understand that there are many of us who probably feel that way. And it is critically important that such ones improve their theology and begin to appropriate to their hearts the real, true and vast love of God for them. I am totally on board with that.
But that’s not my problem. I know God loves me. For me, that is almost never in question.

My problem isn’t God. It’s me.

I have said for a number of years now that I Peter 2:20 is for me the most haunting verse in all of Scripture. Here’s how the NLT renders it: “Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing right and are patient beneath the blows, God is pleased with you.”

This basically removes my ability to find peace in my trials. For 95% or more of the suffering and difficulties in my life are related, either directly or very closely indirectly, to my own sin and stupidity. Why do I suffer? Because I’m a blockhead. N.B. — “Blockhead,” in this context, is meant to denote one who persistently makes foolish and sinful choices and then reaps the consequences.

I have seen people who do stupid and sinful things and mess up their lives and do serious harm to others in their lives—I have seen some such people who, when the consequences comes crashing down on their heads, somehow manage to sit there and put on an air of beatific saintliness. They think they are Job on the ash heap, and they say, in effect, “Oh… yes… I am suffering with/for Jesus…”

And I want to say, “No, you’re suffering because you’re a blockhead!” I know I’m treading on dangerous ground when I begin to prescribe in my heart what would be good for God to do in the lives of others, but to be honest, it seems to me that some people could do with a little more self-blame and the commensurate depression.

I do not want to be depressed. But even less do I want a “cure” or a “release” from depression that I have to concoct in my own silly mind—or maybe with the help of a “counselor.” If relief does not come from the Lord, I do not want it. Platitudes and Bible verses are not the solution. No counselor can help me who does not first understand the realities of my sin and my errors and the real losses and regrets that I have incurred along the road. And then, the road to healing must be biblical, realistic and courageous in dealing with my real problems.

When I have expressed this line of thought to some brothers and sisters (including this last Sunday), the response often comes that I/we must remember that once we confess our sins to the Lord, He forgives us, and it is not appropriate for us to hang onto the guilt. This is a blessed and wonderful truth. Praise the Lord for that truth!

But there are two factors that keep that truth from being able to sweep aside my despondency. First, it is often the case that, the forgiveness of the Lord notwithstanding, the costs and consequences of our past follies continue to bear on our present and future life. Second, it is not always something that is neatly sealed off in the past. Often it is a matter of ongoing tendency or extended trouble that continues to plague us.

Now anyone who reads me here as having a defeatist attitude is, I think, misunderstanding my point. I know that there are some people who, when offered a way out of suffering—depression, in particular—would rather hunker down in their misery. That is not me. I would really love to move on in joy and peace in the Lord Jesus. I just want it to be real.

One last word here: I hope I have not freaked anyone out here or made anyone uncomfortable in any wrong way. I often wonder about the appropriateness of airing out such things in public. But the truth is, this is an important part of talking through THE LONG WAR. And that I am a Christian who struggles with despondency of spirit only puts me in company with the likes of David or Elijah. That I am being publicly honest about the connection of depression to my own sin only puts me in company with such brothers as Augustine or Martin Luther. So relax… 😉

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4 thoughts on “Due Depression

  1. I didn’t know you knew Gary Lovejoy. He did one of my electives a few weeks ago…His book also explores the reality that depression can come from and be sustained from inside the brain. Lovejoy’s buddy, Greg Knopf is an MD that he does the class with and offers tremendous help to those who are suffering, sometimes from hormonal issues, medication side effects, chemical problems in the brain, etc. He’s a good guy…

    I do understand the sitch…I have had my head in some dark clouds for over two years and the fog is just starting to clear…sigh…

    • Yes! Gary is a good friend. Did he treat your class to a string of groaner puns?… 🙂
      I do not know Dr. Knopf, though… And I’m afraid that I must admit that the medical chapter is the only one I did not read. I would not be surprised to find that there is a real physical side to my depression, especially in connection with diet. But I know that the major stuff is spiritual. (If you’re interested to see more of my interaction with Gary and his book here on TLW, I would refer you back to this post from July, together with the comments that followed.)
      I know you’ve really been through the wringer too. It is good to have a brother who knows something about the territory. 😉
      It is not now as dark as it was for me a year ago. For the past couple of months, I have been able honestly to say that, though I am not out of the cave, I can see a significant amount of light and maybe even some stairs going up toward it.

  2. Given my vested interest in the subject (I am currently in my second year in George Fox’s MA in Marriage and Family Therapy program), I would love to have more dialogue with you about this, K.C. I believe I have heard you speak before about your thoughts on low self-esteem and depression; by and large, I think I agree with you. Humanity requires a certain amount of appropriate self-abasement, balanced with an understanding of the free gift of perfect love that God offers us.

    I wonder how you are defining “self-esteem”? Self-esteem tends to be viewed, in some circles, as the belief that one is good, regardless of what one does or how well one performs. I would define it as the knowledge that one has value regardless of one’s performance. This, I think, is consistent with the Biblical truth: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Having value and “being good” are not the same thing. Even blockheads have value. 😉 Frankly, I think God is in the habit of using “blockheads” throughout Scripture. 🙂

    I also wonder how you define “depression”? Do you mean a clinical depression, or do you mean a general sense of melancholia? The two can go together, of course, but clinical depression is something more than that. This is the diagnostic criteria for a Major Depressive Episode:

    A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms must have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous function; at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.
    1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
    2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day
    3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
    4. Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day.
    5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others)
    6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
    7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate [emphasis mine] guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach).
    8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
    9. Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or specific plan for committing suicide. (DSM IV-TR, 2000, p. 356).

    I have slightly pared this down for readability, and you may have seen it before, but I felt it was important to include in my response, just in case.
    In your post, you stated: “No counselor can help me who does not first understand the realities of my sin and my errors and the real losses and regrets that I have incurred along the road. And then, the road to healing must be biblical, realistic and courageous in dealing with my real problems.” I agree. Counseling should not be “milk toast”. It is not, or should not, merely be about getting rid of pain; my theoretical orientation as a counselor impels me to help my clients make meaning of their pain, rather than rid them of it. Pain is an essential part of the human condition. It is when the pain appears to have no meaning that it becomes a stumbling block.

    On a personal level, I have also experienced some level of melancholia throughout the span of my young adult life. There were periods where I would have even qualified for the diagnosis. I wonder sometimes, at what point does pain cease to be a healthy reflection of my own real shortcomings, a recognition of the state of the fallen world we live in, a product of my “artistic” personality (don’t artists always seem to have a touch of this?), something that lends me depth and compassion, and begin to be a stumbling block? In my self-reflections, I have noticed that I, at times, hang on to “guilt” and a false sense of responsibility for things because it gives me a (wrong) sense of control. If a situation is “all my fault”, then it is within my power to prevent it from happening again…right? I have no idea if others experience this, but I think it is a good example of how guilt (at least false guilt) can be detrimental, even self-serving.

    That was a long-winded response, and I’m not sure what you’ll make of it. I have a great passion for this subject; it has been a primary object of my study and reflection over the past seven years. I would be interested to hear if you have any further comments to share, and I thank you for your insight thus far. 🙂

    • Hi, Beth —
      Thanks once again for gracing TLW with your lucid interaction. Very good stuff!
      I am not sure about “depression,” to be honest. The Scriptures do not speak of it quite the way we moderns do, and whenever that happens, I make the provincial and unsophisticated assumption that it is we moderns who are missing something. The Scriptures speak of “souls” being “downcast,” and perhaps that despondency is, in fact, what we are now calling depression.
      In any case, I know I have much to learn from my brothers and sisters who have worked hard to learn in this area. And I am not hostile to the idea of therapy as something that might be useful within the church. I just have a lot of questions and cautions.
      Some time back, I took the Hamilton survey and scored about a 42. Make of that whatever you will. Things are not quite as bad as that now. But the world was quite dark for me for a while.
      I think you would really like Gary’s book. His central idea is that depression is God’s built in alarm system and, therefore, ultimately a good thing. It signals that something is wrong and forces us to pay attention to whatever it is that needs attention. That, to me, seems pretty sound.
      On the question of how I see “self-esteem,” see my next post.
      Thanks again, for the excellent interaction!
      Shalom!

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