Recently I read a biblically based chapter in a book about women of the Bible which placed depression in a rather unfavorable but predictably old and untenable position. The author, stated “It is true that depression is related to the way we think-or fail to think-about God. Once we bind ourselves to a God-sized God, we have a resource for dealing with depression. We can focus on God-His holiness, His knowledge, His power. We can face our fears and anxieties in the light of His character and His commitment to us. If depression results from the way we think about ourselves, then it can be lifted by the way we think about ourselves in relation to a holy, knowledgeable, and powerful God who is committed to us. The downward look is what leads to depression. The upward look takes away our fear. Look to God.”
So now I am going to rewrite that paragraph and change just one word. I am going to substitute breast cancer for depression. See how it reads now. “It is true that breast cancer is related to the way we think-or fail to think-about God. Once we bind ourselves to a God-sized God, we have a resource for dealing with breast cancer. We can focus on God-His holiness, His knowledge, His power. We can face our breast cancer in the light of His character and His commitment to us. If breast cancer results from the way we think about ourselves, then it can be lifted by the way we think about ourselves in relation to a holy, knowledgeable, and powerful God who is committed to us. The downward look is what leads to breast cancer. The upward look takes away our breast cancer. Look to God.” And could I add, not chemotherapy or radiation. Ridiculous right?
In other words, it is unholy to accept a biological basis for depression. Depression is not only caused by how we think, it is caused by how we think and are in relationship to God. This wide sweeping proclamation also restricts our treatment. The author is prescribing a change in our attitude to God not a trip to the psychiatrist for therapy or medication.
Rewriting the paragraph to change the word depression to breast cancer seems ludicrous. I could have used other biological illnesses. I could have substituted ulcers, headaches, GI cancer or thyroid cancer, brain cancer. I have friends and patients who have suffered or died of all these illnesses. I could have told them when they came to me to change the direction of their gaze. “Stop studying your navel and look to the heavens.” Ha, you may laugh, but clearly we understand that the most biological of illnesses has a spiritual or emotional component. If this is so why can’t we make the leap that mental and emotional illnesses have not only a spiritual and psychological component but a biological one as well. As I say, “We live in a country that reimburses for gastric bypass but not for psychotherapy.” We cut the head from the shoulders in Western medicine and continue to wonder at the ever rising rates of cancer in our country. The same cancers that I was taught in medical school in 1983 would be cured in the next twenty years.
So my concern is not so much with the medical doctors or the health system, for what can change in that context? Not much. My direct grievance in this case is with a female Christian who writes to women attempting to convince them that their mental illness, their psychological pain, their suffering of physical or sexual abuse is somehow related to their wrong footed relationship with God. I wish this were a rare misunderstanding. I wish I could see one sexually abused, anxious, depressed woman or man that didn’t feel like the abuse was caused by their own actions and not the perpetrator’s. I wish I could see one patient who comes in depressed and is angry about being abandoned by God. Not the other way round.
I remember when I retired I was, numb, confused, sad and frustrated. But I was also angry. Really angry that I had believed in a God who allowed such destructive human relationships. It wasn’t 1-2% of people who suffered from sexual abuse as I had been taught. It was 25% of children and 80-90% of young children who required psychiatric treatment or institutionalization. I wasn’t depressed. I was furious. And I blamed God. Yes, I was looking up and I wasn’t liking what I was seeing. My anger nearly destroyed me. Finally, I did reconcile with a God who created humanity steeped in such sin and suffering. I felt that there was no other way.
But this woman’s sanctimonious description of depression is more destructive than the anger I felt about sexual abuse. So I think that’s why I get so riled up when I see a popular, female Christian writer describing depression as a wrong relationship with God. I want to reach out and knock her one. I want to read out loud to her the paragraph about breast cancer being a looking down and not up. I want everyone to finally get that depression is genetic, biological and treatable. That a trip to the psychiatrist is a sign of good mental health not a reason to get turned down for life insurance. I don’t want to read about how looking up to God can cure your breast cancer or depression because it’s not true, for either one.
Being in relationship with God can make the journey a bit lighter, maybe brighter, whatever illness or challenges may come. There is hope in believing in a Higher Power. If you don’t believe me or millions of Christians then just ask the millions who have been healed in Alcoholics Anonymous who are atheists. They know. Healing miracles occur for the believer and the non-believer. We’ve all seen it and know that it’s true. But don’t tell my patients who come for treatment of anxiety, stress, depression, trauma and drug addiction that they are suffering because they aren’t right with God. Those are fighting words and you will find yourself in a fight you will lose. Trust me.