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Depression and the dark corner of the Church

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From young Christian pastors and church leaders disposing of their faith like Josh Harris and others, to now tragic young pastoral suicides like Jarrid Wilson of Harvest Christian Fellowship and Andrew Stoecklein, former lead pastor of Inland Hills Church who took his life last August. These events are terrible, confusing and even alarming. And you know what? They should be because there’s a full-frontal attack by Satan on the church today and this time, he’s ambushing our “emotional stability” …and I might add with some real success.

In my 23 years as a former sr. pastor and 24 years as a licensed mental health professional, I’ve not seen such an onslaught of emotional dysfunction within church leadership as I have today, in particular, within younger church leaders. 

Look, the days of theologically naïve notions of not mixing mental wellness with your Christian faith-walk are over. As sure as there’s the, “…peace of God that surpasses all understanding…” there’s also the, “…walk[ing] through the valley of the shadow of death…” and if you’ve never experienced that yet…stay tuned, you will.

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Martin Luther, the great Reformer himself suffered from depression, perhaps a major mood disorder, possibly even Bipolar. Luther described his feelings as: “melancholy, heaviness, depression, dejection of spirit; downcast, sad and downhearted.” He struggled with these issues much of his life and often spoke about them in his writings. The poor guy agonized so often that he ended up self-medicating on way more beer and wine than he ever should have! Listen to his declaration of emotional pain;

I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.”

Here was a gigantic man of God, the “founder” of the entire Protestant Movement crying out in an emotionally painful and honest proclamation. Kind of like him saying…“I’m hurting here! Can you hear me? I both love God and at the same time the enemy is bombarding my mind with lie after lie that seems to be driving me mad!” Yes, Luther, the great Reformation designer struggled with depression. It was real in his life, and plagued him throughout his ministry. 

Let’s take another man of God, King David. Listen to him as he emotionally laments and cries out to God in desperation…

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.” -Psa. 69:1-3

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” -Psa. 13:1-2

At times when listening to David in scripture, you would think that he was a candidate for Prozac (fluoxetine). Well, in my opinion, if Prozac had been available back then, he should have been on 50 mg a day at the least. I mean the guy was clearly depressed, and yes, perhaps even suffered with Bipolar 1 (elevated moods with high energy accompanied by abnormal behavior that disrupts life with episodes of depression).

Let me just say here that sadness is a very normal emotion that everyone of us experience from time to time. It could be the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one. Where sadness is usually caused by a specific situation, person, or event, depression on the other hand doesn't necessarily have to be triggered by any of those things. A person suffering from depression feels sad or hopeless about almost everything. This person may have every reason in the world to be happy and yet they lose the ability to experience joy or pleasure.

Listen, whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not, depression is real in 3-D form throughout society and it can make you feel emotionally despairing, debilitating and even hopeless. And if you have a “Major depressive disorder”, like Jarrid Wilson and Andrew Stoecklein had, then this type of disorder has a high mortality rate, yes, like suicide. 

We in the church, and particularly we in the ministry, have to start pulling our heads out of the sand and realize that mental health disorders exist everywhere, in every place there are people…and that means in THE CHURCH as well!

What we’re not seeing here and we need to see is that depression can be both situational (just lost my job, my car broke down, they shut my electric off and my dog died) or, genetic (mom has depression, so does my brother, granddad, aunt Lucy and uncle Bill). The former will get you out of depression as your situation gets better, the latter won’t change your mood even if things get better for you in life. When it comes to someone experiencing genetic depression, you need to be aware of, “symptom/cause.” The symptom; anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure, mood swings, irritability, isolation, insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite and possibly thoughts of suicide. Cause, clinical depression brought on by a genetic chemical imbalance in the brain. This kind of depression can also be exacerbated by a number of other factors like, painful family issues growing up, low self-esteem, being bullied, physical/emotional or sexual trauma etc. 

We need to wrap our heads around the fact that when Adam fell, it was a very, very hard fall for all of us. The epicenter of The Fall happened in Genesis 3:7: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked…” In that precise moment in history, man fell in six ways; psychologically, physiologically, emotionally, neurologically, relationally and spiritually. The Fall was both catastrophic and systemic to the human race. In other words, it was like a scud missile hitting us and blowing us apart in every self-absorbent direction while affecting humanity generationally until the coming of Christ.

However, God has provided an escape hatch for us through the Redemption of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross that provides all that’s required to minimize the reaction of Adam’s passed down sin. This beautiful and powerful Redemption supplies help and hope to be able to forge ahead through this storm called life.

I believe we really need to understand first that Jesus was NOT against seeking out a doctor when you’re sick…and that includes both physical and emotional sickness. Jesus said in Matthew 9:12, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” I mean come on, besides being an evangelist, Luke was also a doctor, a medical physician. The Apostle Paul was instrumental in leading him to Jesus. So why would Luke, this doctor, be led of the Holy Spirit, give his heart to Christ, be part of this whole Christian explosion yet have nothing to offer the Body of Christ in terms of his occupation? The presumption is that he did offer his medical skills as an Apostle. You see, God clearly made a place for Luke as both an evangelist and a medical doctor to the Body of Christ.  Let me say that again, “to the Body of Christ!” Do we read anywhere in scripture where Luke was asked to renounce his medical trade and skill set? Let me answer that…NO there’s nothing that even eludes to such a thing in scripture.

Even the way we’re called to love God has to do with our mind. Jesus said in Matthew 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind.” The word, “mind” here means psyche or thoughts, soul, spirit. Jesus understood how we were made and that His Holy Spirit talks to us through our psyche which stems from our brain. The human brain in this case is like a computer that programs all our actions, thoughts (good or bad) and it even processes our ethics and beliefs. When a person is depressed multiple chemicals are involved within the brain, especially serotonin and dopamine. When these chemicals are operating in a dysfunctional way in the brain, moderate to severe depression can take place. When you compound this with negative childhood memories, parental abandonment, emotional, physical or sexual trauma, then you’re talking about the “perfect storm” for potential suicide.

Now for the evangelical hardliner faith people out there, here’s where you’ll probably paint me as a heretic. In many of these cases, an antidepressant (SSRI) can be very helpful in lowering depression/anxiety in a person. Obviously not in all cases, but in many cases depending on the emotional complications. These medications can work and they can help balance a person’s mood and provide relief for many emotionally troubled strugglers of depression and/or anxiety.

Could you imagine if Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, King David, Jeremiah, Job and others had access to antidepressants in their day? Not to mention some of our current leaders that are presently on SSRI’s. I’ve counseled national leaders across the country and the guilt, shame and condemnation that has been programmed in them, and others in the Body of Christ for just thinking about taking an antidepressant is just awful!

In several cases, because of being perceived as not having enough faith to believe for their healing by “hyper-faith” Christians, many of these beautiful believers in Jesus would rather emotionally suffer than be pointed out as being faithless and not trusting God for their mental wellness.

This is the reason the church has ignorantly created throughout the years this “dark corner” of shame for those suffering with mental illness. From both a theological and clinical perspective, as far as I’m concerned, this is nothing more than “spiritual abuse.” Paul is crystal clear in Romans 14:3 about believers judging one another for what they have the liberty to eat or not eat. We’re all guests at Christ’s table by definition of the great grace He has provided for each of us. And never should we place quilt or condemnation on another believer by presupposing that we “hear from God for them,” in this case, for what is best for their mental wellness when it comes to avoiding medication or even professional counseling.

Jarrid Wilson and Andrew Stoecklein have taken their lives, and that is tragic and terribly sad. And there is no doubt that there are many people who are confused and perhaps even frightened about how seemingly two young emotionally stable national Christian leaders could, out of nowhere, commit suicide thereby devastating their families and those they’ve ministered to for years.

But there lies our Evangelical dilemma, doesn’t it? Having little understanding of what; “seemingly” and “out of nowhere” really means when it comes to mental illness. Because, in reality, when it comes to those who suffer every day with clinical depression and then you hear that someone has lost their faith, had an emotional break-down or possibly even taken their life…be assured that it was never seemingly or out of nowhere. Genetic depression is incubated over years and mixed into our genealogy by virtue of Adam’s Original Sin.  If not treated, and in some cases continually treated through counseling and medication, the outcome could potentially be devastating. 

Without question there’s always the endless importance of the Word of God, prayer, meditation, the power of the Holy Spirit and the community of believers in our lives, that of course is never to be discounted. But in case you haven’t figured it out by now…life is not always one dimensional. As sure as God has given us a diversified, multifaceted five-fold ministry (Ephesians 4:11), He’s also provided us with various beneficial ways to approach life’s challenges as those made up of spirit, soul and body (1Thess. 5:23).   

In the end, none of us are exempt from the pressures, disappointments, struggles and heartaches of this world. Jesus gave us all a clear-cut, “heads-up” on how this journey called life on this planet intends to treat us.  “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties (distress). But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (John 16:33 MSG). Nobody better understood this than Paul with all that he went through. He even struggled on the job with the growing amount of church pressure he was under as an Apostle. Listen to him, the man even experienced anxiety…yes, anxiety! “Besides everything else, I have a daily burden because of my anxiety about all the churches.” (2Cor. 11:28 ISV). 

Here’s what we need to know. There is no shame as a believer in Jesus, or even a non-believer, in struggling with depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue. The brain is an amazing organ, created by God but corrupted by sin. Consequently, this complex 3 ½ pound muscle can be our best friend, or our worse enemy. Like anything else, it can, and does at times, break down and develop irregularities like any other part of our body. That's the bad news.

Now here’s the good news…we have a Savior who is infinitely limitless and transcends all human physiology and logic. He’s the antidote to sin and all its destructive forces. He’s the Maker of our brain’s Limbic System (our emotions) and at the end of the day, through faith, hope and determination, it is God and God alone “who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” (Eph. 3:20).

Proverbs 13:12 says; “Hope deferred (delayed) makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” For the severely depressed, there appears to be no hope, so they live in their sickness…that’s their reality. But one of God’s firm foundations is hope, and the enemy knows that, so he tries to delay that powerful truth in us for as long as he can. Why? Because he realizes that God’s hope in Christ not only desires something good for our future, but expects it to happen…that’s the true life-giving reality. By addressing depression in whatever forms available, we are then able to hold on, with great expectation, to our “blessed Hope,” therefore reversing the plans of the evil one regarding our mental wellness…#Victory!

Fred Antonelli, Ph.D., LPC is a former senior pastor of 23 years, a crisis marriage & family therapist, author and founding director of Life Counseling Center, Inc. with offices throughout the Eastern Shore of MD and DE.

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