In 2012, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but depression has been it’s main manifestation for me. Since then, I have had good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. I take Lexapro, see a psychiatrist monthly, and practice mindfulness (though I’m tired of focusing on how my feet feel!) All of these have helped, but I’ve found one practice to be the most useful to get well and stay well: “positive self talk.”
This technique encourages one to “overwrite” the tape that plays in their head that constantly interprets life negatively. They tell themselves other facts that are positive in order to interpret reality more honestly. This can be helpful for anyone, but as a Christian (and Pastor), I have found that Christianity provides unique and deeply comforting truths that bring healing. In other words, (to use Jerry Bridges' phrase from The Discipline of Grace), when I feel the fog rolling in (or it's already rolled in), I preach these five aspects of the Gospel to myself.
A caveat before we continue. This is autobiographical. I haven’t conducted research to see if these truths are just as comforting to other Christians. I offer this not as a counselor or mental health professional. I am one man telling my story of the Lord’s good truths in bad times.
Now that I have your attention, let me explain. I’m probably using this term in a way that you aren’t use to. We normally use it to describe the fact that every “atom” of our moral ability is infected by original sin, and this means we can’t perfectly love God and neighbor as God requires. This is true, but I'm using it as Michael Horton defines it: that every aspect of human nature has been corrupted by the fall-body, soul, mind, heart, and will (The Christian Faith, 1002). Every dimension of us is corrupted by original sin, including our brain chemistry (physiology). In the same way a person’s cancer is caused by sin’s impact on the body, sin is also depression’s root.
When I was first diagnosed with depression, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Grown men should be able to push through the indifference and cope with everyday life. It was a weakness that I should be able to overcome without the help of pills or counselors. I can fix this.
I tried for six months, and I failed miserably. When I finally went to the doctor, she told me something wonderful. Depression wasn’t a character flaw, it was a medical condition. It was an illness just like any other disease. My brain chemistry couldn’t properly regulate itself, and this was what was causing my depression.
When I heard this, I realized a new dimension of my Total Depravity. All of me is fallen, all of me is distorted by the curse of original sin. Why should my mental health be any different? I didn’t choose depression, and I can’t choose or will my way out of it. I need to be healed of it. In the same way someone shouldn’t be embarrassed about having diabetes, I shouldn’t be embarrassed about depression. If a diabetic shouldn’t be ashamed of taking insulin or seeing an endocrinologist, why I should I be ashamed of taking Lexapro and seeing a psychiatrist?
The fact that all of me is totally corrupted gave me permission to seek treatment for a disease that happened to be a mental illness.
ADOPTION IN CHRIST
Though the physiological issue was dealt with, there was still another part of me that was thrown out of tune by sin: my psychology. I was out of relationship with myself. A short hand definition for depression is “anger turned inward”. Depressed people hate themselves. We are always angry at our failure to live into what we believe we should be. We self loath. As Jason Isbell says in his Songs that She Sang in the Shower,
“In a room, by myself,
looks like I’m here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else.”
Being saturated with sin means that I judge myself worse than anyone else. I give myself no grace, no forgiveness. This is based on an unbiblical understanding of my own identity. Internal sin has so distorted my inner voice in that it tells me three things:
- I’m loved only when I’m lovable (which means never),
- My opinion of myself is the only definition that matters, and
- I have the power to change myself and get better. My own mind lies to me. That’s the ultimate betrayal!
What’s the solution? Remembering the Father adopted me. Before the foundations of the earth were laid, the Father chose me to be His beloved son (Ephesians 1:3-6). He did this knowing the full extent to which I would fail him in sin. Now, he rejoices in me and loves me as much as he loves Christ. This love is so strong that Jesus lived, suffered, and died for me that I would be His brother.
This is my true identity. I am (and will always be) the Father’s beloved son. Not even my own opinion of myself matters anymore. I can’t trust the inner voice of condemnation, no matter how loud or convincing it is, because it's lying to me. I trust the truth of God’s Word, and the truth says I’m loved forever. THAT is who I truly am.
Like Total Depravity, this probably wasn’t a theological truth that you would associate with comforting a depressed person. Again, let me explain.
Outside voices also play a role in causing and keeping one depressed. Specifically, the outside one: Satan. His raison de etre is to accuse us of our failure to keep the law. He loves to remind us when we fail and that this failure makes us unworthy of any love. But we know this already. With convincing, subtle logic, he comes along side us to encourage us to listen to ourselves. Like an Americana Screwtape Letters, Finnegan Bell's Better Off Dead exposes Satan's tactics:
“You’re better off if you’re dead,
they'll beat you anyway.
The Devil's all in your head,
they'll beat you anyway.
They'll beat you.
They'll beat you."
He tells us the end is inevitable. I should just give up. To the depressed mind, this makes perfect sense.
So, where's the comfort? Two places. First, it helps explain why, even though I know the two truths outlined above, the lies my mind tell me still seem so convincing. He’s at work attempting to convince me I’m better off dead. Second, a right understanding of Satan’s tactics and lack of power emboldens my ability to call his bluff. All he does is lie, and if you call him on his lies, he flees. Knowing these two truths is so empowering when you feel lost in the hopelessness of depression.
GOD'S COVENANT FAITHFULNESS
In some ways, “depression” is a misnomer for this mental illness. A more accurate name could be “Indifference”. When I’m having a depressive episode, I’m not sad: I’m indifferent. I don’t care... about anything: my family, my health, my ministry, my parishioners,... nothing. Most disturbingly, I don’t care about God.
When I’m not depressed, I have deep, emotion-saturated times with the Lord. These are times of elation, sadness, regret, hope, and joy. During an episode, however, all that changes. I have no desire to pray, read the Bible, worship, or talk with Christian friends. It all feels so pointless. It’s not that I doubt God’s existence; He is just irrelevant. When I do feel or think about my apathy towards him, I conclude that I’m not really saved because I don’t feel anything towards him. This leads to more self condemnation, and downward we go.
Here’s where the comfort of God’s covenant promise comes in. My current feelings about God (or lack thereof) do not jeopardize the reality of my status with God. God has promised to save me, and he has sealed this promise by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as a marriage is not dissolved every time one spouse is angry with the other, my place with the Father remains even if I’m at my most unfaithful. When I’m depressed and let go of God, He never lets go of me. I’m safe. Nothing’s changed. He has united himself to me. I can never be lost.
If the mental state of depression is indifference, then its fruit is inactivity. When I’m depressed, I check out. I wall myself up in a dark cave and let everything drop. Important phone calls don’t get made or emails returned. Sermons get pushed back. Newsletters don’t get written. Worst of all, family needs aren’t met, and my responsibilities to care for the family are dumped on my wife and children. All of these dropped balls have just given my mind and Satan more evidence that the world is better without me.
What truth will overwrite this lie? God is in control. Whatever I drop, He will pick up. He will use my failures for the advancement of His kingdom. My failures become my opportunities to know the full forgiveness Jesus won me on the cross. They become the way that others learn about the Cross as they forgive and serve me. They become the way that I learn how much people really love. Anxiety and depression won’t pile up on me when I remember that God is in control of all things for His glory.
BUT: Please do not use this truth as permission to check out. When I do, it hurts those around me. While God does redeem my failures, its still better if I don’t check out in the first place. I need to always fight to stay in the game.
These five doctrines aren’t a theological anti-depressant that we administer to others to make them immediately well. Again, this is my personal experience. It may help others, and it may not. Moreover, telling someone these truths in the middle of a depressive episode won’t help them. Nothing sinks in during those times. If you share them, share them during a season of mental health.
Also, they aren’t an immediate cure. They are an Ark in which I can take refuge during the flood. They don’t make the flood go away. That has to happen in it’s own time. The good news, though, is that it will recede.
Thank you Lord!