The Church’s Response to Depression or How to Sculpt an Elephant

There’s an old joke…  How do you sculpt an elephant?
Well, you take a piece of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

I was reminded of this joke thanks to something I encountered on a social social networking site recently.  In response to “Why are there depressed Christians?”, someone commented essentially that if such people just knew the joy they had in having Jesus, they wouldn’t be depressed anymore.  Just like with the elephant, that’s a fairly accurate and, unfortunately, wholly useless depiction of how it works.  How do you make yourself “just know” something?

Depression is a psychological matter that can have a number of causes.  No one chooses to become depressed, and it’s not something that you can choose to walk out of.  It’s born out of genetic issues, chemical and hormonal issues, the effects that sin or trauma have had on the soul, unconscious fears and desires, among other things.  While it’s true that Christ has provided the remedy for each of these problems, we may not experience them immediately or at all for various reasons.  Some remedies we won’t experience until the eschaton – heaven.  Either way, that leaves those suffering from depression with the issue of what to do in the here and now.

I spent eleven years struggling on and off with depression (and it still affects me every now and then, though thankfully to a much lesser extent), and I had a number of people either say to me directly or imply by their attitude and treatment of me that I needed to just stop being that way.  A few suggested medication, but many simply seemed to believe that all I had to do was choose to make it happen, as if there were a switch someplace under my arm that I had forgotten I could flip.  Much of the church does not seem to understand the issues that are going on in this matter.  Change takes time, and recovering from depression is certainly a kind of change.  And just like most emotional and spiritual change, the church seems somewhat ignorant of the process or only aware of one aspect of the process that doesn’t typically seem to be effective (When reading my Bible and praying didn’t make me stop being depressed, no one had any other suggestions.).

Part of the issue is simply ignorance.  If I don’t suffer from depression, and no one close to me has dealt with it, how am I supposed to know what to do with it?  I don’t blame such people for being ignorant.  Ignorance isn’t wrong; it’s simply a reality.  It’s what follows the ignorance that becomes problematic.  What often happens is that ignorance is not followed up with research or analysis, yet the person continues to talk regardless.  Suddenly, like Paul talking of the Jews (Rom. 10:2), we have zeal without knowledge.  The result is often unhelpful advice, unintended condemnation (e.g., “You need to just trust God more.”), straining of relationships, and a compounding of the problem.  “Even a fool, when he remains silent, is considered wise.” (Prov. 17:28)  When we lack knowledge, this is wisdom indeed.

Similarly, if we have not experienced or been close to someone who has experienced this sort of thing, we may simply not have the roadmap to deal with it well.  Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that we can comfort others when we have received the same comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4).  If we haven’t received comfort in the same fashion, we may not know how to respond, so when we do, it may be unhelpful once again.

Another part of the problem is that depression often makes us uncomfortable.  Seeing them feel bad makes me feel bad.  I don’t like feeling bad.  Since I don’t want to feel bad, I have to get them to stop feeling bad.  Now, this is not a conversation that we typically have with ourselves explicitly.  Yet it’s a process that for many still goes on in the deep of our souls.  We’re hardwired to avoid pain and discomfort, and this person’s pain causes something in us to feel that discomfort.  It’s a natural reaction to get away from the source of discomfort, so we either get away or try to make it stop.  Hence, we try to fix the person.

The rub is that our discomfort is not the depressed person’s fault or responsibility.  It is our own.  Even if their depression is catalyst, it is our hearts that respond.  Something in our hearts has moved, which means that our heart is the one responsible for our discomfort.  Rather than trying to make this other person’s depression stop, perhaps this is an invitation from the Spirit to look into our own hearts and see what makes us react so.  Perhaps we are scared of feeling this way ourselves, or perhaps we are feeling this way already but have been more successful at distracting ourselves from it.  Perhaps we feel that if we cannot fix them, we will be useless, and that is what unnerves us.  Whatever the issue is, if our hearts react in some way, and we are not able to tolerate another’s suffering, it may be that we need the love of Christ as much as they do.

The task of the church, then, is to care for them in a way that is in accordance with and not exceeding our knowledge and in a way that springs from authentic compassion rather than discomfort.  This means that we may have to reflect on our own states, to know where we are as well as to know where the other is, but I submit that that is part of community.  Beyond this, we are to provide hospitality.  Henri Nouwen at least once described hospitality as making space for another person to be who they are, and that may include being depressed.  If we trust that God is at work in another us, then we must be able to leave them in His care.  The Spirit is at work in them, and part of our task may be simply to make space in their life to let Him work in a loving way.  We connect with them without forcing them.  We invite them with no strings.

But what of the depressed person?  Well, that’s the other side of the coin, and once again I’ve already waxed on enough for one post.

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