Sunday, January 11, 2015

MitchWords: 15.1

We need to start talking about depression.

By "we," I mean Christians.  I mean the church.  I mean all of us that claim to have been called to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And by "talking about depression," I don't mean we should be dismissive about it or pretend it is something that only afflicts non-Christians.  Heavens no, do not do that.  Instead, we must face the reality that Christians struggle with depression, anxiety, and emotional and mental issues as much as anyone else.

Further, despite the clichés and rhetoric of the evangelical tradition, Jesus is not the answer to everything.  He will not solve all my problems.  The Bible is not a magical answer book with a solution to all of life's troubles.  The sooner we realize this and admit this, the sooner we can address these difficult issues in a manner that is actually helpful instead of condescending.

With that said, am I a heretic yet?  Are you preparing the tomatoes in your hand, arm cocked back ready to toss?

Where is this coming from?  Well, if you've read previous MitchWords, you're familiar with my own bout of emotional despair.  I went a long time without seeking help because, as you're probably aware, depression can be an embarrassing thing to admit to.  It can be awkward and humiliating.  But it shouldn't be.  Anyway, I sought help from a pastor.  His initial response: "I don't understand.  How can you be depressed if Jesus is your Lord and Savior?"

Now, at this point some of you might think I'm holding a grudge against this guy.  You might be right.  I'm pretty sure I did for a while, but now, upon reflection, I find I hold no ill will towards him.  I actually respect and admire the idealism of his question.  It's just, for me, it was the worst thing he could have probably said at the time.

I was already hurting.  I was suffering so much that this quiet, private individual sought some sort of counseling and help.  I sought spiritual guidance in my time of crisis.  And what I was told, essentially, was that I was a bad Christian as well.  If I was a good Christian, then I would have the joy of Christ and it would be impossible for me to have any sort of depression.  Right?

Again, to clarify, I don't hold anything against this man.  But I think you would find that if you approached a leader in your church with a similar dilemma, you would likely encounter a similarly unhelpful response.  Why is that?  I think it is because depression is antithetical to our Christian rhetoric.

And maybe the rhetoric is right.  Maybe Christians shouldn't have depression or anxiety.  That would be wonderful.  However, this unfortunately doesn't reflect the reality of our human condition.  And I don't think we know how to engage that contradiction.

What happens when I don't have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart?  What happens when He hasn't made me glad, when I don't feel like rejoicing because He hasn't made me glad?  What happens when the choruses I sing, when the verses I recite, when the prayers I pray, fail to stymie the brokenness that dwells within me?

But that's what Jesus is for, or so the rhetoric goes.  He takes all our brokenness away!  Sing that line all you want, but I stand before you a broken man (okay, so I'm sitting).  I imagine to many I would, to use some Derridian language, pass rightly as a Christian.  But I am also quite broken, lost, and disillusioned in life.  And I suspect, if you were honest, you just might be able to say something similar.

One of my common questions throughout Wednesday Theology has been, "But when was the last time you were able to be honest in church?"

If the reaction will be, "You're depressed because you're a bad Christian," then you probably won't mention your mental or emotional state to your fellow church goers.  I know I wouldn't.  But that might be the best response I could hope for.  When the life of Robin Williams tragically ended, Christians on social media began producing all sorts of wild theories explaining the impetus, such as Satanism and demonic possession.

Yeah, my depression and near suicidal thoughts are bad enough without having to be accused of being possessed by a demon, thank you very much.

Look, we all go through personal valleys and periods of feeling down. Sometimes these dark days are seemingly uncaused and imperceptible to anyone other than the afflicted individual. Sometimes we just don't have an answer. Maybe most times we don't have an answer. 

But if your response is an oft repeated, theologically shallow cliché, you are comforting no one but yourself.  If I come to you, from my place of hurting, and in a moment of courageous vulnerability, express that hurt, do not tell me that God will make something good from it.  Do not tell me that God has a plan for me.  Do not tell me God is sovereign and in control.  Do not try to explain the workings of the cosmos to me so you can get God "off the hook" and maintain your belief in his utmost benevolence.

Even if all that may be true, please, I beg of you, do not tell me these things, dear Eliphaz.

Every instance of suffering, however big or small, is true suffering to the one experiencing it.  Any potential good that may come from this suffering does not ameliorate the current hurt and despair.  Or, as John D. Caputo says, "Auschwitz, every Auschwitz, is irreducible and irredeemable loss, and not even God can undo that.  And if sometimes some good somewhere comes out of it, it would be an obscenity to suggest that that is either an explanation or a justification."1

When I come to you, simply acknowledge my hurt and my place of pain, even if you don't understand it, even though your probably do not and cannot understand it.  Then sit beside me and agree with me that this just sucks.  Tell me you love me, because that's really all I need and want to hear.  If you want, offer to pray for me, which I would probably interpret as just another way for you to say that you love me.  Do not try to explain God to me, instead just agree with my complaint to and before God.

Of course that's not the end, but only the initial steps.  From there, I don't know what would happen, because there is no universal playbook (or magical answer book) for dealing with depression, anxiety, and other issues.  Therapy, medication, maybe getting a puppy, might all be in order.  Some complex combination of all available treatments tailor made for the individual will probably need to be tried.  And maybe you can simply pray and the person will be utterly filled with the joy of the Lord and the problem will be solved.  But I've seen that not happen far too many times to advise it as the sole course of action.

What I am trying to get at, overall, is that in these situations our priority should be to love one another.  The church, the community of Christians, should be a sanctuary.  It should be a haven of love and compassion no matter what your affliction might be, a place where there is not judgement, condemnation, mockery, or, heaven forbid, flippant dismissal or derision.

Mental and emotional issues are still taboo in the church, and they shouldn't be.  There should be no issues for the church that are too taboo for us to talk about.  We should be willing to engage with anyone no matter what issue they might be struggling with.  And that engagement should be, yet again, done with love, compassion, and respect for the individual.

Admitting to someone that you're broken is a very humbling and terrifying experience, especially when you are supposed to be a Christian with your life in order and the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in your heart, glory, glory, hallelujah, amen.  Well, if it helps, I'm Mitch, and I am broken.  I'm broken and I'm not ashamed of it. In fact, I'm so broken that I put my name on it.

So if you are also broken, I'm not one to judge.  For I am just like you.  I welcome you.  The church is a house of broken people, and I think it's time we acknowledge that and start talking about that so we can actually start helping one another.

Closing Caveats:

This isn't a cry for help.  I know I write that line quite often, but I think we can, and should, talk about our brokenness in an open manner, as I have tried to demonstrate here. If you remember previous MitchWords, you are well familiar with when I have been at my lowest of the lows, and I am nowhere near that.  I would say my current mood is a general malaise about my particular station in life, and I would imagine most people could say that about themselves.

I absolutely believe God can heal all physical, mental, and spiritual maladies.  Contending otherwise would, among other things, discount important moments in my own family's history.  But, for some mysterious reason, God often doesn't enact such miraculous healing and prevent such suffering.  So while, yes, please do hope beyond hope that your prayers to Jesus will help and heal those who suffer, also know that we must engage the reality that this does not always nor consistently happen.  Pray and hope as the idyllic clichés spur us to, but also seek proper help.

Where are my broken people at?

Thank you,

- Mitch
And I put my name on it.

1. John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2006), kindle location 3774.

*Several of my statements about brokenness are actually lines or adaptations of lines from the song Broken People by Adam Warrock.  I would cite the song more faithfully, but I thought this post might be more approachable to its target audience without so many F-bombs.  However, I still encourage you, if interested, to listen to the song here.

**You may have noticed the numbering of MitchWords editions jumped a couple of numbers.  I decided I would try a new system, marking each post by the year followed by a decimal number indicating how many posts, including the current one, have been written so far that  year.  So, since this one is the first post of 2015, I numbered it 15.1.  I probably just made that sound a lot more complicated than it is.

***Like always, the MitchWords pictures come from the "Mitch" brand of hair care products from Paul Mitchell.  Because sometimes I'm just that vain.  Plus, "Reformer" makes for a good Protestant joke.

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