You would not have found a more devout Christian than my grandmother. She also suffered from depression. For a great many people, It has nothing to do with their attitude or belief system. It’s a disorder of brain chemistry that’s treatable with medication.
You are right that some depression has a chemical/hormonal link. But not all. Obviously this article refers to the latter, not the former.
kms61: “Its a disorder of brain chemistry thats treatable with medication.”
I find it very interesting how Christ healed people. In some cases, the illness was attributed to demons. In other cases, no demons were involved—the problems were purely physical. Why? I believe that’s the difference you mention in your post. With some, it may be spiritual. With others, it may be physical.
Disease and suffering are a part of human existence. The brain is an organ just like our liver or our heart. People can have diseases of the brain, just as they can have diseaeases of any organ of the body. Depression is one of those diseases. Here is an article that I wrote for my blog almost 3 years ago. I have received more email and still get more traffic about this post than any others.
Some questions about the Christian life have easy answers. Others do not. In a nice article from January 17th, 2006, D.C. Toedt at The Questioning Christian addresses the thorny and complex issue of Christianity and mental illness. It is my opinion that the Christian community in general has historically not done a very good job at of understanding and ministering to those with mental illnesses. Christians have no problems helping those suffering from heart disease and cancer, but often blame mental illness on the patient. How many Christians have been told "If you just prayed more and developed a better attitude" you wouldn't be so depressed?
Let me use a horrifying example that I know about first-hand. I grew up with a family that had 4 children. All of the children were smart, well-behaved, perfectly normal in every way, and attended church with their parents every Sunday. One of them, when she reached her early 20s, suddenly developed schizophrenia. She thought that light bulbs talked to her. She imagined that stop signs were spying on her. She heard voices and saw things that weren't there. Despite much counseling and her parents showering her with love, she ran away from home and it wasn't until 3 years later that they found her living under a bridge in some place like Cleveland or Cincinnati. The last time that I saw the family, she was taking medication, had married, was holding down a job, was active in church again, and was living a fairly normal life.
Let's take a brief look at the ways Christians have viewed the causes of mental illness, using the schizophrenia that I had seen as an example:
- A spiritual weakness — this is the view taken by websites like Spiritual Schizophrenia and by several who have argued with me at Free Republic. The idea is that people who have schizophrenia aren't letting the Holy Spirit in their lives. That argument sounds nice but the logical conclusion is that everyone who is not a Christian should have schizophrenia since only Christians have the Holy Spirit operating in their lives. In fact, you can extend the logic even further by concluding that every person until Pentecost had schizophrenia because we did not have the gift of the Holy Spirit until that time. Those taking this view often say that reading the Bible more and praying is the only way to treat mental illness.
- Demons — this is the view taken by sites such as Demonbusters. The site claims that "schizophrenia always begins with rejection" and that "double-mindedness wears the person out and frustrates and confuses him, thus allowing demons to enter in and take hold. First of all, the idea of schizophrenia as "double-mindedness" has long been abandoned by medical science. Schizophrenia is not a split personality! However, I do believe that demons are real, are active in this world, and oftentimes cause or aggravate many diseases, including schizophrenia. I wouldn't have said this 20 years ago but I've learned a lot since then.
- An illness just like any other disease — this view accepts modern medicine's idea that we don't really know the cause of schizophrenia, but that it is often passed down from generation to generation and is somehow related to a disorder of brain chemicals. No one would tell an Alzheimer's patient to "get a grip on life" but many will say just that to someone who has a disease like schizophrenia. Christians adopting this view treat the patient just like they would someone suffering from cancer or any other disease. Prayer and scripture study is beneficial to the spirit and the soul. God may or may not choose to heal them miraculously or that he will provide a cure or relief through physicians and medication. The Bible tells us that, barring the rapture, everyone reading this will eventually die by old age, disease, or accident.
The Gospels show that Jesus sometimes cast out demons to heal diseases while at other times he healed the diseases themselves. He could differentiate between the causes behind the suffering whereas we often cannot. In one sense, mental illness like schizophrenia is the result of sin because our entire bodies have been ravaged as the result of generations and generations of sin. I believe that there are times when personal sin can open the door to mental illness, especially in those who already have some susceptibility. For example, we know that marijuana and cannabis consumption before the age of 21 dramatically increases the risk of schizophrenia.
It's not all sin though. A recent study indicates that there is a high genetic component to schizophrenia and identified at least 3 genes that may play a role. Another interesting study shows that children borne to mothers who suffered from the flu or other infections during pregnancy are at a much higher risk for developing the illness. The disease is not the mother's fault and it's certainly not the child's fault.
And, yes, demons can be at fault, too. Sometimes our behavior opens up the door to demon oppression while, at other times, demons have used some other event in the sufferer's life to gain a foothold. Evangelicals have for some reason been reluctant to blame demons for anything other than temptations on the theory that Christians are somehow immune to demon oppression. No Christian can be fully possessed by a demon because we are possessed by God, but almost every believer has areas in their lives that they have not turned over to God.
Sometimes we just don't know what caused the mental illness. At some level, it really doesn't matter so much what caused the illness, but what we do to treat it.
Our role as Christians
First and foremost, our role is to love the sufferer. My wife and I ministered to someone about a year ago by taking them to a free mental health clinic and she was appalled by a man sitting across from ranting to the world. He was obviously suffering from severe schizophrenia and was not able to function in society, even with medication. My wife was instantly moved to compassion because that's the kind of person that she is.
Second, we should take action:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:13-16
Pray often, both with and for the person. A person with mental illness is hurting more than you might think. People hurt so much with clinical depression that they sometimes even kill themselves. An action like that goes completely against our basic instinct to live and shows just how bad illness can be. Have the strongest prayer warriors you know come to the person's house and soak them in loving prayer. Listen to the discernment of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that every church should have at least one person who is adept at confronting and casting out demons. No, I'm not veering off into Kooksville by writing this. Too many associate demon oppression with scenes from The Exorcist or from church services they've been to that have emphasized theatrics and minimized the real work of God. Casting out demons should not be a major drama because Jesus gave all Christians authority over the enemy and his works. We need to use, not abuse, that authority. The Bible never portrays an example of deliverance as a Hollywoodesque performance.
Finally, direct the sufferer to good medical attention. Seeking out a doctor does not mean that you don't trust God — God frequently uses doctors to heal people. A mentally ill person often needs both medication and counseling. There are a lot of good Christian counselors out there who understand people with mental illness. They can give the sufferers good coping techniques and ease their minds. I have had friends who have gone through periods of major depression and have found that God very frequently gives them a cure, but just doesn't give the cure exactly how or when they want it. God doesn't want anyone to have schizophrenia, depression, or any other mental illness but sometimes he does allow us to endure bad things "for a season" in order to develop our character or to give us even better things later.
The bottom line is that people who have mental illness are truly suffering. We may or may not understand why they suffer. We do know, however, that God's purposes are higher than our purposes. Our job is to minister to these people in exactly the same way that Jesus would do if they were to meet him walking down the street.
I'm very sorry that your grandmother had to to go through depression. I have counseled many fellow Christians over the years who are going through or have family going through depression and other illnesses of the brain. Sometimes the problem is temporary, while other times it is permanent. Nevertheless, it is horrible. I've read, but haven't verified, that rabies and depression are the only two diseases that can make people kill themselves.
Fortunately, we have good medications that can end depression for almost anyone who has it. Even better, more and more Christians are recognizing that depression and other diseases of the brain are not always the result of a spiritual weakness. I certainly do not wish to dismiss the spiritual aspects behind many cases of depression, but it's not the simple matter that many used to think it was.
Take care, and God bless you.