On the Today show recently, actor Tom Cruise, speaking out of the convictions of his Scientology worldview, made headlines for attacking those who use medications such as antidepressants. One of the people he mentioned was actress Brooke Shields, who used the antidepressant Paxil following the birth of her child. Ms. Shields, who has written of her experience in a book I have not read called Down Came the Rain : My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, quickly responded with an editorial in the New York Times defending her use of the medication.
This “Star” Wars interchange cited above of “Cruise” missiles being fired against the “Shields” defense system caught my attention. I have watched a close family member struggle with bouts of severe depression for many years now who has chosen to treat it primarily with drugs and psychiatry. Unlike the way these two have portrayed themselves, I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject. But being a student of God’s Word and also of people, I would just like to offer the following observations about the topic of depression, in the hope it could help you or someone you love.
Depression is a God-given emotion indicating something is drastically wrong. We have emotions that we enjoy, such as happiness or excitement. These positive emotions can often be attributed to God, even by an unbeliever. But we also have emotions with a more negative image, such as sadness, anger or fear, that our liberalized society cannot imagine being associated with God. Yet they come from His hand as well. He has given us these emotions, for the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, displayed sadness (Luke 19:41), anger (Luke 19:45-46), and fear (Luke 22:42), all in the same horrible, passion-filled week. Just because these emotions are so often used sinfully by man does not make the emotions themselves sinful. And depression is one of those emotions God has made us capable of feeling as a sign that something is terribly wrong.
Feeling depressed when a tragedy strikes, a disease afflicts, a relationship breaks your heart, or sin abounds in your life is the only way we should feel at those times. The Lord, who has made us in His image, created us to feel this way. He Himself feels exceeding sorrow when He looks upon these types of pains, as seen by the above Scriptural references or many others that could be given. Rather than trying quickly to suppress this emotion of depression, we should first see what it is trying to tell us. Just as anger indicates a problem that needs to be resolved, so depression is telling us something is not right and we need to be careful to not short circuit its message.
One of the liberating aspects of the psalms of the Bible is that they allow for the reality that the child of God will feel depressed, distressed and overwhelmed at times, and encourage us to acknowledge this. Two examples:
“My voice and prayer, O God, attend;
From ends of earth to Thee I send
My supplicating cry,
When troubles overwhelm my breast;
Then lead me on the rock to rest
That higher is than I.”
-Psalm 61, Stanza 1, The Book of Psalms for Singing
“Thou Who before hast made me see
Much evil and distress
Wilt me revive and bring me up
From depths which me depress.”
-Psalm 71D, Stanza 13, The Book of Psalms for Singing
Unlike Mr. Cruise, whose Scientology leads him to believe that learning to clear the mind through secret knowledge is how the negativity of such things as depression is overcome, or Ms. Shields and the multitudes who turn to mind-dulling medications to cope, the psalmist looks at his depression honestly. He knows that God has made him “see much evil and distress.” He admits these troubles have overwhelmed and depressed him. Some times the psalmist realizes his depression is brought on by factors outside his control, such as seeing enemies pursing him or friends forsaking him. At other times, he recognizes his own unconfessed sin has made him feel this way, indeed that God himself has made him feel this way (See Psalm 32:3-4, then read the rest of the psalm). Though postpartum depression is common even among godly women, did Ms. Shields ever consider her immoral lifestyle and her divorce (My internet searching for this blog came across comments where she is openly saying she still loves her first husband while married to another man!) may have as much to do with her depression as hormonal or chemical imbalances?
The depressed then need real friends, not just sympathetic well-wishers. In having observed many people dealing with the depressed, it amazes me how often the well-wisher will express sorrow, take them to yet another counseling appointment, and encourage them to try yet another pill, then away from the afflicted’s presence criticize the depressed for giving up or for being selfish. The well-wisher often sees exactly what the real problem is, but does not treat it with the right cure and so compounds rather than lessening the problem.
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Better are the wounds of a friend than the kisses of an enemy.” Real friends speak with gentleness the honest truth the depressed need to hear. The well-wisher says to the depressed it is too bad you are so down; the real friend encourages them to take Biblical steps to lift their souls up to God. The well-wisher says he is sorry the depressed could not make it to church; a real friend tells the depressed he should have been there and, by the way, I’ll pick you up next week. In a situation involving sin, the well-wisher often sidesteps and avoids any mention of it; the real friend sees a call to rebuke and seek restoration. You can give your depressed family member or friend no better comfort than to bring the gospel of hope to them. Though there may be times when medication may be needed short-term to calm a severely distraught person much as we use morphine to treat pain, this is not the solution. The depressed need to hear of the deliverance of Christ, and must be encouraged to treat their soul not with Prozac or Praxil but with the peaceful balm of Christ.
The depressed must learn then to preach to themselves, not just listen to themselves. This is the excellent point made by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who was both a doctor and a pastor, in his book entitled Spiritual Depression. Dr. Lloyd-Jones quotes from such psalms as Psalm 42, where we read:
“O why, my soul, art thou bowed down?
Why so discouraged be?
Hope now in God! I’ll praise Him still!
My help, my God is He!”
-Psalm 42A, Stanza 6, The Book of Psalms for Singing
He then points out how often in the Scriptures the psalmist speaks to himself. Here for example he’s telling his soul not to be discouraged, but to find hope and help in God. Even in his depression he will praise God, for he knows his deliverance will come. The depressed need to preach the gospel to themselves.
If you have ever been around someone who has severe depression, they usually are not speaking to themselves, but instead listening to themselves. “I can’t go on anymore.” “I don’t feel like it.” “My problems are too great to overcome.” At the heart of these comments is unbelief . They are not trusting in the power of the Lord to deliver them from their woes, be it traumatic experiences or deadly sin. That’s ultimately why God allows depression in the first place, that we would be so overwhelmed that we would finally realize what has been true all along. Without Christ, everything is hopeless. And when one is finally brought so low that he or she finally cries out in faith to Christ, that person will find deliverance from their distress. The One whom sin and death could not hold, who has the key to hell in His hand, is powerful to save. An active belief in Christ and the experience of salvation inevitably bring the peace and joy that lift the greatest depressions.
If only Mr. Cruise and/or Ms. Shields would vigorously discuss that!