The Church's Role in Understanding Depression and Faith

We sat across from each other in a restaurant. Everything about him was sad: his face a grim mask, his eyes full of unshed tears, his body still as death. Only his lip trembled, just a little bit. I'd have missed it if I hadn't known to look.

"Could you see somebody?"I asked. "A therapist?" He had just told me of his despair. He shook his head. "I could never witness to anybody again if I were in therapy. I'd feel like a fraud."

Witnessing is telling the story of how God came into your life. Ultimately, it's supposed to be a happy tale -- although you're allowed many trials along the way, it must end up with your accepting Christ, and then things are supposed to be all right with you. You're not supposed to be hopeless and want to die. There's not a lot of room in this narrative for despair, so people committed to it who find themselves staring despair in the face tend to keep that fact to themselves.

This conversation took place years ago. It was before people were as open about their inner lives as they are today. It took place at a time in the man's life when his faith had become very important to him. The style of faith that had grabbed him was that of the charismatic renewal, the movement within the church that embraced healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues. It had a lively sense of the living presence of Christ in the world, and expected to see signs of that presence. Like this young man, many people in it had rediscovered the faith in which they were raised and felt it quicken to vivid new life.

But the culture of his prayer group, and the things he read, saw a fairly immediate relationship between faith and spiritual well-being. It ought to feel good to be a Christian, they felt. The songs they sang were all happy praise signs about the joy of loving Jesus, and their understanding of scripture tended toward the literal. They were committed to healing prayer, and excited about miracles of healing that had happened in their midst. They had the gift of seeing God everywhere.

Or almost everywhere. The people in the prayer group drew a sharp distinction between The Spirit and The World. They had ample scriptural justification for this, they believed -- the Gospel of John was a favorite, with its stark imagery of darkness and light, its larger-than-life Jesus striding magnificently through the events of his life and his death. The teachings given at the meeting were often about how to resist the world, about its lures and temptations, about how the categories of the world were nothing like the categories of the Kingdom.

Nobody in the prayer group ever talked about depression. They talked about having faith. You needed to believe that God would handle everything. It was but a short walk from there to the idea that if your healing was a result of your faith, then your continuing illness must be due to your lack of it. This came dangerously close to the feelings the young man was having already: guilt about the very fact of his desolation.

He may have felt isolated, but he was far from alone. Many people -- most people -- who suffer from depression resist turning to their communities of faith with the truth about themselves, for fear that understanding and support will not be forthcoming. Some are so convinced that their condition is shameful that they don't even even apply. Others do, and wish they hadn't- - as one woman wrote me, "I survived the church telling me the following: If I confess my sins, the depression will go away. If I were not gay, I wouldn't have this problem with depression. I must be out of right relationship with God. Pray more. Have more faith. You will go to Hell if you kill yourself."

Oy. No wonder so many just close out the church's account. But there are at least two sides to everything -- depression and faith are both complex enough that there are as many reasons to come as there are to stay away.

At its best, a faith community offers love, and the honest admission that life can be hard. It is matter-of-fact and unsurprised by human limitations and mistakes. It carries memory, powerful stories of redemption and release. It provides a context larger than that of our immediate surroundings -- faith asserts that what I can see is not necessarily all there is. It welcomes the good wherever it appears, and is quite able to understand psychotherapy or medication as miraculous, too, in their own right.

Faith, like everything else in the world, comes in different flavors. We are responsible for finding the one that speaks best to us. And yes, a sloganeering faith probably does do more harm than good. But that's not the only show in town.

Because we have lots of company. Probably 10% of the population in the United States will suffer from depression at some point in life, not to mention the other people affected by it. Every religious leader should be aware of its signs, and stand ready to be the kind of friend a sufferer needs. This may mean being a sympathetic listener, but also may mean learning how to help someone over the hump of misplaced shame that prevents him from seeking the professional help he needs. It may mean using the community 's healing rituals -- confession, healing prayer, the laying on of hands, the anointing of the sick, silent meditation, spiritual direction -- in new ways. And it may mean being appropriately candid about one's own struggles. I have come to view my own history of depression as a very useful tool: I may wish with all my heart that I had learned what I know about it in any way other than by experience, but I cannot deny that it has helped me understand other people's struggles with the beast in a way I never could have done without it.

Pick up a Bible and turn to the Gospel of John. Find the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead -- it's in the 11th chapter. It contains the shortest verse in scripture, just two words: "Jesus wept.". Then thumb through the Hebrew scriptures and notice how many of the psalms are laments -- about a third of them. Reflect for a moment on church hardware -- you see lots of crosses, not many smiley faces. Our tradition is no stranger to sorrow. Honest faith has no interest in brushing aside our grief, and the beloved community does not demand it. It accepts the present as it finds it, and looks toward a future in which life is not only possible, but blessed.