If the teachings of the Bible address and satisfy our psychological needs like a window fits or satisfies its window-frame, we should conclude that they were designed to fit together. Furthermore, if we find that the Bible fits our psychological needs in ways that might not be immediately apparent – in ways that transcend the wisdom of our culture – we might conclude that the Bible is the product of a superior wisdom.
The article below, published by the Christian Research Journal several years ago, addresses the relationship between depression and the Bible.
In many ways, the Bible embodies evidence that it’s the product of a superior Intelligence. This can be demonstrated by examining its wisdom regarding human psychology, especially as we compare it to the secular solutions for psychological-emotional problems.
THANKFULFNESS AND DEPRESSION
Thankfulness is great for body and soul and even for depression. According to Lauren Aaronson:
Feeling thankful and expressing that thanks makes you happier and heartier… Just jot down things that make you thankful…Call it corny, but gratitude just may be the glue that holds society together.
In other words, "Just do it!" Although helpful, thankfulness, without God and an assurance of heaven, can be irrational and delusional. Just consider someone who is terminally ill, has lost family and friends, and has nothing tangible to look forward to but death! Besides being insensitive, advising her to be thankful is asking her to be irrational. Although, thankfulness might work emotionally, it requires the client to lobotomize her mind and to deny the most significant aspects of her life.
In addition to this, there remains the awkward question: “Thankful to whom?” Indeed, thankfulness makes sound psychological sense, but Aaronson avoids this obvious question. It’s like throwing a party without inviting the host—not a very thankful thing at that!
Thankfulness demands that we open our eyes and acknowledge that there must be a hidden subject who should be acknowledged. This all comes very naturally and comfortably for the Christian, who needs not make believe that the Host doesn’t exist. In fact, the Host is the lynchpin who ties it all neatly together, making sense out of thankless situations. Asaph, the Psalmist, writes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26, NIV). Besides, practicing Biblical thankfulness doesn’t require the depressed to deny the painful realities of their lives.
HOPE AND DEPRESSION
Depressed people need hope more than anything else. They have been fighting a foe that is greater than they and have despaired of their own efforts. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, had observed many struggle and finally acquiesce to the verdict of the death camps. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes:
The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.
Frankl understood that the best elixir for despair was hope. The Bible concurs: “A man's spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14, NIV). But how does one obtain hope? In The Noonday Demon, termed by one reviewer as “the definitive book on depression,” Andrew Solomon, himself a long-time sufferer, writes,
Since depression is highly demotivating, it takes a certain survivor impulse to keep going through the depression, not to cave into it. A sense of humor is the best indicator that you will recover; it is often the best indicator that people will love you. Sustain that and you have hope.
A sense of humor is a great gift. Some have a natural endowment of it, while others have to learn it. However, it’s more than a skill; it’s also a vision of life. It can laugh at itself and one’s foibles, because they are foibles when compared to eternity (Rom. 8:18-19), and not the actual substance of life. Solomon understands the difficulty of laughter in the context of his reality:
Of course it can be hard to sustain a sense of humor during an experience that is really not so funny. It is urgently necessary to do so…Whatever time is eaten by a depression is gone forever. The minutes that are ticking by as you experience the illness are minutes that you will not know again. No matter how bad you feel you have to do everything you can to keep living, even if all you can do for the moment is breathe. Wait it out and occupy the time of waiting as fully as you can. That’s my big piece of advice to depressed people.
Do better, try harder! That’s not very hopeful—especially not for those who really need hope. Indeed, we must often wait, but we also need to know that, when we are at our weakest and lowest, we are actually at our highest (2 Cor. 12:9-10)! We need the assurance that even in the midst of depression, our dear Lord is drawn to us in our pain (Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2; Psalm 34:17-18), is suffering along with us (Heb. 4:15; Isa. 63:7-11), and is working even our defeats and failures towards a blessed and eternal conclusion (Rom. 8:28; Phil. 1:6; John 6:37-40)!
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, writes 15 years later about his journey from Zen Buddhism to Christianity. He had repeatedly observed that his Christian clients would improve, no matter how serious their psychiatric condition. He concludes,
The quickest way to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth…We cannot lose once we realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us holiness…We are guaranteed winners!
If our hope is in ourselves rather than in our omnipotent and all-loving God, we have no guarantees except death and decay. Solomon also appreciates the power of faith:
Frankly, I think that the best treatment for depression is belief, which is in itself far more essential than what you believe in. If you really truly believe that you can relieve your depression by standing on your head and spitting nickels for an hour every afternoon, it is likely that this incommodious activity will do you tremendous good.
Indeed, it is a well-demonstrated fact that the placebo effect is powerful. If we believe in something, anything, it will make a difference, at least for the short-run. However, unless a faith accords with reality (our experiences and observations) and is nurtured by compelling evidences, it will subside and so too its positive influences.
God has not left His suffering people destitute of compelling reasons-to-hope. He has not been slack in providing authenticating miracles (Mat. 11:5-6; John 5:31-36; 10:37; 20:25-31; Acts 1:3; Heb. 2:4) and fulfilled prophecy (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45; John 14:28-29; 16:1-4, 32-33; Acts 17:2-4; 18:4; 28:23) to reassure our fretful minds.
The alternative to a trust in God is a trust in self. Such a trust is constantly under the attack by our experiences that indict this notion. We’re not worthy of self-trust, and consequently, it can only be maintained through a most repressive form of denial. Nevertheless, we yearn to trust, but trust can only flourish when finally married to its intended Husband.
AUTHENTICITY, SELF-ACCEPTANCE AND DEPRESSION
We have to be authentic and at peace with the true self, but this is difficult. When we lack authenticity and transparency, we are in disharmony and conflict, obsessively trying to maintain an image, a lie. Karen Wright writes:
Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one’s core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of the three basic psychological needs.
Here are some of Wright’s suggestions to achieve authenticity: read novels, meditate, cultivate solitude, and play hard. These suggest that all we need to do is to spend some quality time with ourselves. She also maintains that we should “be willing to lose” and cites Thomas Moore’s rationale:
Feelings of inauthenticity are heightened by a lack of a philosophy that allows failure to be part of life. If you’re leading a full life, you are going to fail some every day.
Moore is correct. Failure is a part of life, and we need to learn to graciously accept it rather than to inauthentically deny our failures. However, finding that supportive philosophy is not easy. Secularism can’t provide it. If you believe that you only go around once, then failure assumes monumental importance. Thus, secularism puts an even greater burden to succeed in our limited time upon our shoulders. If we fail to achieve, well then, we’ve just failed again. No mercy for those who stumble!
Buddhism is more compassionate and accepting of failure, but at a great price. It diminishes the significance of failure because failure is illusion, but so too is the rest of life! Life in this temporal world of illusion must be transcended through enlightenment. However, “enlightenment” is a matter of “recognizing” that everything we’ve valued (friends, family, vocation, beauty…) is also illusion. Buddhism therefore represents a denial of not just failure but everything. It’s like cutting off the head because of a toothache.
Authenticity and self-acceptance are rare commodities. Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor sums up the clinical evidence:
People are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal.
Ironically, mainstream secular counseling panders to our insatiable appetite for even more “positive” illusions through building self-esteem—something diametrically opposed to authenticity and self-acceptance—a refusal to accept the truth about ourselves.
We need to be converted from self-esteem to self-acceptance. God sends trials to reveal to us our true character and need and wean us from self-trust (2 Cor. 1:8-9; 4:7-18; 12:9-10; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; Eccl. 3:18). However, it is only through the promises of His unchanging love and forgiveness that we can tolerate such a revelation. Accordingly, Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, director of Women Helping Women Ministries, writes,
The counter-intuitive truth that the depressed person needs to hear isn’t “you’re really a wonderful person,” but rather, “you’re more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe”…Bathing our soul in the Gospel message will powerfully transform…It’s true that I’m more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe, and that truth frees me from the delusion that I’ll ever be able to approve of myself; but I’m also more loved and welcomed than I ever dared hope, and that truth comforts and encourages me when my heart condemns me and my darling desires are all withheld. It assures me that although I struggle with accepting myself, the Holy King has declared me righteous.
It’s only through God’s acceptance that we can begin to accept the painful truth about ourselves and to live authentically. Ironically, there is great freedom in this. If we can learn to rejoice in the pit, then enjoying the mountaintop isn’t problematic. If we can accept the unflattering portrait of ourselves, we can cease the obsessive and strenuous occupation of trying to prove ourselves. If we can accept ourselves, then the opinions of others loose their bite. Criticism will no longer constitute a treat because it can tell us no new dirt about ourselves.
Self-acceptance is a pre-condition for authenticity. Modernity’s answer is self-esteem, but it turns out to be the antithesis—the refusal to accept ourselves as we truly are.
EUDAIMONIA AND DEPRESSION
Mental health professionals recognize that living in accordance with our moral convictions is an important factor for mental health. Accordingly, Karen Wright wrote,
Eudaimonia refers to a state of well-being and full functioning that derives from a sense of living in accordance with one’s deeply held values.
This is so obvious. Even atheists perceive this and are intent upon living moral lives. However, they ascribe their moral programming to evolution. For example, Richard Dawkins writes:
Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on.
Consequently, altruism has nothing to do with truth or a right and wrong, but chance processes. Why then follow these altruistic urges? Appealing to our genetic programming isn’t adequate. Should we be “xenophobic” (fearful of strangers) merely because we had been “programmed” with this reaction? Of course not! Why then be altruistic? For the atheist, the only possible answer is pragmatic. Altruistic behavior works; it benefits the doer with good feelings. It’s solely a matter of cost/benefit analysis.
Atheist, humanist, and author of the Humanist Manifesto II, Paul Kurtz affirms that pragmatism is the “only” possible justification for morality:
How are these principles [of equality, freedom, etc.] to be justified? They are not derived from a divine or natural law nor do they have a special metaphysical [beyond the material world] status. They are rules offered to govern how we shall behave. They can be justified only by reference to their results.
However, pragmatism isn’t adequate. Sometimes it isn’t pragmatic to be moral. Hiding Jews from the Nazis wouldn’t pass the cost/benefit analysis. The price of a bullet in the head of the entire family is just too high! Therefore, non-theists can not live in harmony with both their rationale and the law of God written upon their conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). Either they hide Jews and violate their pragmatic rationale or they don’t hide Jews and violate their conscience. Heart and mind (pragmatism) are divided and in conflict. In either case, their mental well-being will suffer, because they are unable to live “in accordance with one’s deeply held values.”
More fundamentally, the one who denies God and therefore denies the moral absolutes of the conscience will fail to derive the benefits of eudaimonia. There is little satisfaction in living in accordance with the dictates of the conscience if we understand it to be no more than a tyrannical electro-chemical reaction that demands us to make sacrifices that go against our desires and then punishes us with guilt feelings. In other words, just take a conscience-numbing drug!
In contrast, for the Christian, the conscience and the Word (heart and mind) represent the will of God, the source of all truth, joy, peace and love. We have every reason to regard it as a tremendous privilege to follow Him. Understandably, living according to His truth is a delight (Psalm 1:1-3; John 4:34).
MEANING, PURPOSE AND DEPRESSION
We are psychologically constituted to seek to understand our place in the world and to comprehend our purpose and meaning within it. The Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Heschel, asserted this very thing:
It’s not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?
However, not any understanding will do the trick. We have to understand that we’re more than just an accident, a mere product of nature and nurture. The maverick psychologist, James Hillman, concurs:
We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.
If we fail to see ourselves as part of a higher narrative, there is a great danger of falling into depression. When we recognize that our lives have meaning, we can endure the trials and frustrations. Even the atheist and Christian-despiser Frederick Nietzsche wrote that “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how!’”
But from where does this “why” or rationale come? Not from secular materialism, which denies all spiritual realities! In this regard, Psychologist Arthur Deikman writes:
Human beings need meaning. Without it they suffer…Western Psychotherapy is hard put to meet human beings’ need for meaning, for it attempts to understand clinical phenomena in a framework based on scientific materialism in which meaning is arbitrary and purpose nonexistent.
This leaves us with one possibility—a self-created existential meaning. The brilliant atheist mathematician, Bertrand Russell was confident he could do this very thing. In Why I am Not a Christian, he wrote of cherishing “the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of fate [of the rest of mankind], to worship at the shrines that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance.”
However, a self-constructed meaning is not sufficient. To suggest that one can merely dream up his own purpose is like telling him that instead of getting married he can merely dream up his own wife and kids for company. Instead, we need to know that we are somehow connected to Someone greater. Russell’s self-created meaning failed to hold back the “coward terrors.” Later he wrote, “I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life.”
Instead, we were made to participate in a glorious drama (Jer. 29:11), and only acting on this exalted stage can ennoble and truly fortify us against depression (2 Cor. 5:20-21).
GUILT, SHAME AND DEPRESSION
Depression often results from the unresolved crippling feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. John Bradshaw warns about the depressing effect of these feelings, especially shame, which he defines as,
The internalized feeling of being flawed and defective as a human being…shame, which should be a healthy signal of limits, becomes an overwhelming state of being, an identity if you will. Once toxically shamed, a person loses contact with his authentic self. What follows is a chronic mourning for the lost self.
Bradshaw then explains how shame, the “master emotion,” begins to tragically numb the rest of the emotions through denial, repression, and dissociation. Where did this life-controlling shame come from? According to Bradshaw, it is a product of not being loved unconditionally. If this is the problem, then the answer is matter of providing unconditional love. One way this is achieved, according to Bradshaw, is through loving affirmations:
Repeated positive messages are emotional nutrients…Here are the loving words you can say to your inner infant:
“Welcome to the world, I’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad you are here. I’ve prepared a special place for you to live. I like you just the way you are. I will not leave you, no matter what...”
There are several problems with Bradshaw’s approach:
1. Bradshaw unjustifiably assumes that toxic shame is the result of a lack of love. Indeed, love might decrease our sensitivity to guilt, but this doesn’t mean that an increased sensitivity is pathological. Instead, it might have a beneficial effect. Likewise, it is better to live with our uncomfortable inhibitions, than to go “wilding” with friends, whose association decreases these inhibitions. Guilt and shame demand self-examination. If we have transgressed, the appropriate action is confession and repentance (1 John 1:8-9) and not soothing self-talk! If sin is the problem, then Bradshaw’s suggestion is merely a professional form of denial.
2. It’s not believable. If positive affirmations are going to work, they must be believed, but they should only be believed if they are in harmony with reality! However, it’s hard to take seriously Bradshaw’s proposed affirmations: “I’ve prepared a special place for you to live. I like you just the way you are...”
3. Believing something silly can only provide minimal and temporary relief.
On the other hand, if Bradshaw’s affirmations can work to alleviate depression, how much more God’s affirmations! If it helps me to assure myself that “I will not leave you,” how much more God’s assurance that He will never leave me (Rom 8:38-39; Heb. 13:5)! If I am reassured by, “I like you just the way you are,” I will find God’s promise, that He loves me with a love that surpasses anything I can understand, even more reassuring (Eph 3:17-20)! I may be able to forgive myself, but God’s forgiveness (Heb. 8:12) will penetrate so much more intimately and persuasively and will eventually secure self-forgiveness.
Bradshaw’s self-affirmations are to God’s affirmations as masturbation is to true relationship--a substitute for the real thing. Even worse, self-affirmations must be believed if they are to have any impact. However, Bradshaw promotes these affirmations apart from any consideration of their truth-content. The mind and reality are thus compromised for the sake of emotional relief. If we stoop to unreality, we will pay a hefty price further down the road.
In contrast to this, the Bible doesn’t admonish us to believe that Christ died for our sins simply because we’ll derive a sense of relief, but primarily because it is true, as many reliable witnesses have attested. God’s solution never requires us to compromise our intellectual integrity or reality.
MORAL LIVING, BLESSING AND DEPRESSION
Lastly, moral living translates into blessing (John 13:17) for all, including those who are depressed. In her introduction to Against Therapy, Dorothy Rowe writes,
David Small, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Nottingham University, head of Clinical Psychological services at Nottingham University, and once a practicing psychotherapist, has proposed an alternative to therapy in his book Taking Care. He wrote, ‘Psychological distress occurs for reasons which make it incurable by therapy but which are certainly not beyond the powers of human beings to influence. We suffer pain because we do damage to each other, and we shall continue to suffer pain as long as we continue to do damage. The way to alleviate and mitigate distresses is for us to take care of the world and the other people in it, not to treat them.
The relationship between obedience and blessing is no more clearly observed than in the context of marriage, where we find that we best meet our own needs when we best address the needs of our spouse (Eph. 5:28; 1 Peter 3:7).
In this regard, it is interesting to see how the leading names in marriage counseling are counseling couples according to the very principles found in Scripture! Whereas psychotherapists had been jumping on the communication-techniques bandwagon as the means to address marital conflict, now they are returning to the concepts of love and respect. John M. Gottman, professor of psychology and cofounder of The Gottman Institute writes,
The typical conflict-resolution advice won’t help. Instead, you need to understand the bottom-line difference that is causing the conflict between you—and learn how to live with it by honoring and respecting each other.
Gottman claims that a year after the average couple graduates from a standard course of conflict resolution training, only 18% retain any benefit from it (10). This represents far smaller percentage than those marriages which spontaneously improve. Marriage guru, Harville Hendrix, similarly writes,
Feel more loving toward each other simply by engaging in more loving behaviors…The husbands and wives are to grant each other a certain number of these caring behaviors a day, no matter how they feel about each other.
The type of “other-centeredness” that Gottman and Hendrix advocate can certainly jump-start a languishing relationship. However, in the long run, more is needed. Loving you mate can be hard work! Besides, if we’re just giving in order to get, the getting will eventually dry up along with the giving. In fact, there may be long periods when we’re not going to see the payoff! This is why it requires quite an effort, driven by deeply held convictions, to keep it going. Our focus must rest upon our spouse’s needs. But how do we do this when our own needs go unmet?
Larry Crabb explains that this “humanistic foundation” sets us up for failure by placing the emphasis upon meeting our own needs. Instead, if we are going to continue to act lovingly towards our mate, we need a true other-centeredness based upon the conviction that it’s right to do so even if we aren’t getting what we want from the relationship. And we will not be able to continue with this type of sacrifice unless we are assured that God is taking care of us, providing seed to the sower (2 Cor. 8:10).
If giving and going to the marriage counselor is only about getting results, then it isn’t truly giving and it probably won’t bare results over the long-haul. Instead, our mate will perceive our behavior as manipulation—giving to get what we want—a thinly concealed business transaction: “I’m giving to you so that I’ll receive my payments.”
What happens to the guy who brings his wife flowers whenever he wants sex? Eventually, she sees through his manipulation and resents the flowers, which are supposed to be signs of true romance and intimacy, but are no more than payment for services rendered by a body.
What can lift the couple out of self-serving “altruism?” The conviction that their mission is far loftier than the immediate fulfillment of their needs—that they are ambassadors (2 Cor. 2:15; 5:20) of the God of all truth, wisdom, healing, and love and that they belong to Him (1 Cor. 6:19-20)! Consequently, they are no longer the helpless depressive but a servant of Glory (Gal. 2:20).
There are many other psychological needs (forgiveness, humility, contentment, accomplishment, validation, joy, beauty...) we can survey in order to demonstrate how our Lord and His wisdom best address those needs. In contrast, there are numerous counterfeits. Curiously, they provide some relief in the short-run, but as with all drugs, there are hidden costs.