Mental Illness: Helping the Hurting
Should Christians take antidepressants? This is a common question which has two different answers, both of which are very unhelpful for hurting people. One kind of answer is the Unthinking-No and the other is the Unthinking-Yes, both of which suffer from the same mistake and tend to make the response of depression either merely physical or merely spiritual. Scripture, however, makes it very clear that God intentionally and beautifully made us as embodied souls. We have both a physical/material component and a spiritual/immaterial component and those two aspects of our personhood are both operating in our varied responses to the world. Depression or anxiety are responses to the world in some way and can be material or spiritual. Therefore, the question is much more complicated than merely a yes or no answer; in some cases, yes, of course, while in other cases, no. There are dangers to making broad generalizations saying either “yes” or “no” because humans are complex beings, especially pertaining to our minds.
The dangers of an Unthinking-Yes
An unthinking-yes says, “Of course, antidepressants are always good for people to take.” Many times, not always, this is driven by the secular culture around us that does not see a spiritual aspect to their experiences. The thinking is, we are biological, evolved beings, so if their is something wrong in our perceptions, it is merely a biological, physical reality, and so we attempt to fix it physically through various types of antidepressants. That is, if we can bring order to what is physically disordered we can remedy the problem. Yet, far more than merely a physical response, depression can also be a spiritual response, or our attempt to attribute some kind of meaning to the experiences or situations around us; there is something we perceive spiritually as lacking or a hope that we had placed in something that failed us. It is a testimony to how we perceive the world that may go beyond brain chemistry.
On top of this, one must consider how the psychiatric industry works, specifically relating to medications. There are many good, Christian psychiatrists who, because of the increasing pressures of the healthcare system, have to see more and more people each hour in order to keep the lights on which forces diagnoses and prescriptions to be shorter and shorter. Consequently, there is less actual exploration of problems than they would prefer to be able to do. These are good Christians striving to do a good job helping people; yet, there are a lot of logistical problems in interpreting a person’s words about the symptoms they are describing and then coming up with the proper solution. The solution may be physical medication, but it may not be. Another reality in the industry is direct-to-consumer marketing. We are told stories during commercials between sporting events on television about different medications that can help with particular problems in life.
These realities create expectations that narrow our understanding of depression to the physical side of things that we do not always understand is shaping our instinctive responses. When we hear about certain symptoms, the average response of most North Americans is that someone needs to be on a certain medication. That is the unthinking-Yes, it is not taking into account the whole picture before coming to a conclusion.
The dangers of an Unthinking-No
The danger of a flat-out no is that we are saying we can control our spiritual agency, our functions, totally independent of the bodily realities that God has designed us to have. We are not merely souls as Gnosticism would claim; we are bodies too. We are not ghosts in a machine that hovers around the machine until death when we get to go soaring to heaven. God designed us as embodied beings and we shall be embodied beings even in our final, glorified state.
In Scripture, God’s care is spiritual in its focus but also physical as a holistic care. I think of the despondent Elijah in 1 Kings 19. When he is just wanting to die, so in the pits, God on the one hand speaks to him words, saying that he needs to attribute new meaning to his situation, words that are true of God and what he is up to. However, God also sends an angel to actually feed him. Now, although antidepressants are necessarily equivalent to feeding someone, the point is, God’s care for us is not merely an other-worldly, spiritual type of care but is a care that entails physical needs as well.
So, how can we understand this principle, specifically for antidepressants? Well, we have to bring in another theological principle which is introduced in Genesis 3: the fall of humanity into sin. Since our ancient grandparents disobeyed God, we have inherited both spiritual and physical corruptions. The spiritual effects were that they felt shame and fear, diving into the bushes to hide from God and blaming each other. They became estranged from each other and from God. Yet, they also became estranged from creation; part of the Curse was that the ground would be against them and childbirth would be difficult; this does not just include farming or childbirth, though. The principle is that this physical world is touched by dysfunction, not necessarily working how it is meant to work. This is why tornadoes happen and this is why our bodies experience physical failing, why people often get cancer, hyperthyroidism, mental problems, etc. There are very fundamentally dysfunctional things that can go on inside us, including our brains. Just as we must not negate a possible spiritual problem, we must not negate the possibility of biological problems. We are both body and spirit, embodied souls touched by sin and therefore, things will not always work as God intended before the fall. The good news is that of we are saved, we will be glorified one day and our bodies will work properly as God intended them to work.
Depression can be either a spiritual or a physical response. It can be a spiritual response in that we may be hoping in the wrong things and those hopes have failed us, not seeing the world from God’s perspective and insisting that our narrow view of things is the truest view of things. Those are spiritual issues and I sympathize and understand why some give a simplistic-no to the medication question, trying to honor that the Bible places the onus of responsibility on that. Yet, the simplistic-no side fails to have a fully Christian picture of depression because depression can also be a physical response because we are physical beings living in a corrupted world. Brains do not always work in the way they are supposed to work because of humanity’s fall into sin. Romans 8 says that all creation was subjected to decay, things breaking down, though no everyone’s brain is affected in the same way.
Antidepressants can be a helpful stabilizer of the physical aspects of things in order to do the spiritual work of pursuing the Lord, no more and no less than that. Good, Christian psychiatrists understand the limits of their practice, working on the chemical reactions that have established themselves as patterns in a person’s life, not crossing into the deeper heart issues. Yet, the physical body, someone’s physiology, can be a very strong influence on a person’s emotions and a good, wise doctor can do a lot of good in setting them up to be able to function well and rightly.
It is my hope that this page has helped you have a more robust, biblical understanding of how antidepressants can be used as part of addressing the overall response of depression that involves both the physical and spiritual aspects. We must not simplistically say “yes” or “no,” not saying yes out of having adopted the culture’s understanding of how antidepressants ought to be used. Neither must we simplistically say “no” and discount the fact that we are physical beings. No one should be feel guilty about being on antidepressants; if that is you, God is doing a deep work in your life. The apostle Paul himself was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble and to remember that the Lord’s grace is sufficient.
I have heard many stories from people that have grown in their faith from the fact that they have had to take antidepressants, learning how to trust and lean on the Lord. It will not be easy, but the Lord has a marvelous plan for everyone whether we need antidepressants or not. Do not waste your efforts spinning around in guilt; instead, pursue the Lord and acknowledge your weakness and need for such medication. Take care of both your soul and body, availing yourself of the means God provides for each, spiritually, his Word, prayer, the church, fellowship with other Christians, or physically, antidepressants if necessary as well as regularly talking to your doctor, sleeping and eating well, exercising, and giving ourselves mental breaks to recreate in the mind. This is all part of being a good steward of who you are before the Lord, whatever it takes to pursue the Lord in your life.
Below is a good video by Pastor John Piper on this which I hope will also bring clarity to this complex topic. Antidepressants can be very good but like with any medication, one ought to be very cautious proceeding forward, talking closely with both one’s doctor and pastor.