Today on the broadcast, Christian counselors and authors Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick point the weary and depressed to help and hope.
Today on the broadcast, Christian counselors and authors Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick point the weary and depressed to help and hope.
Bob: Author and counselor, Dr. Ed Welch, refers to depression as a "stubborn darkness."
Woman: When you're in a depression, it is like being in a dark tunnel, and you don't see light; people will say things thinking they're helping you, and they're really not. They mean well, but they just don't understand, because they haven't walked through those waters that you're walking through. And it's a delicate issue, because there are different sides to depression.
Man: We went to this counselor, and after 30 minutes or an hour or whatever it was, he basically said, "Every problem is a spiritual problem, and we need to find out what's wrong spiritually in your life, and then these other things will fall into place." And that was very, very discouraging for my wife and me because I simply felt hopeless.
I just thought, "Well, that may be true, maybe there is something in my life that is wrong and that's causing all this, but I sure don't know what it is, and I don't see any way that I can find out what it is, so this advice is of no use to me.” I felt all alone in facing the problem, and it was another eight years before we went to counseling again.
Bob: This is FamilyLifeToday for Wednesday, July 13th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Is depression a spiritual issue? What kind of counsel can you give to someone who is depressed? We’re going to talk about that today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I'm sure all of us have been in situations where we wondered what's the right thing to say, what's the right way to come alongside another person? You see them suffering, you see them experiencing depression, you want to be there for them, you want to encourage them, and you're never sure if what you're going to say is going to encourage them or if it's going to send them into a downward spiral.
Dennis: And if you need help in those situations, it's extremely beneficial to us if we have good coaches to be able to help us say the right things, and we've got a couple of them in the studio with us – Leslie Vernick and Dr. Ed Welch join us again on FamilyLife Today. Ed, Leslie, welcome back.
Leslie: Thanks for having us.
Dennis: Both have written books about the subject of depression, and, Ed, I want to feature your book here for just a moment – Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light for the Path. Toward the end of the book, you give a list of statements about what was not helpful and what was helpful to people who really grappled with depression.
I found these lists – especially, just listening to what was said here moments ago – to be meaningful, especially starting with the list, "It Was Not Helpful When." The first one is when "I looked for superficial sins in my life." You're saying when people look for superficial sin that didn't provide a solution for them, it wasn't helpful at all.
Ed: It doesn't sound very spiritual, does it?
Dennis: No, it doesn't. You'd think you'd be pointing people in that direction.
Ed: Exactly. When you're depressed you will look for anything that could unlock your depression and make you feel better, and you're going to eventually start saying, "Well, maybe there are certain sins in my life that have caused this," and you're going to say, "Well, what am I doing wrong," and you're going to look for ways you're treating your children and things like that.
It's important to look at those things, but, this is ultimately unavoidable. The nature of depression is like all suffering – it forces us to deal with the fact that we live before God at all times and in all ways. And if we're going to be looking at our hearts, it's the question, what is our heart? What are we seeing in our hearts, before God, about God? That would be the more profound question that we can be asking in the midst of depression.
Bob: So you're distinguishing between superficial sins. Now, you said, you know, how you treat your children, and I'm thinking, "Well, that may not be that superficial a sin."
Ed: We’re on FamilyLife radio – this is a very significant thing, absolutely.
Bob: But you're saying, let's dig even below the surface and get to why do you treat your children that way? It all comes back to what you believe about God and how you relate to Him.
Ed: All sin is ultimately against God, and that's where we want to go. This is not to say, of course, that depression means that it's a consequence of sin against God. But the depression and all suffering, it just – C.S. Lewis says, it's this megaphone, it's God's megaphone that calls our attention more to issues in our relationship with God that we would not attend to in any other way.
Leslie: I think it really reveals our lack of awareness of God's purposes and our lack of awareness or belief in God's character – suffering does – because when things are going well, we sort of think of God's goodness and think of God's character as wonderful and loving and good. But when suffering is in our life, or in someone else's life, boy, we're not sure what God's up to, and we're not sure He's good, and so those are the things that come out of us in those moments.
Jesus tells us it’s out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and so when we start grumbling and complaining, we start questioning, or we start being confused or perplexed, it shows some things in our relationship with God. Either we don't know him as he is or we don't believe what he says about himself, that we don't understand his ways, and God pretty much tells us we won't.
But it's that wrestling with that in the midst of suffering or depression that really takes its toll on us and sometimes we go down for the count, and that's where we need other people to come up alongside of us and help wrestle with us, because sometimes we can't see, and we don't have perspective.
Ed: It takes us back to that original question in the garden, "Is God good? Is he really good?" If you are accustomed to looking at God with your naked eye and trying to find evidence of his goodness around you in the health of children, and an intact marriage, whatever it might be, if you're accustomed to really focusing on those things, when suffering comes we are not equipped to seeing the goodness of God, because it seems like the difficulty in our life outweighs anything else in the world that can counterbalance that.
So I think that ultimately it has to be the cross of Christ that finally proves the goodness of God in the midst of suffering.
Leslie: Right, if we're accustomed to looking at the character of God through life's circumstances, then it will always cloud our picture, and when it's good, we see it good, but when it's bad, we see it bad. So it's very important to move life's circumstances out of the way. It doesn't mean that they're not there, but that we look at God as he is and as he says he is.
Or if we can't see him, we have other people help us see God as he is, and then we can look at our life and look at our suffering and look at our situation very differently.
Dennis: As we mentioned before, suffering can be a megaphone to get us to listen to God. Sometimes the megaphone, however, can be borrowed from the Christian community and begin to shout certain things to us that aren't good, like people who maybe want to point out sin in our lives where we've made a mistake; people who offer trite religious-sounding answers about your depression. “Just trust God.” You know, “Just move on past your feelings and trust God.”
Leslie: Well, certainly, Job's friends were much like that, and I think we sort of like a world where everything is easy to figure out. So if we can say, "Well, you suffer because of this reason,” then we can avoid those reasons and not suffer ourselves. So we sort of like black and white simplistic answers to things and Job's friends said, "Job, you must be suffering because you've done something really wrong," and that was their way of looking at things.
We sort of scoff at Job's friends, but we say the same thing to our friends these days when we say, "You know, if you didn't do this, you wouldn't be depressed," or "If you didn't have this," and so we have these simplistic answers to life's complicated questions, and it's not so simple.
Bob: Things like – and this is a part of the list you've got in your book – "You need to love yourself more," or "You need to lower your expectations for life," or "You have a right to be angry." All of those are not helpful things to say, right?
Ed: Exactly, and as Leslie was pointing out, if we've been around the block long enough, we have all experienced the unhelpful things that people have said. We've also said the unhelpful things, so we've been on both ends.
Dennis: Well, let's talk about how to turn the megaphone around, then, and truly help people deal with their depression and as they struggle with it perhaps find some help in the midst of it. You have a list here of 20 things that people express. They said that when these things occurred, they felt like they were getting help, things began to change.
Ed: Yes, these are things that I've just gleaned from other people. If I could read a preamble to those things, which I think is helpful; this is just a comment from my book: "Depression is a form of suffering that can't be reduced to one universal cause. This means that family and friends can't rush in armed with the answer. Instead, they must be willing to postpone swearing allegiance to a particular theory, take time to know the depressed person, and work together."
Bob: Your list of things that people did find helpful include things like realizing I'm in the middle of a battle and deciding I'm going to fight, or forcing myself to read Scripture and listening to what it said. One of them that's interesting here is medication – number 13. People said medication is one of those things I found helpful.
Now, when we had you on FamilyLife Today before, the subject of medication came up as a part of our conversation, and we got a lot of mail about this whole subject, because this is controversial, and it's something that – well, I just want to give you a chance to kind of revisit this subject and see if we can clarify it for folks.
What's your view on the appropriateness – I want both of you to comment on this – the appropriateness of the use of medication if somebody is experiencing depression?
Ed: Medication, right off the bat, I think we can say from Scripture, is not a moral issue; that is, it's right to do it or it's wrong to do it. The category would be more the category of wisdom. What is wise to do? And as you go through the Proverbs, you go through James, you go through wisdom literature, and part of wisdom is you study. You ask questions. You learn from people who have had experience on this.
And it seems to me that's what most people do when they think about medication. They do their homework, they ask physicians, they ask people who have been helped by it, they perhaps ask people who have not been helped by it. So medication is an issue of wisdom. That would be one way the Scripture approaches it.
Scripture also, I believe, leads us to say that if we can alleviate suffering in a person's life, it is a good thing to be able to alleviate suffering. So in that sense, if a person's suffering is alleviated in some way by medication then we are ecstatic. We are absolutely delighted, with them.
The only qualifications – not the only qualifications – Leslie may have a number of other comments to say, but one qualification would be this – you don't put your hope in medication. Medication will not give you purpose, it will not give you a deeper love for Christ, it won't give you a deeper love for other people. There are limitations to what medication can do. It's a physical treatment for some of the physical experiences of depression.
Leslie: I think I would agree with Ed in everything he said. Medication is a wonderful blessing for some people. The only caveat I would have is that medication doesn't cure depression; medication alleviates some of the symptoms of depression, which, again, can be a great blessing.
I don't think there's anything in Scripture that says that we can't use some things for medicinal purposes to alleviate suffering. Certainly, there was a balm in Gilead, wine was taken for stomach's sake, and so there's times when medicines can be very helpful and alleviate suffering.
However, I think it's important in addition to taking medicine, if someone chooses that route and thinks that that's a wise thing to do, that they also do the rest of the homework inside their heart and understand what suffering has shown them about the patterns they have in the way they think or the way they see God; the way they relate to others or don't; the way they handle conflict or aren't honest with themselves because depression exposes some of those things in Technicolor, and if you just relieve yourself of the symptoms of those but don't actually do the work that might help you to get better, not just feel better, I think you're robbing yourself of the opportunity to grow.
Bob: And that's where I'm wondering – if medication helps you turn down the volume of suffering, and if the Scripture says that suffering can be one of the things that we should embrace as a part of the Christian life, are we turning down the volume on something that God wants to use to sanctify us?
Leslie: Well, you know, when I have a headache, I don't really think about it that way. I certainly just pop a couple of aspirins, and I'm happy to feel better. And if God wants me to continue to suffer, I certainly will continue to suffer. So I sort of leave that to the sovereignty of God. I think that sometimes we can, in our wisdom, take measures to counteract our suffering.
But if I had repetitive headaches or medicine didn't alleviate all of the headaches because I was constantly running myself ragged, not getting enough sleep, not taking care of the stress in my life, I think I would need to address other issues as well.
Medication doesn't usually make someone feel 100 percent better. It takes some of the edge off, especially physically so that they can begin to think again, they can sleep again, they can have their appetite again. In that way it helps them to do some of the other work that we're talking about.
Dennis: You know, what I hear us saying and what I personally believe is that it's not a matter of just taking a pill and finding a solution. That may help you deal with some symptoms or some problems that drag you down and take you deeper into a hole.
What must be addressed are the needs of the soul, and that can only be addressed as a person gets rightly related to God through Jesus Christ and coming to grips with what the Bible has to say about him or her and that person's life.
Bob: Well, as you bring that up, though, I remember some of the feedback we got the last time we touched on this subject. People who said, "So you're saying my depression is a spiritual problem. I have a spiritual problem. It's not a medical problem, it's a spiritual problem."
Leslie: Well, even if it's a medical problem, a medical problem has spiritual components. My brother was diagnosed with coronary artery disease a couple of years ago, and he had a wise doctor, because he needed a medical procedure just like a person who is depressed may need some antidepressants. He needed some stents inserted in his arteries.
But in addition to that, the doctor said, "You know what? Tell me about your lifestyle. How do you handle stress? What's going on in your interpersonal life? Are you angry? Are you a smoker? Do you exercise?"
And so he knew, as a wise doctor would, that in order to prevent further episodes of coronary artery disease, he also needed to look at this person's overall lifestyle – his ways of thinking, his ways of relating, his spiritual perspective, did he have a purpose to life? Because all of those factors go into someone getting sick as well as someone getting well.
And so even with a medical problem, there are spiritual components, and with spiritual problems there's physical components. We don't always know which comes first, and that's why it's important for a person who is experiencing depression to understand that we need to handle both parts – the physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational.
Ed: Leslie, we can perhaps even say it more strongly than that – we could say that medical problems are always spiritual problems. Which isn't to say that they're always caused by spiritual problems, but if somebody is diagnosed with cancer, that is always a spiritual problem.
Pastors and friends go and visit in hospital because they know there are all kinds of spiritual issues that are aroused by especially chronic and debilitating medical disease.
Leslie: That’s right.
Dennis: We're not saying the cancer was necessarily caused by a spiritual problem.
Ed: But it at least raises questions about who is God and how do I trust him in the midst of even this?
Bob: So with depression can we say, "I really am not responsible for being depressed. This is a physiological issue that's causing this." Or must we say, "No, you bear some responsibility for what you're experiencing?"
Ed: In one sense, the Scripture doesn't force us to make a decision on that. If we're suffering, it is certainly a time when we can think about "How can I alleviate the suffering?" But suffering is always that occasion to go to the Lord and say, "Lord, search me. Lord, grant me a faith that I didn't have before because I need more grace to go through this particular difficulty."
Leslie: And there may be some – even for someone who has coronary artery disease or cancer, they may have to bear some responsibility for allowing themselves to get in that place to begin with. I mean, my mother had lung cancer because she was a smoker.
Now, does that help her to say, "Oh, Mom, you got lung cancer because you're a smoker. Shame on you." No, it didn't help her at all. So she had to stop smoking, she had to change her lifestyle.
If someone has coronary artery disease because they're a smoker or they don't exercise or they eat high cholesterol food, they may need to make some changes in their lifestyle, which is a good thing, to take responsibility for things that you need to do differently so that you begin to get better.
Dennis: Bob, I want to go back to your first question, and I can't restate it perfectly, but you were saying basically do we have a spiritual problem, and the answer is yes. Every person has a spiritual problem, whether you're dealing with depression, whether you're dealing with anger. You name the issue in your life. Cut through all the descriptive phrases.
We want to put a label on everything today, but you know what? We move past all the labels to the human soul, and what the Bible teaches is that we are spiritual beings who have needs in our soul that can only be addressed by the Lord God Almighty, who stepped out of eternity to forgive our sins and to bring us into a right relationship. When you deny that, if you deny him, I think you're going to get depressed.
Bob: You know, one of the other things that you point out that people have said was helpful – one person said, "I had a friend who didn't give up on me. She was always loving me, pointing out the truth even when I didn't want to hear about Jesus."
Just somebody, again, I think, and we talked about this earlier – I think of John Newton never giving up on William Cooper, his friend in the ministry. And I can imagine there were days when Cooper was coming over to Newton's house, and Newton just went, "Oh, lock the door. I do not want to spend the afternoon with depressed William Cooper." And yet he opened the door, and he ministered to him. That's heroic, too, isn't it?
Ed: We are asking something very difficult of a depressed person – we're asking them to persevere. But what we don't realize is that we have that same call in our own life as we walk along with them. Love, in and of itself, is not the cure, but every depressed person that I've ever met would say that it made a huge difference for them, and that pastoral, persistent love, even when the depressed person is essentially saying "Stay away, I'm not worth it. I'm not worth the effort," but a person just has that persistent love.
By the way, that one quote was by a woman who – her friend was in bed, and what she did was she just went over to her house, put her pajamas on, and jumped in bed with her. She said, "Okay, if you're going to be in bed, alright, I'm going to be with you. Wherever you are, I'm going to be with you, and I have two hours this morning, and I'll be in bed with you."
Leslie: And what that does for the depressed person is it incarnates Christ to them. You see – when you're in depression you can't see Jesus. You can't experience Him. The psalmist says, "You're so far away from me, where are you?" And we are to be the body of Christ to one another.
So when we are patient and loving and kind and persevering and truthful, we show them the hands and arms and feet of Christ, and they can begin, then, to see God's character as it's embodied in our lives.
And, likewise, when we're impatient, and we give up, and we are critical, they also can say, "Well, this is how you feel, and God must feel that way, too." Unfortunately, they can put that spin on it. So it's really important that we don't ask them to do something that we're not doing ourselves. We're asking them to persevere, yet we don't want to persevere.
Dennis: Yes, exactly, and sometimes it's not what we say, it's that we listen and just listen attentively again and again and again, and then without saying a lot, reach out and touch them. Just let them know that they're cared for, and you love them.
I don't know if at the end of my mom's life if she was depressed or not. She was dying of Alzheimer's, but I remember many times being seated beside her bed as she died, and she would look away to the window where there was snow falling outside, and she would all of a sudden turn back just to see if I was there.
I don't know if Alzheimer's had robbed her of her memory that I could still be there while she was looking out the window, but she just would turn back around, and it was what moved me, at a point, to just take hold of my mom's frail hand, where you could almost see the bones in her hand, because her skin was so thin, and just held her hand there as she struggled with the disease, you know?
I think that's what we're talking about here. People need other people to love them, to speak to them about the Scriptures and the truth about God, the truth about them, but also to listen and be close to them and just to be there for them.
Ed: You don't have to be an expert to have a profound effect on another person's life.
Dennis: No, you don't. Just love them.
Bob: Ed has written a book called Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light for the Path. Leslie's book is called Defeating Depression, and we’ve got both of the books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Great books for you to read if you know someone, a friend or a family member, who wrestles with depression and you want to come alongside and help.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on both of these books, the one by Ed Welch and one by Leslie Vernick. Again our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that’s 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY. When you get in touch with us we’ll let you know how you can get a copy of Ed’s book, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness or Leslie’s book, Defeating Depression, sent to you.
Now I know this issue of depression that we’ve been talking about this week is one of those issues that can cause people to pull back and say, “How can there be a God when there is this kind of pain, this kind of suffering in somebody’s life?” Our friend, Randy Alcorn, has addressed that subject in a 64-page booklet that we want to make available to you at no cost.
It’s a booklet called If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt? This week again we’re making that booklet available. All you have to do is call or go to our website to request a copy. If you’re a new listener to FamilyLife Today, again the website, FamilyLifeToday.com, stop by and just give us your name and some information, and we’ll send a copy of Randy’s booklet out to you.
Or call 1-800-FLTODAY; ask for your free copy of the book If God is Good, Why Do I Hurt? Again, we’ll send it out to you. We hope you’ll find it helpful, and we just want to say we appreciate you listening to FamilyLife Today. Nice to have you tuned in.
And we hope you’ll tune in again tomorrow when we’re going to talk about whether there is any real genuine hope you can present to a person who is experiencing depression. We’ll have that conversation tomorrow, and I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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