Faith and Depression

From what I can figure, I’ve been dealing with clinical depression for about 35 years.

I started taking an anti-depressant for the first time in mid-October.

I’m taking an anti-depressant because of the faith I have in Christ and the hope I have in God’s work.

I know there’s some pushback from folks about doing something like that. So here’s why I’m doing it.

God doesn’t ask us to prove our faith by taking on additional challenges. God calls us to be free in the grace we’ve been given in Christ, to have hope in God’s promise of salvation, and to be obedient to the calling we have been given.  As Samuel told Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

My calling is to help empower women and men for ministry, so that in the church and well outside the church, they express the fullness of the Spirit’s work, learning to deeply and broadly resonate the work of Christ wherever they go.

It is not my calling to prove my faith by adding then overcoming barriers that make life harder.  It is not my calling to prove my faith to others who make their relationship with Christ about competition, or evidence, or another ego-oriented comparision.

I am taking an anti-depressant precisely because I have faith, faith enough to “throw off everything that hinders” and to run with perseverance the race marked out for me.  Inasmuch as I see depression as itself my enemy or my cause, I’m weakened for what I can and should be doing.  Inasmuch as I see the bounty of Christ in providing a way forward for me now, to invite me to embrace what I can to better do what I should, I’m taking seriously the work of the Spirit in me.

My way is easy, my burden is light, Jesus says.  I’m not gaining any points with him by holding onto extra burdens and weights other people insist I carry.

I’m responsible to the Spirit.  So, over the years I’ve learned that is precisely faith that calls me to be proactive in addressing my failings and brokenness as I can.

That’s the quick version of why I’m taking an anti-depressant now. Here’s the longer version:

My first memory of what seems like depression goes back to a major move we had in 1983 or so, we packed everything up, moved to a really amazing city, Santa Barbara, but I had great friends in San Dimas, and the transition hit me hard.  Upheaval while there kept the settling in from settling down, and a number of ever more significant issues caused more upheaval and we moved back to eastern LA county in 1987 just when I was really loving the Santa Barbara life.

Deep financial problems along with all sorts of other issues caused me to spiral downward when I didn’t know what life was supposed to feel like.  My parents are, and were, immensely loving and yet my brain chemistry got locked into a bad place.  Depression continued to worsen in high school. I didn’t know it, or what to call it.

There were definitely real reasons for being frustrated with life, but the depression added a heavy weight to everything I did, undermining my participation, causing me to drop out of things that looking back likely would have been helpful.

Not to say I disappeared.  I was very active in assorted ways in high school, but the depression was ever present.

Some might say what I needed was Jesus, a good burst of faith. That’s what a lot of well-meaning and otherwise folks often say when the issue of mental health care is brought up. You need to believe more!

Trouble is, I had that.  I have always had a very committed spiritual life. I may have peeked over the fence at times, but I’ve never wandered away from the pasture.  I’ve taken steps of faith over the decades that threw me into deep learning of both mind and heart, deepening my understanding, expanding my practices, ministering to people along the way with encouragement to press on.

In college, I encountered the highs of a blossoming faith, and the deep lows of a persistent clinical depression that robbed me of my sense of joy of God’s formative work.

I pressed on into seminary, delving into the depths of learning and ministry, finding great encouragement in ministry, but that clinical depression would rage and I’d find myself lost and lonely, knowing the way forward but unable to get back on track.

I had faith, but my brain chemistry was working against me. I kept walking forward, but carrying a heavy, friction-laden burden tied around my waist.

While in seminary I started realizing more about myself and my journey through life. Finding the language of introvert helped me see how time by myself helped my brain unknot.  Admitting, and naming, the reality of clinical depression helped me to understand it wasn’t about God not loving me or responding to me, or lacking faith, but it was something different I was dealing with.

I didn’t have insurance.  But that didn’t stop me. I’m a self-learner and once I had a sense of the enemy, I was able to do what I could.

I responded physically by understanding exercise, sunlight, and hydration alleviated depression.  I also realized sugar had a bad effect.

This has been my approach for the last 19 years.  For better or worse. When I could control my environment, I did better at it.  I wasn’t always able to do that. So, depression has been this ever present shadow lurking behind the scenes, sometimes covering me completely, sometimes just staying at my edges.

Depression hasn’t been all bad, I now know.  As I said, depression isn’t a sign of a lack of faith, it’s actually caused me to deepen my faith. When caught in the shadows I am drawn down, but have been persistent about clinging to hope, learning ever more when things that might satisfy others didn’t reach into my soul.

I realize depression also has a spiritual quality. I become very sensitive when I’m off track or a situation isn’t right. My theology training has helped me put these feelings into more developed analysis, but it often starts with that vague realization something is off in a situation.

Between my physical responses and my understanding how my emotional state has an element of discernment in it, I’ve not pursued anti-depressants even after getting good medical insurance not long after finishing my PhD.

Over the last year, however, I’ve hit a pretty big wall. Nothing new, just persistent uncertainty and busyness. I realized I wasn’t keeping up and my energy/focus was declining.  I realized depression was sneaking in and I wasn’t able to keep the shadows back.

What does faith do?  Pray more.  Study more.  All these are good. But in realizing my brain chemistry was becoming a barrier to my calling I know not to spiritualize everything. God has been gracious in providing a nice situation, albeit year-by-year in constant uncertainty.

In this case, I prayed and came to the conclusion it was time to stop pulling the extra weight and struggling with the added burdens. I have faith and I wanted it to be free as possible.

I went to the doctor in mid-October for the first time in far too long. A checkup because I wanted to be faithful to my calling as a professor, a minister, a father, a husband, and as a disciple.

I didn’t want to falter because of issues that were not in Christ’s calling for me, but were things that God’s creation could address in the wonders of medical science.

The doctor was disturbed by my high blood pressure, so I’m addressing that with medication, diet, and exercise too.  I said I’d really like an anti-depressant too.

I didn’t say because of my faith, but it’s there. I want to do all I can do in making sure I’m tuned in right and if medicine can help, all the better.

Depression is a lot like a church with a leaky roof on a rainy day.  It doesn’t undermine the power of Christ, but it does disturb the focus in worship and calling. Just as a church would fix the roof if its able, because of a desire to be faithful, so too, I’m taking medication to sharpen my efforts in every way.

Faith means treating what stands in the way, not succumbing to brokenness and calling it good in order to prove something to others.

Faith means doing what we can in pursuit of the calling we have, listening to the work of the Spirit who sometimes calls us to bear difficulties but also quite often encourages us to find light and life where it is available.

I’m choosing the Spirit. I’m seeking life and it more abundantly. Thanks be to God.

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