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Coping with false guilt during depression

Posted Sep 13 2008 11:48pm

There is still such a terrible stigma associated with mental illness and depression even among Christian. There is the common belief that depression is due to a weakness in character or lack of faith in God. The truth is depression is a complex condition and there are many factors that led to it as well as caused it. There is no easy answer to the treatment or recovery either.

If you or your loved ones are suffering from prolonged and severe depression, I highly recommend that you read the series of studies done by Dr David P Murray on " Depression and the Christian" as he explored in very biblical and balanced manner on the causes of depression, the condition, restoration and how family or friends can help.

Dr David P Murray mentioned in his first message " Depression and the Christian: The Crisis":

“Being depressed is bad enough in itself, but being a depressed Christian is worse. And being a depressed Christian in a church full of people who do not understand depression is like a little taste of hell.”[3]

As we all know there is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness. This is the result of widespread misunderstanding about its causes, its symptoms, and the “cures” available. Some of the misunderstanding is understandable. Unlike cancer or heart disease or arthritis, there is no scan or test which can visibly demonstrate the existence of depression/anxiety. It is a largely “invisible” disease. We want to be able to point to something and say, “There’s the problem!” When we can’t, we often wrongly conclude, “There is no problem!” Or, if we are Christians, we may, usually wrongly, conclude, “My spiritual life is the problem!”
It is normal to feel ups and downs at different time in our life. We all experience different moods throughout the day. But when depression is chronic, lasting every day for more than 2 weeks and affected one's life and ability to function, it is clinical depression and it is a medical condition that needs to be treated.

Sometimes depression could be due to a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) in which the biological changes in our brain and body brings about depression. Different things may triggered off an episode or sometimes it happened for no apparent reason.

Clinical Depression is a serious condition that needs to be treated. Without treatment it can last for months and the sufferer can be severely impaired. Even though clinical depression may not be due to something wrong in the spiritual life of the sufferer, it can have adverse spiritual consequences in terms of the believer not able to enjoy God and various means of grace until he gets better.

If you are a Christian and suffering from severe depression daily for more than 2 weeks and you can hardly function, do seek medical help as soon as you can. It is the depression that took away your ability to enjoy anything in life, including God and His Words, worship and His people, your family, friends, work, hobbies, recreation, etc etc. You will notice that you don't enjoy anything generally. Your thoughts and feelings are either negative or flat. You need medical help or alternative medicine help. Depending on the level of your depression, you probably will benefit from a combination of help such as counselling, regular exercise, regular sleep and meals, etc etc. But if however you tried you can't benefit from the later, then you need medical help to restore the chemical imbalance in your brain first before you can benefit from the later. Once the chemical in your brain is restored you will be able to enjoy these things again.

One common experience Christian who loves God dearly, will experience during severe clinical depression, is the inability to enjoy God and His Words, worship or fellowship. With this come the additional pain of false guilt.

Dr David P Murray mentioned in his first message on " Depression and the Christian: The Crisis":
We might say that there are three main elements in our make-up that affect our overall well-being: our body, our soul, and our mind (our thoughts). These are not three watertight and disconnected entities. There is considerable overlap and connectivity. When our body breaks down, it affects our spiritual life and our thinking processes. When our spiritual life is in poor condition, our thoughts are affected, and often our bodily health and functions also. It is therefore no surprise that when our mental health is poor, when our thinking processes go awry, that there are detrimental physical and spiritual consequences.

The depressed believer cannot concentrate to read or pray. He doesn’t want to meet people and so may avoid church and fellowships. He often feels God has abandoned him.

Moreover, it is often the case that faith, instead of being a help, can actually cause extra problems in dealing with depression. There is, for instance, the false guilt associated with the false conclusion, “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” There is also the usually mistaken tendency to locate the cause of mental illness in our spiritual life, our relationship with God, which also increases false guilt and feelings of worthlessness.
Dr David P Murray emphasized the importance of studying depression. He said :
One great benefit of having some knowledge about depression is that it will prevent the dangerous and damaging misunderstanding which often leads people, especially Christians, to view medication as a rejection of God and His grace, rather than a provision of God and His grace.
How should a Christian cope with the false guilt and spiritual consequences of depression? Dr David P Murray suggested:
We have tried to emphasise that for Christians their depression is usually not caused by spiritual factors. However, there are spiritual consequences in all depressions. There are a number of steps a depressed Christian can take to help reverse at least some of the spiritual consequences. You may find Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book Spiritual Depression to be helpful in this regard – although he can be a bit sweeping and dogmatic in his generalisations. Here are some practical things you can do to help address the spiritual consequences of depression.

(i) Accept that being depressed is not a sin and indeed is compatible with Christianity. Many Bible characters and many of the greatest Christians passed through times of depression.

(ii) Try to understand that your loss of spiritual feelings is not the cause of your depression, but rather the depression has caused a general loss of feeling in all parts of your life, your spiritual life included.

(iii) Patiently wait for the corrections in your lifestyle, thinking, or brain chemistry to have an effect on your feelings as a whole and your spiritual life will pick up at the same time also.

(iv) Have a set time for reading your Bible and praying. Depressed Christians may either give up reading and praying, or they may try to read and pray “excessively” in order to try and bring back their spiritual feelings. Both approaches are unhelpful. Instead, set aside a regular time each day to read and pray. If concentration is a problem, keep things short (5-10 minutes) until you feel better. Depression will only be deepened by setting unrealistic spiritual goals.

(v) Bring objective truth to mind (e.g.: the doctrine of justification, or the atonement), especially “positive” verses which set forth God’s love, mercy and grace for sinners (e.g.: Rom.8:1; 8:38-39; 1 Jn.4:9-10; 1 Jn.1:9). You may want to write out a verse and carry it around with you. When negative thoughts overwhelm you, bring out the verse and meditate upon it.

(vi) When you pray, tell God exactly how you feel. Be totally honest. Ask God to help you with your doubts and fears and to restore to you the joy of salvation. Thank Him for loving you and being with you even though you do not feel His love or presence. Praying for others who suffer can also help to turn your thoughts away from yourself for a time.

(vii) Keep going to church and seek out the fellowship of one or two sympathetic Christians you can confide in, and ask them to pray with you and for you. Be careful about who you talk to. Sadly, some Christians cannot keep confidences, and others will have little understanding of or sympathy for your condition.

(viii) Remember God loves you as you are, not as you would like to be.

The pain and anguish of going through depression is awful beyond words. For those of us who go through severe clinical depression that robbed us of all ability to enjoy anything including God and left us almost crippled and unfunctional, we know just how hard it was to get up of bed every morning.

It is difficult sometimes to understand why we have to go through so much sufferings. We may not always get the answer on this side of heaven. But our greatest comfort is that God loves us and He is in control. He sovereignly allows us to go through these painful sufferings for His sovereign purposes. Sufferings are part of life in this fallen world. One benefit we can derived from our sufferings, whether it be due to depression or other trials or afflictions, is that we are drawn closer to God as we find our refuge and strength in Him. We began to know God as Who He is when we experienced His unconditional love and faithfulness in sustaining and delivering us from such great sufferings. Sometimes we feel forsaken by God but in reality God has never forsaken us. He is with us and He sustains and deliver us. Perhaps through our pain of depression we can understand a little better what the Lord felt when He was on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins and experienced the pain and agony of being forsaken by His Heavenly Father. Oh, how precious is the Lord to us when we have experienced such pain and suffering.

I like what Edward T Welch said towards the end of the video " Depression - A Stubborn Darkness" which I posted yesterday. Do watch this video if you have not seen it. He said:

"The people I know who struggle with depression and have persevered with me and with other people in the body of Christ and with the Lord, those are my heroes. Those are people, they struggled, every day is hard but they get up out of bed every day simply out of this weak obedience to Christ. And I find that to be so incredibly heroic"

I read of another author too who said that he felt the true heroes are those who persevered in life despite a broken mind.

So that makes you and I some kind of a heroes, doesn't it, when we persevered daily despite the pains and brokenness of our mind :-)

Let us cling onto God during depression and pray and seek to do that which is necessary to restore the chemical imbalance in our brain, correct our thoughts and lifestyle, and wait patiently for God's deliverance in His time. May God draw us nearer to Himself and enable us to know His enduring and unfailing love during such time.
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