Is it unspiritual to be depressed? Or perhaps, said better, is it necessarily unspiritual to be depressed? Most of us would agree that the answer is “no.” Of course we would want to include some nuance to affirm that spiritual malaise or emotional despondency can sometimes be the result of sinful thoughts or actions and in such cases there may be a connection with a lack of spirituality. But we also know that sometimes depression appears mysteriously, providentially, and unprovoked by any sin or transgression on our part. We know that some of the people who are most spiritually mature can still suffer through very dark valleys.
But while we affirm there is no necessary connection between depression and a lack of spiritual obedience or maturity, I do wonder whether our initial instincts sometimes betray us. I do wonder whether beneath our well-rehearsed answers there is a part of us that really does believe that depression and other forms of emotional distress or mental illness are associated with sin and immaturity.
This is an urgent issue to Paul Ritchie, a pastor in Ireland who struggles with depression, anxiety, and O.C.D. In his new book, Is It Unspiritual to Be Depressed?: Loved by God in the Midst of Pain, he discusses his own struggles with mental illness, seeks to help those who struggle in similar ways, and offers counsel to those who are attempting to help loved ones. “In this book,” he says, “I want to draw on my own experiences and thoughts on issues related to depression and anxiety. I am coming from an evangelical Christian perspective and I want to show you how the good news about Jesus is good news for your mental health. I want to do something to take away the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness, particularly in church circles. There is also a chapter for those of you seeking to help people in your church or family who struggle with depression and anxiety.”
His hope, he explains, is that “as you read this short book, your confidence in the kindness of God will grow, and you will experience the truth that ‘the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit’ (Ps. 34:18).” To that end, he begins by defining depression and anxiety and explaining their origin in mankind’s fall into sin and then considers if and how Christianity is good for mental health. In answering the tricky question that gives title to the book he says this: “When I pray with people for physical and emotional healing, I allow for a time of silence where we can confess our sin. However, being depressed and anxious does not necessarily mean we have committed some particular sin to cause it. If God is using this pain to call you back to Himself, He will make that clear. Never assume that your depression and anxiety is caused by some unconfessed sin. Never accuse someone who is depressed or anxious of having done something wrong to bring about their pain. There are many other reasons why people struggle with anxiety and depression.”
One of the key chapters is titled “Is it Unspiritual To Be Depressed and Anxious?” and here he turns to scripture and the history of Christianity to show that depression and anxiety have often been present in God’s people. He also asks whether it’s sinful to worry (since, after all, the fruit of the Spirit includes joy) and whether Christians can take antidepressants under certain circumstances.
In the chapters that follow he goes on to discuss when and how Christians should speak about their mental health with other believers and medical professionals, how God means to help in times of struggle, and how those who are depressed can believe they are forgiven even when they feel so guilty. He also gently covers suicide before offering a number of ways each of us can help people in our own churches who are depressed and anxious.
Is it unspiritual to be depressed? This author answers with a confident “no” (or “no, not necessarily”) and does so in a well-written and helpful little book that I am certain will be a blessing to many. I’m very glad to recommend it to you with confidence that it will serve you well.
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