[List] Critical resources for understanding faith and mental illness

depression_1-ad78d208bfd0907a122c249a74cd8f6ff184705e-s6-c30Yesterday’s post, “I am Robin Williams” [Link] has really taken off, and it seems that many of us are struggling to understand how faith and depression are related.

Some of us have struggled with depression ourselves and question our own faith or the faith of the church.

Others are married to spouses who struggle and find themselves languishing in a life shared with someone deeply struggling–an experience every bit as painful as being depressed.

Generally, the Christian community struggles to care for those who are deeply suffering. This is, to put it mildly, deeply ironic given how Christians have understood the church over the centuries. Richard Sibbes captured the sentiment when he wrote: “The church of Christ is a common hospital wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or another, so all have some occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness” (The Bruised Reed, p. 34).

The church is, by definition, a community of broken people (in every sense of the word) gathered around a broken savior–a savior whose lifeblood was poured out to undo the effects of sin in the world. We very quickly lose sight of this most elemental of beliefs.

I offer these resources as a starting point for those who’d like to dig deeper–both in understanding the disease of depression–its lighter form, melancholgy–as well as the spiritual experience of both. I should note that these books reflect my own theological tastes (generally reformed) and inclinations (some of them are academic–not a big fan of pop psychology).

There are plenty more titles out there so get reading:

  1. The Bruised Reed (1630)
  2. A Place for Weakness (2006)
  3. The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope (1986, 2000)
  4. The Theology of Illness (2002) [Academic]
  5. When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in Depression (2012)
  6. Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (2013)
  7. The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering (2012) [Academic]
  8. Darkness is My Only Companion (2006)
  9. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures (1965)
  10. When the Darkness will not Lift (2006)
  11. A Lifting Up for the Downcast (1649)

[NOTE: As I have time between appointments, I’ll be adding more links as well as giving a brief blurb about each book]

How to interact with suffering friends

Society doesn’t provide us with much in the way of resources for caring for those who are suffering. Our TV shows tend to either ignore suffering or simply (in reality shows) allow us to—voyeur-like—gaze upon the suffering of another without actually entering into it. There are precious few role models of care for those suffering. Pop psychologists offer a sliver of resources, but again they’re limited by time and attention. We look to the presidents and governors to assuage our pain, but in reality they are—despite their great power—powerless to lift of the pain from our lives.

Sometimes we’re tempted to believe that perhaps suffering isn’t really as pervasive as it might first seem. Perhaps most people go through most of life with relatively few bumps in the road. Maybe suffering is the exception rather than the rule. And, even if it really is widespread isn’t there very little I can do to offer comfort to friends in difficulty? I’m not clergy or a mental health professional. What can I offer?

Suffering is universal. It is all around us.

Pulitzers

We rarely, however, pause and become open to encountering it in the life of another. We may get a brief sense that a friend is suffering, but in our haste to move to the next thing we breeze through a conversation without offering our friend space simply to express the pain, to let some of the suffering move from heart to lips—even for a brief moment of respite.

Despite our society’s messages, there is much each of us can and should do to care for friends who are experiencing suffering.

Every one of us should be able and willing to simply lend a listening, non-judgmental ear. Suffering is a profoundly isolating experience. The only way to let another know about it, which can sometimes offer just the slightest reprieve from the weight, is to talk about it.

Consider this: the moments in which someone recounts to you the greatest sorrow in their life are moments in which that friend is opening his or her soul to you. The pain may be so great that he feels he can do no other, yet it is still true that the very moment of sharing is an intensely vulnerable moment.

In those moments, each of us can either alievate (albeit briefly) another’s suffering or we can increase it. None us would intentionally say something believing that it would increase the suffering of another. Yet, how often do we unconsciously do precisely that?

Broadly, when we have the privilege of speaking with suffering souls—and we’re all suffering souls in various ways—we should avoid speaking of the

 

  1. The secret will of God. I believe firmly in the sovereignty of God and yet I know that God is not the author of sin. Further, I know that I am not privy to what has traditionally been called the secret will of God (in contrast with his revealed will found in Scripture). It is presumptuous of us to speculate about God’s designs moreover it is counterproductive, especially in the moment.
  2. God’s intent for this experience. God may use all things redemptively in the life of the Christian, but the moment of acute anguish is not the right time to point that out. At times, considering that God may have some deeper purpose is comforting. As a general rule, explore this only when the person you’re speaking with seems to be open to exploring it. Each of us has to reach a spot where we’re ready to consider this—moving there prematurely is dangerous.
  3. Causation. “Who sinned, this man or his fathers?” Linking sin and suffering is a natural human impulse that is exhibited in the book of Job. Job’s friends become certain that the anguish in his life has been caused by some offense against God. The reality is that there is no correlation—at least in Job’s case—between sin and suffering. More accurately, the relationship between sin and suffering is broader than 1:1. Suffering exists in the world because of the Fall and sin’s entry into our lived experience. However 1:1 causation is never easily detected.

As you move into this week, you will encounter people in distress; suffering souls who need a shoulder to lean on even if only for a moment. You can make a positive difference in their lives if you will only stop, listen, and allow them to lean on you.

If you’re a Christian, don’t be stupid

People can be stupid. Christians, unfortunately, are no different. Inside Higher Ed highlights a controversy embroiling Florida Atlantic University and centering around student reactions to the actions of a Deandre Poole, himself a Christian and a professor.

Here’s what happened according to the website:

The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involve[d] having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.

Are you following this? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the very letters J-E-S-U-S convey meaning and that in a culture influenced by Christianity, many will have some degree of moral dilemma in being told to step on a sheet of paper containing those letters. 

poole
Dr. Deandre Poole

There are other symbols that could have been used–flags, crosses, a Bible, etc. And the point of the exercise it to make students uncomfortable, good lessons often do. Yet, responses to the event by parties ranging from a student in the class, to politicians, and also to the university administration can really only be classified as stupid. Let me rephrase: responses have been ill-conceived and in some cases are inconsistent with the very values espoused. “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Here’s a list:

  • The belligerent student. We don’t know if this student is a Christian or not. For the sake of argument, and because many will assume he is, let’s assume it to. According to reports here’s the student’s response:

After class, the student came up to him [Poole], and made that statement [“how dare you disrespect someone’s religion] again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that “he wanted to hit me.” While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.

  • The racists. Apparently this Christian professor has received death threats, some of which make reference to lynching (which makes me nauseated even to type):

He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. “One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree,” he said.

  • The university. Get a spine already.

A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended.

This unhappy episode suggests, once again, that not only is our society dysfunctional in communicating across disagreements but also that many of our cultural institutions seem unable or unwilling to make decisions or support faculty who are the subject of public disagreement or uninformed outrage.

Our culture is infantile. We stamp our feet. We scream our disagreement. And what’s sad is that often it is people who claim the name of Christ who are the worst–not always to be sure. However, in a culture that is moving beyond its Christendom moorings, we should be sure that when the offensive person or cause is related to Christianity, it is natural that our culture will make that connection an emphasis in describing the event or person.

St. Peter provides wise counsel for Christians in our current moment when he writes,

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3.16

That defense, I am sure, did not involve fists or shouts.