About 28 years ago, God healed me of depression – suddenly and unexpectedly. I had struggled throughout college with this overwhelming sadness: it felt like falling into a pit with no means of escape. Some weeks were better than others. But, when my depression was at its peak, I would duck into a bathroom and cry four to five times a day. Then, I would dry my eyes, wait for the redness to subside, and exit with a smile.
I was horribly ashamed of my condition – so ashamed, I never saw a counselor and so ashamed I never told my friends or family. In my family, we never discussed things like depression. We were Christians. We were lights on a hill and bound for heaven. Why on earth would we be depressed? To make matters worse, I was in college, presumably having the time of my life. My parents had always talked wistfully about their happy college days and I knew they expected me to love college too. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I pretended – and suffered silently.
Certainly, Scripture refers to our emotional, spiritual and physical aspects as integral to each other… No doubt, our spiritual health affects our emotional health and vice-versa. But, what does that mean when treating those who suffer from emotional and mental issues?
Sometimes I hesitate to share this story with friends who struggle with depression. Many of them have suffered for years, even decades, with this debilitating condition. They’ve prayed and sought healing, but are still waiting for deliverance. There also are those, like Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay’s son, whose depression reached such intensity that he committed suicide. Honestly, I don’t know why God healed me the way He did. And, I don’t know why He doesn’t heal everyone. I also don’t know why He didn’t heal me earlier – and why He allowed me to struggle so intensely for four years. All I know is that God heals – and that for me, my depression had a spiritual cause and a spiritual solution.
Looking back, I can see clear reasons for my depression. For one, I was experiencing an identity crisis. From third grade to high school graduation, I lived in a small Pennsylvania town where my family was very well-known. My dad was one of only three surgeons in the area. My mother was superintendent of our church’s Sunday School. My siblings were well-known too. In fact, my next oldest sister was Homecoming Queen. And, I was the athlete.
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Up until college, these things formed my identity. But, at college, some 650 miles from home, I was nobody. No one knew my family. No one cared about my athletic accomplishments. And frankly, I didn’t feel like I fit in. Everyone seemed more sophisticated and accomplished than me. Many were valedictorians or salutatorians in high school. (I was not.) And clearly, their education at top suburban schools put my small-town education to shame. For the first time in my life, I felt inadequate, inferior and profoundly confused.
On top of this, I began to experience a spiritual crisis. I had grown up in a non-Charismatic evangelical church. But, the year before attending college, I got involved in a Charismatic youth outreach and had some very intense, mountain-top spiritual experiences. At that time, Charismatic was a dirty word at Wheaton. All things Charismatic were considered weird, overly-emotional and doctrinally unsound – at least, that was my impression. I quickly learned that identifying as Charismatic, or attending a Charismatic church, would be social suicide. So, I went to the churches everyone else did and kept my Charismatic leanings well hidden.
I also encountered nominal Christianity at college, which left me disoriented. In my small town, I had only a handful of Christian friends, but those who professed to be Christians actually lived it. There was no incentive to pretend. At a Christian college, though, there’s a lot of incentive to pretend: everyone is supposed to be “Christian,” and spirituality is valued. However, many students’ behavior, at least in my social circles, didn’t match their profession. I’ll never forget my first weekend at college. My entire floor went to see “Risky Business,” an R-rated movie with lots of promiscuous sex and little to no redeeming value. I stayed in my dorm room – alone. It was awful.
I came to a Christian college because I loved Jesus and deeply desired strong Christian friends. But, many of the students I encountered seemed jaded about Jesus. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Was I just a starry-eyed, infatuated teenager? Was Christianity really worth my life and passion? Or, was it something to be sidelined while pursuing more important things like career and financial stability? Slowly, my passion began to fade. God began to feel very distant. And, I became more miserable than I ever thought possible.
Soon, my emotional struggle spawned intellectual doubts. If God was real, why couldn’t I feel His presence? Was God simply an invention of man?… I think deep-down, I realized God was my only hope. I knew nothing else could fill the gaping hole in my soul and lift my depression. I either found relief in God, or no relief could be found.
Soon, my emotional struggle spawned intellectual doubts. If God was real, why couldn’t I feel His presence? Was God simply an invention of man? In one of my philosophy classes, the professor had demolished many of the arguments for God that I had thought were so convincing like the “Watchmaker Analogy.” I still had a flicker of belief, but it was nearly extinguished.
So, when I showed up for that midweek service at Willow Creek, I was a mess. Thank God, I continued to attend church during this dark season – mostly out of habit and to please my husband. Plus, I think deep-down, I realized God was my only hope. I knew nothing else could fill the gaping hole in my soul and lift my depression. I either found relief in God, or no relief could be found.
In the days and weeks following my encounter with God, I feared the depression would return. I was afraid something would happen to trigger a downward spiral, but it never did. Sure, I got sad and depressed when bad things happened, but I bounced back and generally, became the happy, optimistic person I had been before college. God also began to show me that my identity didn’t depend on anything I did, or the family to which I belonged, but solely on my relationship to Him. I was valuable and worthwhile because He loved me – and nothing could ever take that away. My husband and I got involved in the church and found many other fully-grown adults equally passionate about their faith. Many had personal stories of God’s rescue – and now, I had mine too.
Biblical counselors like Heath Lambert say mental illness is a construct that psychologists have invented – and that sadness is a spiritual condition, not a mental one. Certainly, given my experience, I resonate with that. Others, like Amy Simpson, say mental illness is a very real condition that often requires psychiatric and medical treatment. I have several friends I highly respect who agree with Simpson – and strongly advise against a spiritual-only mindset.
Certainly, Scripture refers to our emotional, spiritual and physical aspects as integral to each other. King Saul, for example, rebelled against God, so God rejected him as king and sent an evil spirit to torment him, which eventually drove Saul mad. No doubt, our spiritual health affects our emotional health and vice-versa. But, what does that mean when treating those who suffer from emotional and mental issues? I’m not really sure, but I’m looking forward to discussing the issue with Lambert and Simpson this Saturday on Up For Debate. As for me, I feel somewhat like the blind man Jesus healed: “One thing I do know, I was blind and now I see!”