When a celebrity like Robin Williams commits suicide, ostensibly due to struggles with depression, public discussion about mental illness becomes a hot topic . . . for a while. Everybody has an opinion, but it is difficult for people who do not have depression to understand the disease.
All people have days or life situations that trigger sadness or depression. But the clinically depressed, such as me, don’t necessarily experience a trigger or causation. It can come on without warning and little can blunt the edge of the depression, other than anti-depression medication. During a bout of depression, I feel as if I’ve lost part of my connection to the world. The ability to enjoy anything, or any other emotion, dissipates. I’ve heard some people describe it like falling down a dark well with no bottom in sight. For me, I can see the wind blowing in the branches, but it’s like watching it on TV with the volume turned off.
One of the most frustrating things for many depressed people happens when the un-depressed try to get us to do things that would lift their spirits if THEY felt gloomy. This does not often work. Recently the humor site BuzzFeed posted “15 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone Struggling With Depression.” Here they are:
1. Other people have it much worse than you do.
2. You’ll feel better tomorrow.
3. Life isn’t fair.
4. You just have to deal with it.
5. Life goes on.
6. I know how you feel, I was depressed once.
7. You’re being selfish.
8. Go out, have fun, have a drink, and forget about it.
9. You’re bringing me down.
10. What do you even have to be depressed about?
11. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
12. You need to go on a run.
13. You just need to get out of the house.
14. Everyone else is dealing with life, so why can’t you?
15. You’re strong, you’ll be fine.
Given these pearls of wisdom, it’s no wonder the suicide rate isn’t higher. Sometimes it is best to resist the urge to try and cheer the clinically depressed. Food, wine, books, movies, children playing, puppies, walks in the park, funny cat videos on Youtube, even tiramisu; all these things have little effect on battling clinical depression. (And sometimes they make it worse . . . damn you Youtube.) I find it helpful when someone I trust sincerely asks how I’m feeling and then patiently listens. I also find it helpful when friends let me know they are willing to listen if I want to talk, but they are also willing to give me space to let the darkness pass. It helps when friends pray for me.
Depression DOES NOT necessarily indicate a person is demon possessed or oppressed. It doesn’t mean their walk with the Lord is off course. It doesn’t mean you should feel uncomfortable around them (unless they are sitting nude in front of the computer watching funny cat videos on Youtube). I suspect that many Christians pooh-pooh the notion of clinical depression in believers. Pooh-poohers don’t understand how a person with Christ in his or her heart, and their sins forgiven, can be depressed. Here’s how: The brain is inside a flawed body.
Actor Todd Bridges said of Williams:
“You don’t think that my life has been hell and I’ve had so many ups and downs now?” Bridges told TMZ. “If I did that [commit suicide], what am I showing my children [is] that when it gets tough, that’s the way out. You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect . . .”
Yeah, that’s the proper response, Bridges. NOT! I am going to share a hard truth here: Given enough agonizing physical or mental pain over a long period of time, almost anybody is capable of suicide. By the way, physical pain often accompanies depression. The depressed can experience pain in the hip, neck, various muscles, just about anywhere in the body . . . sometimes for years. So think twice before yammering on about how suicide is a selfish act, and it’s a permanent solution to a short-term problem. These statements are true, but they usually come from ignorance. People who do not live with chronic pain are ignorant of its effects on mind, body, and soul. Pain is the enemy, not the person IN pain. Pain wears you out. It affects family members, often in ways they are not aware of. It destroys one’s ability to think rationally. Chronic pain is death by a thousand cuts. So let’s not be too quick to castigate Williams. On the other hand, let’s not be too quick to glamorize IN ANY WAY the terrible tragedy of suicide.
Yes, if you want to end up like Howard Hughes (without the money). People who lose the ability to trust can find themselves, later in life, living in a darkened studio apartment, chain-smoking, watching television 24/7, and nursing a bottle of vodka. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration. Or is it?
Of course a healthy dose of mistrust is necessary for protection. Spiritual discernment, and our gut-feeling, can often warn us about untrustworthy people. Unfortunately there is not a 100 percent effective formula we can follow to protect us from untrustworthy people. If an employer betrays you, or a partner stabs you in the back in a business venture, or a spouse cheats, it can trigger a lifelong negative effect on your interaction with others. If we overreact with mistrust we can end up harming our significant relationships by directing mistrust towards people who do not deserve it. The following is an excellent article on the symptoms and consequences of excessive mistrust: http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-trust-issues.html
When we openly direct our mistrust without evidence at innocent people we are, in a way, bearing false witness. (See Exodus 20:16 . . . and yes, it is one of the big Ten.) I suspect God included it in The Ten Commandments as more than a protection of the innocent, but to also dissuade accusers who do not trust anyone. In other words, it is there to get would-be accusers to examine their own hearts and minds.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bible seemingly confuses us regarding trust in people. For instance, Psalm 118:8 says:
“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”
But then 1 Corinthians 13 talks at length about the ways of love. Verse 5 says love keeps no record of wrongs people inflict on us (paraphrasing). Clearly love cannot exist without some degree of trust. So what is the solution? Should we go through life blindly trusting like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, or should we plod through life trusting only our self and the hell with everyone else? The answer is a little of both. The Bible says we should be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. If I trusted everyone who came to my door I would be locked into at least three pest exterminator contracts, two cable TV contracts, three home security contracts, a dozen magazine subscriptions (I love my monthly edition of Hummingbird Enthusiast), and I’d own two sets of solar panels as well as two home heating and air conditioning systems . . . AND I’d be going door to door with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other hand, because I have the capacity to trust with discernment, I get a cupboard full of delicious Girl Scout cookies every year. (The day one of those cute little Girl Scouts embezzles my cookie money is the day I embrace my inner paranoid personality disorder.)
Most importantly we have to embrace the truth that despite what happens here on earth, God can be trusted. It’s a hard truth to practice consistently throughout this life of tears. But if we can’t often return to a God of trustworthiness, we can’t hope to live wisely in this life where we will, no matter what defenses of mistrust we erect, encounter occasional back stabbers. I don’t want to miss out on relationships with people who bless my life because I am afraid of encountering a few rotten apples. (And I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of that bottle of vodka, either.)
A Fox News report begins: “The world is riveted by the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and the world media has focused on it non-stop for over a week.” CNN managed to dramatically increase their ratings on the back of this mystery story, which, let us not forget, still includes families waiting in terrible anguish to hear the fate of their loved ones on flight 370.
What is it about this mystery that drives people and news organizations to follow every twist and turn of the story, even when there aren’t that many actual twists and turns? The past few weeks we’ve seen news media cover this story like they cover an action-packed basketball game (I feel guilty even blogging about it), except there isn’t much genuine action happening in the reporting of the story, just the contrived illusion of “breaking news.” The actual pace of this story is much slower than the media portrays. I don’t just blame the news media; I blame consumers (me included) of news. Our attention spans and our ability to discern the difference between actual news and hype have become dangerously compromised. As a result, we are easily seduced and manipulated into spending copious quantities of our precious time glued to the “news.”
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fascination of a compelling mystery. Human beings have an innate need to solve mysteries. We crave answers to questions. We love to discuss theories about what happened. After all, people are still looking for Amelia Earhart’s plane, and it disappeared in 1937. To me, the core of the Malaysia Airlines story is a reoccurring one: a blend of human tragedy brought on in part by humanity’s often arrogant confidence in our own technology (think Titanic, the unsinkable ship). We have a powerful curiosity about what went wrong because the fact that something did indeed go wrong makes us uncomfortable. Sure, we want to learn and prevent things from going wrong in the future, though we know in our heart that the complete elimination of tragedy is unlikely. It is part of the compromise we make to risk in order to learn and improve the human condition. Even the most timid among us can’t navigate this life without taking on some degree of risk. Thinking about risk makes me wonder if God takes risks. My gut tells me God risked more than we will ever know by breathing life into the lungs of humanity and, later, sending his Son to the cross. What’s the risk to God? Answer: rejection.
The mystery of flight 370 will likely be solved, one day. And until the day when all mysteries are solved, we can enjoy the mystery of our faith.
“If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
My medicine cabinet contains something shocking–medicine. Despite the fact that millions of Americans consume pharmaceuticals worth billions of dollars, we have developed a strange cultural tendency to decry the use of medication as somehow morally inferior. After a lifetime among fellow Christians, I can honestly say believers often share the same aversion to medicine. We might even be worse than the general population in our attitude about the use of medicine for healing.
Recently I listened to a Catholic priest being interviewed on the radio about the many confessions he had heard during his lengthy career. The priest said that a number of Christians he met for confession could not accept forgiveness because they had tethered their sins to clinical maladies. For instance, if John Smith has obsessive compulsive disorder that he believes is somehow connected to the sins in his life, it will be almost impossible for Smith to accept that he has been forgiven. Tragic! Even more shocking was the priest’s revelation that the vast majority of believers with a psychological disorder refused to pursue treatment. He said only 2 out of 20 would ever follow-up on his suggestion that they needed professional clinical help that might include counseling and/or medication. Many of these folks were convinced that their suffering was related to sin rather than something clinical. They refused to get the help they desperately needed. They resigned themselves to the belief that suffering was part of God’s plan for their lives and it was just their cross to bear. To this I say bull$&!#.
Back in my day (stop rolling your eyes, millennials), the medical profession was beginning to explode with new drugs and ways of treating diseases. Many of those diseases had formerly meant an automatic death sentence for people. We called them miracle drugs and we viewed doctors and surgeons with awe. These days I know people who argue with their doctor about almost everything. I am not suggesting that we idolize fallible medical professionals. And certainly the pharmaceutical companies have made grave (no pun intended) errors. But should we default to stigmatizing all medicines and their use?
In Luke 10:30-35, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. Recall that the Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells some sick people in the church to stop drinking only water and start using a little wine for their stomach and frequent illnesses. Back then, wine was used like a medicine (today it seems to turn people into snobs). They didn’t have the water purification systems we have today. In essence, Paul was dispensing medical advice for their digestive health.
Here is my point: It is OK to take appropriate medicine for a legitimate injury or illness. We get no moral or heavenly kudos for going the natural route at the expense of our health. There is no glory in needless suffering. Of course it is best to eat right, exercise, and embrace healthy lifestyles. But using medicine does not make us worse Christians. At worst, denial about our ailments and refusing medicine can put us at risk of faulty thinking about sin, suffering, and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness does not require that we choose to suffer. Choosing to suffer needlessly is just obtuse, not noble.
What should I do if my Border Collie assures me that he will stop stealing bags of potato chips from the kitchen counter when I am out of the house . . . besides ask my doctor to adjust my medication? Should I blindly trust my innocent-looking quadruped? Sure, Border Collies have a reputation as an intelligent breed, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be shifty. In this case, blind faith in my canine friend’s self-control would probably lead to disappointment.
An article titled “Why Partisans Can’t Kick the Hypocrisy Habit,” by Alan Greenblatt, says:
“Although many people like to describe themselves as independent, partisanship has become an important aspect of identity. Some are more loyal to their partisan leanings than their own church, says University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell.”
Campbell’s statement about the unholy union between personal identity and partisan ideology is fascinating and disconcerting. By allowing partisanship to become too much a part of our identity we run the risk of being blind to truth. Such blind loyalty can also happen in the church. It used to be that many churchgoers were doggedly committed to their denomination. Some were committed to a particular denomination because multiple generations in their family had been members of the denomination. I’ve known Catholics who strongly identify with Catholicism because their parents and grandparents were Catholic. The same undaunted loyalty occurs in other denominations, as well. Sometimes the basis for the loyalty lies along justifiable criteria such as doctrine or statements of faith. Still, there is an interesting thing happening in the modern church: I see more and more people strongly identifying themselves with independent churches. Of course here is nothing inherently wrong with independent churches. Many of the current denominations were probably independent churches at one point. But many Christians can’t articulate WHY they identify so strongly with independent churches. The truth is there are positive and negative aspects of both independent and denominational churches. But I digress (apparently I’ve allowed ecclesiology to become part of my identity).
The point is that we have a potent, and not always healthy, tendency to let church become part of our identity. I know steadfast Christians who continue to attend ailing churches because those churches are members of their preferred denomination. If they switched to another denomination it would be akin to tearing out part of their personality. A good many Christians attend churches because they strongly identify with the city or neighborhood in which their church is embedded; this is usually a good thing, but not always as we can become shortsighted. But my question is this: At what point does our commitment to a church become blind faith?
Don’t get me wrong, most of the time commitment is a good thing, especially given the church hopping that goes on these days (guilty). But it seems wise to always retain at least a small measure of skepticism when it comes to the church structures and styles we hold dear. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming the dreaded “H” word–Hypocrites. How so? Answer: If we allow too much of our identity to become connected to our local church or denomination we run the risk of blinding ourselves to institutional fails and the flip flopping of our values. After all, church leaders come and go. Styles change. Doctrines and statements of faith can be subject to the whims of new leaders.
Here’s an example from the world of politics. I recall how multitudes of political progressives were vehemently antiwar during the Bush administration. Many of those same progressive partisans are now silent or openly supportive when President Obama gives orders to take military actions. On the other hand, many political conservatives (formerly hawkish) sound almost like antiwar protesters now that President Obama is giving the orders. If we are not on guard, this type of blind faith leading to the compromise of our values can also occur in the church. Don’t be blind. Connecting our identity to Christ is a safer way. Christ doesn’t change.
There is news circulating in the world of Christianity that a significant number of young people leave the church because of doubts about their faith. Some experts point the finger of blame at the church for failing to tackle tough philosophical questions about our faith. Their argument goes that the church offers too many trite answers and a simplistic Christianity. Others blame secular culture and academics for tearing down religion by claiming that faith is incompatible with reasoned thought and science.
One common question that incites some people to abandon or reject faith is this: How can a loving God permit such terrible events and suffering in the world? This question is used by many as evidence that God does not exist. For some people this question is an escape mechanism to avoid God because a relationship with God will change who they are and, often, the way they live. Others have sincere doubts.
Christians and would-be Christians can get a better understanding of why terrible things happen in this world of green grass and sunshine by reading Genesis 3:1 through 6:5. In these chapters it is clear something has gone awry with the way God originally designed the world. Even today, just look around and you can see imperfections in everything. Even our DNA has flaws.
The older I get, the more often uncomfortable questions materialize in my noggin. Fortunately, these nagging conundrums seem, somehow, to strengthen my faith. (Yes, I know, it’s a paradox.) Here’s the point: Mystery lends excitement, adventure, and contentment to life. Do you need an example? Here it is—fish. As an amateur ichthyologist (which really means my knowledge of fish is limited to bait and seasoning), I love fishing. All kidding aside, I have acquired some impressive knowledge of certain species of fish. I absolutely love the mystery of fishing. It’s the wonderful anticipation of catching what lurks beneath the surface of the mysterious world of water. An angler could spend a lifetime learning everything that science, lore, and Stan’s Bait Shop staff can teach about fish . . . and it still wouldn’t be everything there is to know about fish. Really, who can know the mind of a fish? The unknown doesn’t diminish my love of fishing. If I figured out how to make a fish bite with every cast, fishing would soon lose its allure.
That’s sort of how it is with God. In this life we will never know the entire mind and purposes of God. Yet it feels right to continue pursuing God. After this life we may know more about God, but even then I doubt we will know everything. I’m okay with that. Much about God is a mystery. A literary mystery is described in the dictionary as: “A novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end.” Well said!
You see, doubt has been with us since the beginning. Eve was enticed to doubt God. Eve wanted more knowledge, to be like God. She wanted answers. She wasn’t content with some mystery about God and her place in God’s designs.
Doubt can be healthy. Doubt can keep us out of cults. It can help us avoid scams. But doubt, to be used effectively, requires a little faith and a good measure of wisdom. I have to be cautious with doubt because it can doom me to the mundane. I might do great things in this world of the mundane, but I would lose something eternal.
Easter gets treated like a second-class holiday. A time for chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, and gorging on ham and all the trimmings. Easter marks the end of Lent and is linked to the Jewish Passover. I could bore you with a lengthy parade of historical facts and customs about Easter. But I won’t. Instead, let’s go directly to the heart of Easter: It’s about the resurrection of Christ from the dead. I have been a Christian for decades and every now and then a tiny doubt enters my noggin. The resurrection of Christ happened so long ago that it can occasionally seem like a fable, even to a dyed-in-the-wool believer like me. After all, rising from the dead can seem preposterous to those of us living in the modern world where the laws of nature and physics dominate our lives. Those with more scientific minds sometimes accuse us of magical thinking or superstition when we talk about Christ rising from the dead. I understand that not everybody can get their head around a resurrected Savior. And yet I feel guilty when I have an occasional doubt about Christ’s resurrection. I tell myself it’s only natural for me—two thousand years after the event—to wonder if it really happened. But I can’t doubt the unmistakable hand of God in my life. And that God is Christ.
Still, I like to think of Thomas when those irksome doubts appear. History has given Thomas a nickname: Doubting Thomas. Here’s the amazing thing about Thomas—He was one of Christ’s disciples and witnessed many of the miracles Christ performed. Thomas spent years with Christ before the resurrection. And Thomas still had doubts. Here’s the post-resurrection scripture that marked Thomas as a doubter:
John 20:24-27, “One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (who was called Didymus), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he replied, ‘I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.’
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!’”
Thomas was indeed a doubter, but he sincerely wanted to know the truth. God has done enough to satisfy those who really want to know. As for those who really don’t want to know; I doubt (pardon the pun) they would believe even if they saw Christ walk out of the tomb and touched the wounds in his hands and feet. They would say it’s an illusion or that he wasn’t really dead. But for those who really want to know, God has done enough to satisfy our doubts. He performed documented miracles. He taught with power and authority in a completely new way. He impacted lives then and now. He changed the course of human history.
Thomas has already gone before us and demanded hard evidence that he could directly feel and experience. The rest is up to us—to believe. If you sincerely want to know the truth, the truth will reveal itself to you.