Following on from my last post, 10 Things Not To Say To A Depressed Person, I thought I would cover a few of the things people say to Christians in particular. One of the worst parts about suffering depression is the level of stigma surrounding it. Some of that stigma comes from the wider world, and leads to such sayings as “pull yourself together” or “just think positive,” which are not helpful when clinical depression rather than general sadness/low mood are what you are suffering from. Unfortunately the Christian world sometimes adds another level of stigma to those who are suffering mental illness, and while here I am concentrating on depression, these statements that people make apply to other mental illnesses as well.
It is important to remember, both in this piece and in the previous one, that most people are well-meaning. I think it is rare to find someone who will maliciously put you down and misrepresent what you are going through. I tend to think that the people who will say that you are attention-seeking, or over-dramatic, or lacking in the faith to make you well are not trying to do you down but are genuinely trying to help. They misunderstand what it is like to have depression but they are generally well-meaning. That said, I hope that if someone reads this who has said similar things to this to someone who is suffering a mental health problem, that they reconsider their attitude to the sick in mind and perhaps come to a better understanding.
1) Depression is a punishment for sin in your life.
The Bible does talk about people being punished with illness for the sins they have committed – there is definitely an idea that some people are turned from their sin by suffering an illness sent from God. Sometimes that takes the form of a mental illness, although physical maladies are also common. However to focus on the idea of illness as a punishment is to ignore the many references in the Bible to illness as a test (for example in the case of Job – he had not sinned and yet was afflicted,) to illness as something that happens to people for a purpose, or even for no purpose. For example the man born blind in John 9 was, we are told, made blind not because of his sin nor because of his parents’ sin but so that the glory of God might be made manifest. Another reference is in Luke, where Jesus is asked whether the Galileans whose blood was mixed into sacrifices died because they were more sinful than other people, and Jesus’ response was to say that no, they were not more sinful than others. I do not believe that illness is necessarily (or even often) given as a punishment from God – and where it is, if we look in the Bible it is plainly obvious what that sin was. I know that in my first episode of illness I spent hours on my knees begging God to tell me what I had done wrong, what sin I was committing so that I could repent, and be healed. I now realise that there was no big sin in my life, nothing that would justify the level of pain I was suffering and which I have continued to suffer on and off since. I do believe, though, that illness can have a purpose – not to punish, nor yet do I think that God sits in the heavens and decides that this person will get depressed, that person will be paralysed, that child die of cancer, but I do think that there are sometimes good things which come out of those illnesses. I cannot and will not speak to others’ experiences, but in my own case I think that I have come out with a deeper spirituality and more concern and care for others from my experience of bipolar disorder. Whether that is an acceptable trade-off for the illness itself I do not know, but what I do know is that I believe in a God of justice and love, and while I may not be able to say that I suffer for any particular reason here on earth I will understand in the future. I would urge anyone who knows someone who is suffering mentally or physically not to say that it is because of unconfessed sin in their lives – you neither know their heart nor, in many cases, is it even true. We focus on judging others, whereas the Bible gives us plenty of examples of people who suffered for no good reason – and we know that from our day-to-day lives.
2) If you haven’t been healed, it is because you lack faith.
I don’t understand why we attack those who are suffering – why we as Christians shoot our wounded. It is true that in some of the miracles Jesus performed he mentioned that the faith of the person made them well, but why do we ignore the fact that there were other miracles where the person’s faith was not even mentioned, let alone said to be the reason they were healed? Sometimes the faith of the person accompanying the sufferer is said to be the reason, and in some cases Jesus just healed people with no mention of faith. I also take issue with the idea that all will be healed – Jesus had a tremendous healing ministry, and healed many people (except in his home country) but he did not promise that he, or his disciples, would forever heal people of every single thing that ailed them. We see examples of this in the New Testament, for example when Paul was told “no” when he asked for his “thorn” to be removed, and when various people are mentioned as being ill and therefore unable to accompany Paul. Do we say that Paul lacked faith? No – God clearly had a plan in not healing him and therefore he was not healed. We sometimes treat God as a celestial vending machine, as though if we put the prayer in, have enough faith, and God will do whatever we want. I don’t believe he is like that – I believe that he can and does heal today – but not necessarily when we want him to, not necessarily at all, and not necessarily in the way we expect.
3) You just need to pray.
Yes, prayer is vital, yes prayer should be something we do in all times and in all places whether we are well or ill. We should ask for prayer from others. Prayer changes things – whether we receive an immediate answer to prayer, a healing or a cure, whether we receive a gradual healing – or whether it changes us in a way we did not expect, prayer changes things. To me prayer goes hand in hand with immediate action – I do not think that God expects us to pray for someone – but not do anything we can to help them. For example, I could pray for the homeless person in my street – and that is great. I can also, though, pray and give them a hot meal. Sometimes prayer can become a substitute for us, something we do instead of as well as also action. We rely on God, which is good, but we forget to let God work through us to help others. It is very easy to say “I’ll be praying for you” – it is harder to reach out to those in our communities who are suffering, and offer a listening ear and a safe space to be. Never stop praying, but do help in other ways – just giving a coffee and a place to vent to a person who is depressed can be very helpful. Those of us who are depressed and who are Christian will be praying anyway – and sometimes we need to be reminded that we are not the worst person in the world, that God does love us, that he cares, because when you are depressed you can end up with a vicious cycle in your head, thinking God does not care for you.
4) Read the Bible more.
I love the Bible and I enjoy reading it. I find comfort there when I am unwell – particularly in the Psalms. However the Bible is not a magical cure, it provides help and advice and God speaks to us through it, but it is no substitute for seeking medical advice as well as the support of others. Sometimes I see what seems to be a fetishistic idea of the Bible, with people recommending randomly opening it to receive a word from the Lord (also known as bibliomancy, a type of divination) and even, in some cultures, to the eating of pages from the Bible as a cure for diseases. The sick need a physician – as well as seeking help from the Great Physician. I suppose this goes for the point above – prayer, fasting, Bible reading, are all good things but they should not be used to the exclusion of medicine. And they should be used in community, because mental illness is a lonely place to be and having others alongside you is really important.
There are others, specific to Christians, that I can’t think of right now. Perhaps, if you know of some, you could post them in the comments section? Take care, and I will be writing a third post in this series soon – about supportive things people can say.
- Do Christians get depressed? (pastormikesays.wordpress.com)
- Hope in the Hopeless (essentialthingdevotions.com)