A few years ago I had a neighbor from Texas. He was in his mid-30’s and had already served two tours in Afghanistan. His southern drawl was deep, as was his love for his country. If anyone embodied the southern, Texas stereotype it was him.
One night we were out talking in front of our homes and the conversation of faith came up. I was very excited at the opportunity to share the gospel with him, and so I wanted to try and ground the conversation in Scripture. In my head I thought, “Well, let’s go to a passage everyone knows.” The passage that came to my mind was the Parable of the Two Brothers from Luke 15. I began to refer to the parable as I was sharing with him. But after only a few short sentences, my neighbor stopped me and said, “Ben, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
At the time, I was stunned. How does someone not know this parable? Even more shocking – how does someone from the conservative Bible belt not know this parable? Continue Reading
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My brother will forever be one of my heroes.
Joe Hein was a tireless humanitarian. Skilled in business, he instead spent many of his years relentlessly advocating for the less fortunate. Joe spent some time as a peace-keeper in Bosnia during the crisis there. While he was in the United States, he worked for a senator and strongly advocated for reading programs for underprivileged students in the inner city of Washington D.C. He also worked hard to get similar programs started on Native American Reservations in South Dakota. This was a man who didn’t have much, but emptied his wallet every time he passed a homeless person on the streets. Charming, intelligent, gentle, kind and attractive – Joe Hein was looked up to by others for inspiration and hope.
More importantly, he was the best older brother I ever could’ve asked for. He was 17 years my senior, which meant that he was graduating high school and leaving the house around the time I was born. As far back as I can remember, my brother had something of a “legend” status in my head. When he came home from college, his older brother game was always on point. He taught me how to read a clock, and he encouraged me to read with bribes. He played basketball with me in the driveway, and took me out to train as a skee-ball champion at Chuck E. Cheese. He trained me up in the ways of Dallas Cowboy fandom. He wasn’t afraid to show me physical affection, and he modeled compassion and mercy for me when he took me to serve in homeless shelters with him.
On April 25, 2000, we lost my brother to the monster called depression. Even the strongest and bravest knights can fall to this beast.
Depression has seen increasing awareness in recent years – and for good reason. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 18% of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of anxiety-depression disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability between ages 15 to 44, affecting 15 million people (about 7% of the population). Of course, these are conservative statistics as many who are silently suffering don’t come forward to ask for help.
Yet, despite all of the advancements in awareness and treatment, depression still has something of a stigma in our general culture. It is rarely talked about; and our silence encourages sufferers to persist in silence. Silence perpetuates shame, and shame perpetuates depression. It is a vicious cycle which many people fear they can never escape.
Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t like the fact that depression does not fit neatly into one paradigm. It’s not as simple as positive thinking. Many individuals will still struggle even after receiving years of the best counseling available. While medicine can be of great benefit to some, it can also make symptoms worse. As a Christian, I believe the message of the gospel offers great hope to sufferers of depression. Yet I also know that it’s not as simple as “take two doses of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” The Bible doesn’t paint the human experience so naively and neither should we.
In fact, I think the Bible gives us much wisdom and insight into better caring for those who suffer from depression. In memory of my brother and – in the hopes that as a result of his death I may be able to help others who suffer as he once did – I want to offer a few pieces of this wisdom to you in the remainder of this article.
First, the Bible presents us with a robust understanding of the human being. Depression is often met with one of two extreme solutions today. The first is a hyper-physical view of the person: all our problems are either medical issues within the body or originate from not having our physical needs (food, sleep, sex, etc.) met. The second view is a hyper-spiritual one, which centers our problems in our wrong beliefs about ourselves. If we think/feel/believe more positive things about ourselves, our issues (i.e. depression, etc.) will go away.
In the middle of these two extremes is the biblical view of the person. Commonly referred to as the dichotomist view, the Bible presents the human being as both material and immaterial, both a physical and a spiritual being. Some might call us an “embodied soul” – a term I really like. There are many places in Scripture which show this view, but I will just highlight a few of them:
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
What does this mean for us? It means that we should expect suffering like depression to have both physical and spiritual symptoms. It means we need to labor hard to care for the entire person, and not just a part. It means we shouldn’t try to neatly fit out friends into a one-size-fits-all paradigm.
It also means we must distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression.
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Secondly, the Bible reminds us of the painful realities of life. The world isn’t sunshine and rainbows for anybody. Many of us want a quick solution that will fix our many problems and struggles. Some people will even sell Christianity to you in that way – as if confessing belief in Christ will make all your problems go away.
Yet the Bible doesn’t give us a quick solution, nor does it fool us into believing that following God leads to an easy life. In fact, the greatest heroes of the Christian faith all suffered immense physical and spiritual torment. Moses doubted his call as a prophet and was often chastised or even betrayed by his family and the Israelites. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah retreated into the wilderness by himself (in an episode strangely similar to depression) and wished death upon himself (1 Kings 19:1-18). Jesus was a man of much sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and after being betrayed and abandoned by his 12 closest friends he cried out to his Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?” The Apostle Paul, having faced much suffering, despaired even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Why does this matter? Knowing the realities of this life, we are able to have compassion on people in the midst of their suffering and trials. Rather than giving them platitudes which we know won’t help, we can meet them with hope and strength to persevere to the end, even if the darkness never lifts in this life. Which brings me to my last point.
Finally, Christianity offers us real hope. Clearly I don’t mean the kind of hope which says, “Believe this and your depression will go away.” I’ve met many people whose faith has transformed their struggles with depression; I’ve met many people who have still needed years of counseling and medicine to coincide with their Christian faith. So what kind of hope do I mean?
The Bible teaches us that when we confess saving faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, we are adopted into the eternal family of God. Adoption is the height of our privilege as God’s people. This doctrine reminds us that in our salvation we are brought into a family. While we were formerly separate from God and walking in darkness, we are now “called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). As we become sons and daughters in our vertical relationship to God, we become brothers and sisters in our horizontal relationship to one another.
Our society today wants us to believe that our worth and value is based on our own decisions and merit. Our surround culture says that worth and value are measured by our job performance, our charity and good deeds, or even our sexuality. If we haven’t found our worth in these things, then we need to keep looking until we’re fulfilled. Is it any wonder that depression is on the rise with each passing year? Failing to achieve these standards of worth only sets us up for doubt and disappointment.
In stark contrast, the Christian knows that their worth or merit is not found in themselves, but it is found in the very fact that they belong to a loving Father. Even when we don’t believe it, even when we don’t want to believe it – it’s still true. Once we’re adopted into the family of God we bear his stamp forever upon us, a stamp which reads: loved, valued, precious, beautiful, created with purpose, a child with full access to all the rights and privileges of a son or daughter of God. It’s a bit of a mouthful.
This is a hope that points us away from the things we’ve chosen to give us purpose and define us, and towards the only title which we need to give us purpose: child of God.
When we properly understand what it means to be adopted into the family of God, we know that we can’t abandon our brothers or sisters to face their struggles alone. Because our worth is found not in the things of this world but in the arms of a loving father, there is no effort, no amount of time, no amount of love that is too much for the people of God to give to those in our midst going through any kind of struggle. That is simply what family does; they care for and love one another when all other lights go out.
So, what can you do to help people struggling with depression that you know? I’d like to offer six things:
- Read this article I wrote. This isn’t shameful self-promotion, but I know many people who have been greatly helped by the material in this article. It is a much more in-depth approach to some of what you’ve already read here.
- Pray. Pray for them, pray for your own heart. Pray that God would lift them out of the mire, and give you a greater compassion for their particular kind of suffering – especially if you haven’t struggled with depression yourself.
- Listen. Be Present. Often, bearing each other’s burdens looks less like speaking and simply lending a listening ear and a bodily present. Simple, small reminders go a long way (“You’re not alone”, “I’m here”, “It’s not your fault”).
- Offer your service, not answers. It’s impossible for us to have the answer and solution for someone else’s depression. But, you can offer yourself as an aid during their struggle. Ask them, “What can I do to serve you?”, or “Can I go with you?” (to their counseling sessions, should they be in counseling). Counseling can often be more effective when someone you trust comes with you.
- When the time is right, encourage them with the gospel. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If we suffer, we suffer with Christ; if we rejoice we should rejoice with him. Bodily pain should help us to understand the cross, and mental depression should make us apt scholars at Gethsemane.” Remind our friends who are struggling that our suffering confirms our adoption and status as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), that we have a savior who knows the pain and struggle that we are going through and meets us in our pain and need.
- Ask the hard questions. Even though it may be difficult or awkward, don’t shy away from the hard questions. “What kind of thoughts are you having?” and “Have you thought about hurting yourself?” are important questions to ask when people are going through depression. If they have thought about bringing themselves physical harm, then it is important to pursue immediate help through their counselor or some other means. Contact your pastor, their counselor or other family that can help during this time.
Finally, if you or someone you know are going through depression at this time, I want to highly recommend this book to you.
Like its 2013 predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is full of Christian/religious undertones and themes. Throughout the film, we see shots of characters praying, language surrounding angels and demons, and Superman being consistently portrayed as a savior figure. Even the classic epicurean problem of evil plays a role in the movie’s dialogue.
One of the most frequent themes in the movie is this question of who exactly Superman is. Is he a god? Is he a man? Is he somehow both? Is he the savior of humanity that people have been waiting on? This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the audience, because we even see this theme in the trailers for the film. In one scene of the film (from the trailer), we see Lex Luthor exclaim, “If man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!” In describing the battle between Superman and Batman, Lex again says, “The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world. God versus man. Day versus night!” Yet at the same time, we know there are references to Superman’s humanity. In another scene from the film (also from the trailer), we see Batman looking to Superman and asking the question, “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.” While Lex is fascinated by the apparent divinity in Superman, Batman is driven by finding Superman’s human weaknesses.
This question over Superman’s identity echoes a familiar debate from church history. In AD 318, a man named Arius began teaching that Jesus was not God at all, but that he was merely some sort of heavenly servant of the true God. The one Most High God was the only almighty and transcendent God, Jesus was merely a created servant. Arius in particular wrestled with how Jesus could be divine if he exhibited emotion, grew and learned, and ultimately died. He thought his teachings had precedent within the church, for in the prior century Origen had been teaching that the Father was due glory and praise that the Son was not. Arius’ teachings were simply the next logical step in the line of Origen.
In 325 the council of Nicaea was summoned. This council met to deal with the issues that Arius’ teachings had introduced. Who was Jesus? Was he divine? Was he created? Was he merely a man? These were the issues facing the council. Ultimately, they ended up expanding the language of the Apostles’ Creed (ca. 140) by detailing the relationship between Jesus and the Father – in particular Jesus’ divinity. The Nicene Creed proclaims that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made.” These were all expressions used to communicate that Jesus was as much God as the Father was. The final lynchpin in their argument for Christ’s divinity was the expression that Jesus was “being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Through this language, the Arian view was rejected and the council declared that the Father and the Son are both God in trinity.
Why does this matter? Today is Good Friday. It is the day we solemnly remember the sacrifice that Christ paid on our behalf. It was on this day that all of creation hung its head in sorrow at the death of its creator. Christ was not only willing to stand in our place, but also to face the separation from God that comes through death.
But this is also a day that gives us confidence, for only the God-man Jesus Christ could be our true Savior figure. The sacrifice must have been man, for humanity deserved death (Romans 3:23). Yet the sacrifice must also have been God, for only a perfect sacrifice could have done away with our penalty (Galatians 4:4-5, Hebrews 2:9). Only the Creator could undo the brokenness of creation. Christ became the second Adam so that those who were in bondage under the first Adam could be set free (Romans 5:12-21).
What this means for us is that we can have confidence on even the most solemn of days like Good Friday. We know that when we look to Christ for salvation, we are looking to God himself. We know God because we know Christ. Although his body was laid in the grave, we celebrate that God raised him from the dead for our justification (Romans 4:25).
Who is this Jesus? He is our risen and living King, our friend, our brother, our mediator and advocate – our Savior!
Although I wasn’t able to watch last night’s Democratic Debate live, I was able to catch up on all the clips, highlights and most tweetable moments from the debate. As I was deciphering all of the #damnEmails tweets and poor-taste comments about someone’s Labrador for real information, I couldn’t help but feel a certain conflict in me. For while there were some things I disagreed with that the political candidates were saying, there were also many issues that I did agree with. This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from New York pastor Tim Keller:
The new, fast-spreading multi-ethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.
It seems to me that there is a revolution happening in young Christian circles, of which I consider myself a part. For many generations, there has been a culture in our churches where you were pitched one of two choices: either you’re a Christian fundamentalist who always voted on the Right; or you were a progressive Christian who always voted on the Left. During the last election, many of my conservative Christian friends told me I wasn’t really a Christian if I voted for a Democrat; my more liberal Christian friends said I couldn’t truly obey the commands of Jesus if I voted Republican. In the end, it’s the same accusation coming from two opposite ends of the spectrum. This has given way to the impression in our society that we are mindless, one-issue voters. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way.
When I talk with Christian millenials, there is a general attitude of being fed up with today’s political system. Keller hits the nail on the head when he describes the conflict in many of today’s young Christians. For too long individual churches and whole denominations have sponsored political functions and endorsed candidates by bringing them to speak at church gatherings. We’ve witnessed the results of what has often been blind, mindless, and careless adherence to political systems and ideologies. We struggle to be squeezed into any one political mold or model. Conservative and liberal are quickly becoming adjectives that are far too simplistic. Whereas political figures used to be able to rally entire populations around their agenda, millennial Christians are quickly realizing that the loudest voices in public discourse rarely speak for us.
I want to avoid the accusation of chronological snobbery, but isn’t this the way it should be? Can kingdom-minded people be squeezed into the political categories of men? Rather than being the most one-sided voices in political discourse, shouldn’t we be the most thoughtful? If we take the charge to steward the full council and wisdom of God seriously, then it is our responsibility to bring order, thoughtfulness, reason, and genuine empathy to the political table.
This means that it is going to be impossible for Christians to be blind, strict adherents to any one political system or party. We should not be a people who make character attacks, cheap shots on social media, or treat issues lightly. We should be a people who seriously think through each and every issue before coming to an informed decision. We should wrestle the convictions of our twisted and sinful hearts with the truths of all of Scripture – not just the easy verses. We should genuinely desire to listen to those we disagree with and understand them, seeking to interact with the best of their arguments – not the weakest. Christian leaders should flee from any action that will teach their people to be one-issue voters. Perhaps most importantly, we should understand that each decision impacts and changes the lives of real people – not just numbers in a news column.
Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I long to see a thoughtful and educated culture amongst our churches. I long for a day when we realize that casting our vote for any one candidate means we will be giving up good qualities and positions from other candidates. I desire a time where I don’t sign on to social media and see Christians posting cheap shot memes, jokes, articles and comments about political officers rather than taking up the command to earnestly pray for them.
One of my favorite authors and commentators on this subject is Professor Carl Trueman from Westminster Theological Seminary. In his book Republocrat, he closes with the following argument which summarizes my thoughts on this issue far better than I could. He writes:
Christians are to be good citizens, to take their civic responsibilities seriously, and to respect the civil magistrates appointed over us. We also need to acknowledge that the world is a lot more complicated than the pundits of Fox News (or MSNBC) tell us…. Christian politics, so often associated now with loudmouthed aggression, needs rather to be an example of thoughtful, informed engagement with the issues and appropriate involvement with the democratic process. And that requires a culture change. We need to read and watch more widely, be as critical of our own favored pundits and narratives as we are of those cherished by our opponents, and seek to be good stewards of the world and of the opportunities therein that God has given us.
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchallenged and unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign-policy issues…. We need to… [realize] the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and [earn] a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement. A good reputation with outsiders is, after all, a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome cliches, character assassinations, and Manichean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process. (pg. 108-110)
As we head into the next political cycle, this is the culture change and climate I’ll be praying for. Will you join me?