If you’d like to read this in PDF format, please click here.
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.
The following is a story from an article by Dr. Robert Linthicum; one that I found very challenging and thought worth sharing. You can read the full article here.
In 1957, while I was a student in college, I was working among African-American teenagers in a government housing project in a major city of the United States. This housing project was built to warehouse the poor in high-rise buildings of poor construction and design. Our ministry among those youth included recreational and athletic activities that were designed to bring them to confession of Christ as Savior. Once they received Christ, they were encouraged to join our Bible studies where they would be discipled and connected to the life of a local church.
One of the youth who began to actively participate in our Bible studies was a new Christian named Eva. Eva was an exceptionally beautiful teenager, physically mature for her age. She became even more radiant when she received Christ as her Lord and Savior. I began discipling Eva, building her up in the “nurture and admonition” of the Lord.
My academic year was drawing to a close and I was looking forward to returning home for summer vacation. Just before I was to leave my teenage “parish”, however, Eva came to me greatly troubled.
“Bob”, she said, “I am under terrible pressure and I don’t know what to do about it. There is a very powerful gang of men in this project that recruit girls to be prostitutes. They are trying to force me to join them. I know it’s wrong, but what should I do about it?”
I didn’t know what to say to Eva. Nothing in my experience had prepared me to deal with something like this! After all, I was only 19 years of age! The only thing I could think to do was to share with her what I had learned in Sunday school and in the Christian college I attended — to “resist evil and it will flee from you”, to “commit your way unto the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”. I urged her to stick with her Bible-study group and not to give in to the gang’s demands.
And then I left for my summer vacation!
Three months later, I returned to college and to that ministry. Eva had stopped attending the Bible study. When I asked about her at the Bible study, the other youth told me she had stopped coming about a month after I had left.
I feared the worst! I went to Eva’s apartment in one of the project buildings to talk with her. Eva answered the door. When she saw that it was me, she burst into tears.
“They got to me, Bob,” she said. “I’ve become one of their whores!”
“Eva, how could you give in?” I unsympathetically responded. “Why didn’t you resist?”
“I did resist!” she replied. “I didn’t give in; I was forced in.” Then she told me a story of sheer intimidation and terror.
“First, they told me they would beat my father if I didn’t become one of their whores. I refused — and they beat him bad. Then they said my brother was to be next. I still refused, and he ended up in the hospital with both legs broken. Then they told me that if I didn’t yield, they would gang rape my mother. I knew they meant it, and I couldn’t allow that. So I gave in and became one of their whores.”
“But Eva,” I said, “Why did you let them intimidate you that way? Why didn’t you get some protection? Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“Bob, you honky,” Eva responded in disgust, “Who do you think the gang is?”
Suddenly it hit me. This gang of “very powerful men” Eva was describing was that city’s police! The police — the very people entrusted with the task of protecting and defending the people — were in reality the real exploiters and oppressors of the people. Here was evil like I had never known it before — for the police were the gang operating the prostitution ring and recruiting young girls like Eva out of that slum. And later it was discovered that this was not simply a single police precinct gone astray. What was happening in that one precinct was the tip of the iceberg in what was a city-wide operation of gambling, prostitution, drug-distribution and bootleg liquor by the police, with the judiciary organized to legally protect from exposure and prosecution this betrayal of the people.
It was in this encounter in 1957 that I discovered two things. First, I realized that the power of the world’s evil is far greater than the sins of its individuals. The very systems of a city or nation could become corrupt, grasping, oppressive and exploitive. And it little mattered even if all the Evas among that nation’s poor were to be won to Christ as long as the evil in the systems could be allowed to run unchecked and destroy these Evas.
The other thing I realized was that my theology and the very way I read the Bible was inadequate for ministry in that kind of evil-dominated world. Through Eva’s tragedy, I realized that if the church does not deal with the systems and structures of evil, then it will not be effective in transforming the lives of that city’s individuals. What I needed, I realized, was two things: First, I needed a theology as big as the city itself, a biblical understanding that would be equal to the challenge of the social and individual sin of the world! Second, I needed a praxis, a system, a strategy that would be equal to the task of empowering both the poor and people of good will to work together to confront and change the systems and to empower the people to create their own corporate future. Over the years, I found the theology in a justice reading of scripture. And I found the praxis in the practice of community and broad-based organizing. That praxis I would discover ten years later – and have practiced organizing for empowerment ever since. But the theology I discovered came out of my ongoing work with scripture.
Faced with the shock of Eva’s fate and how I had contributed to that fate because of my own naiveté, I did the only thing I knew as a Christian to do. I turned to scripture. And I began studying scripture in order to try to understand the kind of urban world in which I had been called to minister – what God’s intentions were for the city and what kept going wrong that seemed to always be thwarting those good intentions. I turned to scripture to try to understand what the church was called to be and do in a world of such corporate and systemic greed, corruption and abuse of power. I studied scripture in order to understand what Christians like myself were called to be doing in the world and how we were expected to carry out those ministries. I examined scripture to understand how God would empower people to set their own corporate future and how to accomplish that future. And I allowed scripture to speak to me about how God would nurture and sustain each one of us caught up in the struggle through disciplines of personal spiritual formation, being sustained in community, absorbing into one’s self and one’s spiritual community God’s very vision for the city, and to celebrate the spiritual discipline of simply “keeping on keeping on”!
My wife and I had an unexpected visit from a saint last night.
Ever since we moved into our house, our kitchen sink has been getting more and more clogged until it finally stopped draining at all last night. For the first time – but certainly not the last – we called a plumber to our house to come help us fix this clog that was embedded somewhere deep in our pipes. Our new friend Young came to help us.
As it turns out, Young lives in the condo’s right behind our new house. This gave us a great place to start our conversation. Young is a middle aged man who served in the Korean army, but has now been a plumber for eighteen years. He is married with four young kids.
As our conversation progressed, I began to ask him about his pastor and church. Young began to tell me what it was like for him to go to just one of the many Korean churches that populate our small suburban sliver called Centreville. In this area, Korean churches are like 7-11’s in most other cities – there is one on every corner. Young told me about how that was so hard for the Korean community because there are so many churches and none of them seem to want to work together. He described how every young Korean seminary graduate wants to come and plant the new “next big thing” in the Korean community, rather than build up churches there that already exist.
He continued to tell me how this creates a culture in the Korean community where each pastor becomes a salesman for their own church. He described one scenario of a young, fresh seminary graduate who was starting a new church showing up on his doorstep and handing out his business card.
“I don’t want your business card,” said Young. “But tell me, where did you graduate from school?”
Instantly the young seminary graduate lit up and got excited to tell Young about his educational credentials. He gloated in his prestigious degree from Westminster California, and how he previously had a degree from MIT. This green pastor was very proud.
By this point, Young knew who this man was. Before him was another young, prideful wanna-be pastor who didn’t understand the Church and was perfectly fine with stealing sheep from another flock to start his own thing. “Get out of my house and never come back,” he told the pastor. While blunt and possibly lacking in grace, that certainly got the point across.
Young left my house shortly thereafter. He never knew anything about my wife and I other than that we too were Christians who attend church regularly. He didn’t know that I have plans for vocational ministry, or that I am currently in seminary.
I tell this story for two reasons.
One, it is a clear example of how in the family of God we are all on the same footing. No one is better than any other or in a higher status. More knowledge or degrees do not qualify someone for always being the teacher instead of the student. The Church of Christ turns the categories of the world on its head! Only in the Church is it common to find a janitor teaching a lawyer, a school teacher instructing a doctor, or a stay-at-home mom counseling a CEO. I’m reminded of Colossians 3:16, where all believers are commanded to teach and admonish one another. It doesn’t matter what your profession is or how much money you make; you have something to give and teach to your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to share the comfort and knowledge God has shown us with others.
Secondly, this conversation really stuck out to me as one of those bright-eyed seminary students Young mentioned in his story. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that we seminary students tend to place a lot of weight on our seminary credentials and training. We take pleasure and pride in what we learn in all of our various classes. We think that we have something within ourselves to offer people. When this happens, we begin to place confidence in ourselves rather than in the cross of Christ. Our churches begin to look a lot more like our personalities, rather than looking a lot like Jesus.
I’ve said this before, and I need to repeat it to myself often: at the end of the day, nobody really cares how much we know, what school we graduated from, what degree we have, or what classes we’ve taken. People want to know what we can give and show them. And what do we have to give? What we possess does not come in the form of fancy theological terms, understandings of church fathers and tradition, or new emerging ideas on critical linguistic studies. It does not come in the form of “5 points in improving your marriage” or our latest thoughts and speculations on a certain text. It does not come from loud music, flashy lights or big buildings. All we have to offer people is a 33-year-old naked Jewish man hanging on a Roman cross. That’s it. If your theology and seminary education does not give people this Man then it is useless, vain speculation. Don’t waste anybody else’s time with it.
This message of a crucified, suffering Savior is utter foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are being saved we know that it is the power of God. We know that it is the only hope that we have. That dear friends, as a saint equipped to minister with the gospel (which we all are in Christ), is all we have to give to each other. Glory to the crucified King!
As the school year came to a close last year, I published a list of things that I had come to learn during my time in the introductory year of my studies. Following the pattern I’ve set for myself, here is another list from year two.
1. Being a Christ-like husband is infinitely more difficult than even the most strict and arduous of classes.
I was engaged for only a small portion of my first year. My professors often hit on the Biblical necessity for putting wives ahead of ministry and studies, for sacrificing yourself for your wife and striving to love her as Christ does the church. I naively thought this was easily doable and something I would excel at.
Enter marriage and seminary year two, where I discover that sacrificial and Christ-like love is far more than an idea in a Tim Keller book or a good exegetical preaching point from 1 Timothy. It’s hard. Really hard. Pride, envy and selfishness in marriage – sin – are a very real thing.
Despite its difficulty, marriage is so, so good. Through all of the struggles and tears God is growing both my wife and I to better understand the deep commitment that exists between Christ and his church. I am so thankful for my wife, her support, her patience and the gift of grace that marriage is which God uses to grow and sanctify us in our wilderness journey. I’d be twice the cynical and selfish goober that I am today if it wasn’t for her.
2. Nobody cares about my theology.
I don’t say this in a mean way, but at the end of the day – nobody else really cares about my theology other than my classmates and professors. Quotes from Augustine and Calvin don’t help anyone get through the struggles of life. There is hardly a person in my church who could give a lick about the theology of the Reformers and church Fathers, Greek nuances or eschatological differences. What people want and need – and this is a very good thing – is the grace of God through the sustained and faithful ministry of His Word to their souls. Grace, assurance, exhortation, the person and work of Christ and his gospel are the fruits of our labors; all of which are nourishment for our tired and weary souls. As it has been said, “Show them the Bread, not the bread factory.”
3. Nobody cares that I am in seminary.
Honestly, I think there was a time where I had a bit of an elitist mentality to seminary, as if it was somehow unique over other learning institutions. The truth is, its really not any different and it is incredibly dangerous to think anything different. Like every other masters degree programs, seminary requires hard work, sacrifice and dedication. The attendance of seminary is not something to boast in but something to be humbled by, something that creeps into the background of our lives as we instead seek to share what we have in common with our brothers and sisters – the riches of all that we share in our union with Christ.
4. Doubt and fear are paralyzing.
Theology is the remedy for doubt and fear; yet, knowing theology is not a vaccination for doubt and fear. Throughout my second year in seminary I faced many doubts and moments of paralyzing fear over my future, slowly and cripplingly putting me in a place where I forgot the promises and graces of God. It was only recently as I’ve been studying the book of Deuteronomy that my doubts and fears were cast out. I was struck by Moses’ attention to detail as he recalled the victories of the Israelites that were won because of the promise-keeping God that they served.
A remark by Pastor Ajith Fernando is what really shattered my paralyzing shell of fear and doubt. Commenting on Deuteronomy 1:28, he said this: “We must apply the implications of what we believe about God to every situation we face. Then we can conclude, ‘If God is God and I am obedient to him, he will see me through.’ That is the logic of faith. Believing God’s goodness, power and love for us helps us to be obedient.” I realized that this God of the Israelites is the same God we serve today, and I can rest assured in God’s promises and goodness to me not because of anything I do or my circumstances but because of who God is as a covenant and promise-keeping God. Truly, he is so good to us.
5. Adoption is the “height of our privilege as God’s people.” – John Frame
I can’t say enough of how much I love my church. The congregants, members, leaders and volunteers have all been such a blessing and gift of grace to me. I’d be nothing if it wasn’t for the way my brothers and sisters challenge me, sanctify me, pray for me, and love me. I am coming to really understand how, as John Calvin says, there is no sacrifice more pleasing to God that cultivating brotherly good-will. If any of you are reading this – thank you.