A friend recently wrote me and said some Christians had advised her not to take anti-depressants for clinical depression. Instead, these Christians said, such problems should be handled “spiritually.” My friend asked me to give her guidance on this matter and what follows is my response.
The Bible tells us that human beings are made of the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return. To put this in modern terms, our bodies are biochemical compositions. This includes the brain, of course, since it a material part of our body. The brain is not a spiritual entity. It is not the soul.
The Bible also tells us we are spiritual beings, created with a soul. We are the only creatures in existence that are both biochemical and spiritual beings. God made our spiritual and physical natures to be united in one being and to function in harmony. This is part of what it means to be human.
The Bible also tells us this harmony did not last. When we rebelled against God, we fell from that position of wholeness. Christians call this condition total depravity. This does not mean that all humans are as evil as we could possibly be, but that each and every part of who we are has been corrupted by sin. The “total” refers to the totality of our being. Each and every part of who we are has been touched so that not one aspect of who were are is perfect.
This total depravity includes our biochemical nature, our body, which includes the brain. No one has a perfect body, and this fallenness manifests itself differently in different people. In some the biochemical part of our brokenness may show itself in susceptibility to cancer, diabetes or heart trouble. In others it will be in seen in brain chemistry imbalances that in the modern world we call mental illness.
Those that say that we shouldn’t use medications for mental illness are committing a grave theological error. They are denying the doctrines of creation, fall and grace in the following ways.
1) Denial of Creation: Possibility they are denying that their physical bodies are not part of who they are. They are saying they are a physically encased soul, but that their body is not part of their identity and does not affect their soul. This is a denial of the biblical doctrine of creation and the doctrine of man. It is a form of gnosticism that denies the goodness of the material creation, that God made us a union of soul and body and declared that union good. They want to pretend that their body, including their brain, is not really part of who they are. Thus, if my brain is sick, it should in no way affect me spiritually for I am really just a soul and my soul can override any effects the body has on me. This is Greek dualism, not biblical anthropology which affirms both our physical and spiritual natures as being part of who were are.
2) Denial of Fall: But another possibility is they they are in affect sin saying there is one part of creation that was not touched by the fall: human brain chemistry. In refusing to allow that this physical organ can be sick and need medication, they are saying one aspect of the creation was not affected by God’s curse on our rebellion. They are denying the doctrine of total depravity. It was not total. One aspect of our humanity is sinless and unbroken: the human brain.
3) Denial of Salvation by God’s Grace Alone: The motivation of those that deny medication for mental illness is to try and save themselves by their good works. There is one part of themselves that is perfect and does not need God’s grace: it is their brain health. Because they don’t struggle with mental illness, they want to use this as their one work of self righteousness that makes them better than others and by which they can say they have earned their way to heaven.To paraphrase the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke, they say, “Look Lord, I have not used anti-depressants like that tax collector. I have worked through my problems without medications. I am better than him or her. I deserve heaven.”
Brain Chemistry Pharisaism: The road to salvation begins with admitting that we are weak and that we have problems that we can’t solve on our own. We need outside intervention. We need a Savior. In the Gospels over and over again people came to Jesus with a strong sense of their physical frailty which Jesus said was a metaphor for, or a pointer to, their spiritual frailty. Because they were willing to see their need of him physically, it opened the door for them to see their spiritual need. In the same way, when one has a brain chemistry imbalance, they have a sense of their brokenness on a physical level that can lead them to Jesus, the healer of all things. Some that refuse to see that human beings are broken in the area of brain chemistry are standing on their self righteousness in that area, the spiritual problem of the Pharisees. This false sense of wholeness actually keeps them from getting closer to Jesus, for it is in our weakness that we experience his strength and love. After all, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, “I have not come for the healthy, but for the sick.”
Those that tell the mentally ill not to use medications are like the faith healers that tell people not to get treatment for cancer because if they just have enough faith, God will heal them. The vast majority of Christians see how unbiblical that is. But people that deny medications to the mentally ill are using the same logic. Just have faith, just read scripture, just pray and you will be healed. This denies creational forms of healing which Paul affirms when he tells Timothy, “Take a little wine for your stomach problems.”
Some that advocate the hyper spiritual approach say we need to work through depression to grow spiritually. I agree, but there is depression that is common to all and there is depression that is a prison that can’t be unlocked by spiritual disciplines. It needs physical healing. In the latter case, the brain is physically broken and is trapped in a ditch it can’t get out of. People suffering from the latter need physical healing for their brain chemistry before they can begin dealing with spiritual issues.
I had a counselor once who told me my problems were spiritual, not physical, when I was experiencing depression. We went through months of counseling and after each session, I got immediately worse as I tried to put into practice the things he prescribed. In desperation I went to an MD and described what I was going through. He adjusted the medication I was already on and within 3 weeks, all my difficulties in that area disappeared. I was sick. I needed the healing that medicine could give.
In some cases, those who believe there is no need for anti-depressants have never experienced clinical depression themselves They are taking their limited experience of normal depression and projecting it on to people with clinical depression. They say, “Hey, I worked my way out of it. So can you.” The problem is, it’s not the same thing. I urge such people to recognize they have not experienced everything every human has experienced and to humbly support those battle clinical depression. Do not judge them because they are not like you. Love them and off them the compassion of Christ.
Anti-depressants don’t artificially make you happy. Instead, they enable the brain to work normally. Persons on anti-depressants still can be sad or depressed and can work through those experiences on a psychological and spiritual level. Yes, there can be spiritual aspects to depression and we should deal with them on that level, but there can also be physical aspects, and those should be dealt with medically.
May a Christian take anti depressants to cure depression? Yes, if it probably diagnosed by a trained medical professional. I know there are horror stories out there about persons who were given medicine they didn’t need. But doesn’t that happen in every illness? When it happens with cancer, we don’t deny that medicine can help cancer. We say the doctor made a mistake. Its the same with depression. Doctors are imperfect humans. They sometimes make mistakes. But this does not deny the reality of the healing that anti-depressants have brought to millions suffering with depression.