Churches tend to be made up largely of happy, smiling, well-healed people, which is a pain in the neck when you’re depressed.
A church is often the last place you want to be when you’re feeling psychologically or emotionally unbalanced. For not only do you have to put up with being the sour face in the midst of a sea of joviality, but there’s that added element of guilt associated with the fact that you have failed to be as confident and spiritually robust as your peers in the next pew.
The problem is built in to the theology of most churches. We, the church, are the community of people who have found healing and wholeness in Christ. Being mentally and emotionally stable therefore isn’t just a sign of good fortune. It’s a stamp of spiritual authenticity!
Now we could argue this point at a theological level, but it’s the facts on the ground that put the lie to this way of thinking. For one thing, if Christian people are all so mentally and spiritually together, why is it that so many of the greatest saints in history have been basket cases?
Martin Luther is a classic example – constantly struggling with his ’black dog’, in regular bouts of tortured rage. Mother Theresa is a more recent well-known struggling saint – confessing posthumously that she constantly battled with depression.
And not only amongst the great saints of Christian history, but within the pages of the Bible itself we find so many of our most prominent spiritual heroes struggling to maintain mental equilibrium. And I’m not just thinking of parabolic figures like Job, but of depressed prophets like Jeremiah, and of characters like Ezekiel, who R.D. Laing diagnosed as schizophrenic!
John the Baptist is another figure who comes to mind. I suspect he’d be labelled as ‘bi-polar’nowadays. Certainly he strides across the early pages of the Gospels full of manic fire as he calls down judgement on tyrannical King Herod and confidently proclaims Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ Next thing we know, John is in prison – sullen, alone, and not sure what to believe. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” he asks of Jesus, “or do we look for someone else?” (Luke 7)
John of course not only acted bizarrely but dressed and ate and (no doubt) smelt like a crazy man as well. Yet the Lord Jesus said of John that ‘no man born of woman’ was greater than he! He was a little bit crazy, but one helluva guy! And the question is, would he have been an equally great man, and an equally effective man of God if he’d been more balanced as a human being?
This is the key question, so far as I’m concerned, as I’m guessing that it’s more than mere coincidence that the funniest, cleverest, godliest, and most effective people in our world seem to always be people who are struggling at a mental and emotional level!
I won’t bother going into case studies here, but I believe you’ll find that it’s true across the spectrum. Great artists, great thinkers, great comedians and great saints all tend to have this in common – they struggle.
They struggle with family, with friends, with a world that is not ready for their ideas, but most of all they struggle within themselves, and the question is whether their struggle is essential to their genius?
I remember reading a psychoanalysis of Martin Luther done by Erik Eriksson (the popular neo-Freudian psychologist). I have no idea whether Eriksson got Luther right, but the more important question for me is, if Eriksson had been Luther’s contemporary and if, through a series of sessions on the counselling coach, Erickson had been able to help the German priest resolve his struggles, would there have been a Protestant reformation?
I’m not pretending I have the answer to this, and I’m certainly not wanting to suggest that mental illness is either a good thing or that it is always a prelude to greatness. But what I do want to suggest – to those of us who find life in this world to be a struggle – is that our pain and our potential for greatness may be deeply interlinked.
At any rate, no matter how we understand depression, there’s still room for the church to reform its ways when it comes to dealing with the depressed and mentally ill.
For a start, let’s get rid of this idea that the church is the community of the healed and the wholeand replace it with an understanding of the church as ‘the fellowship of sinners who live by the Grace of God in the cross of Christ’ (Bonhoeffer [I think]).
That’s a far more Biblical understanding of church so far as I am concerned, and if you don’t agree with me, you can take it up with Martin Luther.