I’ve been asked to give my view on the use of antidepressant medication, and I assume especially as it relates to the Christian community.
I’ve written about growing up with my dad’s severe depression, and I’ve written an entire series on “The Christian and Mental Illness.” I’m currently reading “Darkness is My Only Companion” and I hope to review it soon along with John Piper’s “When The Darkness Will Not Lift.”
Here in my ministry with students, I am surrounded by students who take psychiatric medications. Reviewing medications and their effectiveness with a student is part of the contribution I make to our admissions process. I often read letters from parents stating that they want their child in a school where there will be no place given to medications. While many of our students no longer take medications, we support the use of some medications with some students. We occasionally request a student be reviewed for possible diagnosis and prescriptions.
I have known many adult Christians who are on antidepressants, and I have current family members on antidepressants. I’ve thought a lot about this subject and I live with it every day.
My own community of Southern Baptists is rapidly rejecting any kind of traditional psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment as “unbiblical.” When I attended Southern Seminary – with my undergraduate minor in psychology- it was the era of Dr. Wayne Oates and the pastoral counseling movement. I had excellent classroom guidance from compassionate teachers like Dr. Andrew Lester and Dr. Wade Rowatt. We often discussed these issues.
I find the idea that the Oates’ pastoral counseling movement was busy compromising the truth of the Gospel and Holy Scripture to be absurd to a high degree. In those classes, scripture and Christian experience were deeply honored and respected. In fact, the teaching of Dr. Oates was far more rooted in Biblical approaches to human being than in secular psychology.
I am not impressed with what I have experienced in the Nouthetic counseling movement. I do not reject, out of hand, the value of some form of Biblical counseling for some kinds of problems. For example, relational problems based on learned behaviors or issues of forgiveness are appropriate for a Biblical counselor. In many cases, however, there is a medical and psychiatric component of treating relational issues.
I share the frustration that many feel with the amorphous nature of psychological theory. I have always had a very reluctant approach to the medication of children and teenagers in order to make their behavior “acceptable” to the someone’s standard of “normal” classroom behavior. Both the ethics and the worldview of psychology raise issues for me, but I have a generally low view of the immediate promise of “better living through science.”
A certain amount of reluctance and disagreement, however, does not change my conviction that we cannot use the Bible in a way it was not intended to be used. The Bible was written in a pre-scientific culture, and the increasing knowledge of the complexity of human beings does not mean we assume that the Bible speaks authoritatively on brain chemistry or genetics. The Bible is not a medical textbook, and it is a perversion to make it into such.
I consider it dangerous to ignore reasonable, prudent scientific discoveries that can treat the biochemical aspect of depression. I have seen depression be overcome through many different methods that did not involve medication, but I have seen many people greatly helped by prudent use of medication combined with other kinds of depressing-fighting activities. While I am cautious and moderate in my advocacy of antidepressants, I am insistent that depression like my father’s is a biochemical/physical problem most appropriately treated with psychiatric medications.
Many of the Christians I have met who disagree with the use of anti-depressants tend to see many human behaviors in terms of spiritual warfare and believe that Satan or sin is the cause of depression. For them, all disease is turned into a spiritual battleground only. While I believe that there is a spiritual component to all human life, I do not believe the demonic is normally deeply involved in typical human ailments such as depression. I also believe sin plays a part, even a large part, in some depressions, but I do not believe forgiveness and repentance affect all the factors that make up depression.
In other words, I believe depression is, in the main, a medical issue that should be treated with an array of treatments that often can include a monitored, prudent use of antidepressants. Prayer, scripture, diet, exercise, community, conversation, behavior change, rest, education….all of these factors play a role as well.
My own observation of depression convinces me that it is very simple for some Christians to say that a person is under a demonic spiritual influence, but this pre-scientific conclusion is often made by well meaning Christians who have no way to actually diagnose what is going on. They are hopeful for a dramatic cure, and they put a suffering person in the position of believing they are afflicted by demonic power. This, even when well meaning, is wrong. It can be abusive and it is often premised on a kind of knowledge that no human has.
I support anyone whose medical doctor believes that anti-depressants can be helpful. I believe counseling, physical activity and community are also part of the response. Monitoring how medication is affecting the whole life of a person is necessary and ethical. Knowing the limitations of medication is, of course, wise as well.
I believe in the sovereign freedom of God to intervene, but I have little time for those who insist that God will intervene, move beyond regular medical treatment and heal mental and emotional illness on command. It is inappropriate and often abusive to condemn sick persons as sinful or resistant to God’s power to overthrow spiritual strongholds. Recognizing the reality of depression is a compassionate response that honors what it means to be truly human.
Many Christians are grateful for the help that has come through antidepressant medication, as well as the help that has come through other medications and insights into the complexities of human weakness. The church shouldn’t be a shill for psychology, but we ought to be a compassionate advocate of helping people with medicine, as well as praying for divine intervention.