The worst kind of 'Christian' distortions of Depression

There are few moments when I feel genuinely ashamed to be associated to another Christian believer. However, as I watched Malcolm Bowden express his 'Christian' view on depression on 4Thought.TV this week I wanted the sofa to swallow me whole. If you haven't had the chance to listen, the transcript goes as follows:

"I consider that depression and many other mental illnesses are very deliberately decided by that person.

My name is Malcolm Bowden, I’m a committed evangelical Christian, and have been giving true Biblical counselling to many people with mental health problems. And from my experience, I believe that depression is a behavioural problem, rooted in pride, self-centredness, and self-pity.

True Christians, if they accept the Bible as being the Word of God, they will read in there many encouragements to live the full outgoing and loving Christian life. And a Christian, a TRUE Christian, should not ever be depressed, because he should be living his life for others, and he should have that peace of heart with God, when he knows that God has promised him a wonderful future in heaven with him.

Many depressed people turn in on themselves and feel that people are against them, the world’s not going right, they don’t appreciate how hard they’re working, they’re terribly proud of their situation, and try to be perfect in order to impress people, and people aren’t ultimately impressed, and when they suddenly deflate themselves, they fall right back into a pit of depression.

Man is basically so proud and so self-centred, he refuses to come to God in total humility. But that is ultimately what God is seeking from all of us, and we reject His requirements at our peril."

I am sure as a reader here you will probably not need a detailed explanation of why this approach is both psychologically and theologically unsound and unsafe. However, just in case the emphatic way Bowden spoke for Christianity shook anybody's confidence, here are a few reflections for you:

1) Depression is a complex and varied Mental Illness that results from a unique combination of genetic, neurochemical, environmental, circumstantial and behavioural influences. To suggest it could be 'deliberately decided' upon by an individual is totally ridiculous, akin to saying that one could decide to get diabetes. Which leads to the next obvious point: Who would ever wilfully decide to 'get' any serious illness?

2) Bowden suggests that the roots of depression lie in 'pride, self-centredness and self pity'. Yet is this really true? Again, to argue from this position is to treat depression as a simple 'behavioral outworking', a bit like saying, "Robbery results from greed, dishonesty and envy."

As we know depression is a complex illness and that no group of attitudes can account for it, whatever they are. If we were to grossly generalise about that character issues of 1:5 people in the UK, these wouldn't be the three that I would choose. Typically (if there was a typical) people suffering from depression are often those who have been 'over-givers': People who may have an unduly low sense self esteem and who may have been expending themselves far more than they have been receiving for far too long.

As far as self pity is concerned, one questions if Bowden has been working with depressed people at all? Many people with depression work tirelessly for the sake of others despite their emotional suffering. Mother Teresa wrote in September of 1959, "If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of 'darkness." She would go on to account for years of depressive suffering punctuated by multiple 'dark holes'. Does Bowden see her as being full of self pity or selfless mercy?

3) For me the most dangerous of Bowden's ideas is that 'True Christians should never be depressed'. As a Christian leader who has himself been depressed, and as someone who has worked with numerous other (far more spiritual) Christian leaders who have suffered depression, I find this hard to hear. I also look at the lives of some of the Christian greats from Martin Luther to John Bunyan who have suffered depressive illness and wonder if they can be categorised as "Un-True Christians?" However, the case against Bowden is not just anecdotal.

The bible says nothing in support of this idea. We see the laments of a depressed David in Psalm 42 and 43 and we see encouragements to hold onto joy but the bible does not condemn the depressed Christian, in fact it offers comfort in our sufferings: 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.'

There is nothing in the bible to suggest that depression is to be treated differently to any other form of suffering, be that physical or mental and there is certainly no suggestion that depression has any thing to do with spiritual discipline, pride or humility. The bible contains no teaching points or theological statements to or for 'the depressed,' which is telling given its prevalence within the scriptures.

4) Bowden assumes that peace with God and depression are mutually exclusive. However, the majority of Christians I have met who have suffered with depression are both at peace with God and depressed simultaneously. Indeed, whilst the depression is painful and bleak, it is their sense of peace with God and his compassionate presence that forges a part of their recovery (alongside medication, therapy, exercise, friendship, prayer etc). Peace with God comes through receiving Christ, this is a peace that cannot be stolen by illness or affliction. Phil 4:7 says, "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." To misunderstand this is not just to have a poor comprehension of scripture, it is to misunderstand the Gospel itself.

5) In terms of stereotyping Bowden does very well at creating a parody of a business owner who is burnt out and struggling to accept the misfortunes of his or her industry. I have met depressed carers, depressed children, depressed widows, depressed priests. The idea that the only people to get depressed have hugely inflated sense of entitlement just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Anyone can get depression, it is no respecter of race, class, faith, upbringing, wealth or poverty. No simplistic set of gereraslised assumptions can account for it.

6) Finally (and just as disturbingly) Bowden implies at the end of this piece, that depressive illness could be either God's judgement on your pride or God's method for getting you into line. "We reject His requirements at our PERIL". This is further supported by Bowden's own publication entitled, "Breakdowns are good for you". I am comforted to see this simplistic distortion of the character of God, (malicious not benevolent) because it goes some way to explain why Bowden has got it all so badly wrong.

I have found many sufferers of depression to be the most courageous, mature and insightful people. Very often their depression has been a large part of their journey of formation, and therefore not something that they may retrospectively wish to erase. For Christians who have suffered from depression, this redemptive and restorative work of God is even greater comfort and assurance that despite the hardest of times God has never left them.

Sadly it is only a small step for someone like Bowden (who has no doubt seen God's redemption at work in this area) to distort God's character from the 'Great Redeemer' of what is broken into a 'Monster' who gives his children depression as a way of punishing them or forcibly reforming their 'poor character'. Effectively he has simplistically mixied the theology of God's 'Transcendence' with the theology of 'Divine Providence' (Augustine of Hyppo/ Thomas Aquinas). In so doing his had neither defended God's sovereignty, nor his benevolence; not good news for the depressed Christian!

The 'True' problem with Bowden's approach to depression, is that it is underpinned by a 'False' understanding of the nature of God.

Lets be clear: Depressed Christian- You are a true Christian. God loves you. He is Good. He will never leave you. He will walk with you through the darkness even if you cannot feel his presence right now. He would want you to receive the best medical and psychological care. You are precious in his sight.

Blessings for the journey,

Will Van Der Hart, 28/04/2012
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