The Depressed Christian: part 1 – definitions

I will say it again. Yes, Christians can have depression. We are humans, liable to the same illnesses as anyone else. Think about it: 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems in any one year (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). That could be depression, or anxiety, bipolar, trauma, or other mental health issues. In Scotland, 1 in 10 adults had experienced two or more symptoms of depression or anxiety in that year (2012-2013). So in a church with a congregation of 10, it is likely that one member has had depression in the past – and that there would be at least two people who have experienced some form of mental health issue. And without being too technical, the research is unequivocal in that if someone has experienced a depressive episode before, they are likely to have another at some point in their life. The life-course of depression is not like that of a broken arm. So, we need to talk about it. Examine it. Study it. Ask questions. Look inward at ourselves and outward to others. Depression is real. And within the church.

And church is all about healing people by pointing people to Jesus Christ. As it should be. But with those statistics and that statement in mind, we immediately come to a a few problems. What does healing look like? Is there a relationship between sin and depression? How does trusting in Jesus heal someone of depression? Is trusting in Jesus enough to see me healed – should I abstain from meds, for example? If I am not being healed, does this mean I am not trusting enough?

Fundamental misunderstandings of depression have unfortunately skewed the church’s understanding of how to help people heal. In my experience, it took me about three years to answer the fundamental question of what healing in my situation looked like. I do wonder if healing might have been simpler if I hadn’t been a Christian: I would have the ‘gold star treatment’ (an actual term used by my GP) of meds, psychology and exercise and be done with it.

 

The promises of the bible are true, but often they are turned into trite truisms, which minimise the struggles of someone with anxiety or depression. I found this picture this morning, and my honest response was “ugh.” I’m sure it is meant to help, but it just makes me doubt! And because I doubt, this feeds more doubt!

trust-in-jesus

True point, not very well made.

It is into this murkiness and confusion of being a Christian who has depression that I would like to write in the next few weeks. I’ll be examining some truths within the bible, combining it with a bit of ‘secular’ (horrible, self-conscious word) research and personal experience, and hopefully bring some clarity to help individual Christians who have depression, or those who look after someone with depression.

But before I do, I’d like to define two key terms.
Depression. There are different types of depression – major, dysthymia, postnatal, atypical etc – but they are all characterised by common symptoms, for example: loss of hope and enjoyment of hobbies/interest, feeling tearful for no apparent reason, lowered self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions (even basic ones like whether to make the bed or get dressed first), lowered sex drive, moving or speaking slowly, heaviness in arms or legs, headaches, changes to sleep (under or over sleeping)… for at least two weeks. More info at NHS Choices and Patient.co.uk. The length marks it out as being different to regular emotions, which  – don’t get me wrong – we all still need to be supported in.
Christian. Sometimes it is helpful to define what being a Christian isn’t. Going to church on a Sunday doesn’t make me a Christian any more than going to Murrayfield would make me a rugby player; reading the bible doesn’t make me a Christian any more than reading The Great Gatsby turns me into Fitzgerald. It isn’t about being good in a tenant/landlord transaction, in which I do good deeds and hope that God won’t kick me out of His Kingdom. It is about recognising that in myself I am not good enough to enter into His presence, and that my sin – “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God” (Westminster Catechism, in which I take ‘any law’ to mean the whole of Scripture, not just the 10 commandments) – requires punishment. And Jesus took that punishment for me. If I didn’t trust Him I would be going to Hell, and as I love him for doing that for me, I aim to follow Him in all I do. I now have freedom from that punishment, and the freedom to choose not to sin – and the promise of eternal life.
Luther said it better in his Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Next week I’ll be asking: “is there a relationship between depression and sin?”

Playing with your Plans

You may (or may not) have noticed that I posted neither last week nor yesterday. The reason: It was the latest in my 7 year long experiment with integrity.

Integrity is a challenge. It means follow-through on everything you say you will do, and not doing the things you say you won’t. As well as acting (or not acting) on your core beliefs. All. The. Time. 
At first I thought it was enough to make a fool-proof plan. I now know that plans don’t work in the myriad challenges life throws at you. Yet plans have their value. I used to make them and try to stick to them. Where I failed to follow through, I would pore over the plan trying to figure out whether it was over ambitious or not full enough, or broken down into manageable steps.

But failure isn’t always the plan’s fault. I’ve tried, for example, both the one and two year McCheyne Bible Plan a few times. That many people continue to use it tells me that it is certainly followable, but each time I have failed in the past to go beyond Job.

My problem seems to lie into my attitude to planning. More than anything, last year’s marathon training taught me this: have your plan, but be prepared for it to not go to plan: pre-determine your non-negotiables. Everything else is bonus. This gives you the freedom to play around with the plan as necessary while still keeping on target. Ironically, having thought about the potential flexibility built in makes the plan itself less frightening – so you’re more likely to follow-through.

I did not do every run as planned, due to minor injuries, time and (whups) laziness. But no matter what I did during those months, I aimed to do the Long Slow Distance, because according to the experts, this is the most important training run for the marathon. 

I’m taking this thinking into the McCheyne plan.My non-negotiables are to finish it and to not miss a day. As the plan starts January 1st, I am technically a few weeks behind – but I really don’t care. If I miss a day in my personal schedule, I won’t try and play catch-up by reading two days worth of passages in one. I tried that in the past, and it made it more difficult to keep to the plan overall, because I tended to miss days thinking “ahh I’ll catchup when I have time.” The time of day I read is negotiable. For me it is unrealistic to read at the same time each day, because I am not yet ready for that kind of meticulousness.

Similarly, I have (finally) decided on a marathon training plan, after experimenting with what Great Run, Runtastic and a few other places had to offer. Last year I had to narrow the choices down from many and try to work out what the best plan for me was, without having done a marathon. Now I have one marathon under my belt; and one marathon is 26.2 miles and 4 months more experience than I had last time. This makes it easier.

The non-negotiables: the build-up and distances of the long runs; a reasonable (challenging but doable) distance through the week. Anything else, for example, the days the runs falls on and the type of speedwork, is secondary. I can muck about with the days and the type of speedwork.

For example, instead of Saturdays or Sundays, I have radically altered the training schedule to make the long run fall on a Monday morning. This is not so crazy sounding in the first few weeks of 5-8 miles, but will definately be mad when it gets to 18 miles.  We’ll see how this plays out, and I am willing to change it if it is too much. But as it’s a non-negotiable, it’s going to happen. 

Why change it to Monday? As I discovered yesterday:

  • I start the week on a high, the same reason I like publishing a post on Monday – it is an early accomplishment in the week.
  • The long run is arguably the most important run. So it checks it off.
  • Having run 5 miles in the first day of the week, or 11 miles in week 7, makes the other runs less daunting (no more than 3 each for the rest of this week)!
  • It will teach me to get up early, and go to bed early on Sunday night.
  • Yesterday morning’s was definitely awesome thinking time, and that has only happened a handful of times; doing it later means I’m more tired which makes the whole thing worse.
  • As I plan to cycle to and from work (9 miles each way) after the run, I will have to keep it slow and manageable, which will mean I am training at the right pace. 

With this change of plan, I won’t be able to post on Monday – so I have changed my posting day to Thursday. Not posting last week and yesterday reminded me that my plan for the blog was to post once a week. That’s a non-negotiable. Which day I post, is.

 Coming up on Thursday: the first in a series about depression and chrsitianity.