Divorce and You

How can you cope with divorce if it comes your way? How can you help a friend who is going through it? What about divorce and the ministry? Practical—and personal—thoughts on this important issue.

It’s Over

Divorce. What thoughts and feelings does that word kindle in you?

Are you happily married and feel that divorce is not an option? Maybe the concept scares you. The fear of loss seems overwhelming.

Are you in a struggling marriage and the end is near? Perhaps you are confused, angry, depressed, or grieving. Or maybe you are happy and envision this as the necessary end of an unpleasant relationship.

Perhaps your parents are divorced. Maybe you recall their angry disputes during your childhood, fear over your family’s future, anguish over deciding with whom you would live.

Got any friends whose marriage is on the rocks? You might care for both of them, but how should you relate to them now? Take sides? Remain neutral? Intervene? Keep out of it?

In 1975 I married a wonderful woman. She was kind, sensitive, beautiful, loving, intelligent, fun, talented . . . my best friend. We traveled the globe together speaking in universities, on television and radio, writing books and articles about love, sex and marriage. She taught me much about love, kindness, sensitivity, communication. Much of the modest success I’ve seen in speaking and writing I owe in part to her excellent coaching.

Twenty years later, in 1995, she told me she wanted out. I felt devastated. The love of my life didn’t love me any more. The pain of rejection ran deep. I had not committed adultery or desertion. I felt helpless. Legally, I was helpless. California’s “no-fault” divorce laws mean that in our state it takes two to get married but only one to get divorced. One partner can simply claim “irreconcilable differences” — no proof is needed — and a judge will dissolve the union after a six-month waiting period. The unwilling partner is legally powerless to stop it.

Imagine the worst spat you’ve ever had with your spouse, partner, or friend. Multiply the pain of that by a jillion and you have a glimpse of the hurt. It felt as if I were being reamed out by an emotional Roto Rooter. I cried buckets. It was really, really awful. Are you getting the idea that I did not like this experience?

What does the Bible say about divorce? How can you cope with divorce if it comes your way? How can you help a friend who is going through it? And what about divorce in the ministry? This article offers you some practical thoughts on this controversial topic.

Biblical Issues

Is divorce a solution or a cop-out?

I appreciate it when speakers or writers make clear their way of looking at the world. My worldview is a biblical one. You may agree or disagree, and I certainly respect that, but may I encourage you to consider what the biblical documents say on this issue?

Moses, the famous Jewish liberator, explained that God made the first man and woman for a close bond. “For this reason,” Moses wrote, “a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”{1}

Hundreds of years later, some religious leaders asked Jesus of Nazareth about divorce. He quoted Moses’ statement, then added, “Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together.”{2} Jesus held marriage in high esteem: “God has joined them together,” He declared, “. . . let no one separate them.”

But if divorce is wrong, these male religious leaders responded, why did Moses discuss how to handle certain complicated divorce situations? Jesus explained: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you,” Jesus continued, “that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”{3}

Strong words. What do they mean? Even dedicated followers of God differ about whether He allows divorce and under what circumstances. A thorough study exceeds the scope of this short series. I recommend Jay Adams’ book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,{4} for more detail.

Years before my own marriage began to crumble, I carefully studied a biblical perspective on divorce and remarriage. Here is what made the most sense to me. Partners should enter marriage for life, “until death do us part.” If splits arise, reconciliation should always be the first aim. If reconciliation fails, I see two biblical bases for divorce and remarriage: adultery of one spouse{5}, and desertion{6}. Adultery or desertion do not mandate divorce, but they make it allowable.

As difficult as this subject may seem, remember that God loves you and wants the very best for you.{7} If you are hurting right now, He understands. He wants to wrap His arms around you, be your friend, and help you handle your deepest disappointment.

Coping With Divorce

What are some ways to cope with a shipwrecked marriage?

Divorce can teach you a lot. I’m a sinful person who made plenty of mistakes in marriage. I could have been more thoughtful, sensitive, and kind. Though I tried hard to be a good husband, I realized I could not be responsible for another’s decision.

About a year after the divorce, at some friends’ encouragement, I began to speak publicly about what I had learned. I was determined not to speak ill of my ex wife, but I wanted to encourage others. My story got several reactions, which I began reflecting to audiences to help them process it. Maybe you can relate.

“Some of you feel uncomfortable with this topic,” I would tell listeners. “You wish I would change the subject. I’ve felt that way. Others of you think, I wish the person I love would be as open with his heart as you’re being.’ Some of you are skeptical,” I’d continue. “You’d like to hear her side of the story! I can appreciate that. Maybe you’re angry. Perhaps I remind you of your ex-spouse. You think, He talks so sweet. But I bet he’s a tyrant in private!’ I realized that I cannot assume responsibility for all the people who have hurt you. But I can offer hope. Maybe people will reason, He’s hurt; I’ve hurt. He says Jesus helped him with his hurt. Maybe Jesus can help me with my hurt.’”

Jesus can help you with your hurt. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls.”{8}

Often divorcees experience the classic stages of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.{9} You may not believe you’re experiencing this. You may be mad at your mate or God. You may promise God you’ll follow Him if He restores your marriage. You may become depressed when the end seems certain. Eventually you may accept reality.

What helped my journey through grief? I had to believe that God really did cause “all things to work together for good to those who love” Him.{10} I sought to walk closely with Him. I asked forgiveness of my ex-wife for my many shortcomings. I forgave her and forgave myself.

I saw a skilled counselor. A wonderful divorce recovery group helped me understand what I was experiencing and feeling. I did not date for about two years after the divorce was final, to allow time to sort things out. And some fine friends helped me to land on my feet.

Responding to a Friend’s Divorce

How might you be a friend to someone in the midst of divorce?

The couple next door is splitting up. One partner is bailing on the marriage. You and your family have known them for years. You’ve babysat each other’s kids, carpooled to work, vacationed together, laughed and cried together. You are members of the same church.

How should you relate to them now? Take sides? Remain neutral? Intervene? Keep out of it?

If you are a follower of Jesus, you likely will want to seek divine wisdom. Every situation is different, and marital strife can be explosive. Jesus’ mother Mary once had some wise advice that relates well to these situations. She said, “Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it.”{11}

I was quite fortunate to have a circle of good friends who reached out in loving care. Perhaps their examples can give you some ideas of what you might do.

My friends did not abandon me in my darkest hour. They stuck with me, let me know that they cared, asked how they could help, arranged opportunities for us to spend time together. One couple had me over to dinner every Friday night during the fall. Then we would watch their son play high school football. It helped take my mind off of my problems, relax, and enjoy being around other people.

Some recommended books,{12} met me for lunch, and invited me to a concert. One couple listened as I poured my heart out and helped me plan my future. Some organized a prayer meeting among close friends, helped me move, sat with me in court. They would call to ask how I was doing, especially when I felt particularly lonely or burdened.

Two friends tried to contact my estranged wife to encourage her to drop the divorce action.

After the divorce, many gracious folks welcomed me into their circles and encouraged me to serve others. Some pastors and theologians who knew me well told me they thought it was appropriate biblically for me to remarry. I was reluctant. I wondered if I could ever open my heart to another woman.

Then, at a conference, I met Meg Korpi, a beautiful, sensitive, kind, wise, caring, brilliant, fun woman. She was as dedicated to God as she was wise and gorgeous. (I get points for saying all this in writing, you understand!) I knew what I liked and I liked what I saw! We began to date almost three years after the divorce ended and were married about a year-and-a-half later. We are very happy together. We thank God often.

Divorcees and the Ministry

What about divorce and the ministry? If a ministry leader divorces, should he or she remain in ministry?

If a leader initiates an unbiblical divorce — or commits adultery or otherwise acts inappropriately — one should confront him or her as described in Matthew 18. In my view (not all will agree), with a change of mind and heart — and after appropriate time — it may be possible to restore a fallen leader to effective service. Paul wrote, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”{13}

What about the victim of an unbiblical divorce? There are both wise and unwise ways to deal with such tragedies. Ministry boards and executives should take special care to act biblically. They may be tempted to value public image and donations above biblical principles.

Perhaps my case will be instructive. My first wife and I were international speakers with a prominent evangelical movement with thousands of wonderful staff. We traveled the world together, wrote books, appeared on television. In my twenty-fifth year with this organization, my wife filed for divorce without — in my opinion — biblical grounds. This caused quite a stir.

Though initially expressing concern and care, corporate leaders claimed they had a policy requiring me to leave if my spouse divorced me. I was told I was a PR risk and would need to go. At one point they wanted me to agree never to speak or write about marriage, divorce, or remarriage (mine in particular or these themes in general). Things got “curiouser and curiouser.”

Again, this movement has done much good around the globe. It helped me come to faith when I was a student. Please understand that I am seeking here the proper blend of grace and truth, not an easy task in these matters.

My employer owned a seminary, a separate corporation that had no automatic divorce restriction. The seminary president hired me. He took some heat for acting biblically, but those like him who refused to convict me of a sin — divorce — that I did not commit were God’s instruments of grace in my life. After a time of healing, I returned to the lecture circuit. Today, I am privileged to enjoy an even larger global influence via speaking and writing.

Divorce does not have to end ministry. Has any sin been dealt with in a biblical fashion? If so, then the divorced servant of Christ can, with God’s direction and power — and with appropriate accountability — continue to touch lives for Him. Jesus welcomed the denying Peter into fellowship and service.

The wounded servant may become even more effective, able to connect with people on a deep level and to point them to the One who can heal their broken hearts.

Notes

1. Genesis 2:24 NASB.
2. Matthew 19:6 NLT.
3. Matthew 19:8-9 NIV.
4. Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980).
5. Matthew 19:9.
6. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, taken with Matthew 18:15-17. An outline of this argument regarding desertion is as follows: 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 can be understood to mean that when a spouse who does not believe in Christ deserts a spouse who does have faith in Christ, the deserted believer is not bound from remarriage. Regarding a marriage between two believers, a deserted spouse should first seek reconciliation. If the deserter will not reconcile, the deserted spouse should follow the biblical “progressive correction” prescription in Matthew 18:15-17. That is, s/he should confront the deserter with his/her sin individually, then (if the deserter continues to resist) with one or two others, then involving the church. If the deserting spouse still resists, then the Lord’s admonition to the church (which includes the deserted spouse) is “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words,
relate to that person just as you would to someone outside the church, as to an unbeliever. How does the church relate to unbelievers? One of the many biblical teachings regarding relationships between believers and unbelievers is that an unbelieving spouse who deserts a
believer does not bind that believer from remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). See Adams, op. cit., for a more complete discussion of desertion as allowable grounds for remarriage.
7. Romans 8:35-39; Psalm 23.
8. Matthew 11:28-29 NLT.
9. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., On Death and Dying, reprint edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, reprint, 1997).
10. Romans 8:28, NASB.
11. John 2:5 NASB.
12. Especially helpful are Joseph Warren Kniskern, When the Vow
Breaks
(Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993); and many of the Fresh Start resources
at
www.freshstartseminars.org.
13. Galatians 6:1 NIV.

©2005 Probe Ministries


“Are Chemical Imbalances Real or a Worldly Idea?”

Some people in my family have been diagnosed with chemical imbalance in their brains. In the past I have been a reader of Jay Adams. How does this idea of chemical imbalances (CI) measure up to the Scriptures and spiritual problems? Is this CI something the world has come up with denying the spiritual or is it really legitimate? Where can I find scriptural or spiritual input on this subject? At this point, I believe it is primarily a spiritual problem. Please help!!

When it comes to depression, I have seen people dealing with it because of spiritual issues, emotional issues and physical issues (chemical imbalance). In fact, my husband had anemia-induced depression that was treated by taking anti-depressants for three months. If it were a spiritual or emotional issue, simply taking the meds for such a short period of time wouldn’t have solved the problem.

Our brains are an organ, like our gall bladder, lungs and liver. They can develop physical problems and chemical imbalances; why would the brain be any different? We are not our brains. We are souls—personalities—that have a brain and who live in a fallen world where physical brain problems arise.

I am aware of Christians who try to make everything a spiritual problem, but I think that’s simplifying things too much. After all, scripture says we are made of three parts, spirit, soul and body (1 Thess. 5:23). To try and make depression (which is experienced in the emotions) solely a spiritual issue, doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame heaped on people for treating depression chemically, which I think is unnecessary shame. For instance, I know someone with manic-depression who NEEDS her medications to allow her to function, just as I need physical assistance to make up for orthopedic weakness from polio. There should be no shame in either my cane or my friend’s medications; they are both a matter of accepting help for a real, physical problem.

Along a different line, another friend is a longtime school teacher and principal. She used to pooh-pooh the use of Ritalin for ADD and ADHD, until she researched the issue in depth and reversed her opinion. While there are certainly many kids who are taking it needlessly (quite possibly the majority of them), there are others who have a true chemical imbalance and benefit greatly from taking medication.

I hope this helps!

Sue Bohlin

Probe Ministries


Shark Victim Surfer Girl’s Simple Faith

Bethany Hamilton looks like any fun-loving young American teenager—bright eyed, smiling, excited about what she enjoys doing. She’s athletic, attractive, trim, tanned and blonde—qualities that in this culture can open many doors.

But Bethany faces a special challenge that many her age do not. She is missing her left arm just below the shoulder, lost to a shark attack while surfing in Hawaii in the fall of 2003. The 1,500-pound tiger shark also chomped a huge chunk from her surfboard. She’s fortunate to be alive.

Bethany, who lives on Kauai, was the state’s top-ranked female amateur surfer before the attack. Such a loss might seem devastating. USA Today reports that Bethany seems undismayed. Merely three months after the mishap, she was surfing competitively again. She aims to be among the world’s best surfers.

Rather than hiding her left arm under clothing, she displays it in tank tops and calls it “Stumpy.” When her prosthetic turned out to be too light in color to match her suntan, she nicknamed it Haole Girl, slang for a non-Hawaiian. She peels tangerines by holding them between her feet and using her right hand.

How to account for her bright spirits? Determination and dedication seem part of her makeup. But is there something more?

Her dad gives a clue. “She’s not suffering,” Tom Hamilton told the newspaper. “Somehow God gave Bethany an amazing amount of grace in this. I am in awe. She never says, ‘Why me?’”

Bethany confirms her father’s analysis: “This was God’s plan for my life, and I’m going to go with it… I might not be here if I hadn’t asked for God’s help.”

This surfer girl’s simple faith astounds observers. She has become a media darling—with TV appearances on Oprah, 20/20 and Good Morning America. Book and movie offers have come. She threw out the first pitch for baseball’s Oakland Athletics on opening day. Through it all, her family ties remain strong.

Her optimism echoes that of an early follower of Jesus, Paul, whose life-experience log included unjust imprisonments, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks and social ostracism. He was convinced that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love” Him.

Life can throw many curve balls: serious illness, accidents, terrorism, domestic strife, employment hassles, theft and more. Answers to “Why me?” and “What to do?” are often complex. Accompanying feelings of fear, confusion, grief or despair should not be ignored or minimized.

But perhaps a perspective that includes God in the picture can be a starting place for coping. Maybe the surfer girl’s belief and trust have something valuable to say to a society filled with pain and risk.

During a winter New York City media tour, Bethany spontaneously gave her ski jacket to a homeless girl sitting on a Times Square subway grate, then called off a shopping spree, citing her own material abundance.

Something very significant is happening in this young athlete’s life. Watch for more.

© 2004 Rusty Wright


“I’m Depressed; What Causes Happiness?”

I am depressed right now and so is my friend. What causes happiness? I don’t want the chemical description, but what stuff, like situations and actions, causes happiness? I know that the Bible says that just because we are Christians, doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. But how would I get out of depression? I don’t want an answer like read your Bible and pray, because I do that every night, and here I am still depressed. There’s no fun in life anymore, and somewhere along the line, I lost the fire of the Spirit. I wish I could get it back.

I realize yours is a very serious question, and having walked through deep depression with our son several years ago, I would be the LAST person to give you the cliché of “read your Bible and pray more.”

Sometimes, depression is caused by a brain chemical imbalance. In that case, medications are the best way to adjust the brain chemistry. Sometimes, depression is caused by unconfessed sin. That needs to be faced, repented of, and confessed, both to God and to other people. Sometimes, depression is caused by loss and sorrow. The way out of that kind of depression is to embrace the grieving process. That means facing and feeling the pain of loss and grief so that you can let go of it. (That also means crying, yelling, journaling one’s feelings, or all of the above.)

One very wise person has said that an intrinsic part of happiness is having something to look forward to. I have found this to be true.

So what causes happiness? Generally speaking, it’s:

• cultivating a positive attitude (This is admittedly harder for people with melancholy temperaments.)
• not having anything sad going on
• the presence of something worth anticipating
• having friends; healthy relationships is an important part of happiness

And probably the most important thing I have to offer you is the suggestion that you cultivate a grateful heart. People who get in the habit of looking for and expressing gratitude for the small and large blessings of life find themselves in better physical and emotional health. One of the best things you can do for yourself right now is to invest in a small notebook and write in your “Gratitude Journal” every single night before going to bed. Write down ten things you are grateful for, things in which God showed you He loves you, things that went well during the day. Things like parts of your body that work and aren’t in pain. Things that are easy to take for granted but which you would REALLY miss if they went away tomorrow, like your bed, running water, electricity, heating and air conditioning, having transportation, paved roads, lungs that breathe for you without having to think about it. . . you get the picture?

Usually, I suggest people write down three things, but if you’re really struggling with depression, ten will help more. It will help you focus on the many, many good things in your life instead of focusing on the flatness and darkness of your depression.

Let me know several months down the road how you’re doing, OK?

Sue Bohlin


“Why Wouldn’t God Let Me Commit Suicide?”

Hi Sue,

I just read your article Do People Who Commit Suicide Go to Hell?”. I believe everything you say to be true and biblical…and then I get stuck.

I have bi-polar depression, I thank God that I am now stable, but last year there were many times when I seriously considered suicide. I believe in God, His grace, and Christ’s death for all sinners, and I believe, like Romans 8 says that we can never be separated from Him — but my one question is, “Why am I still here? Wouldn’t it have been/be much easier to die and be with Him in His glory for eternity?” I mean I’m not sure that the suffering is worth it…

I believe God kept me from suicide…but I still wonder if it’s so easy to be with Him (in death) then where’s the catch?

Dear ______,

Bless your heart. I have friends who are bipolar and we have gone through some DEEP depression with our son over this.

What’s the catch, you ask?

Well, to make what’s probably a weak analogy, are you familiar with the NBA draft that has signed young basketball players just out of high school? Oh wait, I see you are in another country. Oh well—I bet you can appreciate it anyway. . . There is a promise of money and fame and glory for these young athletes, so why “waste” their time in college when they could be making big bucks playing basketball? Sounds good—only, they are too young to appreciate the maturing process that happens in college. So often, they crash and burn once they turn professional because they’re not ready. The trials of being a college student, it turns out, are deeply beneficial for maturity and character development; they prepare students for life as professional athletes.

Our life on earth isn’t a holding tank or a detention center where we impatiently wait out our time until we’re given a “green light” to die and go to heaven. (I know, it’s easy to think of it this way, particularly for sensitive people who really hate living in a fallen world.) God’s purpose in leaving us on earth once we are saved is to grow holiness and maturity and strength in us, a process that would be short-circuited by an early death. It would mean we enter heaven in a state of “arrested development,” so to speak. Since the scriptures speak of being given power, authority and responsibilities in heaven, the only place and time we have to develop our stewardship is here on earth.

I understand your feelings of not being sure if the suffering is worth it, but that’s because of not having an adequate view of God and of heaven and of your future, not to mention not understanding the value of suffering. (If I may be so bold as to recommend my own article on that subject. . . it’s the best thing I’ve ever written: “The Value of Suffering.”)

Yes, it would be a lot easier to be in heaven than to continue to live in a fallen world and a fallen body on earth, but God isn’t into “easy,” God is passionately committed to fashioning us into the image of His Son. I’m afraid there are no shortcuts, but you can be assured that every difficult day you endure, every trial and every heartache, is being used to achieve that “weight of glory” in you (2 Cor. 4:17). God never wastes suffering, not a scrap of it. He redeems all of it for His glory and our blessing. Every single tear you have shed is so precious to your heavenly Father that He has them stored in a heavenly bottle. He hasn’t turned away or forgotten you.

______, I pray you will know His comfort and peace like a warm blanket enveloping your soul.

Sue Bohlin

Probe Ministries

(Follow-up e-mail from Sue)

I have continued to think about your question and my answer, and the Lord put it on my heart to send you a P.S.

I have a young friend (early 20’s) who attempted suicide several years ago but survived. She couldn’t understand why God didn’t just take her to heaven, either. Why wouldn’t He honor her (seemingly) reasonable request to be with Him in glory?

Well, not too long after her suicide attempt she met a wonderful man, got married, and just had a precious little baby. On both her wedding day and then especially when she first held her newborn infant in her arms, she was overwhelmed with thanksgiving that God DIDN’T take her home to be with Him when she wanted it. She realized that God still had blessings to lavish on her that couldn’t come in heaven. As a cystic fibrosis patient, she understands that she also has certain trials and pain ahead of her, but the joy far outshines the darkness.

This brings up one of answers to the question, What is the purpose of life? —For God to bring glory to Himself by lavishing His love and grace on us. All of creation, including the unseen realities in the heavenlies, is given the opportunity to see evidence of God’s character and heart as He pours out His blessings on the people He made in His image. And that’s one of the reasons why so many people who have been tempted to kill themselves are prevented from doing so–because God still has blessings in store and we need to be HERE on earth to receive them.

Warmly,

Sue


Depression

Jerry Solomon offers a compassionate, holistic examination of depression from a Christian perspective, with helpful suggestions for those who long to help.

One Person’s Story

Depression—a word that is used frequently in our time. Does it apply to you, someone you love, or someone you know? Since 17 percent of the population suffers from major depression at some point in their lives,{1} it is probable you have been touched by it in some way. Perhaps the following account will “ring true” in light of your experiences. (This story really happened, but the name of the character has been changed.)

For many years Stan, an evangelical Christian, struggled with varying degrees of depression. These bouts were incapacitating on occasion, irritating or highly frustrating sometimes, but always persistent in their visits. Eventually the struggle came to a crisis point. He was not able to respond to any emotional stimulus that was offered; he had totally isolated himself from family, friends, and work. In retrospect he realized this isolation was done purposefully. The true causes of his struggle had never been addressed, and he was tired of pulling himself out of one depressed state only to find another staring him in the face. So he refused to repeat the pattern that had plagued him for so many years. It was time to find the root causes, instead of repeatedly dodging them.

After talking with a good friend who was a counselor, he decided he should consider admitting himself to a psychiatric hospital. He immediately contacted such a place and entered the “first phase,” or initial analysis prior to admittance. This analysis indicated he should become a patient. The next day he became part of an extraordinary program of discovery that was to last more than three weeks. In fact, those weeks were so extraordinary, he will tell you they provided the impetus for dramatic, positive change in his life and thought.

During those days of concentration, Stan dealt with several important issues that subsequently have led to a more stable life. First, he faced the trauma of abuse he had experienced. Second, through the ministry of a compassionate chaplain and a counselor, he realized he was weary of learning about God, without at the same time knowing God in the personal way the Bible frequently indicates. He was hungry to couple Biblical precepts with personal experience. Third, the sense of community among those in the hospital with him led him to consider the social “games” he had been playing in his evangelical Christian setting outside the hospital. Even though many of the patients were not Christians, that did not deter them from intimacy, trust, and truth. There were no hidden agendas, no political posturing, no hypocritical fronts. They listened to one another, cried together, encouraged one another, challenged one another, laughed together, and even disciplined one another. Fourth, Stan was challenged to consider whether he should take medication in light of his trust in God’s healing power. He was put on medication that is still part of his life after eight years. Fifth, he was led to consider his thought life, especially as it applied to expectations he had of himself.

Unfortunately, there are many Christians who continue to wrestle with what Winston Churchill called the “black dog” of depression. They struggle without finding help. This essay is offered with the hope that it will encourage those who need help, and that it will prompt many to respond with patience and love to those who are depressed.

Who Suffers with Depression?

Some have said depression is “the common cold of emotional disorders, and it appears to be on the rise. People of both genders get depressed, although women are twice as likely as men to suffer from major depressive disorders.”{2} Who are these people? As we will see, they are both famous and infamous people; they are normal people; they are even people we know from the Bible.

Depression can be described as “a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal; sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason.”{3} Dejection, withdrawal, sadness, and other similar terms are familiar to many. Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Rod Steiger, Mike Wallace, and many other notable people have struggled with depression. In 1972 Senator Thomas Eagleton acknowledged his depression, and the Democrats dropped him as the Vice Presidential candidate. In 1995 Alma Powell, the wife of General Colin Powell, revealed her history of depression, and her husband urged others to get help.{4} Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon, two great men in the history of the church, frequently lived with the dark shadow of despondency.

Even some great biblical characters wrestled with depression. At one point in his life, Moses wanted to die (Exodus 32:32). While struggling with his suffering, Job “cursed the day of his birth” (3:1). He said, “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (7:11). In addition, he cried, “My spirit is broken, my days are extinguished, the grave is ready for me” (17:1). Elijah was incapacitated with depression soon after he had been an integral player in one of the great demonstrations of God’s power (I Kings 19). After Jonah witnessed the astounding grace of God among the wicked Ninevites, he angrily said, “Death is better to me than life” (Jonah 4:3). The great prophet Jeremiah declared, “Why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow?” (Jeremiah 20:18)

The amazing prophecy of Isaiah 53:3 states that the Suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus, was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Sorrows and grief can refer to both physical and mental pain, which could include depression.{5} Consider the thoughts of Lydia Child, the 19th century abolitionist, in light of Isaiah 53:

Whatever is highest and holiest is tinged with melancholy. The eye of genius has always a plaintive expression, and its natural language is pathos. A prophet is sadder than other men; and He who was greater than all the prophets was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”{6}

A well-known spiritual says, “No one knows the trouble I’ve seen,” a sentiment that is understood by those who are depressed. J.B. Phillips, author of the classic Your God is Too Small, dealt with depression all his life. In one of his many letters, he offered these comments to one who also was struggling: “As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having.”{7}

We have seen that depression has been experienced since ancient times. No one is immune, but, praise God, those in His family are not alone. The Lord Himself is with us.

Depression: Symptoms and Explanations

• I feel so tired!
• I feel weak; my arms are heavy.
• I feel so agitated!
• I feel anxious about everything, it seems.
• I feel so fearful—of death, of tomorrow, of people.
• I can’t concentrate!
• I can’t remember things I used to remember.
• I can’t face people; I want to be alone.
• I’m not interested in sex anymore.
• I can’t sleep!
• I sleep to escape!
• I only eat because I have to.{8} • I hate myself!
• I feel angry all the time!
• Everything and everyone is stupid!

Such comments are familiar to those who are dealing with depression. Usually these phrases are not descriptive of what is objectively true, but they are descriptive of how a depressed person is responding to his predicament. One who hears them can be tempted to dismiss the one who made the statements with well-meaning but trite responses that betray a lack of understanding. It often is difficult for someone who has not wrestled with depression to understand.

So how can we understand? Why does a person get depressed? There is no simple answer to this question, contrary to what some people think. As Dr. John White has written, “Depression has many faces. It cannot be relieved on the basis of one simple formula, arising as it does by numerous and complex mechanisms, and plummeting sometimes to depths where its victims are beyond the reach of verbal communication. There are mysteries about it which remain unsolved. No one theoretical framework is adequate to describe it.”{9} It is meaningful for a Christian to understand this. Sometimes a response to the depressed can focus on a principle without regard for the person. For example, the 17th century English bishop Jeremy Taylor wrote: “It is impossible for that man to despair who remembers that his Helper is omnipotent.”{10} This assumes that remembering something will automatically change one’s thoughts and feelings. The person who is depressed doesn’t necessarily make that connection. Mentally healthy people have reasonable thought processes, but they are not the norm in a depressed person’s clouded life. “Mental health is like physical health. We are all vulnerable to its loss.”{11} A truly depressed person is not mentally healthy.

As we have stated, there is no one all-encompassing answer to the “Why?” of depression. But there are a number of models that suggest answers.

• Aggression turned inward, or unexpressed anger.
• Object loss, as in the loss of a parent.
• Loss of self-esteem.
• Incorrect thinking.
• Learned helplessness, or inability to respond to unpleasant experiences.
• Loss of reinforcement, as in lack of sympathy.
• Loss of role status, as in loss of power or prestige.
• Loss of meaning of existence.
• Impairment of brain chemistry, as in neurotransmitters.
• Neurophysiological malfunction of brain cells.{12}

When we ponder these models in the light of a Christian worldview, we find that none of them can stand alone. Each one taken separately reduces us to only one element, whereas a Christian worldview sees man holistically. Man is not to be seen solely as a product of his past, his thought life, his societal conditioning, or his biology. The one who is depressed should be approached as Christ would: as a whole person made in God’s image.

Depression and the Whole Person

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” These memorable phrases from Psalm 8 pose crucial questions in regard to the subject of depression. The answers we give to such questions will provide a beginning point for responding to those who are depressed. As Leslie Stevenson has written, “The prescription for a problem depends on the diagnosis of the basic cause.”{13} A Christian is challenged to consider a prescription for depression that sees both the material and immaterial aspects of a total person. Such considerations lead to concerns as to whether one should take medication, submit to some type of psychological analysis, or simply trust God to provide healing. Or, as a prominent Christian psychiatrist asks, “Is [depression] a disease of the mind or of the body?”{14} Is it both/and, or either/or? These are issues that tend to stir controversy among Christians. Too frequently the controversy is focused on “clumsy clichés, …subtly damning exhortations, breezy banalities, and the latest idiocy in pop psychology. Or else…unnecessary pills.”{15}

The history of the church demonstrates that one of the reasons for such a response is found in an ancient struggle between Greek and Hebrew influences. More often than not we tend to side with the Greeks and divide humans “into a less important physical part (body and brain) and a more important immaterial part (mind and soul).”{16} This unbiblical division creates problems, because “just as music is more than the orchestra that plays it, so I am more than my body.”{17} I am also more than my mind and soul.

When this unity of human nature is ignored two extreme views can be found among Christians. “One is that we submit to all suffering, sickness, pain&mdashwhether mental or physical—as from God.”{18} The other asserts that “through the exercise of faith and by the power of Jesus’ name we can banish every sickness, every difficulty. Sickness, tragedy, pain must be resisted, for all come from Satan. Unhappiness is a sign of defeat and unbelief.”{19} This means that seeking help from physicians, psychologists, or psychiatrists “is a tacit admission that the resources in Christ and the Scripture are inadequate.”{20} Both of these views are too simplistic, but there are certainly elements of the truth in them. How can we reconcile them?

Quite simply and obviously, the one who is depressed should be treated as a whole person. Consider the statements of John White, a practicing Christian psychiatrist, author of a thought-provoking book on depression and suicide entitled The Masks of Melancholy, and many other books. He wrote:

I will no more treat mind as distinct from body than body as distinct from mind. By the grace of God I will treat persons, not pathology, sinners rather than syndromes, and individuals rather than illnesses. And however primitive our weapons may be, there are effective weapons and we must use them.{21}

As one who has fought with depression, I have come to realize the wisdom of Dr. White’s comments. The treatment I have received has come from family, friends, physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists who understand how God has created us. Their compassionate, godly responses to my struggle have been instrumental in my recovery. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of [them]” (Philippians 1:3). They were the Lord’s servants in my time of need.

Responding to Depression

Sarah’s husband has been isolating himself from her for several weeks. He won’t communicate with her. He doesn’t eat much. He shows no emotion other than a sense of sadness and gloom. He sits in the dark for hours. He has called his office several days to report he is taking a sick day. He does none of the things he once did that gave him a sense of joy and accomplishment. He shows no interest in making love with her. He has disappeared for hours in his car and will not say where he has been. Sarah wonders if she has done something to upset him and is desperate to get him to talk with her so she can discover what is happening.

Perhaps this scenario is familiar to you or someone you know. How can we respond to such a crisis? How can we help the one who is depressed?

First, understand the difference between someone who is sad or disheartened and someone who is truly depressed. Sadness or a “blue mood” are experienced by most of us. Depression is much more debilitating and long-lasting. There are at least three levels of depression. One can be called major depression, which “is manifested by a combination of symptoms that interfere with the ability to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities.” Another, called dysthymia, is less severe but keeps one “from functioning at ‘full steam’ or from feeling good.” The third level is called manic-depressive, or bipolar depression. This “involves cycles of depression and elation or mania.”{22}

Second, if you believe someone is struggling continually with depression, encourage him or her to seek help. Suggest that your friend see a trusted pastor, counselor, or physician. The earlier you can suggest this, the better.

Third, at the first sign of depression, encourage conversation and then listen carefully. The deeper a person sinks into a depressed state, the more difficult it is to talk with anyone, even those she loves most. Make yourself available and gently pursue communication as often as you can. But leave time for silence when you are with her.

Fourth, give emotional support that indicates you are taking the person seriously. “Do not accuse the depressed person of faking illness or of laziness, or expect him or her ‘to snap out of it’.”{23}

Fifth, be an encourager. Affirm the one who is depressed with statements of truth about his character and abilities, as well as your love for him.

Sixth, if he will let you, pray for him in his presence.

Seventh, if you hear remarks about suicide, take them seriously and seek advice from an expert.

Eighth, act as a “mental mirror.” She probably isn’t thinking reasonably and is in need of gentle reminders of a clearer image of the world and herself.

Ninth, don’t chastise him if he expresses anger, even anger at God. Listen carefully to discover why he is angry and help him begin to think how he can best express that anger.

Tenth, on a larger scale, do what you can to develop an atmosphere in your church that allows one who is depressed to find trust, truth, and compassion.

These ten suggestions, as helpful as they can be, do not constitute the ultimate response to the depressed. We need to remember that ultimate healing rests in the hands of our loving God, who makes all things new.

Notes

1. Clark E. Barshinger, Lojan E. LaRowe, and Andres Tapia, “The Gospel According to Prozac,” Christianity Today (14 August, 1995), 35.
2. Siang-Yang Tan, “The ABCs of Depression: A Review of the Basics,” Christian Counseling Today (Fall 1995), 10.
3. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1967.
4. “Fighting the Stigma,” Newsweek (20 May 1996), 22-23.
5. F. Duane Lindsey, The Servant Songs (Chicago: Moody, 1985),
116.
6. The New Dictionary of Thoughts, 1936 ed., s.v. “Melancholy.”
7. Vera Phillips and Edwin Roberstson, J.B. Phillips: The Wounded
Healer
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 110.
8. John White, The Masks of Melancholy (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity, 1982), 77-82.
9. Ibid., 18.
10. The New Dictionary of Thoughts, s.v. “Despair.”
11. White, 25.
12. Ibid., 103-125.
13. Leslie Stevenson, Seven Theories of Human Nature (New York:
Oxford, 1987), 6.
14. White, 53.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 41.
17. Ibid., 45.
18. Ibid., 47.
19. Ibid., 49.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid., 220.
22. National Institute of Mental Health, “Depression: What you need to know” (Indianapolis: Eli Lilly, n.d.), 1-3.
23. Ibid., 9.

© 1998 Probe Ministries International