It is far too easy to gloss over are the very real struggles that the people in the Bible endured. Though the ancients did not use words like depression and anxiety, it is obvious the writers knew about these conditions.
In Ecclesiastes 1:17-20, the writer says he ‘hated life’ and ‘completely despaired;’ he sounds pretty depressed to me. The writer of Ecclesiastes penned those words thousands of years ago, he could have been writing about today.
Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet; King Saul went stark raving mad; David experienced great emotional highs and lows. Isaiah experienced despair. Moses stuttered. The Bible doesn’t shy away from brain and neurological conditions such as depression, grief and anxiety, why should the Church?
More recently, Martin Luther famously suffered from depression, anxiety and OCD. He knew it; he had his own name for his condition (anfechtungen). He was so persuaded of his utter sinfulnesss that he compulsively, exhaustively went to confession.
Ultimately, Luther came to understand that man is spiritually broken, that his desire to compulsively confess was born not because he was the worst sinner to ever live, but that apart from God’s beneficent grace, no one can be worthy of Him. Where piety in Luther’s time—and even piety now—is judged by humans based on appearances, Luther knew in his bones that on his own, no matter what he did, he could never be thoroughly pious or righteous.
Luther’s depression and anxiety - that recurring audio reel in his mind and the minds of other depressed and anxious souls that tells its suffers that they are unworthy, unable, unlikeable, unredeemable, and every other ‘un’ imaginable—was THE personality warp that brought Luther to the heart of the gospel. His personal brokenness over sin, based on the faulty way his otherwise brilliant self was wired, was THE thing that allowed Luther to reach out to the Lord’s outstretched arm and grab hold.
Luther’s understanding of God’s Word and his personal quest for truth, at all costs, in time yielded a wholly new way of thinking about Christ’s sacrifice, individual responsibility and relationship with God.
I believe that the same thing can happen in our time. When a deep understanding of Scripture thoughtfully examines 21st century scientific breakthroughs, the result can yet be a profoundly new way of understanding the value of every person.
I am in no way suggesting that the suffering that comes with mental illness should be ignored or left untreated. What I am saying is that being wired to struggle with brain, and DNA-based illnesses is not a giant cosmic mistake. God allowed me to be wired for depression, anxiety and oh-so close to an Asperger’s diagnosis not for spite but for His purpose.
Could it be that we—the Church of the 21st century—are on the cusp of a leap in spiritual thinking, similar to Luther’s own understanding, when it comes to mental and neurologically-based conditions? Rather than continuing to condemn mental health struggles, western culture is embracing the idea that such struggles are part of life.
For such a time as this, those of us who deeply believe Him to be kind and true have our golden moment to help those who struggle with mental health conditions. This present second reformation will hopefully be the one that ends the stigma of mental health conditions, allowing those who are silently struggling to get the physical help they need, and the accompanying spiritual hope that has for too long been elusive.
Was God unkind to allow Luther to suffer his anfechtungen or to allow the writer of Ecclesiastes to despair of life? I don’t think so. Radical conditions are required to gain a radically new understanding of ourselves, and of God.
The kindness of God should not be underestimated.