The story of Job occupies a big chunk of the Old Testament. It is likely that – on top of everything else - he suffered from some kind of depression. His traumatic loses had overwhelmed him. Full of despair, he could not sleep or experience pleasure; he lostweight, his guts were in a knot and he longed to die.
Then three well-meaning friends arrived to bring comfort. They speak with authority and confidence, “Hey Job, what’s the real reason for your misery? What have you been up to?”
Then God turns up. And when he speaks, it is clear that Job is not to blame. Their theology is baloney and their psychology geared to hurt rather than heal.
In 1985 Steve Bloem was looking forward to a new job as a pastor to an evangelical church in North America. Then he became very seriously ill with depression, and he ended up pondering suicide as a way out. Broken Minds is his account of this and his wife’s experience of caring for him; it is also a serious study of mental illness from a biblical perspective and how Christians try to understand and treat it.
Many Christians tried to help Steve. Most of them ignorant or in denial of the biological aspect of mental illness, insisting that the real problem was probably sin or a failure to think positively. Steve and Robyn came to conclude that many of their friends – and the books that inspired them – were more like Job’s comforters; they brought pain and not healing.
Some of their comforters frowned on the use of medication. But when Steve cut down on his medicine the suicidal thoughts returned. Understandably, he takes a dim view of this.
You may truly believe that all medicines, or at least all antidepressants, are of the Devil. You may be able to convince the person to stop taking medicine, just as you might convince a diabetic to trust God instead of insulin. If you do either, you are betting someone’s life on the truth of your own particular theology. Are you willing to accept responsibility for sending another person to his or her death?1
The brain is a complicated organ and it can, like your pancreas, go wrong. When that happens you need medication just as a diabetic needs insulin. The bible is the word of God, but it is not a psychology textbook. Christians are making a serious mistake when they deny the biological causes of mental illness and use the Bible as a treatment manual.
The Puritans loved the Bible and some of them gave a great deal of thought to applying it to psychological problems in themselves and others. Some of their writings discuss the subtle differences between mental illnesses caused by biology and those with a more spiritual root; distinguishing between illnesses brought on by personal sin and those that are not.
Though he lived two hundred years later, the great Victorian preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, was in this tradition. On October 9th 1856 he was preaching to a crowd of 10,000 people when someone shouted ‘Fire!’ In the panic that followed seven people were killed and twenty-eight seriously injured. Spurgeon was permanently marked by the experience. Afflicted by depression all his life, after that awful Sunday he would occasionally be seized with an irrational apprehension of disaster.
“That awful night at Surrey Hall was responsible”, his wife wrote, “The delicate organism of his wonderful brain had sustained so much pressure, in some part of it, that any sudden fright would have power, for a moment or two, to disturb its balance”.
And that is the best description of a panic attack that you are ever likely to read. Just as a blow to the head causes brain damage, an emotional shock can cause mind damage. It’s important we get this right because, only the truth sets people free, falsehood makes things worse. This book is a good counterweight to Christian psychobabble - and to Job’s comforters.
1 Broken Minds, Steve and Robyn Bloem, Kregel, 2005, ISBN 0 8254 2118 7