God loves the brokenhearted
How do you feel when confronted by someone in your church who’s constantly down, and there doesn’t seem to be any real reason that you can think of? Do you get that strong inclination to slap him or her on the back and say, “Cheer up, God loves you” and walk away?
Because of my experience as a psychiatric R.N., and co-facilitator of a faith-based support group for people living with mood disorders called The Living Room, and having lived with depression myself, I can tell you that that just won’t work, regardless of how sincere you are. Even if you don’t have my “expert” knowledge, you may already know that.
You want to help those suffering with depression and reach out to the brokenhearted in your church, and yet you may be hesitant about what to say or do, or you get the sense that your help is being rejected.
You may feel like Job’s friends who start out by doing the right thing – keeping their mouths shut –but as the days dragged on, they couldn’t help themselves so they filled the void with jibber-jab. They tried to figure out his purpose in all of Job’s suffering. And they oversimplified a very complex situation. Don’t we often try to do that? We want to know why.
Despite how badly we want to, we can’t heal someone's deep depression. Often he or she require professional help including counselling and medication. But, we can be a source of comfort.
What we shouldn’t say:
· “You really need to get out more.”
· “God’s testing you.”
· “There must be sin in your life.”
Depression affects about twenty percent of our church families. One of the characteristics of deep depression is that whatever is read or heard is often interpreted in a cruel, self-critical way. For example, when my husband and I experienced infertility for 13 years, we felt quite depressed and judged by God and others. At the time, when some well-meaning person said to me, “God doesn’t make mistakes,” I interpreted it to mean that this person thought God saw my husband and I as unfit to parent.
Now that we have two lovely adopted children, and it is a win-win situation for them and us, and we feel God’s plan fulfilled, I smile in agreement when people say, “God is good. This was his plan all along.” Once my mood lifted, it didn’t really matter what anyone said to me. I interpreted it all in a good way. This is a common reaction.
The definition of chronic depression is a low mood disorder that lasts for three months or longer. Depression can be divided into mild, moderate and severe depending on duration and intensity. Clinical studies show that people suffering from mild to moderate depression and/or situational depression can benefit to some degree with lifestyle changes, exercise, change of scenery, attitude changes, reduction of sugar and toxins and other dietary changes. However, severe depression usually needs prescription medication and professional counselling. So, let’s be careful not to give advice like, “Go for a walk, mate, you’ll feel great.”
So, again, what do we do and say when someone is in the midst of misery? How long can you, like Job’s friends, remain silent? And the second question is, how beneficial is it to remain silent for long stretches? You obviously can’t stare at depressed people and hug them endlessly.
Acts of kindness always work. Flowers. Chocolates. Spending time with them in some sort of activity or inviting them to events, even if they decline, is helpful. Just knowing someone cares enough to take the time to be present can make someone feel God’s love.
Dr. John Toews is a Christian psychiatrist, author and public speaker who wrote the book, Mental Health and the Church. He still wrestles with chronic depression despite his knowledge, medical intervention and faith. During a lecture I attended, he cried while explaining what it is like to live with chronic depression. He said that sometimes before his lectures he goes to his hotel room and cries out and wrestles with God, fearful that he wouldn’t be able to do what is required of him.
He tells of a memorable moment when a lady in his church saw the depth of his suffering on a Sunday morning, went up to him, put her arms around him and said, “This is so unfair that this is happening to you.” He was overcome with her empathy and kindness. Hugging has proven to increase levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Plus, her words showed she understood.
Despite his suffering, he told God that he wouldn’t want him to remove his chronic depression if that meant he would also erase all the things he had learned through it and all the benefits. Because of his personal experience with depression, he is more empathetic with his patients, he is a better writer and speaker on the subject and is definitely more effective in his practice as a psychiatrist.
I was shocked! Then I started looking at my personal situation. If God would ask me if I would like him to take away my infertility, live my life over and grant me healthy biological children in my twenties when I wanted them - no grieving, no depression, no health issues, no struggles - but I would have to give up the benefits as well, I realized that I, too, would say, “Absolutely not!” Why not? Because my faith is stronger, my husband’s faith is stronger, our marriage is thriving and we are both more empathetic towards the cries of others. Besides, we have two lovely children whom we love as much any biological children we would have had. More importantly, these children may otherwise not have grown up in a good Christian home.
I decided to ask the members of the Living Room Support Group the same question. Would you wish to give up your mental health issues, plus all the benefits that came with it, if that is what God asked? They all said no.
In the Living Room support group we talk about our experiences of the previous two weeks. We send time discussing chosen Bible passages and articles that cover aspects of mood disorders such as loneliness, trust issues, isolation, living a significant life, following God's will, coping, insomnia, hopelessness and feeling judged. These articles were written by Marja Bergan, who suffers from bipolar disorder and is the founder of Living Room, and we also get inspiration from a Christian book of short stories called Hot Apple Cider and A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider edited by N.J. Lindquist and Wendy Elaine Nelles.
We help members of the group to look at the Bible texts in an uplifting way. One person who no longer attends church because of the lack of empathy he felt there said, “This is my church.”
If Jesus were in our midst, he would put his arms around the depressed person and say, “This is so unfair that this is happening to you.” He might cite Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
More information about the Living Room support Group can be found at livingroomsupport.org.
Glenda Dekkema, B.A., former R.N., is a public speaker and a writer on health issues. She lives in Stouffville, Ontario with her husband and two children.