Hope for the hopeless
Depression and faith can coexist
Writer Anne Lamott says she has two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” In the throes of depression, a person’s prayers may run more along the lines of, “Where the #@*% are you?”
Battling an amorphous disease whose symptoms consist of hopelessness and despair can send even the most steadfast believer into a cyclone of doubts. Rather than withdraw into the fear factory of one’s own mind, this week’s religious guests suggested a more proactive approach:
“Shake your fist at God,” advised Fred Schaeffer of Arden Christian Church. “Tell God you’re angry. He knows it, anyway. Might as well just go tell him, ‘God, you feel really far off.’ Through that you begin to feel closer to him.”
Schaeffer came to the ministry 18 years ago as a second career, after a stint in restaurant management. Arden Christian Church, where he is now interim pastor, is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which distinguishes itself as the first denomination founded on American soil. A recent Kansas transplant, Schaeffer’s still got the wide-eyed innocence of a new arrival. Luckily, he doesn’t feel too far from home. “Sacramento reminds me a whole lot of Kansas,” he said, “including the heat.”
Like Schaeffer, Mary Lynn Tobin has served 18 years as a reverend. She has watched Davis Community Church grow from the only Protestant (and Presbyterian) congregation in town to one of many, without losing its central place in the community. As for how she got into the ministry in the first place, Tobin recalled, “I think I was probably called really early in life, but I didn’t get it because I didn’t know any women who had been ordained.” It wasn’t until age 27, when she heard a laywoman preach, that her life came into focus. “I had a really dramatic, scales-fall-from-your-eyes kind of experience, and realized God was calling me directly into the ministry.”
Together, Tobin and Schaeffer helped dispel the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Christian with a perma-grin who insists that life is one blessing after another if you just love Jesus.
I am a middle-aged woman who has been diagnosed as depressed. I’ve always been a spiritual person, but within the past few years I have begun to seriously question my faith. It’s nothing specific I can put my finger on; just this nagging feeling that I am alone in the world and no amount of doctrine or fellowship brings comfort. How do I feel close to God when my life feels like it has no meaning or purpose?
Tobin began by explaining: “People who suffer from depression sometimes get the wrong idea that how they’re feeling is a sign of their spiritual health, and it’s not necessarily the same. We can be feeling down, we can be depressed, and that has nothing to do with how strong our faith is.”
“Oftentimes, whether we’re sick with depression or with cancer, it affects how we’re feeling about our faith,” Schaeffer reiterated. “Sometimes it will draw somebody closer. Sometimes it will draw them away and make them question. I would let the person know that questioning your faith is a part of faith.”
In fact, even pastors doubt from time to time.
“They go through rough times in the church, they get depressed, and they begin to question the call. It happens,” said Schaeffer.
Unlike some religious affiliations that discourage against anti-depressants, Schaeffer and Tobin were adamant that depression is an illness that can be treated.
“Some people get advice from well-meaning friends who are Christian, saying, ‘You shouldn’t take medicine; if you were strong enough in your faith you wouldn’t need medicine.’ That’s hogwash,” said Schaeffer.
“Do they not believe in medical care?” Tobin chimed in. “Would they tell a cancer patient, ‘Don’t get chemo’? Because that’s what [depression] is: an illness.”
Tobin’s church provides a mental-health support group, which helps people suffering from depression to “normalize their reality. Having six other people in the same room saying, ‘Yes, when I feel down, I feel like Jesus is a long way off,’ I think is very helpful for them.”
Simply acknowledging the common experience of suffering—and the unattainable illusion of saintly perfection—is a step toward healing. “The church is full of people who are depressed, angry, broken, struggling with depression, everything in the world,” said Tobin. “We’re not great people. We’re suffering people like everyone else. And we can come together and admit that and bless each other and be supportive.”
Both clergy agreed that the worst thing to do in a state of despair is withdraw from the world.
“It’s even more important for somebody suffering from depression to be with people, to be energized,” said Tobin.
And for those whose faith seems as fickle as a summer breeze, Tobin and Schaeffer offered some reassurance:
“There’s no ‘should’ to faith being strong,” Tobin said. “Faith is faith; you can’t put it on a continuum or scale. It’s where we put our trust. I’m putting my faith in the belief that this path that Jesus has laid out for me, which has to do with not being afraid of death—death meaning the many ways that we die in order to really truly live in the world—is the way to life, to wholeness. I would never say to someone, ‘You have to have a strong faith.’ Faith is faith; sometimes we feel like it’s strong, and sometimes it’s not.”
“I like to think this is a journey,” agreed Schaeffer. “There are peaks and valleys. Sometimes you want to pull away when things are bad, maybe out of fear that you’ve been bad and ‘God’s not gonna love me.’ That’s not the case. It’s unearned. God’s gonna love you no matter what.”
Tobin shared one of her favorite quotes: “‘Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.’ Doubts are what get us going. I tell people that annually I go through this ‘What am I doing?’ phase. It’s just part of my experience as a pastor. I certainly expect that others have doubts and questions, and those are the things that actually take us to a deeper place in our faith journey.
“I don’t believe there are any pat answers out there,” she continued. “I think there are mostly only questions. And we learn answers for now, and answers change as we have more experience with God.”
Schaeffer offered the flip side of the coin.
“Sometimes we have more questions with experience, too.”