This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon “Despair” preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday August 6-7, 2011.
“Can medication help me overcome a struggle with despair? Is taking medication a sign that I don’t trust God in the midst of my suffering? How would I know if my despair was biologically caused or if I were only taking medication to seek relief from the intensity of my despair?”
These questions (and the large number of related question) are big questions that touch many areas of life. There is a great deal of debate about these questions in both secular and Christian circles.
Let’s start by listening to two counselors our church trusts (David Powlison and Ed Welch) seek to answer several related questions: How does Biblical Counseling view psychiatric drugs? Can my body make me sin?
From this we can conclude that medication for despair (or other forms of physical and emotional suffering) is not a matter of right and wrong, but wise or unwise; good fit or bad fit based upon our personal struggle. That means that there is no universal answer for every reader of this blog.
There will be times when medication is the wise, good fit because a struggle has biological origins. There will be times when medication is the wise, good fit because it tames situational emotions to the point that biblical wisdom can be more effectively applied. There will be times when medication is unwise because it is used to numb life without asking questions that penetrate to the core of our lack of hope.
So that raises another question, “What would reasonable expectations be if I chose to take medication?” A simple answer (which is all blog posts allow) is that medication can reduce suffering, but it cannot give hope. Medication can alleviate pain, but it cannot produce joy. When we use medication to produce joy, that is called a drug high, and that is an unhealthy form of pharmacological escape.
Hope requires that life has meaning, purpose, and significance. We might even say that despair is simply the absence of hope. While medication may diminish the pain created by a hope void, it cannot fill the void. Only Christ can do that. So even if we decide it is wise and a good fit to take medication, we must continue to pursue the questions David Powlison alluded to in his video or we will merely move from feeling pain to feeling nothing. While this is progress, it is not a destination that will satisfy the human soul.
A short post like this can never answer the breadth of questions this subject raises, so I will conclude by offering two resources by Ed Welch for your continued reflection. The first is an article “Hope for the Depressed” which further examines what it means to seek hope and answers to the larger questions in the midst of depression.
The second is the book Blame It on the Brain? Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, and Disobedience. This book examines the mind-body relationships (how does that little immaterial voice in my head relate to my physical brain organ?) and then provides guidance on dividing life struggles into three categories: the brain did it (examples: Alzheimer’s and dementias); maybe the brain did it (examples: depression and attention deficit disorder); and the brain didn’t do it (homosexuality and alcoholism).
Based upon the subjects that Dr. Welch addresses, you can see that he does not attempt to tackle the full breadth of struggles for which the question of medication may arise. You can also see that there are some struggles (like the subject of this post: depression and despair) which he concludes may or may not have biological cause base depending on each individual who struggles.
What you will find in this book is a theologically-robust, clinically informed, readable treatment of the subject when medication is a wise path for Christians to take. You will also find guidance on how to ask the larger questions of relating to God in the midst of your struggle regardless of what you decide about medication.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Mental Illness and Medication” post which address other facets of this subject.