Joshua Graves
Exploring the Collision of Culture & Faith
Waking Up to Death: Depression and Death (Adam Graham)
January 21, 2014

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.– Jesus, Luke 5.31

*NOTE: GUEST POST by Adam Graham, budding writer and thinker in Nashville.

I don’t think depression was a big concern in the Garden of Eden.

“Naked and not ashamed” leads me to think Eve didn’t wrestle with anxiety about body image.

That came later, after our rebellion and separation from God, the author of life. It came after death, the ultimate meaning and consequence of being separated from God. Only in a world in rebellion to God’s good dream for the creation do we see death and it’s corollaries of decay, destruction, suffering, and illness (including mental illness). Mental illness is a symptom of a world that is not as it should be, a symptom of death having infiltrated life, of us not being as we should be.

And so now depression is a big concern for many, and wrestling with anxiety common. Amy Simpson in her new book Troubled Minds tells that one in four Americans meet criteria for a mental illness every year.

One in four.

Think about that next time you look down the row at church and see more than four people. What do we do with this? How are we as church to understand this?

In trying to understand mental illness, I think it’s easy to start by trying to find what or who is responsible. We’re not the first ones: “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind (depressed, schizophrenic)?” Jesus handles this question in John 9 with a rich story in which he reveals the illness to be an opportunity for the power of God to be displayed. God is seen through  the outer healing of the man’s eyes and the inner healing of his  purpose –  the poor forgotten beggar discovers a commission to testify and call to account the religious leaders. There is much we have to learn from this story. For now we can take Jesus’ lead in starting with a different question. Take Luke 5:

Jesus calls the tax collector Levi to come follow him. Levi does, and then throws a great banquet for Jesus, inviting his tax collector friends. The Pharisees complain, “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers with a proverb: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.Jesus starts out with a different question in response to humanity not being as we should be. As Fred Craddock points out, Jesus in this story lays out two sets of groups: the well and the sick, the saint and the sinner. And Jesus does so without addressing or indicting anyone. Every listener, including us, must decide whether we are well or sick, saint or sinner.

So what are we?

I imagine most would be quick to say that we are sinners, that we, unlike the Pharisees in Luke 5, can see our spiritual poverty and need for Jesus and repentance. But are we well or sick? That is, are we whole, living in the reality of who God created us to be? Or has the reality of death inflicted in us a deep (not just spiritual) poverty that aches for the healing of God?

We all at times wrestle with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, even beliefs that do not correspond well to reality and to which we are not that open to changing (the definition of a delusion). The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (the current authoritative source to diagnose a mental illness) describes symptoms that tend to occur together and draws a line stating that when the symptoms reach a certain intensity (usually vocational or social impairment, or clinically significant distress) it is considered a mental disorder. That is, the mental health community views mental health/illness as a continuum of experience with a subjective diagnostic line separating disorder from not disorder. A continuum which we all experience.

Why do I bring this up? Because understanding mental health/illness as a continuum is crucial, and because, for a variety of reasons, we don’t view it this way. We tend to take the subjective line that intersects the mental health continuum and use it to separate the continuum into two discrete boxes: healthy and sick. People don’t have the same experiences to different degrees, they are either well or mentally ill. Instead of continuity and connection along a continuum, there is separation and stigma. And it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick right?

It’s the “well ones,” (us right?), who bring healing to the sick. It is we, the healthy, who carry the mission of God to the ill. Two roles: givers and receivers. Two levels: powerful and weak. When mental health/illness shifts from a continuum to (unequal) boxes, we participate in the deeper wound of death: alienation – from others and from ourselves.

Think of it like this: it’s hard to hear God speaking through those with mental illness if they are just receivers of the mission of God, people to be served, people graciously invited to be an audience at church. It’s like trying to have a great jazz improv session without the bassist because he’s sitting in the audience and hasn’t been invited to join in on stage. In making the music of the kingdom of God, the church is too often missing the bass line. We alienate each other.

Or think of it like this: there’s a good reason Facebook pictures look good. We prize our personas, our public image. Part of us needs to show others that we have it all together. Part of us knows that naming and owning our own brokenness, our own experiences on the continuum of mental illness, would betray that we are one of the “sick ones.” And we know how we think about and treat “them.” By denying part of who we are, we alienate who we are from ourselves.

Jesus’ whole point in Luke 5 is that we are all sick, and it’s precisely those who realize their sickness who are able to receive healing. Healing that frees us to experience community from the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, and whatever experience of mental health/illness we have. The walls between us fall because Jesus tore down the wall between all of us and God. We then taste the goodness of Eden.

And so in humility we no longer regard one another from a human perspective, but as fellow redeemed image bearers of God, taking our place in the diverse unity of the church. We testify through our love and honor for each other that God comes to and in and through all people, giving hope to the world.

And our hope does not disappoint, because we know that when the Dream of God is restored, death and suffering and illness and alienation will be overcome, we will all be healed and whole and united.

Until the day dawns, we walk in faith, together.

I do not say this from a Pollyanna perspective of mental illness – mental difficulties are terrible and are by no means inherently spiritually deepening. Like cancer or diabetes, mental troubles are symptoms of a fallen world for which we long for healing. But also like cancer or diabetes, the suffering can open people to trust and connect with God in a way that others have not. Most importantly, we do not exclude people from speaking and giving in church because they have cancer or diabetes, if anything, we welcome their voice and perspective. From seven years of work with the severely mentally ill, I have seen the tragedy of it. It’s usually overwhelming. But I have also seen the power of God in who, to me, became schizophrenic prophets.

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