Dear Dr. Moore,
Not long ago, my doctor prescribed me as having a (relatively) mild form of depression. He put me on an anti-depressant. I hate the side effects, and I don’t like the way it makes me feel, but maybe I’ll get used to it. My biggest struggle is whether it is right to be on these at all. If I have the Holy Spirit, why do I need this drug? Is it ethical for a Christian to take drugs like this?
Dazed and Confused
First of all, you are right to seek medical help. Depression is not just unpleasant; it can be debilitating and dangerous, and it signals that something has gone wrong somewhere. Here are some things to think about.
God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. The body affects the psyche. Going without food, for example, or sleep will change the way one thinks or feels dramatically. And the psyche affects the body. We don’t “have” bodies or “have” psyches. We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.
It makes sense to me that biological and physiological factors often play a role in persons not seeing reality correctly. Some drugs can “fix” something that’s gone wrong. For example, a malfunctioning thyroid can be corrected by synthetic drugs that prompt the body to do what it’s designed to do. Most of the anti-depressants you see advertised on television don’t “fix” something, as much as they alleviate symptoms. They rework levels of serotonin or dopamine reception, for instance, so that a person doesn’t experience the same levels of sadness or dullness or hopelessness.
Often, even when depression or anxiety is rooted in non-physiological reasons, the person is so far gone that medication is necessary to start working on the root issues. But, remember, for most people, there is no drug that will bring about psychic flourishing. What the drug is meant to do is to “numb” the person to the pain of depression and anxiety.
Numbing, as part of an overall plan, can be a good thing. When I have a toothache, I want my dentist to give me an anesthetic so that I don’t feel that throbbing anymore. Before my tooth can be fixed, someone must “shut down” the agony I’m in, temporarily. But a dentist who simply “treats” my infected tooth with an anesthetic isn’t helping me. Ultimately, the tooth must be fixed.
It could be that your depression and anxiety is caused by something physiological. If so, continue your medical treatment and have that looked at. But it could be that there’s a reason for the sadness or the anxiety. Maybe you’ve recently lost a spouse or a job or a friend. If so, grieve over that loss. Maybe you’re anxious about a guilty conscience or about an uncertain future. Don’t just medicalize that anxiety. Rehearse the gospel you’ve embraced, and pray, alone and with others, and seek the kind of counsel that can bring about the necessary life-change to cope with whatever seems so hopeless right now.
Whether your depression is ultimately chemical or circumstantial, it is also important, I think, to start with a realistic picture of what “normal” is, what your end goal should look like. I know I have trouble seeing this clearly sometimes.
The “normal” human life isn’t what is marketed to us by the pharmaceutical industry or by the lives we see projected on movie screens, or, frankly, by a lot of Christian sermons and praise songs. The normal human life is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who sums up in himself everything it means to be human (Eph. 1:10). And the life of Christ presented to us in the Gospels is a life of joy, of fellowship, of celebration, but also of loneliness, of profound sadness, of lament, of grief, of anger, of suffering, all without sin.
As the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ, we don’t become giddy, or, much less, emotionally vacant. Instead, the Bible tells us we “groan” along with the persecuted creation around us (Rom. 8:23). We cry out with Jesus himself, experiencing with him often the agony of Gethsemane (Gal. 4:6; Mk. 14:36). And, paradoxically, along the way, we join Jesus in joy and peace (Gal. 5:22). A human emotional life is complicated, and a regenerated human emotional life is complicated too.
If your doctors are trying to get you to this kind of emotional holism, good. But if what you’re expecting is a kind of all-the-time emotional tranquility, you just might be passing up something that is part of the human condition itself.
There are some Christians who believe any psychiatric drug is a spiritual rejection of the Bible’s authority. I’m not one of them. But there are other Christians who seem to think, with the culture around us, that everything is material and can be solved by material means. I don’t think that’s right either.
Keep working with your doctors to treat your depression. If you’re not happy with the treatment or with the side-effects, seek some additional medical opinion, and listen for wisdom in a multitude of counselors. As you note in your question, sometimes the side-effects of these drugs are awful. Communicate with your doctor, and read up to ask the right kinds of questions.
But spend time too with those who know you and love you, and ask if there’s more behind this than simply serotonin reception. God doesn’t want you to be simply, in the words of one observer of the current pharmacological utopianism, “comfortably numb.” He wants you to be whole.