Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Prayer, Depression and Hope

Depression is in the news.
Depression statistics infographic Robin William's death is a reminder of what we already know. People all around us are quietly suffering more than we understand. Most everyone, I assume, has experienced depression of the non-clinical kind. That is to say, everyone has been really sad at some point. I know I have. I've even gone through long periods of what I would call unexplainable sadness. At the time I might have said I was depressed, but looking back I would say those were times when I was simply struggling with life, meaning, contentment...normal parts of growing up.

So I can't really claim that I've faced the worst that depression has to offer. But I do feel sympathy. I know what it feels like when my emotions seem out of control. When you are sad and you don't know why, you get angry with yourself. Your anger adds to the sadness, and it is a cycle that is hard to break. Worse, your human nature drives you away from the very things that might help you and toward the things that will definitely make it worse. Instead of confiding in friends and loved ones and bringing your pain out into the open you suppress. Your natural shyness becomes worse. You worry that you are making other people sad or letting them down. You become paranoid that people are rejecting you (when really they are just naturally responding to your aloofness). Maybe you can see all of this happening, but you feel helpless to stop it. You search for other ways to deal with the pain. Usually these are bad for you too. Drugs, alcohol, deviant behavior. They provide temporary relief, but ultimately make things worse.

What does prayer have to do with it? Well, I've spoken to people in Christian culture who have suffered clinical depression. One of the frustrations they often have is that church leaders generally resort to tried and true advice: "Just pray that God will make you happy." Gee, I hadn't thought of that. Here I am trying everything under the sun and I forgot that all I had to do was pray. 

I'm not saying we don't need to pray when we are depressed. I'm just saying that "Pray til you get happy," might not be the best advice.

The Atlantic Reported that...
A new study published in Sociology of Religion suggests that prayer can help ease people's anxiety, but whether it does so depends on the personality of the God they believe in. That is, whether someone has a relationship with what they perceive to be an angry, vengeful God or more of a friendly figure could determine whether prayer brings relief—or simply more stress.

The article goes on to suggest the correlation could go the other way (anxious people tend to blame God and therefore have a negative view).

Prayer may not be the end-all solution to depression, but it is clear that its usefulness is at least partially dependent on the way we do it. In Luke 11:1-13 Jesus tells some stories about how we should pray. Now from Jesus -- the most "spiritual" man who has ever lived, the holiest human ever, the miracle worker, rabbi of renown, the very Son of God -- you might expect a challenging word about prayer. You might think he would remind his disciples that prayer requires great discipline, intense focus, personal sacrifice, holy preparation, physical alacrity, and spiritual fitness. As I read these stories, Jesus does just the opposite. Jesus tries to unburden his students from worry about how God might react to their prayers. He reminds them that God is like a father but better. God is at least better than a lazy friend. Jesus paints a picture of a God who is willing and eager to hear our requests and give us just what we need. He is careful not to commit God to the status of wish-granter, but he fully encourages his disciples to persistently seek the intervention of God and faithfully expect good outcomes.

This brings us to Hope. That faithful expectation that God is good and will ultimately bring good outcomes is the root of the kind of prayer Jesus was teaching about. Hope is the antithesis of depression. Depression robs people of the hope they need to survive. Suicide (often) is like a death by starvation of the spirit. Even Christians who have their hope assured can suffer from a spiritual malnutrition caused by a squelching of that hope. Life circumstances, health issues, mental health issues, trauma, or outright spiritual oppression can make people feel hopeless even when they have great reason for hope. That is why it is so upsetting for the friends and family of a depressed person to see them suffering. It usually seems needless. It looks from the outside that they simply don't want to be happy. Robin Williams had more reason than most people to have a hopeful outlook on life, but for whatever reason perhaps he didn't feel hopeful enough to go on with life.

So how do you share hope with people who are hurting? Well, I don't think simply telling them there is hope is good enough. It is likely they have already told themselves, and perhaps they could make the rational argument that life isn't so bad. That doesn't necessarily get one closer to feeling hopeful. Experience has shown me that the best strategy for helping is human to human contact. What I mean is, there are some hurts that can only be relieved by the community. Some pain can only be worked out by the kind of prayer that happens while holding hands and sharing food. Some burdens con only be broken through the power of tears shed on another's behalf. Some oppression can only be dispersed by a posse of loving friends who intercede relentlessly. This isn't something you do to or for a depressed person. It is something you do with them. It is not easy or flippant to commit to such a thing, but it is loving. It honors Jesus. It glorifies God.