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The brain is the final frontier of medical science.

There is so much about it that physicians have yet to discover. Sometimes, what is stated as fact is really only the best guess today.

The theories behind Alzheimer’s, for instance, lead one to believe that mental activity will slow it down or prevent it. However, I know people with the disease who were mentally active up to the moment before they had it. They played bridge regularly, enjoyed complex crossword puzzles and read extensively. So, be warned — this does not necessarily prevent the disease.

Depression is another grey area. For some years, medical experts have believed that serotonin levels are related to this malady. The Revd Jesse Johnson, a pastor at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and blogger at Cripplegate, recently heard a broadcast on NPR (America’s National Public Radio) which

astounded me so much I had to pull over to focus on it. Correspondent Alix Spiegel went on a quest to find the medical evidence that depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance. I’d encourage you to listen to the piece in all nine minutes of its radio glory, but here is a summary.

Spiegel begins by relating what happened to her when she was 17; she was so depressed she felt like she had a black hole in her chest. He parents took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, and she was told:

“The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.”

Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac …

Spiegel then takes the listener on a tour through the history of Prozac. She explains why it is used to fight depression. Ostensibly, depression can be caused by low levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain, and Prozac helps correct that. But Spiegel explains that this narrative—she calls it the “low serotonin story”—is propagated more for its simplicity than for its medical veracity …

Spiegel’s piece concludes with some startling admissions. One after another, the experts grant that there is no real evidence linking depression to low serotonin. Amazingly, they justify the propagation of the “low serotonin story” simply because it is easy to understand. In other words, it doesn’t have to be true to be helpful …

At the end of the broadcast, Spiegel concluded:

Unfortunately, the real story is complicated and, in a way, not all that reassuring. Researchers don’t really know what causes depression. They’re making progress, but they don’t know. That’s the real story.

Johnson said that the experts interviewed on NPR agreed that people suffering from depression feel better to a degree if they are told why they have it. So, giving them a reason can help their recovery.

Personally, I think that certain situations can depress some normally healthy people. Remove the person from the situation and their burden is often lifted. Unfortunately, if a work situation is causing depression, it’s not always that easy to leave or to find another job.

Mainline Protestant denominations can also create problems with their interpretations of the Bible, depriving people of deriving much-needed comfort and reassurance from it. Some Catholic theologians are also guilty of this.

Unfortunately, pietist churches might not be helping, either. One of the comments on Johnson’s post reveals that some churchgoers blame the person suffering from depression as being unrepentant and too inactive in the life of the church.  If only they would DO something, they would feel better.

However, some members of the clergy also suffer from depression.

Some sufferers find that a course in therapy helps give the sufferer an outlet during which they can explain what they are going through.

Most, though, opt for tablets, which are increasingly being prescribed. One of Johnson’s commenters, Matt Waymeyer, had this to say:

Back to the point of Jesse’s article, my wife and I were once counseling a young woman who was taking Prozac, and she told us very plainly: “Prozac doesn’t take away my sin—it just makes it easier to live with.” Interesting admission. In fact, the descriptions of Prozac and its effects often remind me of the wonder-drug “soma” in the classic 1932 novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Listen to the description of soma by the character Mustapha Mond toward the end of the novel:

“And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.”

I don’t intend to over-simplify a very complex issue—and for the record, I share Jesse’s view of never counseling someone to stop taking medication that was prescribed by a doctor—but the parallels are uncanny. And concerning.

One of Johnson’s readers, himself depressed, shared a link to an article from 2009 by Bob DeWaay, who was a pastor for many years and is still involved in discernment ministry. DeWaay points out that if more people took a Reformation approach to Scripture and really understood the doctrine of the means of grace, depression would be less of a problem.

He also takes issue with certain denominations’ emphasis on ‘doing something’ (emphases mine):

During my first ten years in Christian ministry I was committed to the power of the human will, and it proved to be one of the greatest failures in my life in ministry. That commitment dominated my counseling and preaching. I assumed that the human will was the key to everything from overcoming sin to freedom from demonic influence. I read books that went as far as speaking of the “sovereignty of the human will,” and I approved of them. I actually believed that when it came to doing something in the life of the believer, God was powerless to overcome the human will.

I was not alone in my delusion. The American evangelical movement committed itself to the power of the human will as early as the 19th century, when the teachings of Charles Finney turned the movement away from the doctrines of grace and toward the doctrine of human ability

Finney taught that all humans are fully able to obey God as they are; they just need to get motivated. His influence still holds considerable sway over most evangelicals. This includes how the gospel is presented, how people are counseled, how sermons are preached, and how people think about sanctification. Whether stated or not, most people think that Christianity is about motivating people to make better decisions. That is exactly how I thought.

This delusion was reinforced in the 20th century, when psychology found its way into evangelicalism. Psychology promised to uncover the secrets of human behavior by studying everything from the subconscious mind to events in early childhood. Researchers and others proposed diverse theories about human behavior, and most of these theories found their way into the church as psychology became a requirement for students in bible colleges and seminaries. This remains true to this day. One purpose of these theories is to unlock the secrets of why people make specific choices. In one way or another, most of the theories assume that something in a person’s past is the key issue that must be uncovered. Academia, business, and government have invested an unbelievable amount of money and effort to figure out why people do not make better choices in life.

I just purchased a book entitled Life’s Healing Choices,2 by John Baker, the founder of Celebrate Recovery. The book is based on Rick Warren’s series of sermons called “The Road to Recovery” that was based on the beatitudes. In the series, he interprets the beatitudes as “eight healing choices” that will lead to happiness.3 (Never mind the beatitudes themselves never speak about “choices.”) Incidentally, about six years before Warren preached his sermon series, Robert Schuller published The Be Happy Attitudes.4 Schuller uses the beatitudes to teach that if we change our attitudes we will find happiness. Baker and Warren teach that if we just change our choices we will find happiness ...

… sadly, the evangelical movement has become addicted to the flesh. For example, two of the larger evangelical mega-churches in our area use Theophostic counseling for their members. I have written about this before.7 Theophostic counseling theory claims that Christians’ present emotional responses are caused by their interpretation of first memory events. This false teaching effectively negates the one thing that Christians have that no one else does: freedom from our sinful past

There is nothing in the law that removes inward desires. Humans cannot keep the command not to have desires. Willpower does not remove desire.

That is why an inner work of the Holy Spirit is the only hope for sanctification. The Holy Spirit progressively gives the Christian new desires. Once the desire changes, the choices will follow. Desires drive choices; it is not the other way around. This is a rather simple concept.

DeWaay’s article is well worth reading in full — especially for those who are unfamiliar with the means of grace. He cites Paul’s and Peter’s letters, really bringing them to life.

DeWaay takes pastors to task:

The Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper so that we do not forget how we gained forgiveness. Pastors and elders of Christian churches are duty-bound to put the truth of the gospel and the whole counsel of God before congregations. Many, however, do not preach the gospel because they think preaching the Bible to Christians is not “practical.” But Peter tells us that to forget our purification from former sins would cause us to lack Christian virtues. Preaching the gospel to Christians is practical. God uses it to bring His Spirit to them and perform an inward work of grace …

Though some theologians do not believe prayer is a means of grace, there is good Biblical support for the idea that it is. Consider this passage: “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). We find grace at the throne of grace. Individual and corporate prayer are practices ordained by God that come with the promise of grace for our needs.

When I first started teaching the means of grace I found that most Christians had never heard of the concept or even the terminology. The idea is taught in Lutheran and Reformed theology, but American evangelicalism outside of those movements either has lost the doctrine of means of grace or has never had it. We find at our church that we must regularly teach about means of grace as new people come. Many come from various evangelical churches that had gone into the seeker movement. For the most part they had never heard of means of grace. I think the reason for this is the commitment to human willpower that has been so prevalent for so long.

Recapturing or becoming acquainted with what Scripture really says will bring us in touch with its truths. Neither a revisionist interpretation nor a semi-Pelagian one can help us, particularly the depressed Christian.

This isn’t to say that Bible study and prayer are a silver bullet for depression, but they certainly help in the long run to bring true peace of mind.

We can also help the depressed by continuing to be their friends and keeping in touch with them. A pleasant word and patient listening can be of benefit.

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