By Rev. Dr Simon Jooste
If Adam had not sinned in Paradise, he would have entered into a state of eternal embodied bliss. However, the story did not end that way. Instead, since the Fall of Adam and Eve death and decay have ravaged body and soul. Things are not the way they were supposed to be. All of humankind now suffers to some degree.
By the grace of God, life continued east of Eden. Shortly after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, God promised he would recreate a congregation of mankind for heaven. Yet, while that process of recreation and renewal has been guaranteed and set in motion by the coming of Christ, God’s people still await its consummation (Romans 8:19–25; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Revelation 21:1–4). In the tension of this already-and-not-yet age, God’s people wrestle to make sense of suffering (cf. Job; 2 Corinthians 12). In the case of depression, it is assumed to be a function of a mysterious combination of physical and spiritual causes, because we are body-and-soul creatures. Our humanity constitutes a psychosomatic unity. There is no divide between spirit/mind and matter. Physical causes stem from living in this fallen world and include innate personalities, fatigue, stress, disease and genetic predisposition. Spiritual causes arise from inhabiting a corrupted world in which one is at once the victim and the perpetrator of sinful behaviour. What is more, and of vital importance, is the reality of God’s loving chastisement behind the complex interplay of the physical and spiritual elements of depression (cf. the lament Psalms and Hebrews 12:3–11).
In this in-between age, God has provided medical technology as a mercy by which some degree of bodily health can be restored. It seems reasonable to extend this revitalisation to the treatment of depression. Prozac is a candidate for inclusion here. In other words, God has extended his mercy to all mankind through the provision of health care, while at the same time bestowing saving mercy upon believers through the gospel. Christians are responsible for making wise use of God’s mercies, while at the same time taking up their cross in a broken world bent on idolatrous perversion of the best of God’s gifts.
Suffering and spiritual growth
Suffering in general and depression in particular are not to be glamourised or sought out as good in isolation. And yet, “[s]uffering is an evil out of which the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus can bring good” (Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 2nd edition, page 7). Thus, we should always be in two minds about it. Suffering can neither be eliminated from human life nor written off as having no purpose. Jesus should be our model here. In Gethsemane, Jesus shrank from the suffering that was to come, but he accepted it as part of his calling and obedience (Matthew 26:36–42). Like Jesus, Christians are called to suffer for the sake of the kingdom (Luke 9:23; 1 Peter 1; James 1). “The suffering that comes is an evil, but the God who in Jesus has not abandoned us in that suffering can bring good from it for us as for Jesus.” (Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 2nd edition, page 13.)
By virtue of his union with Christ, the Christian’s life is tied to various forms of suffering (Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 1:16). He follows in the footsteps of his Saviour who drank the bitter cup to its dregs so that we might have life. The insignia of the cross, signified and sealed in baptism, is upon every Christian; suffering is a key ingredient to spiritual growth (Job; Psalm 119:67; 1 Peter 1:6–7). Only a regenerate Christian understands the “foolishness” of a suffering Messiah and the corresponding weakness and despised nature of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 1:18ff). The following are some more specific ways in which Scripture reveals the benefits of suffering, which includes depression.
First, suffering tends to deepen repentance by striping the Christian of self-sufficiency and in turn exercises the muscle of faith (Romans 7–8:1; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 12:9). Second, God uses suffering to produce an obedient faith in the believer (James 1:2–4; Romans 5:3–5). Suffering not only fashions the fruit of the Spirit individually, but benefits the local church at large: providing opportunities to love and be loved. Third, suffering teaches the believer about the already-not-yet tension of the Christian life. Fourth, and by way of summary, suffering teaches the Christian to look away from the fleeting pleasures of this world and live for God’s glory and his enjoyment, under his providential care (Psalm 73; 2 Timothy 2:10). Christians are cross-bearing pilgrims and exiles in this world with a heavenly citizenship (Colossians 3:1–4; 1 Peter 2; Hebrews 11:1). At the same time, they are called by God to contribute to and benefit from the fruits of common culture alongside unbelievers (1 Peter 1–2; Genesis 8–9; Romans 13).
However, because of the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, the Christian is not immune from believing the world’s script when it comes to suffering.
Coming in part 3: Navigating a culture of therapeutic narcissism
Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.
This is an edited version of an essay that was first published in the Stellenbosch Theological Journal 2018, volume 4, number 1.