We live in a pragmatic culture. Why do a thing unless you’re going to get something out of it? Why worship God unless you’re going to get something out of Him. And, of course, the false promises of the health and wealth gospel are a natural outgrowth.
We also live in a therapeutic culture. Promises about physical health aren’t enough. If you trust in God, you will also have perfect mental health. Are you depressed? Suffering from anxiety? Just trust in God! Darkness will melt into sunshine.
The problem is this. God never promised to give us health or wealth in this life. He promised he would take care of us and gave us many examples of how He does this. Some people like Solomon seemed to have a fairly easy life. God also cared for Jeremiah in his pit of mire, Job scraping his sores, Paul in prison, Jonathon dying on the battlefield, and Elijah hiding from Jezebel in the desert. Yes, he takes care of us, but it doesn’t match up with our American version of health and wealth. When He says He’ll take care of us, He means He will never leave or forsake us.
People can struggle with depression and anxiety even while they are turning to God. Christian may even grow weary in their struggle, and look on the outside like they are at the point of despair – like Jonah and Elijah. But to assume a person is not trusting God just because they are depressed is to assume God will give perfect mental health just because we are saved. Sometimes God allows a thorn in our flesh, and declares His grace sufficient. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
There’s another problem with assuming a person is suffering from these things simply because they don’t trust in God. What if God is giving them e-motions to put them in motion? Anxiety can be for all kind of sinful reasons. A people pleaser can’t please. A perfectionist can’t attain. A controlling person can’t control. Understanding the reason can lead to real repentance. Trying to repent from anxiety without understanding it leads to a never ending hamster wheel. Simply saying “trust in God” is abstract, and therefore unhelpful.
Of course, one could say that all these sins are examples of not trusting God, but the person doing them may not know that. A codependent people pleaser is going to think that trusting in God means they should continue to be walked all over like a doormat, and God will bless their sacrifices. A controlling person is going to think they need to get a better handle on things so they can obey better, because God blesses obedience. Even if a person does understand they are people pleasing or controlling, they may not know where the compulsion is coming from or how to fight it. Understanding the specific details of a person’s core problem is needed to really be helpful.
People can also suffer depression and anxiety for non-sinful reasons. For example, I once read about a man who suffered from social anxiety. He remembered being a little boy, hopping from one barefoot to the other on the hot cement in his family’s backyard. He was not allowed off the cement until the 30 minute timer buzzed. His mother watched sternly through the window. He had been a bad boy again. He wasn’t sure for what, but he knew he was evil. In reality, his mother was an arbitrary tyrant, but the little boy’s mind protected him from this knowledge. If he was bad, then he could choose to be good, and therefore he could choose to be safe. If she were bad, the universe was unthinkably terrifying.
As he grew older, the boy began seeing everyone else’s anger and judgement as always being his fault. And these faults he was committing were unimaginably bad, bad enough to be punished severely. He worked hard to please people, and whenever he failed, the shame was unbearable. Every failure seemed to prove his mother was right about him. His constant guilt attracted the controlling guilt trippers of the world, and the problem snowballed.
Well-meaning Christian exhorted him to ignore his “pride”, and hang out with people more. They would remind him that being reclusive was selfish. Yet, the more he socialized, the more anxiety ridden he would become. He was then rebuked for not trusting God. But he was going to God! He constantly asked for forgiveness, but it seemed God didn’t care about him. He still felt evil.
This pattern can play out in many different scenarios. Take the emotionally abused wife. As long as she is the problem in the relationship, she can solve the problem. “He’s looking at porn because I need to work out more,” or “He wouldn’t have hit me if I had been more gentle in my tone.” If he is the problem, she might get hurt again, but if she is the problem, she can do better and be safe. She is completely unaware she is doing this. So, rather than admit it, even to her conscious mind, she internalizes it and it comes out as anxiety attacks. And of course, she goes to God in her anxiety. Every. Single. Time.
When people tell her, “Just trust in God”, she misunderstand and works out more to be a good wife so he won’t look at porn. She uses gentle answers and a soft tone even while he rages in drunkenness and addiction. God’s word doesn’t seem to be working, and anxiety increases and she is rebuked even more for “not trusting God.”
When abuse happens, over time the neurons in the brain become damaged, and the brain begins seeing the world with a skewed perspective. Some might say, “Yes, but Jesus frees us from all that.” There’s that pragmatic health and wealth gospel again! He often does heal us from all that. Sometimes He’s in the midst of healing and sometimes he doesn’t on this side of eternity. He sometimes allow frailty “to make His glory known.” And often, he heals us from “all that” with the help of people who understand how to untangle a paradigm twisted from abuse.
Then there’s the biological depression, which has nothing to do with abuse. I knew a lady who struggled with debilitating depression for years, only to find out she had imbalanced hormones. Two weeks of hormone therapy and all her “sin issues” suddenly disappeared.
Depression is a symptom. It has many causes. Brushing a depressed person aside with, “Trust in God” is the same as brushing an overwhelmed cancer patient aside with the same.
Job’s friends were pretty sure they knew what they were saying. They had their theology down. They knew there was only one possible reason why Job lost his health and his wealth. He must have done something wrong. It must be a sin issue. He must not have been trusting in God like He should.
Elihu, on the other hand, listened carefully and waited to speak. He was the only counselor of whom God approved. I think he would have agreed with Solomon’s proverb: “A man who answers a matter before he knows it, it is a folly and a shame to him.” Elihu still rebuked Job, but his rebuke was accurate, humble, and gentle. The other men rebuked inaccurately and Job became defensive. They then took this defensive attitude as more proof of his guilt. This conversational pattern still happens today.
-Solomon (Proverbs 20:5)