When evangelical leaders tell their flocks to Jesus harder, they’re not just hoping to fix declines in membership and cultural power. They’re also hoping the flocks will use that non-solution to fix serious mental illnesses—like depression. Today, I’ll show you how they think this process should work, why it never works, and why so many evangelicals keep trying it anyway.
(This post went live on Patreon on 6/20/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this!)
Depression hits everyone, including TRUE CHRISTIANS™
When I talk about depression, I’m not just talking about feeling blue sometimes. No, I mean actual depression, a mental illness that manifests as much as not giving a shit about absolutely anything as just feeling enormously sad.
It seems like we’ve suffered from depression ever since we became humans. Even the Ancient Greeks described depression in their writing. So did the Persians, centuries later.
Over at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) site, we learn that depression has a lot of different causes. It can, of course, manifest after a great loss, through loneliness, in the throes of addiction, or even amidst great hormonal upheavals like pregnancy and giving birth. Some people just seem more prone to developing depression as well.
For instance, if you ever see Renaissance-era portraits with a subject cradling his head in one hand, that’s a sign of an sensitive, learned, artistic personality. Back then, people thought artists and writers were naturally prone to depression, so that’s how they conveyed both the personality and the feelings. Here’s an example from 1540 by Moretto da Brescia:
(Also, if you see a Renaissance painting of a study with a beaker of water in the background, it’s there because they thought having clear water in one’s study would help alleviate negative feelings. That water is another hint about the subject’s education and sensitivity.)
At the National Library of Medicine, we find monoamine deficiency theory as one explanation for depression. In this theory, a shortage of serotonin and other neurotransmitters leads to depression. As well, stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines, which are signaling proteins that tell the brain to defend its meatsuit, can trigger depressed feelings. Perhaps ominously, the National Library of Medicine also hints that actual brain abnormalities and injuries can lead to depression. Those seem a lot harder to fix.
Alas, depression can affect anybody, including TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Their faith isn’t a shield against depression—or anything else.
The close association between Christianity and mental illness
One site, Psychiatric Times, points out that throughout the religion’s history, Christian organizations have tended to take charge of mental illness in general. One can see why. The Bible contains a whole lot of people suffering from mental illness—often cured through divine magic.
Deuteronomy 28:28-29 threatens divine smiting with mental illness as a punishment for disobedience:
The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.
Ouch! Meanwhile, 1 Samuel 6:14-16 tells us about Yahweh deliberately needling King Saul after his disobedience:
Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.” [New International Version]
In the New Testament, we find Jesus doing a lot more with mental illness, of course:
And Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. [Mark 1:34; see also Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 9:37-42 for lengthy accounts of demonic possessions that manifested as mental illness]
News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. [Matthew 4:24]
Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah. [Luke 4:41]
Back then, humans didn’t know much about how the brain works. They had a much smaller toolbox to use in diagnosing and treating mental illness. So it makes sense that people writing in the first century attributed mental illness to demonic attacks of various kinds, much like Old Testament writers had. Those writers couldn’t have Jesus telling people that demons don’t have anything to do with illness because they themselves didn’t know that. Their characterization of Jesus couldn’t offer any more wisdom than people of that time had. (That’s why he also fails to mention Germ Theory or to condemn slavery.)
Once again, I am struck with sadness to consider how poorly ancient books of mythology serve modern people seeking answers for real problems that require real-world intervention measures.
Why Christians should be able to cure depression when they Jesus harder
Almost universally, Christians believe that their god can work miracles. That includes magical healing of all ailments and injuries. Depression, as an ailment, therefore qualifies as heal-able.
Last time we talked about Jesusing, someone speculated that magic healing should extra-apply to invisible ailments like depression. And that’s absolutely true. Long ago, Christians reconciled themselves to doctors and dentists for physical problems. So they pray along with their cancer treatments, but they don’t tend to resort to prayer alone. To rationalize prayer’s utter lack of efficacy, they offer up hand-waving explanations like Jesus works through doctors to accomplish his miraculous healing. Even Billy Graham accepts and pushes such hand-waving:
Ultimately it was God who healed your husband, even if He used your husband’s doctors to help bring it about. As the Psalmist prayed, “I trust in you, Lord…. My times are in your hands” (Psalm 31:14, 15).
Look at it another way: What if people hadn’t prayed, and God hadn’t been at work in your husband’s body during that surgery? What hope would you have had then? The answer is clear: You wouldn’t have had any hope.
[Citation needed], for sure. But that’s how common this rationalization is throughout the Christ-o-sphere, and in evangelicalism particularly. (Here’s another example of it.)
Depression seems extra-healable to evangelicals because of their idolization of an inerrant Bible. One site called Hope Faith Prayer confidently declares that “Depression is a spirit.” They mean an evil spirit, of course: a demon. To them, depression being demon-provoked means it can be “fought with the Word of God.”
Even in the midst of blessings, people can have recurrent fits of depression. It comes in like a dark, heavy cloud. We pray, fast, or make resolutions, only to find it getting worse. That is because this cloud of depression is not mental; it is spiritual. It is called the spirit of heaviness.
They explain this idea using a Bible verse, Isaiah 61:3:
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. [King James Version]
Other translations word it differently: “the spirit of despair,” “a faint spirit,” and the like. But those guys like “the spirit of heaviness,” probably because it sounds totes ickie and evil. Then, they rip Joel 2:32 out of context to use it as a solution to depression:
And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered. [King James Version]
Of course, anyone who actually moseys over to the Bible and looks up Joel 2 will see that it’s not talking about delivering people from mental illness. That chapter is talking a vast world disaster that will happen on “the day of the LORD.” Many evangelicals think that means the end of the world. The chapter teaches that those who call on Yahweh will be protected from all the terrifying stuff happening to everyone else. That’s why so many other versions of Joel 2:32 use the word “escape” or “saved” instead of “delivered.”
But escape and saved don’t make much sense in the context of Jesus magically healing depression.
Jesus harder to cure depression!
The site’s grand solution to depression, then, is simple:
Meditate on scriptures like the one above and pray: “God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ – according to Your Word – I’m asking you to deliver me from this spirit of heaviness in Jesus Name.”
Once the depression lifts, because obviously it will, the site then instruct sufferers to “reprogram” themselves. Literally, sufferers must “cultivate a different outlook and way of thinking.” Yeah, I bet a lot of people wish it worked like that! If someone doesn’t manage to reprogram their mind, of course, it’ll be all their own fault once the depression returns:
God’s deliverance can set you free, but it is your responsibility to fight for your continued deliverance. Take control of your thoughts, and bring them under control and in line with the Word of God. Experience the glorious freedom and joy that God has for you.
See? It’s that easy.
The comments are a hoot. There, we find the author vigorously defending herself against accusations of plagiarism. Apparently, this was the exact approach prescribed by some big-name evangelical some years back. However, the comments also reveal a vast number of Christians suffering from depression. It doesn’t look like this approach works at all for them. I hope at least some of them found their way to real help eventually.
Elsewhere online, we see similar blame assigned to Christians, like in this Quora thread where someone expresses feeling constant anxiety and depression after converting:
As a new Christian, it is natural to feel a new sense of anxiety and fear over sin and hell, because your eyes have been opened. You see things more as they are, and the ugly side is truly ugly. But when you follow Christ you are saved from that, thru the sacrifice of Jesus, so you don’t need to fear it anymore.
If you are afraid because of something others are saying, then find other people to speak to, or a different church, or a different mentor (depending on where you’re hearing this fear-mongering), and spend some time in Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament.
Interestingly, it doesn’t look like the reply deals with depression at all.
Really: Don’t forget to Jesus harder!
Over at the Southern Baptist Convention’s subgroup, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), we find a cautious acceptance of medication and properly-harnessed fake Christian therapy. But while those measures are pursued, the sufferer must keep Jesusing as hard as they can:
An important part of a routine is maintaining spiritual disciplines. Due to the inability to focus and concentrate for long, Bible reading and prayer is often extremely difficult for the depressed person. That’s why they should keep reading and prayer short and simple. We can help by reading and praying with the person and encouraging them to tell God exactly how they feel and what they are thinking.
We must also point them to the objective truths of Scripture, rather than the subjective. Point them to the character of God, point them to the personal work of Christ, to justification, the cross, and the atonement. Let these objective truths really grab hold of their hearts and minds and the subjective will eventually come along in the wake.
Point them to the sympathy of Christ. He is the great high priest who himself has felt overwhelmed. He has known darkness, he has known fear. He is able to encourage us and support us in the midst of our deepest darkness and he eventually is able to take us out of it as well.
See? Obviously, Jesus super-wants to rescue his people from depression. Most of all, the ERLC wants depressed people to know that they can regain hope when they Jesus harder:
A depressed person feels hopeless. Give them hope. Help them to see this is a normal abnormality for a Christian living in a fallen world and a fallen body. [. . .]
Give them hope that they will actually be more useful after this than they were before it. Give them hope that they can glorify God in the darkness. And give them hope of the new heavens and the new earth in which God’s people will enjoy a new body, a new mind, a new heart, and new emotions.
I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I’ve known people who are/were. So I suspect that this advice would actually backfire catastrophically, rather than working to “give them hope.”
Framing depression as a spiritual battle, one curable through Jesusing harder
I wasn’t expecting Billy Graham’s website to offer much better advice, and it doesn’t. A site that wants evangelicals to view even atheist doctors as somehow puppeted by Jesus to deliver divine healing is not going to have much to say about depression that’s useful to depressed people.
Their 2021 post isn’t written by Graham himself, of course, since he died back in 2018. But the person writing it, Gabrielle Redcay, tries her best to channel his ghost. She offers a five-part listicle for dealing with depression that somehow does not once mention even fake Christian counseling:
- “An enemy is fighting against you.” She means Satan, and she quotes Graham to explain why Christians seem to get depressed more often. Obviously, Satan wants them to feel bad so they leave TRUE CHRISTIANITY™!
- “Happiness and joy aren’t the same.” This creepy sentiment means that Christians should train themselves to focus on “a deep undercurrent of joy” rather than feeling “happiness.” That way, depression won’t have its sufferers “walking around in gloom.” Can’t have that! It wrecks recruitment attempts!
- “Spiritual disciplines will sometimes feel like disciplines.” Always Jesus harder. Don’t ever stop. I’m surprised it wasn’t the first item on the list!
- “God can bring good out of this situation.” She means that depressed Christians should make sure to talk about how great it is to Jesus harder even in the middle of depression. That way, heathens will totally be drawn in by the notion of “a Savior who sympathizes with our sorrows and wants to sit with us in the midst of them.” No, that totally won’t make heathens aware of how utterly useless Jesus is to real-life problems. Not at all!
- “You’re not alone.” She means that Christians should avail themselves of friends and “people [they] trust” for help and support. It’s interesting that the Bible verse she lists, Hebrews 4:15, specifically describes Jesus as the one making Christians not-alone, but this list item is about real-world people doing that.
This is such an incredibly irresponsible bunch of advice. And you just know that when someone says they’ve done all of that, they’ll just be blamed for doing it all wrong. Somehow.
What it looks like to Jesus harder to cure depression
Using the usual evangelical advice leads to predictably sad results.
On a young-adult evangelical site called YMI (which stands for Why Am I, for some reason), a young woman describes how she deals with her depression:
To combat depression, l’ve chosen not to take antidepressants; instead, l prefer to eat healthily and exercise. I try to avoid stress and seek professional help on a regular basis.
Ultimately, I believe in the power of the Great Doctor to heal. Thus, I spend lots of time reading the Bible and memorizing Scripture. Whenever l experience mental turmoil, I speak aloud the Bible verses that correspond to my situation [. . .] I believe these verses work within me as I speak them aloud and help me keep my focus on God. I also am grateful to have people in my church who pray regularly for me.
And that’s worked marvelously for her. Oh wait. Actually, it doesn’t work at all:
Many a night, l have lain awake and cried out to God in distress for healing.
When the darkness did not lift, l had to make a decision: If God wants me to endure this season, then l can either choose to love Him and trust that He will work out everything for my good (Romans 8:28), or l can turn away from Him and fend for myself. Considering that my life was a total mess before l entered into a relationship with Christ, the latter was a poor option.
She also acts like Jesus is absolutely going to grant her prayer requests—sooner or later, anyway, maybe, hopefully:
Though I believe that I will receive complete healing when Jesus returns again, l also believe that God can heal me today and wants me to enjoy life “to the full” (John 10:10) while I’m here on earth. Thus, l thank God for His goodness and present my prayers and petitions to Him (Philippians 4:6). Every day, l wait with hopeful expectation for deliverance (Micah 7:7).
After all, if she doesn’t act that way, then Jesus will get snotty and refuse to work any magic for her at all. She has to be all-in on belief or the magic pixie dust won’t work!
Of course, so far Jesus hasn’t done jack for her depression. And his lack of healing does get her down sometimes, especially when her depression stops her from getting anything done with the “writing ministry” she thinks he’s ordered her to run:
During such times, l ask myself why God doesn’t heal me so that l can do His work. However, when l consider the numerous individuals in the Bible whom God entrusted to further His Kingdom, who suffered from sorrow, anguish and desolation, I realize that if God can use them, surely He can use me? [. . .]
During the times when l sit emotionally (and physically) in the dark, l remember what God has spoken to me in the light: He will not test me beyond my endurance (1 Corinthians 10:13) and He will never fail me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). With these reminders in mind, l choose to trust, lean on, and rely on Him.
I guess all those Christians defeated by depression just weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like she is. Either that, or why yes absolutely Christians get hit all the time by circumstances beyond their endurance. I wonder if she’d be frightened by that idea. I know I was, when I thought like her and realized that truth myself.
She appears to visit a “Christian counselor” from her church community, but that effort doesn’t appear to have done her much good. I hope one day she finds her way to real help. If that includes medication, I hope she realizes that such medication is no different than high blood pressure meds or chemotherapy. It doesn’t mean she’s less of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to properly address all of her illnesses—including mental and emotional ones. Her suffering isn’t an expression of her piety. It’s just her refusing to do what she needs to do to get it dealt with so she can get on with her life.
Jesusing, in and of itself, does not protect Christians from depression
While Jesusing doesn’t protect Christians from depression by itself, some evidence supports the idea that religious or spiritual practices can help with depression. A lengthy 2012 review doesn’t differentiate between any religions or practices. But I did like this interesting callout:
Higher rates of depression in Pentecostals may be due to people with emotional problems self-selecting themselves into Pentecostal groups because of the latter’s strong focus on overcoming emotional problems (many uplifting hymns, strong emphasis on socialization, and positive content of sermons) . Another reason may be the strong emphasis placed on evangelism by Pentecostals, leading to drawing of members from lower socioeconomic groups that may be at high risk for depression and other mental illnesses .
Last time we met up, I told you about my friend Marf, who fought depression over and over again. The quoted bit up there absolutely described her and others like her (like me and my scorching PTSD, anger, and anxiety). And it perfectly describes the people who tended to convert to our faith, too. They tended not to be the 1%, that’s for sure.
Indeed, in Section 6 of the review talks about situations in which religious/spiritual people seem far more at risk of depression. If their expression of beliefs and practices focuses really hard on maintaining a happy, functional family, then if anything goes seriously wrong within the family that can bring on powerful depression. (Religious counseling for substance abuse doesn’t seem very effective, either.)
The review theorizes that depressed religious/spiritual people mostly benefit from having a community around themselves. Their social activities may help stave off depression or keep it from becoming overwhelming. The authors also speculate that religious/spiritual people may focus more on treating others well, staying away from delinquent vices, and cultivating healthy habits. It found other benefits as well, so I’m not saying religion/spirituality is totally useless in terms of mental illness.
However, I am saying that whatever good religion/spirituality can offer depressed people, none of it actually requires any gods to do anything for anybody. And that is good, because that’s exactly what’s going on.
I tried to Jesus harder, and it got me into more and more trouble
When I was in my late 20s/early 30s, I finally got diagnosed with a scorching case of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and got proper treatment for it. And very quickly, I made what even ChubbyEmu on YouTube would call “a full recovery.” Within the first few months, I began to see huge improvements with therapy and a mild SSRI medication.
Sure, I’ve struggled occasionally with PTSD since then. Of course I have. PTSD permanently altered my brain’s neurochemistry and wiring. It’s always gonna be something I have to watch out for. But it’s night and day different from before treatment. I’ve had no full-blown panic attacks in decades, and the exercises I’ve learned help me handle my anger and stress long before they get to the point of anxiety attacks and rage explosions.
PTSD had made my life hell since my teens. So for 15 years, I’d struggled with its effects. Jesusing only made PTSD worse. Every time I tried to Jesus my stress away, it worsened—probably because my brain could see what my consciousness could not, that none of this was actually helpful at all. I already knew better than to blame my anxiety and anger on demons, but sometimes—well, I couldn’t help but wonder.
Usually, though, I just agonized about why Jesus refused to cure me. He could cure anything with a single gesture. Why not cure this? Why was he putting someone so young through something this terrifying? My churchmates assured me that I was suffering for some grand reason. Their theory involved me becoming a more effective Christian counselor. Having already seen how piss-poor that field was, I was nowhere near as confident about that easy answer.
Regardless of the reason for my suffering, plunging myself into Jesusing—all those devotions and frenetic prayers and activities—didn’t help at all. They functioned as substitutes for what needed to happen. And as such, they only made matters worse. So I feel a great deal of sympathy for people like that YMI gal and Marf.
Their Dear Leaders taught them to do this. They belong to a system that gladly allows its followers to suffer if it means keeping them in the evangelical bubble forever.
Why religious leaders want the flocks to Jesus harder instead of seeking reality-based solutions
I can see why so many religious leaders push their followers to Jesus harder instead of seeking reality-based solutions to their needs.
In the very rare case of Jesusing correlating to less depression, then those leaders can crow about how helpful Jesus totally is. They parade that lucky person around for years to dazzle the rubes in the pews. The lesson implied: Do what that lucky person did, and you will get the same results. Unless you don’t. But if you do it right, you will.
On the other hand, if nothing gets better (or just gets worse), then the tribe can blame the sufferer for Jesusing wrong somehow.
That merry-go-round ride is only possible if sufferers stay in the Jesus theme park. If they leave the theme park to find real help, then they soon discover their entire religious worldview at risk of dissolving at the seams.
Best case scenario: Christianity is superfluous
As for me, I was already deconverted when I finally found real help for my PTSD. Even so, you can bet your bippy that getting real help made me look very critically at the faith system that had let me suffer for so long.
It was so painfully easy to see, in retrospect. No gods or demons or pixies had ever caused my PTSD. Rather, that illness was a natural and normal reaction to terrible things that had happened to me at a young age. Nor had any gods or supernatural agents cured my PTSD. Real therapy and medication provided the help and relief I’d always sought in religion. And I reckon depression operates much the same way.
As usual, the best thing one can say about any religion or spirituality is that whatever benefits it confers on those needing mental-health help, none of those things are uniquely and only found in their systems. So I’ll gladly take my chances without it.
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(Potential resources: Secular Therapy Project; Psychology Today’s state-by-state therapy listings – to find secular/nonreligious help, go to your state, select “More,” and it’s under “Faith.” If you don’t see it right off, click “Show More Faiths”. Also, Inclusive Therapists has a few listings for secular therapists. I have not used any of these services, so please do your research before hiring anybody. If you’re in an immediate crisis, you can dial 988 in the United States to get in touch with the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline.)