This past week I preached a sermon that addressed the relationship between pride and anxiety, and how ultimately Jesus is the cure to both. Within the sermon, I briefly broached the issue of Christians being medicated for anxiety. I knew this could be a potentially tricky topic, understanding that if my congregation is statistically “normal,” nearly a quarter to a third of them could be regularly taking some medication to help manage anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, use of antidepressant drugs has risen over 400% in the past 20 years. This is the most commonly prescribed medicine to individuals aged 18-44 today.
We live at a time when more and more life problems are attributed to brain-based dysfunction. In addition, I personally live in Rochester, MN, the home of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. The people I’ve encountered in recent years, on average, have had a higher view of the capabilities of medicine than others I’ve met. This is only natural in that they’ve seen medicine accomplish more than the average person. However, what that also potentially means is that the temptation to view medicine as god is perhaps stronger than elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, I had several people contact me with questions about the validity of Christians using psychoactive drugs after the sermon, so I assume it’s probably on the mind of many others. (If you’d like to listen to the sermon from 1 Peter 5:6-8, click The Gospel and Anxiety.)
Why am I qualified to address the issue?
Well, for starters, I’m trained as a pastor. I therefore believe that we humans are interconnected wholes, not just sacks of chemicals. If we indeed were merely chemical bags, then I suppose we could rightly expect that adding some chemicals to us could potentially fix us. However, if we’re more than that, body and spirit combined, then we probably need a more sophisticated treatment that, in addition to the bothersome behavioral glitches, regular worries, and aggravated attitudes we have, also addresses the root of all problem in the world – sin that exists in our hearts.
Secondly, long ago I was diagnosed with a fairly common anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). My symptoms began approximately 20 years ago. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I had great Christian parents. I knew plenty about Jesus and had a good education. I was not in any way abused and had a fairly cushy upbringing by most standards. I would simply suggest that I had a problem in my heart/thought that affected my mental physiology which may or may not be, in part, attributed to a genetic predisposition.
I learned to hide my symptoms quite well. Learning to actually manage and eventually conquer them was significantly more difficult. At various points in my life I have taken some medications to help alleviate the symptoms and therefore I am very familiar with the pros and cons of psychoactive medications and try to stay on top of current info surrounding them. To date, through a lot of pain, a lot of work, a lot of grace, and a lot of spiritual growth, my life is virtually unaffected by this disorder.
On top of all this, I should probably mention that OCD is unique in that the person who actually has it, as a byproduct of having it, often has the tendency to research it relentlessly. I remember a roommate in college reading a joke off the internet about how the first indicator that you have OCD is that you’ve read over 200 books on OCD. At the moment, I happened to be writing a paper on the topic and had approximately 25 books on my desk addressing anxiety, depression, and OCD. I thought, “Yep. Got me.”
So, to the heart of the issue…
Are Medications Good OR Evil?
I’d be a terrible hypocrite to suggest that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are evil. I think they are a tremendous gift from God and fortunately, the commonality of them today has all but erased the taboo that once surrounded them. Taking medication to relieve anxiety is no more shameful than taking an aspirin to relieve a headache. There is something chemically inside of you that isn’t right and it’s causing you a great deal of discomfort. The Apostle Paul encouraged a certain amount of physical and psychological medication when he told Timothy to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Tim 5:23). Obviously Paul’s not encouraging any form of drunkenness. But he knows Timothy’s stomach is bothering him, possibly due to stress, and this is causing both physical and (probably) psychological distress.
In general, when looking upon the healing component of Jesus’ ministry, it’s no doubt that relieving suffering is a an important part of his New Kingdom agenda. So, while there have been many Christian martyrs, there is no need for Christians to have masochistic martyr complexes. Use the resources that God has made available to you. And if someone wants to suggest that taking something (like SSRI’s & antidepressants) to reduce discomfort is sinful or “weak,” then that same person also needs to address how receiving medical treatment ranging from cancer medications to corrective lenses would not be sinful. That’s not a theological ledge you want to walk out on.
HOWEVER, all that said, as a Bible-believing pastor who understands the way the sinful human heart (an absolute idol factory) operates, I’d also be a terrible hypocrite if I did not suggest that many Christians occasionally have pursued the silver bullet, magic pill that will eliminate all of their anxiety. They do so failing to understand that this symptom (anxiety) is part of a larger problem. They do so without regarding the possibility that perhaps the anxiety they’re experiencing is there for a good reason. For instance, perhaps the anxiety is there as a result of failing to trust God’s promises. Spiritually speaking, in that situation, is it wise to numb that discomfort? Think about it like this….if a person commits murder, they will likely feel guilty. If they could take a pill that erased their guilt, should they take it? Or, is it appropriate and even healthy for that person to experience the guilt? Or, say a person breaks their leg and is on crutches. Eventually the doctor will want them to rehab to the point where they get rid of the crutches. That will hurt for a time, but if you don’t get rid of the crutches, the leg won’t heal correctly and the muscles will atrophy.
Similarly, while many improvements/alterations have been made to psychoactive medications over the years, the vast majority of improvements have not made them more effective, but have lessened the side effects. In other words, science hasn’t gotten any closer to the silver bullet, which shouldn’t surprise Christians, because the only thing that can truly, thoroughly, and ultimately cure our hearts is our Savior Jesus.
So, you see, medications are a wonderful blessing from God. However, just like any blessing from God, they can be abused….specifically this occurs in the case of those who believe the drugs will “cure” the unrest in their heart.
The Healthy Use of Medications
There is a great deal of debate regarding what exact effects psychoactive drugs have on brain chemistry. The average understanding of most people is that psychoactive drugs correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. But this is very difficult to prove. This, in part, is because there is no real way to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain. In other words, it’s not like taking a blood sample from a diabetic and regulating the glucose through insulin. Contrary to what some advertisements suggest, there are no guarantees with any of these medications and therefore “godly” expectations should not be placed upon them.
Personally, I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point of a pill that cures anxiety and depression, perhaps because they seem to be an essential part of the human experience. From a biblical standpoint, you could make the case that God allowed many of his children, including Jeremiah, Jonah, Elijah, David, and numerous others a certain amount of anxiety and depression not only for their own spiritual benefit, but also for the benefit of others. From a personal standpoint, I could make the case that had God not allowed my anxiety and depression, I don’t know that I’d still be a Christian today.
So, if Jesus is the Ultimate Suffering Servant of God, and if it really is God’s will that we experience “the fellowship of sharing in [Jesus’] sufferings” as Paul says in Phil 3:10, then maybe some suffering is part of God’s gracious will for our lives. Michael Emlet, author of Crosstalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet says:
“…while relieving suffering is a kingdom priority, seeking mere relief without a vision for God’s transforming agenda in the midst of suffering may short-circuit all that God wants to do in the person’s life. Another way of saying this is we should be glad for symptom relief but simultaneously look for the variegated fruit of the Spirit: perseverance in the midst of suffering, deeper trust in the Father’s love, more settled hope, love for fellow strugglers, gratitude, and more.” (The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 26 | Number 117)
Christians are free to use psychoactive medications to relieve their symptoms. For some, these medications function as “water wings” while we learn to swim. For others, medication might be a reality for the rest of life. That’s okay. A day comes when the Christian who struggles with anxiety and depression will know what the Apostle John saw in Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The decisions we make regarding our use of medication are to help us grow up in Jesus and faithfully move forward to that day. When that is the goal, the Christian can gratefully receive this blessing from God and look forward to a day, whether in this life or the next, when it is no longer necessary.