The Medicated Christian

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.

The Ultimate Buzzer Beater

You could make a good argument for certain days being the best “sports days” of the year.  Super Bowl Sunday seems as much a national holiday as any other day, for instance.  The Olympic diehards might have a case due to the global scale and rarity.  But, for my money, the opening days of the NCAA tournament have been just about as fun as any other.

Many young men could not begin to tell you the plot line of Cinderella or anything about glass slippers or muster up any verbal expressions of love in an anniversary or Valentine’s card, but with all the eloquence of Cyrano de Bergerac could rattle off who George Mason knocked off in ’06 en route to becoming a true “Cinderella story.”   Yes, this time of year is what they call March Madness – the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  You know it’s started when your husbands start using ridiculous phrases like “Yeah, baby!” and “Diaper Dandy” not because they’ve found some new-found enthusiasm to connect with your children, but because their new best and most annoying friend-for-the-month is now Dick Vitale.

March Madness always falls during the season of Lent in the church year.  It’s a season that carries a very different kind of enthusiasm.  And yet some parallels remain: It’s a long journey with a very specific climax.  There’s a thorough weeding out process to see who has “IT” to make it through to the end.  And there is a heart-warming, last-minute victory….a true Cinderella story.

Some of you may have already guessed, I’m talking about a man on a cross.  However, I’m not talking about THE man on the cross.  As the embodiment of God himself, it wouldn’t really be accurate to refer to Jesus as any sort of Cinderella story, although his victory did come as a surprise to all but himself.

The one I’m actually talking about here is the buzzer beater story of the man next to Jesus on the cross.

Technically, the Gospels tell us there were two men next to Jesus, on either side.   And according to Matthew’s Gospel, they BOTH hurled insults at Jesus as they were placed upon their crosses with him (Matt. 27:44).

But a few hours is all it took to melt one of their hearts.  Seeing the ridicule that Jesus faced despite his obvious innocence and hearing his humility and grace despite the unfair circumstances (Luke 23:24), one of the criminals changed.  If I witnessed firsthand a man face what Jesus faced and yet be so willing to forgive, I think I might be compelled to think he was beyond mere human myself.

Whatever moment it was that the Spirit penetrated the still-living criminal’s dead heart, without a doubt, it did happen. He couldn’t take the mockery of Jesus anymore.  He started expressing real fruits of faith as he rebuked those who insulted Jesus.  To the other criminal, he said, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41)  Then the criminal turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (v. 42)  At this, Jesus promised, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v. 43)

The implications of this dialogue are many and deep.  For starters, the immediacy of heaven for the departed is taught here (i.e. “today”).  The fact that entrance into heaven cannot be predicated by human merit is clearly taught here (i.e. how many “good works” do you honestly think the criminal racked up before he passed away?).  The simplicity of doctrinal understanding to be a saved child of God is evident (i.e. how many Bible passages do you think the criminal could legitimately recite or to what degree could he expound on complex doctrines).  For our purposes here today though, I’d like you to dwell on one point….as long as there is still breathing and brain waves, there’s still time.

If, upon the criminal experiencing Jesus for a few short hours, the Holy Spirit is big enough to operate on the heart of a hardened, wicked unbeliever who had been sentenced to state execution, don’t you dare think that God’s Spirit isn’t big enough for the challenge of operating on the heart of your atheist father, gay brother, suicidal sister, or apathetic husband.  They will experience Jesus through you.

I’m not going to offer you promises of false hope, but I’m also not going to allow you false, ungrounded pessimism either.  You and I have both seen God accomplish way too much to ever be pessimistic about what he’s capable of.

Upon Jesus’ cross, your sins, my sins, and all sins were paid for.  Mere feet away from that cross, arguably the most well-known last second victory ever was won.  But it won’t be the last.  There’s still time.

P.S. MSU over Ohio St., 76 -68.

The Power in Humility

We’ve just begun Lent, which is a season in the church year where Christians, to a degree, take up the role of Simon of Cyrene, the man who walked with Jesus and helped him carry his cross to Calvary (Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26; Mark 15:21).

There is some debate in church history as to what role Simon of Cyrene played in the early church.  Some have credited him with being the first African Christian, as his hometown of Cyrene in Libya, would have meant he was from northern Africa.  Some have suggested he was one of the five leading ministers working in Syrian Antioch, the great mission city from which Paul and Barnabas were sent off by the Holy Spirit to begin missionary journeys (Acts 13:1).  Regardless, Simon is a man who seems to display fairly unheralded service, which is ironic, in that he’s carrying the cross for the One who is the ultimate in unheralded service.

Consequently, Simon plays a large roll in the Lenten season.  He is a picture of humble service for Christ, eventually realizing that he is, more importantly, served by Christ.   His humble service mirroring Jesus’ humble service remains an essential component in the Christian faith.

True humility comes from looking at Jesus with his cross and understanding that if God’s Son had to die for me, even if no one else sinned, then I have no right to view myself as superior to anyone on the planet.  Until that point, I will only pity those I perceive to be lower than me.  However, when I view others as equals, then I can love them.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3)

I’ve never known this more personally than when I tried to take my (now) wife through adult instruction classes before we were married.  Adrian was a Christian from multiple church backgrounds.  However, I wanted to teach her something about Lutheran theology.  I thought I had all the points clearly mapped out.  I thought I had compelling arguments and vivid illustrations.  I thought there was no possible way she wouldn’t see things from my perspective.  I was naive and missing a very important factor in Christian instruction.

Reading between the lines, you may have sensed already that the problem was that I was arrogant.  While I knew Adrian was very intelligent, I was the seminary student.  And quite honestly, I may have accurately presented my points, but she perceived it as me trying to conquer her with God’s Word, not love her with God’s Word and lead her to a deeper understanding of truth.  My instruction was very unChristlike in that way.

You can call Jesus bold, courageous, and confident, but “arrogant” is one charge you simply cannot bring against a perfect man (God, in fact), who willingly gives up his life for those who are lesser than him, those who even murder him.

Adrian did not become a WELS member when I took her through instruction classes as a seminary student.  She did, however, eventually become a WELS member.  Of her own volition (and some slight prompting from me), she sought out a WELS church in which to take instruction classes, because she was still curious.  By the grace of God, she found a very faithful pastor whom she labeled as intelligent, funny, and kind, but most importantly….humble.  To him I am forever grateful.  While this pastor was unquestionably a talented guy who had more experience than me and I have no doubt did a better job of leading Adrian through classes than I did, the essential component to his instruction was his humility.

Having learned a lot from this pastor, to this day I’ve held to the belief that I don’t reserve the right to teach someone about Jesus unless I’m committed to humbly loving them like Jesus.

Some of you are really passionate about sharing Jesus.  Let’s face it, people who read Christian blogs are typically fairly zealous in their faith.  Please learn from my mistakes.  I know Jesus and his cross have forgiven my arrogance just as he’s forgiven your sins.  But now, as you invite someone to know Jesus this Easter, invite someone to experience the humble love and service of Jesus through you as well.

If grace really is grace, then we’re all equals who can treat each other as such.