This exchange takes place every Sunday, in every church in America:
“Hi! How are you today?”
“Fine, thanks, and you?”
“Oh, fine – everybody’s fine.”
The truth is, though, that most of us – if not all of us – are usually anything but “fine” on any given day of the week.
Perhaps your boss is a total jerk and you hate your job in general, or your marriage is headed for the rocks – again. Maybe there’s never enough money to pay all the bills, and it looks like little Johnny is headed for the alternative school for discipline problems.
In the hallowed sanctuary of the church, however, we’re all just “fine,” thank you very much.
Some of this is merely social convention; after all, not everyone needs to hear the gory details of whatever is going wrong in our lives. But the unfortunate reality is that most of us wear some kind of mask to hide our pain. Somehow we’ve bought the lie that being a Christian means never experiencing any kind of personal train wreck.
This is especially true when the train that has derailed is our emotional state, and we find ourselves depressed. All the other problems are external; when we are bold enough to share our stories, we find they are fairly common and nothing to be that mortified about. Others rally around us in support.
But when our hearts have grown dark and gloom stalks our minds, we feel the truth must be concealed. The problem, it seems, is not external but internal – there must be something wrong with us.
Acknowledging depression is particularly difficult in Christian circles. To admit to anything less than constant peace and joy is somehow a defeat for the “victory in Jesus” that we should all be experiencing. So we keep it all locked in the basement, afraid someone will discover what a mess our lives have become.
Maintaining the mask of happiness to hide our desperation takes a terrible toll. The startling suicide this week of comedian Robin Williams illustrates how little we often know about someone else’s interior struggles. The 88th Psalm expresses that private despair perfectly: “Darkness has become my only companion” (verse 18).
In order to numb the pain, we often turn to alcohol or drugs to take the edge off, compounding our troubles. Instead of relieving our pain, substance abuse merely intensifies our feelings of despair, leading to a downward spiral of further depression, more abuse and growing guilt.
We tell ourselves that if we just pray harder, read our Bibles more and resolve to “do better,” all will be well. But serious, lengthy depression can actually alter the chemistry in our brains, and telling ourselves (or having others tell us) to “snap out of it” is useless.
The biggest obstacle we face in this battle is finding the courage to tell the truth. It’s OK to admit we do not have it all together, that we’re not “fine.” In Galatians 6:2, Paul writes: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
God does not intend for us to fight these battles alone, and in addition to sharing our story with others, we should seek professional help from a licensed counselor.
Far from being an admission of failure, this is the first step in healing. If you or someone you love is dealing with depression, don’t delay in getting help. Know that God has already placed the right people in your life to lift you up.
THE REV. ED REES IS THE PASTOR OF ST. ANDREW PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AUGUSTA.