Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 02/04/2009 by Leslie Wiggins.
Recommended. Biblical and insightful, with only enough technical terms to be helpful.
Well-meaning Christians will try to explain how being a part of the Kingdom of God makes depression impossible for a believer. They may say, “Depression isn’t part of the abundant life Jesus promised his disciples. Depression isn’t mentioned as being a hallmark of God’s Kingdom.” While that may be true, the complete rule of God’s Kingdom on earth is still future. We still live under the curse of sin and death, and being God’s child does not make one impervious to it. As Dr. Ed Welch mentions in his book, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, even the whole creation is groaning as it waits for full redemption and renewal. But we are not bereft of hope.
In his Introduction, Welch, a counselor, faculty member and director of the School of Biblical Counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, shares the main premise, purpose, and suggestions for using his book. He is writing for both the depressed person and to the one who loves the depressed person. Welch explains, “If you are depressed, the chapters that follow are intended to be brief and, at times, provocative. If you want to help someone who is depressed, the chapters are intended to give you direction and to be used as actual readings you can share with the depressed person.”
Welch paints an accurate picture of depression: how it feels, how it looks, what it thinks, how it speaks, and where it leads. He gains the reader’s trust by demonstrating his understanding and compassion for the sufferer.
In a more technical chapter, Welch takes the reader through the many layers of depression. He provides the symptoms of depression, both major and dysthymic, as listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He explains, “Think of depression as a continuum of severity. On one end it is bothersome, at the other end debilitating. The less severe depression is technically called Dysthymic Disorder, the more severe, Major Depression.” He provides the characteristics of both types of depression so that the reader can determine with which one he or she suffers.
Welch offers one word of caution when it comes to diagnosing depression, particularly depression that may be caused by a chemical imbalance. He writes, “As you move toward the less severe end of the continuum, many assume that the causes are relationship problems, difficult circumstances, or negative thinking. As you move toward the more severe end, the popular theory is that the cause is a chemical imbalance. Don’t buy into these generalizations just yet.” The tendency is to believe that the problem is merely a physical one and that a pill will fix it. While medication may alleviate the symptoms of depression, it cannot treat the root causes (sin, relationship problems, beliefs about God, etc.). Welch writes, “Don’t let the technical, scientific diagnosis keep you from seeing these ordinary problems. Instead, when in doubt, expect to find ordinary humanness just below the surface, in the form of fear, anger, guilt, shame jealousy, wants, despair over loss, physical weaknesses and other problems that are present in every person. Depression is not always caused by these things, but it is always an occasion to consider them.”
In Part One, "Depression Is Suffering," Dr. Welch challenges the depressed person regarding what he or she believes about God. Depression can come as a result of a buildup of unconfessed sin. It can come as a result of a rift in an important relationship. The way a person deals with sin and painful events indicates what he believes about God. Welch helps the reader answer some most important questions: Why am I depressed? What is causing this? Do I deserve this? What role does God play in my depression? What role does Satan play? Where do I turn? How can I use the scripture? Does depression have a purpose? This portion of his book culminates in a stirring admonition to remember Jesus and to persevere.
In Part Two, "Listening to Depression," Dr. Welch guides the reader to listen to depression’s complex and emotional message, to dissect it. He explains, “Emotions have a history. To put a complex process as simply as possible, their history consists of two parts: (1) events outside of us, which include physical problems, and (2) beliefs, spiritual allegiances, and interpretations within us. The interaction of these two, over time, is what causes depression.” He carefully evaluates the human heart and the many ways we interpret events in light of what we believe. Finally, Welch explains how fear, anger, failure and shame, dashed hopes, guilt and legalism, and death play into depression. All of the aforementioned emotions teach us something about ourselves and what we believe about God. Welch goes on to share how the depressed can learn to trust God. Loving Christ is the key to breaking free from fear, anger, guilt and legalism, and thoughts of suicide.
In Part Three, "Other Help and Advice," Dr. Welch addresses treatment for depression, medical treatment in particular. Depression has become so common that possible treatments have proliferated. When choosing a treatment, Dr. Welch says, “The question with these physical treatments is not, ‘Is this treatment right or wrong?’ The question is, ‘Is this treatment wise?’ The guidelines of wisdom apply.” Welch suggests several strategies that have proven helpful for someone with depression, like following a realistic schedule, taking vitamins, regular exercise, and eating well. Part Three also includes a chapter of specific helps for family and friends of a depressed individual.
Part Four, "Hope and Joy: Thinking God’s Thoughts," is a straightforward encouragement to fight depression with understanding one’s place in God’s story, hope in God, thankfulness and joy in the Lord.
Dr. Welch expounds on several important spiritual truths. One is that we should not be so eager to avoid suffering and pain. If you are sad or depressed, then it’s important to find out why, but not necessarily so that you can make it stop. God uses suffering and trials to enlarge our souls, to teach us obedience, to conform us to the image of his son. It makes sense to yield to his authority over our lives and seek Him, to try to understand the lessons in the pain, and to seek deeper fellowship with him while we suffer through depression.
The second truth springs from the resurrection. The fact that Jesus rose from the grave offers depressed believers great hope and promise for the future. He writes, “All hopelessness is ultimately a denial of the resurrection…the resurrection trumps death, sin, misery and everything touched by the curse.” Welch explains that depressed people tend to cast off hope and rewrite their lives outside of God’s story. Welch encourages the depressed person to stop being afraid of hope and to embrace his place within God’s greater story.
The third truth challenges conventional wisdom that tells a depressed individual to look within to figure out what makes him or her happy and do it. Instead, Welch reminds the reader of Jesus’ teaching that joy is found in serving and loving others, that those who find their lives end up losing them. While it may seem wise to insulate oneself from close relationships in order to eliminate pain, it will damage one’s soul. It is important to be able to feel emotions. Investing in the lives of others in some way, no matter how small, is a key to lifting depression.
The end of each chapter includes a portion entitled "Response." It is a bit of a summary, but Dr. Welch also provides simple exercises and a question or two to answer. Most of these are very personal, designed to reveal the heart.
Depression: A Stubborn Darkness proved to be very informative and encouraging to me. In addition to my struggles with mild depression, three individuals close to me struggle with bipolar disorder. This book provides the tools for engaging in meaningful, helpful conversation with someone who is depressed. While his writing is not always a soul-stirring, pastoral encouragement, Welch does offer expert spiritual wisdom and guidance. Depression may have its physical manifestations, but it is best addressed as a spiritual issue. I am glad I read this book. I think it will be one that I go to as a reference. I highly recommend it for counselors, anyone who experiences depression and for those who love someone who suffers with depression.