Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Edward T. Welch, Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2004. Paperback, 279 pp. [Reviewed by Rev. Martyn McGeown.]
In the October 1, 2014 edition of the SB, I reviewed a book on depression, entitled Broken Minds by Steve and Robyn Bloem. Welch’s book takes a different approach, or, at least, has a different emphasis. While Welch does not discount that depression is a disease, his counsel in this book is mainly spiritual. Depression is a complex subject, and there is seldom a meeting of minds on the issue. I would advise readers interested in the subject to read both Bloem and Welch and compare their approaches.
Welch’s initial advice both for the depressed and his/her family is caution: “Depression is a form of suffering that can’t be reduced to one universal cause. This means that family and friends can’t rush in armed with THE answer. Instead, they must be willing to postpone swearing allegiance to a particular theory, and take time to know the depressed person and work together with him or her” (14). “Here is a suggestion: don’t commit yourself too quickly to one explanation. Granted, it’s something that begs for an answer, and there are more than enough interpretations from which to choose. But there are many causes of depression” (27).
The bottom-line for Welch—and herein lies comfort for the depressed and their loved ones—is that depression is suffering. That might not sound like comfort, but Welch encourages biblical thinking: “If you are familiar with Scripture, you should sense a ray of light. Without Scripture’s insights, suffering is random and senseless. When it comes, run fast! But Scripture is about suffering. It has given comfort to millions” (37). If depression is suffering, and if suffering is purposeful and even redemptive, depression is purposeful, and God can, and will, bring good out of it. That surely is good news!
Slowly and patiently, Welch works through his “depression is (purposeful) suffering” thesis. Be cautious: “For now, though, just orient yourself to seeing depression through the lens of suffering, and remember that suffering can come from a number of different causes. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly” (41). If God allows, and even sends suffering, the questions come thick and fast: “How could God allow such a painful, life-draining event in your life? How could such a God care? How could he be good? There are two ways to ask these questions. One is with a clenched fist; the other is with an open heart” (44).
Depression is not only a medical problem, argues Welch. It is not even mainly a medical problem. It is a form of suffering, and it is a human response to suffering. It involves the sufferer in real, painful, spiritual battles. Welch explains the cycle: “You are spiritually vulnerable. Your emotions are so powerful that they skew your interpretation. Satan attacks. You swear allegiance to your most pessimistic interpretation no matter what others say” (65).
Throughout the book, Welch relates depression to various virtues and vices, such as faith, hope, love, perseverance, fear, anger, idolatry, self-pity, bitterness, guilt and shame. It is possible to be depressed and have faith: “Don’t forget that depression casts its shadow on everything, even faith. As a result, faith won’t feel jubilant. But that doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t believe” (72).
In an important section, entitled “Listening to depression,” Welch examines different reasons for depression: other people, culture, and our own hearts. About culture, Welch writes, “Not only do we have to fight against our own sin, we also have to fight against aspects of the culture that applaud our sinful tendencies rather than rebuke them” (115). Examples from culture are the pressure of decisions, individualism, self-indulgence, and the idolizing of happiness.
Welch does not discount medical intervention altogether, but he recognizes its limitations: “They will not give you hope, but they might make you feel less miserable…. Antidepressant medication can make some people feel better…. Don’t put your hope in medication. Be thankful if it helps, but if it becomes just another place to put your hope instead of Jesus, you are just perpetuating the cycle of hopelessness” (210, 212).
There is also good advice for family and friends of the depressed. Sufferers tend to isolate themselves, making relationships difficult. Welch’s advice: “Consider this: nothing can keep us from loving other people—not the sins of others, not our infirmities, not our humanity. Certainly, such a task might seem impossible—and it is, if you ignore the cross of Jesus…. Resist depression on this point…. Plan to love” (220). Minister to the depressed person: “You don’t have to apologize for reading Scripture to the depressed person, praying with her, or looking for the Spirit’s work in everyday events…. The depressed person is loyal to his or her pessimistic interpretations; you must be loyal to a Christ-centred interpretation” (225). Ministering to the depressed requires wisdom and courage: “When depressed people interject their skewed and self-defeating interpretations of life, you can’t sit idly by. You need to challenge and interrupt their inaccurate interpretation because it is wrong and leads to deeper despair. This, of course, is normal behaviour in loving relationships. With depression, however, friends sometimes don’t pursue these normal interactions. Perhaps they are afraid that the depressed person will feel rejected…. As a result, depressed people are often handled very gingerly…. If you find that you are increasingly reluctant to say important things, reconsider your path” (227).
This book is not only useful for dealing with the depressed, but it also a valuable book for Christians who want to examine their own hearts and attitudes to life. It is a heart-searching book, which is a very good thing. You (even if you do not suffer from depression) will feel humbled by reading this book, and it will direct you again and again to the cross of Christ.
Which approach—the Bloems’ or Welch’s—is preferable? Both make valuable contributions, and both are worthwhile to read, whether for pastors, friends and families of depressed people, or for “ordinary” Christians who want a spiritual heart check-up. Depression is a complex, and emotive, subject. Read Welch’s book with and to a depressed loved one. As Welch would say, our primary duty toward the depressed, as with any neighbour, is love. Books like this one, when read and acted upon, help us to show that love to hurting saints.