Saturday, October 5, 2013
Demons and Depression
Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him . . .
Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. I Samuel 16
Ascribing the cause of depression to "an evil spirit from the Lord" is roughly as convincing as ascribing it to "low serotonin levels;" that is, not convincing in the least, but certainly more imaginative and fraught with wonderful mythological potential. I'm not suggesting that low serotonin levels play no part in depression, but I'd really like to know what causes the low serotonin in the first place. According to webmd.com, scientists "don't know whether the dip in serotonin causes the depression, or the depression causes serotonin levels to drop." If it is the latter, and I suspect that it is, then we're right back to, well, who knows? Maybe evil spirits from the Lord. In Saul's case, that evil spirit was allegedly sent because of his disobedience to that same Lord. It was not low serotonin that caused Saul's depression, but his sin that upset God who sent the evil spirit that brought him misery that lowered his serotonin that triggered his depression. I don't know why he swallowed the fly, perhaps he'll die. Well, there's no perhaps about it, not for any of us, and this is just one of many reasonable causes of depression.
As one who struggled most of my life with chronic depression, I once believed that sin causes depression. I abandoned this belief around the time I abandoned my belief in God, and, partly as a consequence, that "demon from the Lord" started packing his bags. I have always known "big sinners" who are generally happy, and "good" people who struggle greatly with mood disorders. I think it likely that one primary cause of depression is wiring. Some of us are simply wired with this tendency (I, for example, have memories of being significantly depressed even as a preschooler). Others are wired mainly for cheerfulness. This is clear to us all from experience. Can "sin," or disappointment, or even despair over our behavior trigger long episodes of depression? Of course. But if one is wired for depression, the episode will likely be longer and deeper; likewise, if one is a psychopath, he will not suffer in the least over his destructive behavior. There are a number of evil spirits from the Lord that cause depression.
Scripture is a major cause of depression for many, Scripture that reveals the God who disapproves of them, watches their every move, and judges even their secret thoughts.* As Christopher Hitchens used to say, this is a "celestial North Korea." If the passages cited below are not sufficient to depress you, I can list many more (God sent me). And yes, there are many passages about grace, forgiveness, and love; but I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Christianity is one of the causes of the disease it purports to cure. Some will reply that the disease has simply always been there, and Christianity diagnoses, treats, and cures it. I say the damning voices of authority have both created and exacerbated the alleged disease called "sin." Many others of us can attest to a lifetime of guilt and self-disdain, and hence depression, originally built into us by the mantras our families learned in churches. It was nice of them to also offer Jesus, who forgives sin, who takes the punishment for our sin; but how much better to raise a child without threats of hell and promises of redemption, to teach responsibility, and not that the "wages of sin are death," but that the wages of sin are experience, wisdom, and humility, and, yes, harm, and, in extreme cases, death. This is not to say that there is no such thing as destructive or deplorable behavior, of course there is, but the concept of sin takes it to a whole other cosmic level, and it does not help at all to think of human behavior this way. Scripture makes for wonderful reading if you don't take it for the word of God--wonderful stories, fascinating mythology, horror stories, action, adventure, pathos, and genuine wisdom. Read it as the authoritative word of God, however, and it reduces itself to absurdity.
Scripture not only causes unwarranted guilt and depression, it also causes unwarranted cheerfulness and righteousness. If it has convinced you that you are a sinner bound for hell, and then equally convinced you that you are loved, forgiven, and bound for heaven, well, this might make you very happy indeed. And if you take the moral teachings contained in Scripture at face value, and you happen to agree with them and master one or two, this can certainly create an unwarranted and unearned sense of righteousness. Would that the Lord would send a good spirit to disabuse us of all these silly notions, and convince us that we are responsible for all of our actions, and for self-improvement, and, don't worry too much about failure, because there is no eternal punishment awaiting you.
May I play the lyre for you? May I drive this God who sends evil spirits, along with the spirits he sends, away? Here are some tunes that mitigate it for many: antidepressant medications, psychotherapy, the experience of grace or forgiveness (forgiving one's self and others, and seeking forgiveness from those we've actually harmed, not imaginary beings we couldn't harm if we tried), actual tunes--music can turn a mood like nothing else (hence the Saul story), love, insight, beauty, accomplishment, virtue, and for some of us, ceasing to believe in the God of Scripture who watches and weighs one's every thought and action.
God is like Tinkerbell: you have to believe and clap real hard to conjure him, and if you live in a culture that has been clapping and believing and conjuring for centuries, and then you clap and believe hard enough yourself, you will conjure that God. Make no mistake, the Tinkerbell effect exists, much like the placebo effect; our brains are amazing things. But back to Saul.
Why was Saul depressed? Why the evil spirit, the low serotonin, the long face? Because Saul had sinned; he had failed to properly carry out a divinely directed genocide. Yes, genocide . . . let that sink in. God's command: " . . . totally destroy all that belongs to [the Amalekites]. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." Saul neglected to kill all of the livestock, and the Amalekite King, Agag, whom the prophet Samuel later hacked to death in obedience to God. You don't need an evil spirit from the Lord to depress you when you can just open your Bible and read a passage like that. Better get some Prozac, put your ear buds in and listen to some Christian rock, or The Fray; maybe light up a joint, or pour a glass of wine . . . or just stop believing in nonsense.
* A few relevant passages:
You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence . . . --Psalm 90:8
I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve. Jer 17:10
Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? Jer 23:24
Your Father, who sees what is done in secret . . . Matt 6:4
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Matt 12:36-37
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. Luke 12:2-3
This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ. Romans 2:16
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. 1 Cor 4:5