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Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/12/21
Sarah J. Robinson once believed her lifelong battle with depression made her a bad Christian. Now, the author of the new book I Love Jesus, but I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression (WaterBrook) is speaking out to help others understand that God is with them in their struggle toward wholeness and joy. Drawing from a decade of experience in ministry and the mental health field, she helps readers move past the poisonous notion that their battle with negative thoughts is an indication that God is displeased with them. Her message to strugglers is simple. You have nothing to be ashamed of – and, even in the darkest night, there is hope.
JWK: First of all, as someone who has been through depression himself, I can relate to your story and applaud your courage in sharing it to help others. I understand I Love Jesus, but I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression is based on an article you wrote that went viral with over 500,00 views. What led you to write the article – and were you surprised to find that it resonated with so many people?
Sarah J. Robinson: In the wake of some high-profile celebrity suicides, I grew frustrated with the hurtful comments I often saw in Christian circles about mental health. There are these myths that good Christians don’t struggle with mental illness, praying and reading the Bible can fix it, and we can just “choose joy” to overcome depression or anxiety. I channeled my frustration into that article, thinking a few people might read it, but the response was overwhelming. I was shocked that it resonated with so many, but it showed me that people are desperate to have honest conversations about faith and mental health.
JWK: What is “toxic theology,” how did it affect you and how did you find your way to a healthy, shame-free and empowering expression of faith?
SJR: I think of toxic theology as beliefs that work like poison in our lives, causing harm in both subtle and more obvious ways. For me, some of those beliefs were clearly damaging (God doesn’t love me). Others seemed rooted in truth, like the idea that God always blesses faithful followers with healing — but this discounted my lived experience and the clear biblical reality that God didn’t always remove suffering.
These beliefs wreaked havoc on my mental health and my relationship with God. They fed shame and thoughts of suicide and self-harm. But I eventually discovered that Scripture is full of stories where God chooses to walk through suffering with people instead of delivering them from it. Jesus didn’t always heal everyone (for example, at the pool of Bethesda in John 5, he healed one person out of multitudes). And so I began to discover a God who is present in our pain instead of always delivering us from it.
JWK: One of my favorite quotes from The Bible is “‘For I Know The Plans I Have For You’ Declares the Lord, ‘Plans to Prosper You and Not to Harm You, Plans to Give You Hope and a Future.'” How important is it to view God as loving you and on your side no matter your failures rather than as stern and punitive?
SJR: It’s crucial to believe God is unendingly kind, present, and full of love for you — but it’s very difficult for most of us to accept this truth. A Baylor University study quoted in the book How God Changes Your Brain found that 72% of Americans view God as harsh and judgmental instead of compassionate and kind. The problem is that viewing God as punitive is bad for our brains, making us more fearful and angry. But viewing God as compassionate grows parts of our brain linked to comfort, empathy, and peace. So it’s not only true to view God as loving, but better for our brains.
JWK: How helpful is positive prayer and gratitude in recovery?
SJR: In the darkness and fog of depression, it seems impossible to find any source of light. Reconnecting with anything positive, even in small ways, can help us cultivate hope. One effective way to do this is by meditating on the kindness and compassion of God, which helps us reconnect with his love. Making gratitude lists are also hugely helpful, especially when we focus on tiny, beautiful things that remind us of goodness in the world (a child’s laugh, a warm cup of tea, sunlight, etc.). The important thing is to practice both consistently — over time, they help rewire our brains to find hope more easily.
JWK: You note that some of the most powerful moments on your path toward healing happened because of encouraging words from friends or leaders. But you’ve also experienced people saying hurtful things about depression and anxiety. How important is it to forgive – both those who may have hurt or failed you in some way and yourself for, perhaps, not living up to your own standard of perfection?
SJR: Forgiveness is a loaded topic because we often (wrongly) think it absolves the person who hurt us of guilt and responsibility. It also doesn’t mean we allow the person who wounded us to do it again, especially in cases of abuse and significant betrayal.
Instead, practicing forgiveness helps us to release some of the pain and anger and move toward healing. It helps us draw better boundaries for ourselves and learn from the experience. And, especially when we forgive ourselves for not living up to impossible standards, we might realize we were doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.
JWK: In the book, you talk about difficult experiences with counselors who either weren’t well-equipped to help you or just weren’t the right fit. How can we get a sense of whether a therapist or counselor is going to be a good fit?
SJR: Make sure the therapist or counselor is licensed by your state and trained in the issues you need help with. PsychologyToday.com has a great tool that lets you search your area and filter by specializations you might need (i.e., experience with your diagnosis, trauma-informed, culturally competent, etc). Once you find a counselor you want to try, just commit to a few sessions to see if you feel heard, cared for, and safe enough when you speak with them. Three sessions is usually enough to see if it feels like the right fit; if not, try again with somebody else. It’s normal for it to take a few tries to find the right fit.
JWK: How important is it to find the balance between utilizing a counselor to keep you from getting lost in your thoughts and potentially acting in a way you’ll regret and not becoming overly reliant on other people to remain emotionally grounded? And how do you find and maintain that balance?
SJR: Good counselors have professional boundaries in place to make sure clients don’t get overly dependent on them in unhealthy ways. And effective therapy helps us develop and practice coping skills that keep us more emotionally grounded, even in the midst of severe depression. But in a moment of crisis, especially if we’re not sure we can keep ourselves safe, we should be quick to reach out to others without shame — counselors, friends, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or Crisis Text Line (Text HOME to 741741), or even heading to the emergency room.
JWK: You say the brain can be trained to replace negative self-defeating thoughts with positive empowering ones. First, how important is it to actually discern between the two and how did you learn to do it?
SJR: Most of us don’t really pay much attention to our thoughts, but they impact every moment of our lives. And, depression creates thoughts that are especially cruel and disempowering. Counseling helped me identify some of the vicious beliefs I held about myself, but then I had to practice “eavesdropping” on my thoughts as though I was listening to somebody else’s conversations. I was appalled. I would never say such harsh things to anybody else. So each time I noticed a negative thought, I would pause and say (out loud, if possible) something like, “It’s okay, you’re doing your best. You’re not a bad person for struggling. You’ve gotten through this before, and you will this time, too. You’re worth whatever it takes to get better.”
JWK: You talk about making a distinction between self-care and self-comfort. That reminds me of the line in Desiderata that reads “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” How important is it to find that balance between wholesome discipline and crippling perfectionism?
SJR: There are times we all need comfort — rest, a hot bath, a warm drink, an embrace. Self-care includes all those soothing experiences, but also considers our long-term wellbeing. It incorporates things that are good for us, but don’t always feel good in the moment, like eating well, moving our bodies, or consistently showing up to therapy. Crippling perfectionism, on the other hand, is voracious; nothing we do is ever enough, so we are filled with guilt and shame. That lovely quote speaks to a more gentle sense of self-care, balancing our long-term needs with the moments when we need some extra comfort — and letting go of guilt and shame for “not doing enough.”
JWK: What are some basic beginner steps you would recommend for those struggling with depression today?
SJR: It’s important to know that you can develop skills that make living with depression much more manageable, and that starts with having a good team around you. Talk to your doctor, get a referral to a psychiatrist if needed, and find a good therapist — these professionals can all help you get more healthy and build those skills.
As far as practical things you can do every day, practice speaking kindly to yourself, just like you would to a child you love deeply. When depression fills your mind with cruel thoughts, replace them with compassionate words. And try to find something tiny that helps you reconnect with joy — maybe a hobby, a walk in the sunshine, or making a gratitude list — and do that thing consistently. You won’t feel like it, and it may not help right away, but over time it will make a big difference.
JWK: What are some of the tools you personally use to maintain mental health?
SJR: Mental health isn’t just in our heads — it involves our whole lives, so I’ve found the best way to care for my mental health is to take a holistic approach. My tools include some obvious things, like medication/supplements as needed under the supervision of my doctor and going to therapy. But I also incorporate prayer and meditation, caring well for my body (rest, good nutrition, regular movement), cultivating healthy and supportive relationships, and lots of self-compassion. It’s taken me years to figure out how to incorporate all those tools, so don’t feel like you need to add them all at once.
JWK: What advice do you have for a person who has made progress but relapsed into old thought patterns and actions and struggles with guilt about that?
SJR: First, it’s incredibly normal to go through seasons of progress and relapse. Depression is often a cyclical illness, with periods of remission and recurrence of symptoms, so those hard seasons don’t necessarily mean you’re “backsliding.” When those old patterns pop up again for me, I remind myself of times I’ve come through them before, that God was with me then and will be with me now, and that I have better coping skills now.
I also fight the shame by intentionally talking to loved ones and my counselor about what old patterns are coming up, especially if thoughts of self-harm or suicide are involved. Being honest about what we’re struggling with often takes some of the power out of those thoughts and gets us the support we need to get through.
JWK: How can the church – and all of us – help someone experiencing clinical depression?
SJR: Those of us wrestling with clinical depression — or any mental illness — ultimately want to know we’re not alone and that it’s safe to open up. Churches and individuals can help us feel safe, seen, and cared for by normalizing mental health challenges, talking casually about counseling and therapy as positive things, and sharing about personal struggles with mental illness. Treating depression like any other illness can help, too: check in regularly with those struggling, offer to bring over a meal or drive them to an appointment, listen without judgment, or send a card. Simple gestures over time make a huge difference.
JWK: Finally, you have developed a ministry seeking to help others cultivate joy and find wholeness. How have your own struggles helped you in that – and has taking the principles you have learned over time to help others helped fortify them within yourself?
SJR: I truly believe the only reason I get to speak into the lives of others struggling with their mental health is because I am intimately acquainted with that same battle. I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, but I am so grateful the principles and tools I’ve learned now get to help others. And, as I share the things I’ve learned, it’s a constant reminder to keep practicing them in my own life, so it really has helped fortify them within myself.