Depression, Robin Williams, and Pathetic Church Beliefs

Robin Williams. Talented. Funny. Wacky. Deep. Able to move from one subject to another without even taking a breath. Sometimes accused of being sentimental, although I always thought that he seemed to choose his roles carefully. I used to criticise him a bit – perhaps because I often saw him represent a shallow everything-will-be-ok, you’re-ok and I’m-ok modern liberal sort of philosophy so prevalent in our western culture. I realise now that he actually didn’t – in fact, now I think I get him. I was wrong. Badly wrong. But, of course, it’s too late.

In fact, if anything, the real shallow philosophy worth speaking about is the general church culture and hopelessly pathetic theology around depression. Yesterday when I read the news of Williams’ death and how he battled with depression I felt a jab in my heart. I’ve known too many people who’ve lost their lives to this disease. In fact, I think I know more people who’ve battled with this than any other disease, including cancer. And I’ve been a first-hand sufferer of it too.

If you’ve battled with depression you know – modern ideas of success and happiness miss the point. Motivational clichés lack power. I think Robin Williams knew that. I think that’s why he chose the film roles he did.

I know that feeling of being surrounded by friends and family and people who really do love you at a dinner table – and everyone is laughing – and you’re laughing – and suddenly, out of nowhere, something deep inside you changes. It’s hard to explain what it is, but heartbroken kind of does explain it. You literally feel like something inside is broken, as if you’ve just been cut open inside, and it burns. Before you realise it, you’re talking to yourself in your mind about how you’re really not worth anything – that it would be better if you just didn’t exist. All of your fears and your guilt and your absolute inability to win with anything crush any semblance of happiness inside. Some might call it an existential crisis, saying that everyone gets that, but here you’re having an experience where you wish life itself just didn’t exist.

It’s interesting to me that at the age of 63, Williams still hadn’t “gotten over it”. People who don’t really experience this sort of thing to this sort of degree perhaps don’t realise how “getting over it” and “think positively” and all the usual motivational nonsense means precious little. Motivational posters aren’t going to cut it, and your sayings like “your attitude determines your altitude” are just nonsense. And, (some) Christians, “praise music” is not a cure-all. At the wrong time it can do the very opposite to what you think and can diminish faith.

Good grief does this bring memories - Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam".
Good grief does this bring memories – Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam”.

While I don’t think I’ve ever suffered to the degree of others I know (including loved ones in my family) I do think I’ve suffered a bit more than I was ever comfortable admitting when I was going through my worst time. It was then that I realised just how shallow modern theology is – how so much of what we preach from the pulpit is geared for the winners and the successful and the strong and mighty and the able and the moral and the cool and the popular and the leaders.

So much of our modern day preaching is more to do with being a good leader and a success in life and taking it by the horns and being a good example and on and on and on it goes. You must be this, do that, look like this, act like that, and only then will God or anyone else take you seriously. It’s all a formula. People have built ministry empires around providing all the formulas to make you healthy, successful, and a strong, respected leader. Some has its place but most of it isn’t the gospel, it’s just shallow motivational-speak.

Ann Voskamp, in a recent blog post on the subject, says it perfectly when she says: “The Jesus I know never preached some Health Prosperity Gospel, some pseudo-good news that if you just pray well, sing well, worship well, live well and deposit all that into some Divine ATM — you get to take home a mind and body that are well. That’s not how the complex beauty of life unfolds.”

How true. But don’t think it’s just prosperity churches – evangelical churches can place such a big emphasis on leadership and success in that area that the result is fewer leaders, not more, because so many people feel they can’t make the grade, don’t have the right personality, or just don’t have the right ambitions in life. (Meanwhile, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 tells us to live a quiet life!) I often wonder if we now, in the evangelical church, have too many leaders and too little actual pastors. Pastoring is hard work. And thankless.

Over the years when I really had to face my depression head-on I realised that modern Christian pop-theology offers no real answer: it’s too shallow, full of clichés, and only seems to work for the strong. My depression did two things: one, it opened me up to a pornography addiction and, two, it (and the addiction) forced me to really get to the bottom of my faith. In a strange way, I’m thankful for it and even the addiction. It’s brought me to a place where I can say this with experience and conviction: what most people think Christianity is, it actually isn’t. What most people think Christian theology teaches, it actually doesn’t. What most people think Jesus was about, he wasn’t. 

In my struggles I discovered some funny things: Christianity isn’t for the winners at all. It’s not for the big names and the popular. God isn’t actually impressed with big leadership and big ambitions (although we certainly are!). He isn’t into categorising people. He also isn’t just into accepting everything about our sin. He it totally Other, yet we can know him. Jesus wasn’t a success by the world’s standards – he died without creating a political movement or creating a squeaky clean philosophy with all the answers. He himself had to cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46.) Read Lamentations and see how real Christianity can get. This is a faith full of promise and positivity without ever side-lining the reality of the brokenness of our world and the souls that live in it. Christian theology isn’t squeaky clean – it makes space for the questions and often only answers by saying: You don’t need answers. What you need is Presence. Intimacy and union with God.

Life is a romance – it’s full of heartbreak and it’s full of beauty. All at the same time. Often beauty and joy actually rise out of the heartbreak. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5.) There is something deeply perplexing about this and our rational mind finds difficulty in grasping it. It just doesn’t make sense. Yet, actually, it does, if we think of sense in the fullest meaning of the word. Christianity is both rational and experiential, just like life is; and ultimately just like God is. He is not all mind. He is not all spirit. He is a person. Once you come to accept mystery you come to find that mystery is actually far more rational than cold, hard logic.

Williams was an episcopalian, which he jokingly called “Catholic lite – half the religion, half the guilt!” My prayer is that somewhere in there he found Jesus and who he really is. Perhaps he never explored the depths of Christian theology and perhaps he had some other funny ideas, who knows? There is so much rubbish in this world I’m sure we all have some funny ideas that just aren’t true. But Christianity isn’t about knowing the facts but knowing the Person who is true – God the Father, revealed in Jesus Christ.

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22 thoughts on “Depression, Robin Williams, and Pathetic Church Beliefs”

  1. From someone who comes from a line of clinical depressives I have to disagree with the previous blunt disagreement. Keen to hear a standpoint though. *psst, hey! come back… we’re just a little depro, we’re not dangerous! 😉

    My grandfather was clinically depressed. He was healed instantaneously near the end of his life. My father is clinically depressed. He is not healed (he has an evidenced healing ministry by the way). I have bouts of rock bottom suicidal depression. I have been healed of other things including permanent hearing loss, but not this. We are three generations of God loving, church serving, deacons, pastors, and musicians. For all intents and purposes we are the hat-trick evidence of failed made man theology around depression. *or shall we up the ante with that whole awkward Matthew Warren speed bump too? shhhhhh… too much profile… there hasn’t been a single depressed mega church leader in all of time… except that one lady… but she killed herself years ago. *awkward silence*

    If the theology around depression were the same as the theology around amputees… we’d just ask folks to ride the church bicycle as if the hand was still there. Surely with enough faith and time, (and denial) the stump would render a new hand? N’est-ce pas?

    Thanks for this Ryan. There is freedom in what you have written!

    *Fortunately I attend a church with a firm understanding and acceptance of mental disease now! I’ve only had one or two recurrences of my depression in 3 years. Fancy that? Perhaps Jesus WAS teaching community after all?

    1. Thanks David – so interesting that since you’ve attended a church that has a firm understanding of mental disease things have been less hectic. That says a lot!

      The amputee analogy was brilliant!

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  3. Jonathan Marsden

    As someone who has suffered and endured depression for many, many years – I want to thank you for one of the most honest and accurate pieces I have ever read.
    It should be compulsory course work for anyone who breathes

  4. Great piece Ryan, been a battle for me too and have walked a similar road, … some liberating truths in there! The church by and large still has a long way to go getting to grips with this affliction and learning how not to sugar coat it with convenient canned theology!

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  6. Thank you Ryan for your vulnerability.This is not a response to any specific comment. The comments sparked some thoughts in me, which I share here on behalf of some (not all) pastors. Depression, pornography addiction, extra-marital affairs, trauma, death, illness, disappointment, fickleness, abuse; mental and physical, backstabbing, betrayal by close friends, emotional problems, family problems, financial pressure, barrenness, miscarriages, loneliness, misunderstanding, ingratitude. On top of this its staying buoyant, and hearing God for a nourishing spiritual meal for those in their care and mostly just not being able to find any ‘off’ button, 24/7, 52/12. And they must care for their own children, marriage, health, emotions. These are just some of the things church leaders have to deal with on a regular basis. Maybe your pastor has bouts of wishing he was with Jesus already. I know I certainly have at times.
    Everyone suffers at some point, and pain often causes us to want to react in anger; find someone to blame.
    Before we direct our missiles at ‘church’ or ‘the pulpit’ or ‘church leaders’ which really is not the church, but just its leader/s, as they set the tone and the teaching, remember that pastors are people too,certainly not immune to struggles,disillusionment and pain. Maybe they are the ones sitting at the table, suddenly feeling broken inside, wondering if their life is of any significance at all, but still smiling, as it seems expected of them. How do they measure their effectiveness/success?
    Years ago someone that had been coming to our church, committed suicide. She carefully planned everything for over a month, hiding it meticulously. One night she disappeared.Found overdosed in her car, to escape an abusive marriage. It was utterly shocking. More was to come, when a someone training to be a counsellor came to our house and literally blamed us for her death, because we had not referred them to her for counselling. Off she went after her barrage, leaving me with with weeks of deep emotional turmoil to wade through.(She came back about a year later to apologize but the damage was done)We had to ‘brave it’ through our own pain, because there were cookies to bake for Kitchen Teas, and there was Kids’ Ministry to organise…

    Of course we live in a troubled world. Jesus said we’d have a whole lot of that. But he also said we will rule and reign in life. Both statements are true.
    Try go easy. Try be gracious.Gracious…a forgotten word? Try be loving. Gentle. Kind.(Ah, kindness!) Be real. Try be redemptive..even just one of these would be good. Yes we are all face our battles, and no one else can fight them for us, but its nice to hear a brother say, ‘I have your back’ or offer you a glass of cold water in the heat of the battlefield. Struggles do draw us to a deeper place with the one who called us in the first place, into a relationship, even though at first they can seem to repel us from him. He is God, our hope. Father, Daddy, Pappa. His grace is enough.(no cliche)

    1. Thanks Jennifer. And thanks for the honesty! The kind of pressure many people do put on pastors is ridiculous. Here’s the thing: I’d follow an honest, even depressed, pastor any day. For me it’s the exact kind of thinking that forces a pastor to have to smile when things are going badly for them that’s the kind of thinking that needs to be addressed.

      I don’t want a pastor with shiny teeth, I want a pastor with a Bible and dirty hair who knows how to wrestle with God. I know how pastors have to deal with measuring success – you pretty much can’t. Your day is filled with so much random stuff that by the end of it it can feel as if you really didn’t do anything at all! Unfortunately, though, the pressure of success within modern church culture (perhaps thanks to the church growth movement) has made pastors needing to be the perfect image of a person who’s got it all together. But they don’t need to be. They don’t need to be a “success”, they just need to be real and in love with Jesus and their Bible and all the *actual* Biblical requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3 and other places. (Note: nothing there about having to have an amazing church that’s growing at light speed; looking the part; or even being a great preacher etc.).

      I work with pastors every day (I work for my church as a full-time deacon) and have plenty of friends who are full-time pastors. I know the struggle. I want to even be one myself one day, when the time is right! But I think your point is valid: you can’t blame some pastors for simply not knowing how to deal with depressed people in their church. I don’t. Many pastors I know don’t understand it fully, but they make an effort to have good theology, and subsequently they actually understand it very well. But I do blame pastors who are preoccupied with success and ambition and have a shallow theology on pretty much everything, regurgitating what they see / hear on TBN and what they read in the latest Christian best seller, etc. That sort of leading is not leading.

  7. Ja, I agree feeling repulsed by shallowness, regurgitation and secondhand revelation.Back to the original topic .Years ago I struggled with a bad bout of depression and ended up at the doctor. ‘Yes you are depressed,’ he confirmed. His answer, pills to help me relax. I refused wondering where that path ended up, and went home more depressed than ever. I literally felt bound up by invisible chains, and days went by before a light came on in my dark space. I was sitting, immobilized by my state of mind, on my couch when suddenly Holy Spirit had me speak out, not depression, but deliverance. I remember telling two spirits to leave me.One was depression. I felt dizzy for a moment as the thing left. There was something else he also had me chase out.(can’t remember its name) To do this, had not occurred to me before that. I learnt from that experience that its one thing to admit and acknowledge depression, but its another thing to agree that it has squatting rights, or to accept living under it. How can one live in peace with a terrorist. I know God’s heart is always to set the captive free. It didn’t leave me alone for ever after that, but over the years God has taught me and lifted me and set me free time and again.He has taught us to fight for heavenly atmospheres, and that applies to my head space too. God’s word makes us wiser than our enemies. Bless you, Ryan.

  8. You guys hit all the sensitive spots on the head for me! Praise God for His faithful Holy Spirit who leads us in Truth! Napier New Zealand
    Liezel Venter

  9. Ryan,
    I think your attack on the Church was…uncalled for. Pathetic church beliefs? Don’t let the Bridegroom hear you talk about His Bride like that.

    Anyone can attack the perceived weaknesses of others with their words, but that’s not what our Author and Finisher wants us to do.


    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for the comment and your honesty. This post was not an attack on the church – it is an attack on pathetic church “beliefs”. It’s a post primarily about theology. I’m afraid that when theology is bad, it is bad, and there’s pretty much no other way of saying it. In fact, better it’s said than kept quiet.

      The kind of theology in view here is mostly the shallow type of theology in a big part of the church today – the formula-based, principles, Pelagian kind of theology where if you can’t hold up you’re obviously not Christian enough. As I said in my post: “Over the years when I really had to face my depression head-on I realised that modern Christian pop-theology offers no real answer: it’s too shallow, full of clichés, and only seems to work for the strong.”

  10. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am experiencing problems with your RSS.
    I don?t know why I am unable to join it. Is there anyone
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