Depression, Robin Williams, and Pathetic Church Beliefs

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.

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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