Monday, August 17, 2015

God as a Vending Machine

This morning I read Glennon Melton's most current blog post, about not trying to pray away mental illness any more than you might try to pray away physical illness. Her exact quote was, "If you wouldn't go to your minister for a mammogram, don't go to her for depression."

Now, before you get all outraged, neither Glennon nor I are suggesting that people not pray, or that God can't sending healing, or that ministers don't have a place in society. What we're saying is that mental illnesses-not transient feelings of sadness or worry, but crippling conditions like depression and anxiety--need to be seen for physical illnesses that they are. You can pray to God to cure your cancer, but you also need to see an oncologist. Sometimes God is healing you with a big whopping dose of chemo, or with an operation, or--dare I say it?--by gifting you with antidepressant medicine for the rest of your life.

I see more than one big, big, big problem with people relying on faith and prayer alone to cure for mental illness. The first is that prayer by itself isn't nearly as effective as medicine and real, non-faith-based therapy (there are some really cool therapies coming out of the latest findings in neuroscience--Google brainspotting for a start). The second is that people with untreated depression sometimes kill themselves, or abuse their children, or fail to thrive in many different ways that have permanent negative effects. The third is that when prayer alone doesn't work, mentally ill people can feel neglected by God--they can in fact be driven away from God.

The biggest problem, though, stems from the root thought behind this approach, which is the same as that behind the Prosperity Gospel (you know, where you pray to get lots of money, and ponies, and a Cadillac): it turns God, the divine incomprehensible Creator of all things seen and unseen, into a common vending machine. A vending machine in the service of humans.

Here's how it works: we deposit prayers, like coins. We chuck some prayers, some faith, some Bible verses, into our God vending machine, and we push the little button to select the result we want: health, wealth, children, a Cadillac. We push the button, and whoosh! a miracle cure, or a pony, falls into our hands. Or doesn't. If it doesn't, we throw in some more coins, and try again. The argument is that if we just put in coins enough, the machine will automatically cough up the prize.

This is not faith. This is the absence of faith. Faith is the sort of trust that says, Here's what I want, and I'm doing all I can as a human to get it, but God, I know everything isn't up to me, and in all cases Your will be done.

That's a hard sentence, because it doesn't guarantee you a prize. Ok, God, I'm doing everything I can do--using every gift you've given me, including medicine, including therapy--and I want to be well, but if it doesn't happen I trust that your understanding exceeds mine. I'm okay with whatever comes next. 

It's a hard sentence, but a hopeful one. It means that you don't have to worry about running out of coins. It means that you're allowed to use all the science at your disposal, and--this is important--it removes the shame from mental illness. Because while people aren't ashamed of having cancer, they're often still ashamed of becoming depressed.

When I fell to pieces, a decade ago, I said to my therapist, "Wait. You're saying that depression is caused by chemical irregularities in my brain. You're also saying that in my case my depression is caused by or made worse by my history of childhood abuse. In order for both of those things to be true, the abuse would have had to cause physical changes in my developing brain."

And she said, "Absolutely."

I felt this shimmering relief.

That was ten years ago; more recent neuroscience--a fascinating field, if it had existed when I was in college I very well might have majored in it--confirms and expands upon it.

And so, I went to weekly therapy for several years. I still have occasional sessions--a recent brainspotting one was absolutely amazing, and I'll certainly blog about it at some point. I take antidepressant medication every single day. I tried coming off it once; that was bad for everyone, my husband, my children, and me. I won't try it again.

I also take asthma medicine every single day. For years I struggled to keep my symptoms under control, but now with this new stuff, Advair, I'm doing great. I've had three separate physicians tell me that I was very lucky not to have died from asthma as a child. They weren't kidding. But now I'm able to exercise without a flare. I used to take four separate medications for several days in advance every time I competed cross-country. I haven't had to do that the last three years.

It's awesome, this healing. I thank God every day for it. But also, I take my medication. I'm pretty sure my faith in God requires that I do.