Preachers who’ve said depression is evidence of a ‘God-shaped hole’ need correcting, says Rend Collective’s Chris Llewellyn
I was three songs into our worship set before I finally regained composure. I was still in shock from having listened to the preacher’s message – the same preacher who welcomed me to the stage 15 minutes earlier.
His sermon began with the typical ice-breaking stand-up routine that easy-going younger preachers usually lead with – especially in the tough environment of a Christian music festival. Charisma and likeability oozed from the stage. So far, so good. He then steered towards a pretty traditional gospel appeal crafted from the Billy Graham template. Again, nothing that’s going to raise an eyebrow or distract me from my vocal warm-up. But the next words out of his mouth stunned me.
“Statistically I know that in an audience this size, many of you are struggling with anxiety and depression. These are symptoms of not having enough Jesus in your life. They are symptoms of a God-shaped hole in your spirit.”
My heart immediately broke for the Christians standing in that crowd who had now been served a side of toxic shame to go along with their mental health struggles.
I believe the preacher was well intentioned but I also think what he said constitutes spiritual abuse. Moreover, it dangerously undermines the reality of how mental health disorders should be treated and diagnosed.
There are some theological, and even just logical problems with this interpretation of depression. The scripture calls Jesus “a man of sorrows…acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV). He weeps in the garden of Gethsemane and his distress builds to the point of him declaring: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).
Would anyone be ready to suggest that Jesus’ anxiety was caused by a God-shaped hole in his life? Did the Messiah have some kind of spiritual deficiency? The prophets, too, have quite obvious depressive tendencies. Jeremiah, with his reputation as the “weeping prophet”, is the likely author of the cheerfully titled Lamentations. Elijah’s mental health plummets after his victory over the prophets of Baal. In a subsequent bout of burnout, he asks God to “take [his] life” (1 Kings 19:4-5). Even the overall malaise and discontent of the disputed author of Ecclesiastes has a quality you might associate with depression. “Everything is meaningless” is a repeated theme.
Rather than treating these characters as if they need spiritual intervention or repentance, the Bible consistently normalises mental health struggles by incorporating them into the fabric of its teaching – without any judgement. If anything, scripture highlights the insights and wisdom that can proceed from depressed people.
As a Christian, it goes without saying that I believe everyone needs God, regardless of their mental health status. My Pentecostal roots mean I believe Jesus heals today, as he did 2,000 years ago. God can bring joy and deliverance from all manner of conditions. God can bring the comfort of his presence into our experiences of depression and anxiety. He can transform the darkest of circumstances. But sometimes we need to go to a medical expert too – and that doesn’t make us bad Christians.
I strongly recommend that we all try to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. But sometimes we need to fill the therapist-shaped hole as well.