This week I remembered a conversation I had with a woman many years ago. I had gone to teach a series on the family at a friend’s church in another state. She came up to me after the presentation and asked to talk with me. Of course, I said.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“Well, I feel like such a failure in my faith. I suffer from depression. It was affecting my marriage, my children, and most of all, my faith in God.”
“Why did you feel it made you a failure?” I inquired.
“I’ve tried everything. I prayed and prayed for God to take it away, but it didn’t leave. Finally I went to a psychiatrist and he put me on medication.”
“Did it help?”
“Oh, I started feeling better soon.”
“Are you still on it?”
“So why is that a problem, spiritually?”
“Well, it makes me feel like a failure, like I don’t have enough faith to overcome this on my own.”
“Ah, I see. Well, let’s consider this another way. First, when the book of James encourages those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil, anointing might be considered ancient medical treatment. In other words, pray and see the doctor. Then, let’s consider Jesus’ healing example. His healings were instantaneous. Nevertheless, I would never consider it to contradict the natural order, not if God created that order. Sometimes I tell people that doctors now do routinely and every day what Jesus did instantaneously and miraculously to their way of thinking.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“And then, think of this. The Apostle Paul had the same problem with something he called ‘his thorn in the flesh.” Was it depression? Vision issues? Epilepsy? Scholars don’t really know. And he prayed and prayed but God only said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ He believed, but he was left with trust. Not every question ends with an instant answer. He had to keep holding onto his faith. But the failure to solve it did not mean he had no faith in God. He was humbled by it.”
“Now, let me leave you with one more thought about this. Who created this world?”
“God, of course”
“And who is Lord over that world?”
“So who is responsible in this creation for the beauty of a creation where the body can heal itself through knowledge, insight, medicine and care? You see my point. Medicine, including anti-depressants, are not a substitute for faith. They are a gift of God. Think of taking your pill as a daily reminder, a humbling one, of the grace of God. Grace is the truth that we cannot save ourselves, heal ourselves, solve every problem or make it alone. Grace acts before we do. So think about your medicine as a daily act of faith, not a failure of faith. Your faith is not the problem. It’s a theology, a belief, that isn’t large enough for the truth. Open it up, and see God’s hand of care. You like your psychiatrist?”
“Oh, he’s wonderful. Talking to him helps me so much.”
“Then I would suggest you rejoice. God has answered your prayers. Take your medicine and thank God for it. If we could conjure up a miracle every time we needed one, we’d have replaced God I think. God has given us thinkers and researchers and people who give money and authorize systems of healing, all kinds of wonderful gifts. Or as folk theology sometimes puts it, we are His hands and feet in the world. This applies to science and medicine as much as anything else.”
And to paraphrase the gospels, “she went on her way rejoicing.”
I think if I know someone who is struggling with whether to take the vaccine or not, especially as an issue of faith, I’d have the same kind of conversation. I wouldn’t ridicule them for believing inadequately in magical religion any more than I would make fun of my granddaughters for believing childish ideas of God and the universe. What is the point of that? Besides, after all these years and education I’m still haunted by a magical idea or two myself.
I would try to help them think about their faith in a more mature way. I would try to understand which of the many anxieties was at the root of their fear. I would gently listen and offer some antidotes to bad religion with the real thing. And I would never stop caring for them.
I hope that’s what I would do. They are struggling with all the bad actors and shallow theology out there confusing the issue. The truth is this: this is God’s world as people of faith understand it. We are not simply waiting for the End, whatever that will be. Life is God’s gift, and medicine is one of God’s many blessings sent to us all in the lives of those who live it as a calling. Listen, learn. Pray about it if you need to, but be sure you pray in openness to the idea that what might need healing is not just the problem but a faith that needs to grow up some more.
That’s what I might do. How about you?