Depending on which study you read, somewhere around 20% of the United States’ population takes a psychiatric drug to treat “problems with emotions, nerves, or mental health.” The CDC claims that more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime and that 20% of Americans will experience mental illness each year. These numbers have been growing annually over the past decade.
Over the last decade of ministry, I’ve regularly received questions from church members about the rightness of Christians using such drugs. They express uneasiness about the relationship between faith in Christ and reliance on mental health medications. Some carry the weight of guilt and shame, seeking to hide their prescription so that others don’t look down on them. Many who have never experienced mental health issues struggle to understand the reasons why the people they love are seeking help through such means.
I have three simple principles that I try to share in response to such questions.
First, using medication is not sinful, nor does it indicate lack of faith. It’s important that we start here. The human body is complex. Scientists are still trying to understand all the intricate connections between mind, body, and soul. The suspicion that reliance on psychiatric drugs is wrong stems from the false notion that every human problem is purely a spiritual problem. However, we know this isn’t true. When you have a tooth ache, do you set up an appointment with a pastor? Of course not! You go to the dentist. When you have a headache, you ought to pray for God to alleviate the pain, but it’s probably a good idea to take a couple of Tylenols as well.
There are a variety of complex factors that could lead someone to have mental health struggles. For example, one in eight women will experience thyroid complications at some point in their lives. The thyroid gland regulates the body’s metabolism and growth by secreting powerful hormones. When the thyroid is not functioning correctly, secreting either not enough or too much of its hormones, it can drastically impact mood, energy, and outlook. Certain medications may be prescribed to compensate for the thyroid’s malfunction. Similarly, one in seven women develop postpartum depression shortly after giving birth. Again, this condition is related to rapid physical changes in the human body and may be treated with medications.
People struggling with mental health do not need added guilt. Medication is a gift from God—evidence of his common grace to all human beings. We ought to be thankful that common sicknesses that used to wipe out entire populations can now be treated easily and affordably. We also should be thankful that people wracked with anxiety and depression, struggling to keep their heads above water, can sometimes find immediate relief through medication.
Second, it’s possible to use medication sinfully. All good gifts can be perverted. The essence of sin involves human beings taking God’s good gifts and treating them as God-substitutes. When, for example, someone develops a dependence on pain medication long after the pain is gone, that person is in danger of idolatry. Idolatry can be defined in many ways, but I’ve always found Tim Keller’s definition most helpful: “anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
I’ve met people who would rather proclaim the excellencies of Xanax than the glory of the Triune God. We live in a culture of quick fixes. We dream of magic pills that can make us skinnier, smarter, and better able to cope with the sufferings of this world. There’s no such thing as a magic pill. Medication may help, but medication is never ultimate. To the degree that it does help, it’s just one of many components toward an ultimate solution, and God should receive the gratitude for any relief experienced.
Third, medication may help, but medication is never the only help you need. No matter how you got where you are, your relationship with God is always integral to finding the solution. God has created us to be in relationship with him. Through Christ, we receive forgiveness and salvation, but we also receive access to the throne of grace where we “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Medication can only be viewed rightly when we acknowledge that it is a gift from the Giver of all good things (James 1:17). As a Christian, you have far more powerful help available than pills. If you are in Christ, you have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).
The grace of God does not expire when the dark season of depression passes. It’s still there, preserving us through whatever our next challenge in life happens to be. As Peter reminds us, our inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4). Our Savior promises to never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). There will come a day when medications and counselors are no longer needed, but we will never outgrow our need to know Christ. And we will never cease to derive joy from our relationship with him.