Faith and Depression
The accusation that the Reformed faith is hard, unpleasant, and unsatisfactory for the human flesh and mind, is not new. Already at the great Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the Reformed faith had to be defended against those who considered it to be harsh and unjust.
What is said at the end of the Canons of Dort concerning the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints in particular, can be said of the entire Reformed faith, "Satan hates it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocrites abuse it, and the heretics oppose it." (Chapter V, Article 15).
Especially in our modern time, when humanism has permeated theology, the Reformed faith is seen as an insult to man. The very idea that God is sovereign and that man cannot contribute one ounce to his salvation, is flatly rejected and vehemently denied. The major trend is synergistic, the idea that God and man contribute equally in the one work of salvation.
Helpless but Guilty
Recently in the Netherlands a book was published titled Helpless But Guilty, in which the thesis is put forward that the Reformed faith must and does inevitably in many cases lead to depression.1 The author, a daughter of the late professor H. J. Schilder and a former member of the liberated Reformed churches, contends that the Reformed doctrine contains many dangerous elements which can only result in fear, depression, and disintegration.
The Reformed faith is said to contain a sad paradox: we must be perfect, yet we are unable to do any good. The faith sets high standards, but the believer fails repeatedly. In this sense the believer is helpless (for he cannot keep God's Law) and yet guilty (for he must keep God's Law). According to the author, it is this apparent contradiction which stimulates depressions.
The doctrines which are particularly odious are those of total depravity and unconditional election, for they tend to destroy a person's self-esteem and may even lead to a guilt complex and (in some cases) suicide. It seems that in psychological terms, the Reformed faith is very negative and counterproductive.
The Reformed confessions and liturgical forms are criticized severely as being terribly depressive. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, begins with the sin and misery of man, while the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper exhorts us to detest ourselves! In this way, the author contends, we are conditioned to think in negative terms about ourselves.
A More Optimistic View on Man?
It is clear that publications like the above demand a more positive, more optimistic view on man. We are told that man has more potential than just being totally depraved. We must return at least to the ideas of semi-Pelagianism: mankind may be sick, but we arestill able of ourselves to do much good, if we so desire.
Although the author does not make any direct references to the American "positive thinking" movement, she does mention Norman Vincent Peale and would fit in with this movement quite well. 2
Preachers like Robert Schuller, too, want to weed out anything that might damage a person's self-esteem. All depressive elements are to be banned completely. These writers also base their views on the presuppositions and conclusions of psychological theories.
It appears that the Reformed faith is being more and more attacked because of its possible effect on people. Although the author of this book admits somewhere that it is not the content of the Reformed faith as such which is depressive, but rather the manner in which it is understood, this admission does not really function much in her book. It is clearly an attack on the contents of the Reformed confession and the Scriptural doctrine concerning man. 3
The author concludes her book with a quote from Psalm 8, "Thou hast made (man) a little less than God." She contends that when we look at our high position and our great potential, we can overcome the depression which may be caused by the Reformed doctrine.
It should be stressed at this point that the assumption of such writers is totally wrong: the Reformed faith, which is in accordance with the Gospel, is not depressive at all, but, on the contrary, is the only faith which truly liberates a person from all that might be depressive!
The Gospel is the "good news" and the "glad tidings" concerning our salvation and renewal in Christ Jesus. It is indeed true that the Bible tells us that we are dead in ourselves and that we cannot save ourselves — and we must confess this from the heart — yet God "Who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Ephesians 2:4, 5). That is the warm heart of the apostolic teaching and the Reformed confession!
It is true that God maintains in our lives the demand that we must keep His law, even though we cannot — and it shall always be our striving to be perfect — but our salvation does not depend in any way on our works. "
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.Ephesians 2:8
In accordance with the Scriptures, the Reformed confession exhorts us time and again to seek and find everything in Christ who by His one and perfect sacrifice reconciled us to God forever.
It is Christ who restores us to our original calling and office, and who enables us by His Spirit to begin a new life again as children of God. Therefore, the life of a Christian can be characterized as a life of joy and happiness, as Paul writes to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice" (4:4).
The paradox is not that we are helpless but guilty, but that we are helpless and guilty, but still redeemed and restored, or as the Dutch Reformed psychiatrist P. Los put it, "Helpless and guilty, but accepted." 4
Hell-Fire and Brimstone
The above-mentioned book does open our eyes to the fact that a wrong application of the Reformed doctrine can lead to depressive factors. A one-sided usage of the Bible and the confession can bring about personal disintegration.
The author speaks of being constantly subjected to "hell-fire and brimstone" sermons in which the demand of obedience was stretched beyond the limit of endurance. In the prevailing atmosphere of a perfectionistic work ethic, good was never good enough. I also was a member of the Reformed churches (Liberated) in the Netherlands at the same time as the author, and we lived in the same city, but I never had such experiences. Depressions need not always come from outside influences; sometimes they come from inside a person.
Whenever the balanced perspective which the Reformed confession contains, is lost, the results are apparently disastrous. A victim of such an environment either develops a guilt-complex or seeks safety in hypocrisy. It may even lead to an outright rejection of the Reformed faith.
All this presents a tremendous challenge to parents, preachers and teachers: to proclaim and teach the Gospel in a joyous and comforting manner. A sermon should not consist of one long and endless admonition with sanctions, but always Christ must be in the centre as a perfect Redeemer. We should never use our creeds to insult or downgrade others, but we must always positively point out the great riches contained in the Reformed confessions.
The Reformed faith is not harsh, but it does call us to humble ourselves before God and seek everything in Christ our Lord. The Reformed faith is not depressive. As a true expression of the Gospel, it leads to happiness and peace. And it causes us to lead a meaningful life. Instead of being helpless, we become hopeful. Therefore it must always be presented in a manner which accords with its contents.