Book Review: Depression, A Stubborn Darkness

Depression, A Stubborn Darkness, Edward T. Welch
Punch Press, Winston-Salem, North Carolina (2004)

If what he says in the book is an accurate gage, then Ed Welch cares deeply about depressed people. He has listened to them and has gone to great length to understand what the depressed person experiences. He describes depression as painful, a form of suffering, hard to understand, private and isolating, a pilgrimage, a black hole, a howling in the brain, and a malignant sadness, among many other things. He quotes dozens who have experienced depression and cites the well known examples of Spurgeon, Lincoln, Dante, and C. S. Lewis. Any depressed person who can muster up the energy to read this book will immediately relate to the kind of affliction Welch describes. Sadly, describing an affliction is not the same thing as helping. Commiserating is not counseling.

There are three fundamental failures in Welch’s approach to depression. The first is that Welch does not seem to understand what depression is. For Welch, depression is an imprecise and varied mixture of suffering (in its many forms), sadness, fear (chapter 15), anger (chapter 16), dashed hopes (chapter 17), failure, shame, low self worth (chapter 18), guilt, and legalism (chapter 19). He begins his attempt at defining depression by conceding that “the caretaker of the technical language for depression is the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and its diagnostic manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Welch then quotes the DSM-IV at length as the authoritative definition of depression.

The biblical counselor must have clearly in his mind exactly what depression is or he will be wasting countless hours helping counselees with a problem they do not have. If the issue is fear, then his fear should be addressed. If the problem is anger, or guilt, or any of the other components Welch envisions then each should be confronted as they arise from the gathered data. Let’s get it clear, depression is allowing how one feels, what one thinks, or one’s circumstances to become one’s reason to cease functioning in some aspect of life that God expects of us otherwise. It is a form of unbelief which says God is not sufficient for my situation.

The second failure is Welch’s misunderstanding of what causes depression. For Welch, depression can be caused by ourselves, other people, our own bodies, by Satan, culture, the world (which Welch defines as the “corporate flesh”), and even by God Himself (p 41). Again, the biblical counselor must be clear on this. None of these things can cause depression, they are only occasions for depression. The individual who is depressed is the cause of his own depression by how he evaluates each of these occasions and responds to them. He sinfully neglects a God given responsibility because he feels bad, his dog died, he lost his job, or any number of other reasons. His neglect makes him guilty before God and he feels guilty. The unpleasant guilt feelings, compounded with his initial “reason” makes him feel worse and gives him even more “reason” to neglect other responsibilities. It is this cycle of ever increasing sinful responses to ever increasing sinful choices that is the cause of depression.

Instead, Welch tells the depressed that even though he will certainly find sin in his life when he examines his heart carefully, “don’t think that this means that your sin is causing your depression” (p. 131).

The Apostle Paul was a man who had a number of occasions to experience depression as he reports in 2 Corinthians 11 and elsewhere. Yet it was his view that Christians, all Christians, not just himself, were not to be crushed or destroyed in their circumstances. No believer ever has cause to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). But for Welch, Paul’s victory over his circumstances only happens to some people who are more “constitutionally steady” than others (p. 111).

The third failure of the book should then be obvious. With no fundamental understanding of what depression is, or what causes it, we could hardly expect to find real answers or solutions and Welch offers none. It has been enough to commiserate and assure the counselee that others care and support him in his depression. His own responsibilities are minimized. The best he can do is offer suggestions to the person who is a victim of depression. His first suggestion for consideration? Medical help! (p 209ff). In chapter 23 he suggests some things others have found helpful and some “strategies to try” including borrow someone else’s faith (whatever that means), find ten positive qualities in a friend and write them down, take one aspect of creation (e.g. grass, a shrub, a squirrel, a leaf) and consider it until you can say it is good, and walk briskly as you can with another person. The depressed person is never confronted with his sin of neglected responsibilities or told to do what God requires of him regardless of how he feels.

A few other questions are in order. First, can we please let Mr. Spurgeon rest in peace? He is not an example of a good Christian man who was afflicted with depression all his life. He is an example of the kind of victory over depression God offers to those who will obey. His famous quotes about how he felt, especially after the great disaster at the Surry Garden Music Hall, serve to demonstrate that even in the midst of great anguish of soul we can still obey God and do what is pleasing to Him. While Spurgeon experienced physical pain and was tempted toward depression much of his life he was one of the most productive men for God’s glory history has ever seen. Feeling bad does not necessarily mean we must sinfully neglect our responsibilities before God.

Second, there is no such thing as “psychological pain” as Welch ascribes to Job (p 200). Pain is physical. Why is it necessary for believers to employ the jargon of those who deny the ability of God’s Word to meet the counselee’s need?

Finally, why is it so hard for nouthetic (biblical) counselors to talk about the sinful failings of counselees? Do we fear being perceived as mean and harsh at the expense of being helpful and faithful? Welch’s approach to helping the depressed is akin to helping a man who has fallen into a well by trying to understand his predicament, describing for him how cold and hopeless he must feel, how difficult the climb out of the well must seem to him, how uncomfortable his wet clothing must feel, and how thin the air must be getting. It is little consolation for the man in the well to know that the man above understands his situation and how badly he feels for him. What he needs is a rope! If the man above would only provide a rope it would not matter if he chides the victim for falling in or disparages him for his carelessness. If he will provide him with a rope he will be of infinitely more help than one who would merely feel his pain and commiserate.

The Word of the Living God has answers, not mere empathy; solutions, not suggestions. Thirty-five years ago Jay Adams wrote about depression and offered what he said at the time were only preliminary discussions and invited others to build upon his foundation. Welch does not build on Adams’ foundation but rather, digs it up and replaces it with sand. Adams warned then that the two most dangerous things a counselor could do for the depressed person are support and minimizing (CCM p 383). Welch does both in this book. It is the counseling equivalent of telling the depressed person to “depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.”

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