Last summer, as the reality of my terminal diagnosis was dawning on me, I experienced a mental-health crisis. In response to this crisis, I began taking two antidepressants, Trazodone and Lexapro. Now that six months have passed, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit that decision and its consequences.
I’ve never had a problem with other Christians using mental-health meds, but it wasn’t something I had wanted for myself either. I’ve been prone to depression throughout my adult life; looking back, I count at least seven major depressive episodes. However, last July was the first time I sought professional help. Before that, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge my struggles to anyone, and I’m strong-willed enough that I figured I could muscle through on my own. That worked OK until last summer, when it clearly wasn’t working anymore.
Once I started my medications, though, my improvement was swift and dramatic. I don’t think this is typical; I’m probably something of a poster child for chemical intervention. Nonetheless, the Trazodone quickly suppressed the nocturnal anxiety attacks that were depriving me of sleep. Because I was better rested, I was able to get a handle on the depression with the Lexapro’s help.
That help proved to be more modest than people often think it is. I’ve heard brethren say that they don’t want to take antidepressants because they don’t want to be numb inside. That’s not how I felt. Instead, the meds felt to me like touching something while wearing thin knit gloves. I still had the same sensations, but the edges weren’t as sharp.
On the flip side, the antidepressants didn’t do the work for me either. They gave me a ladder, but they didn’t haul me out of the pit. I had to redirect my own thoughts down healthier paths.
Interestingly, one of my most powerful tools in this was prayer, but not prayer for myself. When I caught myself dwelling on my dreadful future, I started praying my way through the roster of members at Jackson Heights in considerable length and detail. I found that my prayers benefited me as much as the recipients!
Conversely, if I had sat back and waited for the pills to do their thing, I don’t think I would have improved much if at all. Antidepressants aren’t magic potions, and when people take them expecting an easy fix, they’re going to be disappointed.
Today, despite my grim prognosis, I find that my mental health is as good as it has ever been. Looking back, I see that I didn’t realize how much depression was affecting me not just in the midst of emotional crashes, but all the time. If I had been willing to seek help 25 years ago, I think my life would have been much sunnier.
I’m certainly not going to dictate to anybody else what they should or should not do about their mental health, but I do believe that antidepressants can play a useful role in the emotional life of the child of God. Yes, Christians 2000 years ago got by without them, but those Christians also got by without eyeglasses, antibiotics, and knee replacements. When these blessings exist today, why not take advantage of them? All of us will experience more than enough suffering in this life without adding to it needlessly.
All of us know Christians who have fallen away. Even though they committed their lives to Christ, they broke the covenant that they had made and now are living the doomed life of the people of the world. Usually, they didn’t make this change all at once. Instead, the devil used subtle temptations to lure them away from the Lord bit by bit.
These tragic stories are more than just a source of grief to us. They also are a warning. None of those Christians who have fallen from grace obeyed the gospel intending to abandon Jesus. They all thought they were going to stay faithful and inherit eternal life—just like we do. However, the devil enticed them away, and he would love nothing more than to do the same to us.
It’s vital, then, for each of us to hold the line against worldliness. All of us are constantly tempted, and without constant determination and vigilance, Satan will get us where he wants us. The grace of Christ will do us no good if we turn our backs on it. With this in mind, let’s examine a text from Ephesians that tells us how we should walk.
The first portion of this context instructs us in PRESERVING OUR INHERITANCE. Let’s read from Ephesians 5:3-7. Paul warns us about two classes of spiritual problems here. The first is a familiar list of sins: sexual immorality, impurity, and greed. The second is speaking crudely about or joking about sexual immorality and impurity.
I understand the latter temptation all too well. I love words, and I love joking. I know that if I were not a Christian, I would have a potty mouth and make lots of dirty jokes. However, we must recognize the great spiritual danger that comes with so doing. Once we start talking about sex and sexual sin in careless, ungodly ways, we open the door to careless sexual sin. What is on our lips is in our hearts and soon will be in our lives.
This could not be more consequential. Paul tells us plainly that if we give in to the sins he discusses, we will lose our inheritance in the kingdom of God. We must remember how deceitful the devil is here. On the one hand, he is working as hard as he can to get us to spend eternity in hell. On the other hand, he constantly is whispering in our ears that it’s never going to happen to us.
If he can keep us fooled until our lives end, he’s got us. Sadly, there are going to be lots of surprises on the day of judgment, and none of them will be good. There are going to be countless millions of people who believed Satan when he told them that their sins weren’t a big deal, and they will find out too late just how strongly God disagrees. We must not let that happen to us!
As part of our vigilance, we must beware of the empty, deceitful arguments that the world around us makes. The worldly redefine sin as love and then ask how love can be wrong. They suggest that shacking up is a great way to prepare for marriage. They tell us that more money and more stuff will make us happy. All of those and many others are lies, and if we believe them, they will cost us more than we can afford.
Additionally, Paul tells us that we must live AS CHILDREN OF LIGHT. Let’s keep going with Ephesians 5:8-14. The first thing that Paul tells us is that this involves a walk. Here, as elsewhere in Scripture, we are confronted with the difference between walking in the light and walking in darkness.
This isn’t about any one action or any one choice. It’s about the total of all the choices we make. Either we are walking with Christ and sharing in the benefits of His grace, or we aren’t. We’re not supposed to see how close to that line we can get. We’re supposed to do our best to make sure we aren’t anywhere near it.
If we are walking in the light, it will produce fruit in our lives, fruit like goodness, righteousness, and truth. As is true throughout this lesson, this passage calls us to relentless self-honesty. Everybody wants to believe that their lives bear this kind of fruit. Do ours really? Or, instead, do we justify our apathy and sin by pointing to the few exceptions?
One of the best tells here is our willingness to expose the unfruitful works of darkness. This doesn’t mean pointing to the enemies of the gospel and decrying their sin. It means exposing sin among our own.
Sad to say, Christians have had a hard time with this since the days of Ananias and Sapphira. Maybe the sinner is a family member, so we turn a blind eye to their misdeeds. Maybe the sinner is a church leader, a preacher or elder engaged in sexual sin, so we try to deal with the sin quietly or maybe even ignore the accusation altogether.
In all these instances, Satan is trying to use fear of the consequences to manipulate us. We worry what will happen to our families, our churches, or even to us if the truth comes out. Brethren, God is not pleased with those who condone sin out of fear. Whatever we fear the consequences of telling the truth will be, the consequences of hiding the truth will be even worse.
Finally, our walk should involve MAKING THE MOST OF THE TIME. Our reading concludes with Ephesians 5:15-17. Notice that this reading begins with another appearance of a theme from the context: the importance of walking carefully instead of carelessly. People who walk carelessly don’t pay attention to what they’re doing or where they’re headed; people who walk carefully pay a great deal of attention to both. The latter is obviously harder, but we must remember that nobody goes to heaven by accident.
Second, Paul urges us to make the most of our time. If I remember correctly, the first sermon I ever preached in the Dowlen Rd. preacher-training program was about this verse, so I’ve been familiar with it for a long time. However, I will say that since my diagnosis, it has taken on a whole new importance. I know that my time is limited, so I want to use the time I have left as effectively as I can for the Lord and the people I love.
Really, though, isn’t that the way that every Christian should be living all the time? We all have limited time, even though we usually don’t know how limited. God and others are most important in all of our lives, even if circumstances haven’t brought that fact to our attention yet. If we live with those priorities and that sense of urgency, we never will regret it. The times we will regret are the times we don’t.
Last, Paul tells us that wisdom entails not only walking carefully but also understanding the Lord’s will. No matter how carefully we drive, unless we have a road map that tells us where we’re going, we’re going to get lost. In this case, God isn’t going to drop the road map into our minds for us. We have to seek that map for ourselves through study and prayer if we want to understand His will.
Among its other effects, a terminal diagnosis will lead you to read the Scriptures with very different eyes. All sorts of passages that you thought you understood take on new depth and meaning. For me, the chief of these is Philippians 1:21-24.
Years ago, I read this passage as Paul being Paul. He was a good man and loved the Philippians, so he wanted to continue living in order to help them. That’s true, but it’s vastly incomplete because it doesn’t really reckon with either half of Philippians 1:21.
Let’s start with the back half. When Paul describes death as gain, he isn’t guessing. According to 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, he was caught up into the third heaven and heard inexpressible things that no human can repeat. The unimaginable joys of eternal life were no mystery to him.
Against that gain, though, he balances life in the likeness of Christ. Serving the Philippians is as precious to him as his heavenly reward. This might seem incredible to us, but I think it’s where most genuine disciples would end up if they were placed in Paul’s position.
I’m not eager to die. I don’t look forward to the process of dying, which is likely to be very unpleasant. I don’t relish giving up my abilities one by one. I already miss hunting and hiking, and I’m sure I’ll miss being able to walk when I lose that. However, against those things, I can set my hope of that which is far better. From a selfish perspective, heaven wins every time!
Instead, the losses that I mourn the most are of my opportunities to serve others. I bitterly regret that I probably won’t be able to finish raising my children. I grieve that I won’t be able to give my wife a lifetime of being happily married. I mourn that I will have to step away from the pulpit and the keyboard and won’t be able to help others on to heaven. Once I die, I will be done with all of those things.
I think that’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “To live is Christ.” Christ was a servant who actually LEFT HEAVEN so He could come to earth and help us! The essence of following Him is living with self-sacrificing love. Paul prized the opportunity to do that so highly—an opportunity that would last only as long as his life did--that he was willing to postpone his reward for the sake of others.
The Christian’s bucket list, then, doesn’t consist of travel and skydiving. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, but they are of no lasting value. Instead, the truly valuable things in life are the times when we can put a family member or a friend ahead of ourselves, take on that Bible class at church that nobody else wants to teach, or gather our courage and invite an outsider to worship with us. Those, not our possessions or abilities, are our true gifts. As Paul found, they are the only things in this life that are worthy to be compared to the joys of heaven.
Every Christian should be able to affirm along with Paul the words of Acts 24:15. There, he says, “I have a hope in God. . . that there will be a resurrection, both of the righteous and the unrighteous.” This hope is an inexpressible comfort to me in my illness, and it is the bedrock of our faith. However, the promise that we find so hopeful and comforting may be very much the opposite to others.
This is evident even in the context of Paul’s statement. His audience is Felix, the corrupt Roman governor of Judea. Even after the judicial hearing of Acts 24:1-23 is over, Felix invites Paul back so he can hear more about faith in Christ.
However, once Paul begins to speak, the tables are turned. It is not the prisoner of Christ who comes away from the discussion intimidated and fearful. It is the powerful government official. As Acts 24:25 reports, when Paul spoke on righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix became so frightened that he couldn’t bear to hear anymore and sent Paul away.
This reveals that just as Paul had a hope of resurrection, Felix had a hope of not-resurrection. He was cruel and greedy. He used his position to solicit bribes--Paul’s experience here was a common one.
What’s more, in this life, no one could challenge Felix on any of it. He was the brother of the powerful imperial secretary Pallas. When Felix returned to Rome at the end of his term of office, his brother used his influence to shield him from prosecution for his crimes. Felix went to his grave unpunished.
How terrifying it must have been for such a man, a man who knew that he never would be called to account in this life, to learn that he would be called to account after it was over! Judgment could not be averted after all. Felix knew that he was neither righteous nor self-controlled, so he could have little doubt about what the outcome of the judgment would be.
Felix had two choices. He could become a Christian, give up his wicked ways, and invite contempt from everyone who knew him. Alternatively, he could determine that Paul was wrong and there would be no resurrection after all.
If there were no resurrection, Felix would be safe. No one ever would hale him into court. The scales of justice never would be balanced. His wickedness would have no more consequences than another man’s righteousness. Our fear—that our faith is vain—was Felix’s hope.
One of my favorite things about Christianity is that Christ makes life meaningful. If I am loyal to Him, I will receive an eternal reward. However, Christ doesn’t make life meaningful only for Christians. He makes it meaningful for everyone.
Because of the resurrection, eternal life is on the table for all of us, but so too is eternal torment. Our choices in life determine which we will get. Thus, for the righteous, the gospel is the best news imaginable. For the unrighteous, it is the worst.
Ephesians 6:13-17 is perhaps the most familiar passage in the entire epistle. Most Christians have heard at least one sermon about the whole armor of God, complete with a helpfully labeled illustration of a Roman soldier. Certainly, there is much to be gained from considering the importance of salvation, righteousness, and so forth to our spiritual lives!
However, there’s another point in this well-known text that is worth considering, and it comes from the phrase that usually only supplies the title for the sermon. We read, “the whole armor of God,” and we think, “OK; this is the armor that God gives us.” That’s true, but it’s incomplete. The whole armor of God isn’t only the armor that God gives. It’s also the armor that He wears.
This is evident from Paul’s use of the Old Testament. He didn’t invent any of the items of the Christian’s armament. Instead, he took passages describing the armament of God and cited or adapted them.
This is most obvious when it comes to the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness. Both come from Isaiah 59:17, in which Isaiah says of God, “He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head. . .” (NASB95, and throughout). Paul clearly adapted that language for his own purposes, and the adaptation gives us the key to his whole approach.
Similarly, we find the shield of faith in the last part of Psalm 91:4, which tells us, “His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.” The same Greek word is translated in our Bibles as both “faithfulness” and “faith”.
The other items in the panoply are a bit trickier. The sword that is the word of God is taken from Hosea 6:5, where God says of His unfaithful people, “Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth. . .” The passage doesn’t say straight up that God’s word is a sword; it merely describes His words as a hewing, slaying implement. However, from “hewing, slaying implement” to “sword” isn’t much of a leap.
The belt of truth also takes a little bit of digging to figure out. In the Old Testament, it appears in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:5, which reads, “Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist.” The link becomes clearer when we realize that the Hebrew word for “faithfulness” also can be translated “truth” and is so translated in the Septuagint, which Paul used in his writing.
Finally, we come to the preparation of the gospel of peace. This comes from Isaiah 52:7, which says in part, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace. . .” If we look only at the verse, the antecedent of “him” is unclear, but the previous verse, Isaiah 52:6, is about God speaking. In Isaiah 52:7, “him” probably should be “Him”.
Paul, then, isn’t merely telling us to use the equipment that God offers us. He’s telling us to fight like He does, with all of His weapons and His virtues. If that’s the way we enter into spiritual warfare, the devil scarcely can hope to defeat us.