Over the years, I have found Ed Welch to be an engaging an insightful help as I strive to grow in Christ and in counseling. Though I have not read many of his books, I have become increasingly familiar with Welch through the ministry of CCEF and Welch’s public lecture ministry. Likewise, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness has greatly helped over the couple opportunities I’ve had to read it. My original interest in Welch and this book on depression resulted from a time of trouble during my wife’s past struggle with depression and anxiety. Now my interest is a bit more enjoyable as it is due to training rather than trial.
The first of Welch’s principles which specifically impressed me was his understanding. From the start of the book, and throughout, Welch’s writing displays a keen understanding and compassion for those struggling with the stubborn darkness of depression. He does not merely pretend to identify with his depressed reader by reproducing melancholy quips and clichés. Welch insightfully and lovingly engages his readers early by recounting for them the deepest details of their experience, revealing a true knowledge of their trouble. In addition, he does not only display familiarity with the symptoms, but also the true experience. Welch details his understanding of the thoughts, actions, motives, fear, and frustrations of depressed people, not only what they feel. For instance, Welch poetically quotes and writes,
The images are dark and evocative. Desperately alone, doom, black holes, deep wells, emptiness. “I felt like I was walking through a field of dead flowers and found one beautiful rose, but when I bent down to smell it I fell into an invisible hole.” “I heard my silent scream echo through and pierce my empty soul.” “There is nothing I hate more than nothing.” “My heart is empty. All the fountains that should run with longing, are in me dried up.” “It is entirely natural to think ceaselessly of oblivion.” I feel as though I died a few weeks ago and my body hasn’t found out yet (Welch 20).
And further Welch identifies with depression writing, the only thing that you know is that you are guilty, shameful, and worthless. It is not that you have made mistakes in your life, or sinned, or reaped futility. It is that you are a mistake, you are sin, you are futility. “In this regard, depression can be a form of self-punishment, however subconsciously or involuntarily administered.” God has turned His back. Why bother going on in such a state? You might as well join God and turn your back on yourself too (Welch 24).
Welch’s keen insight into the troubling experience of depression is not only a characteristic of Depression, but it is also a key principle within Welch’s approach to help depressed people. In fact, this key principle is the precursor to the second principle I will address here.
A second key principle not only in Welch’s book, but also central to Welch’s approach to counseling the depressed, is the balance struck between sin and suffering. In fact, this balance lies at the very heart of Depression. While all human trouble is rooted in Adamic and personal sin, the fact of human suffering must yet not be neglected. Every person suffers, either as the result of sin in general or he suffers at his own hand. Lasting help and hope is only possible when this balance is struck, maintaining both conviction and compassion. Conviction without compassion results in heavy handed and judgmental approach to helping someone through his depression. Compassion without conviction leads to an unbiblically sympathetic approach which does not call the depressed person to personal examination, confession, and repentance through practice. In Depression, Welch carefully strikes this necessary balance, providing a convicting and comforting treatment of sinful suffering people. Welch writes, “With all the debate about the causes of depression, it is easy to miss the obvious: depression is painful. It is a form of suffering” (Welch 37). For this reason, Welch details four basic causes of suffering, other people, our bodies, Satan, and God. In addition, he paints for readers a picture of the value of such suffering in life. Suffering provides an opportunity to cry out to the Lord, fight the good fight, remember the riches of the gospel and the goodness of God, and an opportunity to persevere to the pleasure of God. However, as noted previously, Welch strikes the balance between suffering and sin. With honesty about current trends of tending toward chemical causes of depression, Welch gently presents the idea that depression can be caused by underlying issues of the heart, namely sin. Welch writes, “It [depression] might be pointing to important mattes of the heart that are crying out for attention. Ignore them and they will just call back later. There are times when depression is saying something and we must listen” (Welch 32).
This emphasis upon the heart and the underlying causes of depression are detailed through the chapters as Welch addresses the role of fear, anger, dashed hopes, failure and shame, guilt and legalism, and death as they pertain to depression. These chapters fit neatly to achieve the sinner/sufferer balance that is essential for both hope and help because this balance drives depressed people toward Christ. This is a third key principle of Welch’s: Christ Himself is the solution.
To boil down this third key principle of Welch’s, I recall the two surprises to which Welch says Jesus invites people. First, Jesus invites people to be surprised that He shared in our sufferings. Again, here the balance between sin and suffering is met with a full solution in Christ. By sharing in our sufferings through His redeeming work, Christ is able to enrich our suffering and atone for our sin at the same time. This central principle is invaluable to Welch’s approach to depression because his approach is not grounded in a purely behavioristic process of change which does not require intervention by Christ. Instead, Welch upholds Christ as the central agent of change in the lives of depressed people. Specifically, his approach foundationally deals with two initial questions. Is you allegiance to Jesus Christ? Do you want to change [through Christ] (Welch 71-72)? Stemming from these important questions, Welch’s book unpacks a practical guide to understanding depression and submitting to Christ for change. Very helpful.
I sincerely found Welch’s book a helpful guide for better understanding how people change and how I might grow in my ability to help them. I do not have any significant disagreements. However, I will mention here one question which seems to surface for me through a number of these critical book reviews. Perhaps more than a question, this is an admission of my struggle to balance speaking the truth and making knowledge acceptable. In Depression as well as other books by Welch, I have noticed he often uses secular terminology in the course of his instruction. For instance, in chapter fourteen he writes,
For instance, one popular approach to depression is called cognitive therapy. It focuses on the way people think. Is everything white or black, all or nothing, an opportunity or an obstacle? These ways of thinking lie relatively dormant during calmer times, but they are unmistakably active during depression. The goal of cognitive therapy is to identify these ‘thinking errors,’ change them, and, in so doing, hopefully alleviate the depression. This school of thought suggests that these thinking errors are not just revealed by depression, they actually cause it. Therefore, when you change your thinking, you change your depression. Brain scans even show that we can bring about significant physical changes in our brains simply by thinking differently (Welch 132).
I hear in Welch what I perceive to be an effort to identify with the typical reader. I imagine that many of those who would be so inclined as to read a book on depression are familiar with the many secular approaches to change. Therefore, it makes sense to me for Welch to use recognizable terminology to invite psychologized readers into the material. However, there are points, such as the one blockquoted above, at which Welch’s approach nearly endorses the inferior secular approach, favorably comparing it to the biblical alternative. My struggle is to realize the appropriate balance of making knowledge acceptable and misrepresenting the truth. This is one area in which I desperately need instruction and growth.
The most significant personal challenge to me in Depression is a challenge to better understand the broader sinner/sufferer dynamic in God’s process of change. Welch clearly articulates that depression does not occur in the life as a standalone problem. Instead, Welch does well to show that depression has numerous causes and accomplices in the spiritual troubles of life. In this, it seems every Christian needs to grow in his understanding of human sin and suffering and how the gospel specifically deals with these facets. Certainly, I am one such Christian student of the Scriptures praying and studying for more knowledge of man, God, and His ways of perfecting us in Christ. Depression: A Stubborn Darkness is an immensely helpful tool for personal ministry of the word.