Crucifying the blues

There is a large number of self-help books for people coping with depression. These books use approaches ranging from psychoanalysis and dream therapy to diet-based programs of rehabilitation. Beating the Blues is one of the better books, using a well-regarded approach which aims to give sufferers more control over their thoughts and feelings (it’s known as cognitive-behavioural therapy).

It is a book for the depressed person, progressing easily through the topics of identifying depression, escaping lethargy, addressing bad thinking habits, overcoming debilitating feelings and improving assertiveness. One of the strengths of Beating the Blues is that it is practical and realistic. The authors provide questionnaires and record sheets in order to help the depressed person work through the coping strategies that they are suggesting. This is supplemented by examples of such activities from among their patients. It’s a book that tries to get you active and taking steps towards recovery. It’s easy and pleasant reading, with some good cartoons keeping the mood light without being flippant. There is also a handy chapter on living with someone who’s depressed.

The authors are both clinical psychologists who work in the Mood Disorders Unit of a major Australian hospital. They make no claim to be Christians but, apart from disagreeable quotations at the beginning of a few chapters and in the conclusion, there is little in the book that Christians should find unacceptable, and much that is helpful.

At first glance, some of us might feel that the chapter on faulty thinking habits (Ch. 5) is an attack on truth and morality, and an advertisement for relativism. But it is not. It is concerned with the destructive thought patterns we can develop in approaching even the simple parts of life—thought patterns such as seeing everything in black and white, being inflexible, setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves and making mountains out of molehills. However, we can be black-and-white about our belief that all people are sinners without being black-and-white in our belief that, say, everything that goes wrong is always our fault because we’re miserable sinners. This approach to treating depression is all about identifying faulty thinking, not denying true thinking.

All in all, a good practical book for those who need it. Perhaps the real problem with self-help books on depression is getting motivated enough to read them! If you are deeply depressed, it is probably too late for this book to be of help, and you need to seek professional assistance.

A quite different but also very valuable book is The Dilemma of Self-Esteem, written by a husband and wife. Joanna McGrath is a clinical psychologist in Oxford, UK, and her husband Alister teaches and writes theology there. Together, they take the best of current psychology and read it through the lens of a biblical understanding of personhood. Although the book focuses upon self-esteem, in doing so it addresses in detail the issues for the Christian surrounding mental illness, personality disorders and depression. The McGraths’ book is more theoretical and historical than Beating the Blues, but it is still very readable. It is addressed more to those helping sufferers of poor self-esteem, anxiety disorders, mental illness and the like, and would be particularly helpful for pastors and Christian counsellors.

The Dilemma of Self-Esteem recognizes the importance that self-esteem has gained in recent times. It also acknowledges that this can represent the modern equivalent of self-worship and a denial of biblical teaching about the need for humility and the reality of sin. However, it wants to offer a different approach in which “Christian confidence rests totally upon the cross of Christ” but “some of the therapeutic insights of modern psychology can be seen as valid in its light”.

The book begins with a clear introduction to the most influential psychological theories of self-esteem. Courtesy of Freud and others, we think of our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ selves, where the inner self is the hidden ‘real me’. We are also extremely individualistic and we greatly value our ‘own space’. These features make up the common view of what it means to be truly human.

Self-esteem is then defined in light of these theories, and explained in relation to our perceived roles, our ‘pedigree’, the love we receive and our desire for significance, even eternal significance. The McGraths highlight the deficiencies of teachings like the ‘prosperity gospel’, where our self-worth is derived from our success and achievements. They go on to outline how self-esteem problems can manifest in various illnesses and/or personality problems.

Gradually and skilfully, the authors lead this psychological discussion towards theological reflection. The second half of the book considers, in order, the reality and consequences of sin, the value of the cross as our basis for self-esteem, the Fatherhood of God and self-esteem, humility and contentment in Christian living and, finally, how Christians can properly encourage one another.

In focusing on the cross, the McGraths demonstrate how different the Christian view of a human’s self-worth is from psychological approaches. Client-centred psychotherapies look inwards to value our ‘deeper selves’. Cognitive-behavioural therapies, although very useful, look outwards to the way we view our achievements and successes. But Christianity looks upwards, to the work God has done for us and the restorative power of the risen Christ, who brings to us God’s approval. This work means that we can recognize we are far from perfect, but not be weighed down by this awareness, since through Christ God considers us perfect in his sight. We are more ‘down on ourselves’ than God is.

The final chapter offers guidelines on how we ought to affirm our Christian brothers and sisters—through prayer, preaching and caring criticism. Alister McGrath’s fascination with Luther is evident throughout these theological chapters, but his primary appeal to Scripture is also apparent.

All of this theological reflection is not to deny the difficult psychological issues involved in self-esteem. We can know that God values us, but still experience psychological difficulties in putting this belief into action in our lives, and this difficulty needs to be treated. That is where a book like Beating the Blues can be very handy. But if we see our self-worth in Christian terms, we can have great assurance and security as we work on our problems.

Books reviewed

Beating the Blues: A Self-Help Approach To Overcoming Depression, Susan Tanner & Jillian Ball, Doubleday, Moorebank, 1991, 174pp.

The Dilemma of Self-Esteem: The Cross and Christian Confidence, Joanna & Alister McGrath, Crossway, Cambridge, 1992, 156pp.

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