Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?

That’s the choice that thousands feel they are forced into every day.

I know, because I hear their stories, and I’m the one they are trusting as their guide, as their physician.

Susan (not her real name) was in last week.  She had been stable for eight years on clonazepam, which had helped lessen her daily battle with anxiety.  However, she was concerned that being on an “addictive nerve pill” was not honoring to God.  And so I was asked again the question that I had been asked so many times before, “What should I do, doctor?”

I understand where she and so many other of my East Tennessee patients are coming from, for I too grew up in rural Appalachia in a “Bible Belt” culture where to emotionally or spiritually struggle in any way meant something was wrong with you and your relationship with God.  I’ve also seen the flip side within the halls of academia, where fragile hurting souls were shattered by a psychiatrist who had the audacity to tell them they could not even speak the word “God” while they were on “his” hospital floor since “he” was their god while they were under his care.

So, what did I tell Susan in the brief time I had with her?  Did I tell her that if she just prayed a little bit harder, memorized just a few more Bible verses, trusted God just a little bit more, she wouldn’t need drugs?  Or did I tell her to forget her religion and her God, and realize that she was a complex mesh of chemicals, and she needed a drug to help regulate her faulty brain chemistry?

I told her neither, because both of those answers represent a cruel false dichotomy which influences many people’s minds regarding the care of souls.  The reality is that we are both body and spirit, material and immaterial, incredibly complex meshes of chemicals and yet something that can’t be reduced to mere chemicals. We don’t have to give up our spirituality to acknowledge the reality that medical science has something to offer hurting souls, and we don’t have to give up our medical science to acknowledge that our hurting souls need more than the latest drug.

Here is the essence of what I told her:  We are here to love God and walk with Him.  From the earliest teachings of Christ and the church fathers that has been clear.  It’s also been clear that loving God and walking with Him is hard, sometimes very hard.  In theological terms, we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies with fallen souls.  Or put another way, every one of us live with a body that has imperfect brain chemistry, living with people who don’t always treat us as we need to be treated, and with a spirit which still doesn’t understand, love, and obey God as we ought.

In light of this reality, the question of whether to take any type of psychotropic drug is simply, “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  In essence it is no different than the question to take a diabetes drug or say a prayer or change jobs or forgive someone— any decision should come down to “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  For some people, a drug like clonazepam just dulls soul pain that needs to be dealt with instead of masked, and actually would draw them away from God.  For Susan, the drug helped clear her mind and allowed her to focus on her work, her family, and her God with more freedom.

Yes, I know it’s a simple question, but sometimes simple questions still are the best ones.  “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” sidesteps all the science vs. faith debates and replaces them with a simple question that can guide any person of faith who is also seeking help from medicine.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, and for you: to learn to live wisely in our journey to love Him and walk with Him.

9 comments to Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?

  • [...] John at Light Along the Journey asks, “What does the Christian do with the decision to take medicine for depression or anxiety? For a family physician’s perspective you can read John’s post this week titled Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?” [...]

  • Love the title! Found you through the problogger project. I also really like the photo you put with the entry. I also really appreciate your writing, your voice. Thanks.

  • I’ve never thought about my doctor having to deal with issues like this (she wouldn’t have to from me). Thank you for providing a post on a topic that was truly unique, for me.

  • Engaging title. I like it.

  • Thank you for this insigntful and timely article. I am reading some of Donald Miller’s writings and I awakened this morning thanking God I CAN read his clear words. He is honest in expressing some mindlless ways we have fallen into “doing” Chrisitanity. He didn’t write it that way, but that’s how I see it.

    The gift of medications that open up living without the prison of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed is wonderful. I recall a physician praying for an ill friend who had prayed for many who were supernaturally healed. She expected God would heal her without anything but the prayer. This man said she and the other Israelis would have died of thirst in the desert with her mindset. Moses took a limb and put it in the water and then they could drink it. Medicines are procedures are like that earthly limb of a tree.

    I love your blog and posts. I know you are very busy, but when you have time to write it always matters.

  • John this was a brilliant post and our answer to “Susan” spot on. The religion/Rx dichotomy is one we all face and one I’ve struggled with in the past as a Christian coach. Your simple words will ring in my ears next time the question comes my way. Blessings.

    I’ll be lurking here on a regular basis.

    Ava Semerau, author of And God Was Pleased

    A Problogger entry

  • What a wise and thoughtful answer to this question so many face. It has become an automatic response lately – “I have a chemical imbalance” – that we need to look at ourselves a little deeper. We’re imperfect people, as Christians, works in progress. If I have a problem with anger, until I resolve that, the overuse/depletion of adrenalin likely causes a chemical chain reaction all down the line. And, our various unhealthy reactions to stress undoubtedly cause similar chemical imbalances. Prayer is good, but God also desires change as his Spirit directs.

  • susan

    Thanks so much for this article. Having gone through postpartum depression myself, and been on medication (though resistant at first because I didn’t want to be one of those people who were on medication) and highly benefited from it (SSRIs! they’re important!), I appreciate your voice of clarity and its sensitivity. A friend of mine sent me this link because I asked for resources on depression as I get ready a talk on this subject at our church this month. I’ll be quoting and sharing the link there. Thanks again.

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