How Are Depressed Christians Treated in Chinese Church?

By Karen Luo, August 01, 2018 09:08 AM

A believer sits in a church.

A Jie was awarded a computer for his outstanding academic performance at primary school, but unexpectedly, the award dragged him into an abyss - pornography addiction.

As a Christian, he deeply knew that it was not right for a Christian to watch those filthy things, but was unable to control himself. Struggling with pain, he gradually became uncommunicative, often locking himself in his room. In the agony, he couldn't help opening the computer to see the "dirty" videos that made him even more painful. He grew more and more autistic and was later diagnosed with depression. Knowing his situation, his parents sought help from psychological doctors and the church.

It was A Jie's strong belief that seeing those videos committed a sin, but he failed to overcome it. His mother said their pastor suggested him to watch Christian videos, listen to and hear God's word that was powerful.

In the next two years of suspension from school, he almost saw every video on fuyin. Tv, a Chinese website that collects Christian videos, sermons, and testimonies.   His brain was like a store of miscellaneous theological books. As a result, when he was in college, his question put every preacher in an awkward position after meetings in a campus fellowship. The depressed Christian who accepted a pastor's advice turned into an inquiring person pastors avoided.

He was not an exception in the Chinese church. According to new estimates by the World Health Organization, over 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression all over the world, including more than 54 million Chinese people. A portion of these patients also enter into the church.

For too long, Chinese Christians have been reluctant to admit that they suffer from depression because having mental illness is regarded as a sign of a lack of faith. Therefore, many patients have to deal with the disease by themselves, including believers, eve many pastors as well as church co-workers.

One possible answer from traditional Chinese church is that a depressed Christian should trust in God instead of taking medicine and seeing a doctor means creating a hassle for himself. Most testimonies in Charismatic churches or wholistic healing conferences say that Christians with depression are suddenly healed.

In 2001 when  Sister Lydia was in the third grade of high school, depression crept up on her. Later, she got well after the pressure leading to the illness was over. However, she suffered a relapse as a second grade postgraduate due to a failed relationship and frustration in school work. It was then that she became a Christian. She enjoyed a "honeymoon" with the Lord, which resulted in the disappearance of the symptoms, but it was transformed into mania. In 2009 after graduation, her depression relapsed owing to many factors like being misled by the church's sacred-profane dichotomy teaching. As the situation turned worse, she wished that she could be taken away by the Lord.

The beginning of the story was that she joined in a Bible study group. A sister of the group was unwilling to hear what she shared about her physical problem. Another sister was nice to her when she was in good conditions but disliked her if she was out of order. A male seeker despised her pain and criticized her. The church told her to confess the sins of herself and her ancestors' adultery and to pray for that. Some members prayed to cut off the curse from her forebears. A couple of Christians prayed for the healing and announced that she was healed by the wounds of Jesus.

A pastor's wife who is a Korean told her to do inner healing and deliverance from her past in which she should ask Jesus to return to the days in her mother's womb with her, her birth, and growth. But she felt nothing and gave up the "process". The pastor's wife commented that her lack of faith in God led to the incompletion. The idea didn't work at all.  The pastor's wife added that she was self-centered rather than God-centered, so God disciplined her to have insomnia. Taking medicine was medicine and the disease could only be cured if she truly depended upon God.

Similar to Lydia, many depressed patients receive false teachings or unfair treatment in the church.

Zhi Xian, a post-90s pastor who leads a fellowship with more than 100 members in Liaoning Province, shared that a sister got depression out of worry that her husband would abandon her. She became suspicious of everything. At first, people in the church visited and exhorted her, but they grew accustomed to her state. Afterward, she was said to be demon-possessed.

After giving birth to a child, another sister got nervous and shed tears without reason, fearing that she might hurt her baby. At that time, a believer claimed that she might be possessed by demons, then the congregation prayed for her to drive out demons. But soon after, she jumped to her death.

The reason why they were treated in this way was related to the overall social recognition of mental illness, said Rev. Gu Zhourong, a licensed counseling psychologist. Local preachers thought that depression stemmed from demon-possession or visions from God rather than was deemed as a serious mental disease.

Rev. Gu pointed out that people with depression accounted for a high proportion among young people and those with a high IQ and intellectuals made up a high ratio. Professional social psychological counseling started in China in the 1980s. A training agency stated that while eighty per cent of Chinese psychologists who received standard and systematic training did research work, the rest were engaged in practical fields. When there is one counseling psychologist in China, there are 130 in the United States.

What was worse, the growth of pastoral psychological counseling lagged behind the society. In 2002, Nanjing Union Theological Seminary launched a course on pastoral psychological counseling, which could be seen as a beginning of the field being brought into theological education by the Chinese church.

In recent years, he cooperated with other pastors and schoolmates to promote how to recognize depression and anxiety, how to distinguish the mental disorder from demon-possession, family and marriage counseling.

Rev. Gu reminded that for believers with mental diseases, the church should not one-sidedly emphasize loving them, but use right strategies and methods.

With the rise of new urban churches in China, some pastors tend to focus on depression, have different views and relevant practice.

Brother Lv is a youth fellowship leader. In the commencement season of 2013, Xiao Ying didn't leave after a normal meeting was over. "Then her strength turned strong. She threw things, beat people, prophesied, and called people names." The participants were so shocked that they could do nothing but pray. After she quieted down, she was sent to the hospital. The recurrence of her depression led Lv to pay attention to mental illness. Since then, a Christian psychological teacher is invited to give a lecture at the beginning of every semester and people in need can have conversations with the teacher face to face or after the lecture.

Two sisters of his fellowship were attacked by depression again, including Xiao Ying. "Active in attending meetings, the two sisters seem very devout and like to quote the Scriptures. But they collapse under the multiple pressures of family crises, employment pressure, and emotional disputes."

Lv has found that many Christians with psychological problems who have confidence in the church fail to get practical help there and only hear a shallow response - "I will pray for you". In 2005, Lv began to contact pastoral counseling, and later, studied professional psychology. Now he unites some Christian psychologists and pastors to facilitate psychological counseling work.

Rev. Cui pastors a small church in Wuhan that has only thirty to forty members. Having contacted a few believers with mental illness, he has initiated a ministry to assist the group.

Hu Lin is one of them. Affected by his parent's divorce and academic stress, the 11th-grade student suffered from insomnia the whole night and heard voices, eventually diagnosed as mild dysthymia. In 2016, he jumped from the 18th floor out of insanity, fortunately, and was hung on an air conditioner. This miserable experience let him accept the God his mother introduced.  After converting to Christianity, a sense of hope was raised in his heart.

He came to Rev. Cui's church. Rev. Cui arranged for him to do some simple things and taught him to run an online store. Hu started to adjust himself, to be back on his feet and his stress was relieved.

The pastor was relaxing when getting along with depressed people, who never treated them as people with problems. He believed that to help them establish relationships and have emotional contacts through simple work was "a comparatively right thing".

Unable to integrate into society and even attempting suicide, they work and attend services with Rev. Cui.

Wonderful changes gradually occurred to them in a year or two, and three years. Hu and another man with depression read the Bible, study it, and pray every day, whose conditions are getting better and better. The church prays for a female seeker with depression for years. Attempting suicide from time to time, now she is willing to meet people.

In Rev. Cui's eyes, the group needs usual concern rather than one or two visits. Despite that more time and patience are needed than normal, ministers should create opportunities and platforms for them.

The pastor suggested the church to treat depressed persons as normal and to provide a relaxing environment and platform for them. Secondly, they should build relationships with each other. Many things will slowly change if relationships are built.

He also admitted that it was hard to nurture them and see the effects. "You can't see anything from a depressed believer who is listening to sermons and sitting there, but he will commit suicide if he has an attack." He also expressed gratitude to his congregation. "Allowing (depressed people) to stay in the church shows that they are tolerant of them." 

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