Wednesday, February 24, 2021

When Billy Graham Is Wrong

Three years ago today I stood in a quasi-paved area between a Swannannoa gas station and Athens Pizza and watched as Billy Graham's body made its way through the Swannanoa Valley before leaving the mountains he loved for his burial in Charlotte. It was a moving experience. Saying goodbye often is. 

I have always had so much respect for Billy Graham. While his calling and his methods were not my cup of tea, he always at least seemed like a kind and compassionate man, able to bridge many gaps in our fractured world. He seemed to me a more accurate representation of the character of God than many or even most notable Christians out there and certainly a vastly different man than his famous son. 

Because of this I was surprised, dismayed, and even angered last week when my sister sent me the screen shot of his "My Answers " column in the Chattanooga paper. 

Q: I am addicted to some prescription drugs. Is that the same as addiction to drugs and alcohol?

A: From the writings of the Rev. Billy Graham

Volumes could be written on the problem of drug addiction. Millions of barbiturates are swallowed every night to help the nation sleep. Millions of tranquilizers keep people calm during the day. Millions of pep pills wake people up in the morning. The Bible warns that these flights from reality bring no lasting satisfaction.

There is widespread anxiety in people’s hearts today. While battles rage around the world and storms gather in the human spirit, depression steals rest from our souls. This is an unfolding phenomenon that grips hearts with indescribable fear. Society is caught up in a powerful windstorm by turning to drugs to calm their hearts and minds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that anti-depressants are now the most prescribed drugs in the United States. They are sometimes called the “designer drug.” In an interview on CNN, one physician stated, “It’s hard to believe that so many people are depressed, or that antidepressants are the answer.” This doctor is wise, indeed. Drugs are not the answer to man’s troubled condition. There is only one answer to the travail of this present age, and it is found in the pages of God’s Word, the Bible.

While it is important to be under the responsible care of physicians when battling emotional trauma, do not dismiss the peace of mind that comes from the Great Physician. Jesus brings deliverance to those who are weighed down. The Bible encourages us to think on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. It is good medicine for our minds and hearts (Philippians 4:8).

(This column is based on the words and writings of the late Rev. Billy Graham.)

My head exploded and my heart broke when I read this. Here is the most respected man in the Christian world equating taking antidepressants with prescription drug addiction and basically saying that the only answer to depression is the Bible. The insinuation is that if you have Jesus, you don't need antidepressants. This is the mentality that has pervaded the church for decades upon decades and has been used to marginalize and oppress those who have struggled with anxiety and depression. 

While I don't believe that Billy Graham intended to be cruel here, the result is cruel, nonetheless. This is what happens when misinformation gets passed on as gospel and when someone who is proficient in one area (theology) makes pronouncements about an area where he has no training and apparently little understanding (mental health). This happens all the time. Unfortunately, these words are coming from likely the most trusted human in Christendom. 

My thoughts as I read through his answer:

-Yes, people take these medications he mentions for a host of reasons: some responsibly and with the careful supervision of a physician and others out of a need for self-medication and addiction.

-It is often the untreated mental illness or unresolved trauma that leads to self-medication and addiction to opioids, benzos, and stimulants. Opening the Bible, while a wonderful step in seeking spiritual truth, will NOT in itself heal trauma or manage mental health issues. 

-"Turning to drugs to calm our hearts" with regard to depression is a harsh way of putting it and that mentality is what causes so many people who might benefit from antidepressants to write them off as unbiblical. 

-"Drugs are not the answer to man's troubled condition." Oh, sheesh! Antidepressants are a tool. A TOOL. And, might I add, a very useful tool and sometimes the only tool available to many people. There are so many reasons a person might benefit from antidepressants even aside from depression management. This isn't to say that they are the ONLY tool, but they are a useful one. 

-It is totally possible that many, many people need both Jesus AND antidepressants. I know I do. 

I don't know WHEN Billy Graham wrote these words. It certainly wasn't recently, unless somebody is receiving his telegrams from heaven. I don't know who thinks that, in light of all of the new information we have about the physiological and psychological effects of trauma, the impact of hormones on mental health, and the physiology of depression, and the causes of addiction, it is a good idea to publish in newspapers across the country antiquated views of the use of antidepressants. 

All I know is that this ideology is still out there and it is still being perpetuated and used as a weapon against those who suffer intensely. While I certainly agree that coming to an understanding of a good and compassionate God who sees us and hears us is incredible comfort, we often need more. We may need therapy. We may need community. We may need medication. 

I have watched so many people I know suffer because they feel that they must not have enough faith in God if they need medication. I have watched entire families suffer when a person refuses to acknowledge their depression and take medication which could hugely improve their quality of life and relationships. 

How could this wise and compassionate man be so misinformed? How are we going to change this if the Powers That Be keep perpetuating misinformed and dangerous ideas from powerful people? 

I long for the day when those who have the respect and authority and the voice within the Christian world can grasp the complex maze of mental and emotional health and speak with compassion, intelligence, and wisdom, without offering simplistic solutions. 


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