To most people, the acronym SAD recalls something called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Norman Rosenthal, MD, first described this human condition in 1984 as a type of depression marked by physical energy loss, appetite changes, sleep abnormalities, and irritability. He observed the link between these symptoms and winter months characterized by consistently low temperatures, scant sunshine, and shorter periods of daylight.
According to many experts, the best cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder is “light therapy.” This means spending more time in the light. Exposure to natural sunlight is best, but basking in specialized artificial lights can also sometimes do the trick.
In a similar way, we Christians also suffer at times from what could be called SpiritualAffective Disorder. This condition is marked by a loss of spiritual energy, a decrease in one’s appetite for God and godliness, an increased susceptibility to temptation and sin, and a decrease in spiritual fruit-bearing. These symptoms are often linked to and caused by prolonged coldness or distance between a child of God and The Light (Jesus, John 1:1-8), particularly as He’s revealed in the gospel.
Like the seasonal form of SAD, the best cure for Spiritual Affective Disorder is “light therapy.” The difference is that the cure for SpiritualAffective Disorder is not more exposure to natural sunlight. It requires more exposure to supernatural sunlight. This cure doesn’t call us to sun-bathe, it calls us to Son-bathe. It requires us to spend more time basking in The Light of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, particularly as He is revealed in the gospel.
All Christians experience Spiritual Affective Disorder from time to time. It’s normal. King David and the Apostle Paul lamented this painful condition in texts like Psalm 22 and 2 Corinthians 5, respectively. So, perhaps the first step in treating this condition is to acknowledge that it is normal, and to then remind ourselves that we are not sub-standard, abnormal Christians for experiencing it. These admissions are, in themselves, a movement toward The Light.
From there, the over-arching prescription for reversing Spiritual Affective Disorder is to spend more time in Jesus’ presence. This is where many Christians become muddled and misdirected. Many think that this means ramping up their practice of spiritual disciplines: bible study, worship, prayer, fasting, solitude, and fellowship. Others become obsessed with spiritual introspection which fuels a soul-consuming preoccupation with their sin, confession, and repentance. Others heroically commit to more exacting obedience, thinking that God will notice and consequently bless. Still others amplify their schedule of Christian service under the assumption that increased love to God (or in God’s name) will bring back His smile along with spiritual vitality.
While there is certainly value in rightly employing the exercises listed above, let the spiritually disordered beware! These otherwise helpful ideas become soul-crushing prescriptions when they focus us on our own efforts as that which restores, or causes God to restore, our spiritual vitality. This happens when we trust in what we are doing for ourselves instead of trusting in God and in His promise of un-coerced grace to us in the gospel. This gospel-centered heart says, “I will put myself in God’s freely-flowing, restoring stream by exercising these ‘means of grace.’ As I abide there, in His healing presence, He will revive me as He first did in the gospel – by grace alone.” By contrast, the proud heart says, “I can and will heal myself, or at least I will merit God’s healing work by doing such and such.” Taken to an extreme, this error earned the Galatians one of Paul’s/God’s most scathing rebukes.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Galatians 3:1-3
Paul’s/God’s point is that we Christians first experience deliverance from sinful, spiritual disorderliness by God as we believe the gospel, and that we continue to experience deliverance from sinful, spiritual disorderliness by God as we continue to believe the gospel. To put it another way, we are moved from spiritual disorder to spiritual order by God as we trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God delivers, heals, and rescues us from our initial and our ongoing battle with Spiritual Affective Disorder by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!
Within the context of ascribing all healing power to God in the gospel, recommitting to practice the spiritual disciplines becomes the conduit for God’s opulent and free grace instead of a soul-draining, merit-earning obsession. This is why theologians often refer to the spiritual disciplines as “means of grace.” Like the Puritans of old, they recognize that it’s God, not the disciplines, who forgives, heals, and revives by His free grace. They recognize that while spiritual rigor may access God’s healing presence, it never meritoriously causes it. As a chorus that spans the centuries, they advise, “Go ahead and pray, meditate, study, and worship, and may God freely and gladly gush to you as He has promised by His grace through those ‘golden pipes’ to revive your soul.”
I wrote and posted this blog at the end of winter for a reason; it’s a time when many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. I intended for that reality to serve as a springboard for understanding, diagnosing, and prescribing remedies for SpiritualAffective Disorder. Unlike its seasonal cousin, Spiritual Affective Disorder knows no meteorological bounds. It can happen anytime, anywhere, to any Christian. It is particularly common among those who labor in ministry, including conflict-laden ministries like life ministry. If you are currently experiencing Spiritual Affective Disorder, as all Christians sometimes do, then bask in The Light! Bask in Jesus Christ, and in His radiant beauty and goodness, particularly as He reveals Himself in the gospel! As you bask in Him, let Him revive you by His grace.