The Complexity of Depression: David Murray: Christians Get Depressed Too; pt.2

As we continue examining David Murray’s resource on Depression: Christians Get Depressed Too, we began a look at the complexity of this issue. Two principles were discussed in relation to how we should be approaching dealing with those who suffer Depression:

  • Avoid Dogmatism and Seek Humility
  • Avoid Extremes and Seek Balance

Today we are going to discuss Murray’s writing on the Nouthetic Counseling Movement and how recognized “founder” of nouthetic counseling, Jay Adams, approaches Depression. We will see a brief history, the strengths and the weaknesses of the movement’s thinking.

History (as presented by Murray):    

David Murray gives a very general background of how Jay Adams got involved in the counseling arena. He, (Adams), developed his own approach to Depression and other issues as a personal response to what he was dealing with at two treatment centers he was involved with. The Nouthetic Movement basically grew out of his personal response and experience of dealing with other’s mental illness. In Competent to Counsel, Adams summarizes his conclusions this way:

Apart from those who had organic problems like brain damage, the people I met in the two institutions in Illinois were there because of their own failure to meet life’s problems [emphasis added]. To put it simply, they were there because of their own unforgiven and unaltered sinful behavior. [Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), xvi]

Adams also makes this summary statement regarding Depression:

The hope for the depressed persons, as elsewhere, lies in this: the depression is the result of the counselee’s sin. [Christian Counselor Manual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 378]

What is nouthetic counseling you ask? Adams defines nouthetic counseling using the meaning from the Greek New Testament, “nouthesia” and verb “noutheteo”, which basically means to admonish, correct or instruct. Because sin brings Depression, and Depression has no other cause (aside from organic problems: i.e.: brain damage), Adams would exhort his followers to rebuke the counselee and confront them in their sin. Their expectation would be that the counselee would repent of their sin and as a result come out of the resulting depression. Murray states, in summarizing Adams’ philosophy:

If you get depressed because of sinful behavior, then, obviously, you get better by righteous behavior.

Strengths of the Nouthetic Movement:

  • The emphasis on the need to accept personal responsibility is necessary
    • Adams was reacting to the societal concerns of the day. He was rightly reacting to the false way of thinking that we need to eliminate guilt in the individual or deny their responsibility for the consequences they find themselves in. As Murray points out, he was also right to expose the “over-prescription of psychiatric drugs” and “demand that counseling actually deal with problematic and unbiblical behavior, rather than simply make people feel better in their sin.”
  • The restoration of the Bible’s central role in counseling and securing the role of Christians pastors and counselors in treatments
  • Adams’ approach is particularly useful in everyday mood swings and when the counselee is simply feeling “down”
    • Many times we as believers need to be confronted with our sinfulness – in thought, action and word – and be encouraged to get on with our daily responsibilities and duties
  • The necessity to handle our sickness, suffering and trials with a godly attitude and righteous behavior patterns
    • Even though we may disagree with Jay Adams’ claim that Depression is almost always caused by sin, we do recognize his encouragement to counsel our counselees in progressive sanctification even in the midst of suffering.

Weaknesses of the Nouthetic Movement:

  • The error of placing all responsibility on the depressed counselee.
    • Murray rightly states, “…Adams fails to appreciate the significant difference in kind between bad moods or short-term depressions of spirit, which are sometimes sinful and to be repented of, and the deeper kinds of depression, which often have far more complex causes than the sinful choices of individuals…
    • I believe that I have learned that this is a key mistake in Nouthetic Counseling. Remember, I consider myself a “nouthetic” counselor, but wrongly ascribed to this type of thinking (about Depression) before I ever experienced my own depression.
    • Another quote from Murray which, again, I endorse, “…To put all the blame for depression on the individual is wrong, damaging, and dangerous, as it can only increase feelings of guilt and worthlessness…”
    • I posted a quote from Charles Spurgeon a few days ago that is necessary to read at this point. You may find it here.
  • The error of “do right and you will feel right” teaching
    • Behavioralist thinking does not address the heart – an issue that Modern Biblical Counseling seems to address
    • The failure of this thinking is that it does not address idols of the heart and the thought processes that contribute or even lead to Depression
    • A hindrance of this type of thinking is that it does not offer compassion to a suffering counselee. Murray provides a wonderful illustration in his book, that, while too lengthy to reproduce in full here, is summarized in these last few sentences: “…the last thing [the depressed individual] needs is a preacher telling him to repent and shouting down the hole, ‘Do right and you will feel right!’ Or ‘Repent of your idolatry!’ He needs someone to shine a light and throw a rope. Medicine can play this role. It can restore the chemicals and circuits required to help a person think.”

Before Murray moves into describing the Modern Biblical Counseling movement, he summarizes this way:

As noted, the nouthetic counseling movement grew out of a frustration at the way in which secular doctors and psychiatrists squeezed Christian pastors and counselors out of any role in the treatment of mental illness. However, in the valiant and commendable attempt to secure a much-needed place for Christian pastors and counselors in the treatment of mental illness, the nouthetic counseling movement has often gone to the opposite extreme in attempting to exclude doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists from the treatment process. In both cases the sufferer is the one who loses out.

Some additional links from Jay Adams’ website:


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