Thoughts on Spiritual Depression
Anyone who has ever felt rolling into his soul the black clouds of depression, who has gone in an instant from the passionless peace and contentment of the mundane to the paralysis, the hopelessness, the feeling of drowning in meaningless and despair that constitutes the essence of the black beast Depression, will know well the subject about which I hope to say a few words. It may appear superfluous even to consider a topic which appears so inexplicable and insoluble; and the feeling of pointlessness, far from being ameliorated, may well be strengthened in those who, having once known the sweet joy of fellowship with Christ, and being still convinced intellectually that a Christian above all ought to be joyful â€“ who can bring to their minds ten thousand reasons why depression is not reasonable or sensible for themselves, but all to no practical avail â€“ to these brothers and sisters in Christ, the reality of depression may seem a thousand times more inexplicable, and hope for a lasting solution in this life may seem a thousand times more impossible than it is for those whose depression comes amid a Christless existence. The baffling unreasonableness of their malady, combined with the overwhelming guilt which comes from knowing that their lack of joy does despite to the great sacrifice of Christ, by which he purchased every reason to rejoice, tends to a downward motion, by which, in every passing moment, the sea of crass despair is plumbed to new depths of horror and blackness of soul. To you I write these words, not as one expostulating from the outside, but as one who has tasted the bitterness and who has found that the power of Christ is able to give a fresh taste of something sweet and all-but-forgotten on the other side of the valley. By Godâ€™s grace I have known the comfort which our Father is able to give in the midst of depression; and I am now able to say with the apostle Paul, â€œBlessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of Godâ€ (II Corinthians 1:3-4). Everyone to whom I am speaking (you know who you are), take heart! It may be that God has left a tiny spark in an area of your heart that you had long considered cold and dead. In his time, he will blow upon it, and cause to flame up anew the passionate joy of knowing Jesus. This will be as dear and wonderful to you as new life from the dead; which indeed, in a figure, it is.
I wish to make clear from the outset that I am not speaking as one who has acquired knowledge of the physiological or medical causes of depression. Nor am I speaking as one who has studied the writings of learned men that have discoursed upon the nature of spiritual depression. Everything I have learned has come to me experientially, from the laboratory of my own heart; and, while the less scientific therefore, yet it is a knowledge which I hold all the more firmly as one having tasted the empirical proof. This is my only apology, and the only defense of my credentials that I dare to offer for the following thoughts on spiritual depression that I have accumulated over the years. May God use these rough thoughts to kindle perseverance and hope in the souls of those who are even now hard-pressed by despair.
The Nature of Depression
It is my conviction that depression usually arises from a perception of the world (as it is apart from Christ) which is more honest and accurate than that of the average person. This may come as a surprise to those who have never experienced deep depression, or even to those who have. After all, the common response, when one is depressed, is to remind him of all the good in life. If one is depressed, is it not because he has an eye only for that which is wrong in the world? Because he is blind, as it were, to the many thousand legitimate delights that life has to offer? I would contend that this is not the case. The world is deeply, deeply wrong. The hatred, the killing, the lust and sinfulness that run rampant throughout life are hardly to be compensated for by the fleeting and ephemeral diversions from reality that distract the minds of the common inhabitants of earth. Life begins in pain, proceeds through struggle and travail, and from these rough beginnings does not go on to brighter days, but instead fades increasingly until it ends in death after the manifold trials of old age have finally and fully been undergone. The pointlessness and gratuitousness of the many sorrows and pains of life are so blatant that the only response by which one may cope with them without despair is to numb himself from the pervasive presence of reality by amusements which divert the attention from lifeâ€™s sad dilemmas. This is how most of the world gets by; and so great is the self-delusion, that they are smilingly able to call themselves happy. But their happiness is built upon chimeras, upon the elaborate constructions of unreality in which they spend the greater part of their lives. For a few persons, this coping mechanism of diversion appears as hollow as it is in reality. It is largely to these faultedly honest persons that depression comes. This is not to say that depression comes only from a conscious deliberation on the nature of the world as it really is apart from Christ. Many times, perhaps more often than not, it is the unconscious reaction of the soul that has felt, even if not deliberated upon, the vanity of life in a fallen world. But in any case, it usually arises from some recognition, deliberate or not, that the world is all wrong. These preliminary thoughts lead me to my conclusion that the only true cure for depression is the hope that is in Christ. Everything else is a mere masking of the symptoms. But before we broach that topic, there remain some conclusions to draw respecting the nature of depression in the world as it truly is apart from Christ.
When Depression leads to a Break with Reality
It is an undeniable fact that severe depression, especially as it occurs over an extended period of time, has the tendency to bring its victim to a decisive break with reality. Insane asylums and mental health wards are filled with those who have struggled with depression all their lives. This fact may cause some to question the validity of my prior assertion. How can a depressed person be dealing more honestly with reality, if depression so often goes hand-in-hand with insanity? I would suggest that the nearly unspeakable pressures of dealing with an honest view of Christless reality over the space of many years ultimately lead to a desperate, subconscious act of self-preservation, in which the person finally succumbs to the coping mechanism of the world-at-large. Because the depressed person refuses to engage in the intentional unreality of common amusement and diversion; or rather, when he does engage in them, because his perception of true reality is so vivid that he is not able to draw any consolation, or â€œtrick himselfâ€ numbingly; therefore, being unable to profit from the little, intentional unrealities, he is finally constrained to find some small comfort in an unreality which is vivid enough to obscure his pain at beholding the sin-cursed world. It is precisely because his perception of reality is sharp enough to avoid being fooled by amusement that he must ultimately find solace in a more encompassing unreality, and so avoid a pain that has become unbearable. The only other option, which I will discuss below, is to attempt to find meaning and joy in a different level of reality â€“ the old recourse of the artist and poet.
Manic-Depression and the Artist
It has often been recognized that the great artists and poets of the world have typically been touched with what has been called manic-depression â€“ the state of alternating periods of deep depression and intense creativity. It is usually supposed that this manic-depressive state is a physiological condition which has as a side-effect the enablement of great artistic achievement. I think that this analysis confuses the effect for the cause. The artist is one who, because he is more aware of true reality, is better able to express the actual nature of the world than the common person who is confused by his diversions of intentional unreality. This sensitivity of perception enables him to produce great works of art (for art is simply the honest portrayal of that which is fundamentally real); but it also has the effect of exposing him to depression (for reality, apart from Christ, is all wrong). In coping with this honest perception of flawed reality, he chooses, instead of masking the symptoms, to search for meaning in a higher reality which makes sense of everything. To some degree, the great artists are successful in this attempt. They are able to broach a higher world of ideological reality which contains much that is beautiful and good. And yet, their attempts are ultimately doomed to failure; because, those higher goods which they perceive cannot be possessed by fallen humans except through Christ, who has purchased all good things which mankind has lost, and apart from whom there is no way of regaining them. They can glimpse the higher good, but are at a loss as to how they might own it. They are as starving beggars in a world of starving beggars, who differ from the others in that they can smell the feast of rich things which awaits those in whom the curse has been overcome. But they can never eat and drink of that feast to satiety. They are better off, in a way, than the common beggar; but in a way more miserable; and thus they spend their lives in apprehending the good and beautiful through artistic means, but falling into depression when that apprehension is not sufficient to satisfy their deepest needs. This dynamic of the poetic consciousness finds one of its most inspired expressions in John Keatsâ€™s â€œOde to Melancholyâ€; in which he expresses the startling truth that the dark lady Melancholy (i.e. depression)
â€œâ€¦dwells with Beauty â€“ Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay! In the very temple of delight
Veilâ€™d Melancholy has her Sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joyâ€™s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.â€
This startling description is perhaps the truest assessment of reality possible for those who have not been gifted to taste the surpassing goodness of Christ.
The Place of Medical Treatment
In light of what has been said, it stands to reason that the medical cures for depression can be nothing other than a chemical means of alleviating the symptoms and masking the true problem. I grant that there may be genuine chemical imbalances in the brain which lend one to feelings of depression â€“ but even those natural chemicals, which enable one to pass through this world of wrong reality un-phased, are ultimately only symptom-alleviators. When a person is clinically depressed, and, through chemical means is enabled to live a life of happiness, his latter condition of being happy apart from Christ, while more comfortable, is certainly not better than his former condition, in which he at least recognized that something is truly wrong. I am not suggesting that chemical treatments of depression should never be employed â€“ on the contrary, we have scriptures such as Proverbs 31:6-7 which seem to indicate otherwise. But when chemical treatment is the sole means used to combat depression, the latter end of its victim, no matter the outcome of the treatment, cannot be ultimately improved. He may have a more comfortable ride to destruction, but he is proceeding to destruction nevertheless. It is the truest part of Christian love to address the problem of sin and the curse, which can only be cured by knowing Christ, as the ultimate answer to depression. And from that point, to decide whether or not it may be beneficial to alleviate the symptoms with chemical treatments. Both means may legitimately be used â€“ but to use the latter exclusively can never be ultimately helpful. This is a vital point to keep in mind for the depressed Christian as well. Chemical treatment may, in some cases, be useful. But it is worse than useless if employed apart from an exhortation to look for comfort in Christ alone. The following may be used as a sort of litmus test to determine whether or not the means of chemical anti-depressants would be an appropriate tactic for depressed Christians: does the chemical treatment allow the Christian to be satisfied with life in a way in which he is not finding his satisfaction in Christ alone? If anti-depressants facilitate a Christianâ€™s contentment with the world, then they are positively harmful; but if they are a means of overcoming emotional obstacles to seeking Christ alone for satisfaction, then, with prayerful consideration, they may perhaps be employed usefully. Now, let us turn the discussion to depression as it affects the Christian.
Depression in the Christian
It may at first glance appear reasonable that, if depression comes from perceiving the world as it truly is apart from Christ, and if knowing Christ is the only true cure against depression; then once one has come to know Christ, he should therefore no longer struggle with the malady. The only problem with this assessment is that things do not always fall out this way. Christians often do struggle with depression; and because their struggles are compounded with guilt, they are often afflicted worse than the unbeliever. That this is a reality is due, no doubt, to the fact that, when a person receives Christ, the wrongness of the world is not immediately changed thereby. Although the joy of knowing Christ may indeed be for some the immediate and lasting cure for the depression with which they had long struggled; yet for others, the struggle remains, because the world that they are perceiving is still a miserable world. God usually gives the gift of living experientially in the happy reality of the completed redemptive work of Christ only by slow degrees and through much struggle. The conversion of a depressed person may mark the turning point of the struggle, so that its victorious conclusion is ultimately assured â€“ but that conclusion may not come as long as â€œthis body of deathâ€ remains that personâ€™s abode. A person that is depressed before becoming a Christian may well struggle with depression long thereafter. If he does not, it is only by a very gracious dispensation of the heavenly Father.
The fact of the matter is that, persons who suffer from depression before they are converted may well struggle with it after their conversion. But even beyond this, it sometimes so happens that a person who has never been depressed, once he has truly awakened to the realities of the gospel, may eventually come to struggle with depression in his Christian life thereafter. This is because, at his conversion he has come to know the blessedness that reality in Christ ought to contain â€“ he has come to experience reality, and good, beautiful, joyous reality at that, with an honesty that he had never known before. Previously, he may have been content with his intentional unrealities of amusement and diversion. Now, having tasted something better, he can no longer be satisfied with them. So what happens when, through the weakness of his faith and the remaining lusts of his flesh, he is drawn aside from his joy in Christ, and experiences periods of life in which he lives as he did before he had known Christ? Because he now has a truer perception of reality in Christ, he is able to see that the condition of his life is deeply wrong. This is the cause of depression in anybody â€“ how much more in him who has experienced, not just the wrongness of the world as it is apart from Christ, but the rightness of the world with Christ? In this way, someone who had never been depressed may, after becoming a Christian, struggle with depression at periods in his life. And since that struggle is often enhanced by guilt and shame, it is frequently quite severe. We will consider in more detail the cause of this spiritual depression and the means for overcoming it, in the paragraph below.
Unbelief as the Cause of Depression
Even more than the depression of an unbeliever, the depression of a believer has as its ultimate cause, unbelief in Christ. In order to make sense of this assessment, we must be clear on what precisely is included under the heading â€œunbeliefâ€. Belief in Christ is not simply intellectual assent that he is who he says he is. That is a necessary component â€“ but even the devils believe that much (James 2:19). True belief occurs when the Spirit of God opens up our eyes to behold the glory of Christ and causes our hearts to rejoice in all the benefits that the knowledge of him holds forth to those who are his (II Corinthians 4:6). So then, unbelief is that frame of mind which cannot be satisfied or overjoyed by considering him. Unbelief focuses (whether consciously or not) on the wrongness of the world to the exclusion of the ultimate rightness of the world as redeemed by Christ. This unbelief, which is at its heart a focus on the world and not on Christ, is the cause of depression in a Christian. And this unbelief can only be combated by an earnest, scriptural, Spirit-reliant meditation on the pleasures of knowing the Redeemer. If a Christian is depressed, he has no other recourse but to plead with his heavenly Father to give him another taste of the pleasures of Christ. This is the only true cure of depression.
The secondary causes of unbelief may include any number of things. The Christian may feel as though his sin in failing to find pleasure in Christ is too great for him to come again before the throne of grace. He may feel as though his sinfulness, even after having been forgiven, is so great that he cannot overcome his shame to remember that nothing can separate him from the love of God. He may not feel as if Godâ€™s work of grace can ultimately triumph in his life because his rebellion is so ingrained. Whatever the cause, although he may intellectually and scripturally understand the lack of reason for his fears, he still cannot feel that he is secure forever in the grip of Godâ€™s grace. This feeling of reality as wrong, no matter how differently he may know things to be intellectually, must be the source of depression in the life of the Christian. And the ability to overcome these groundless fears can only come as a gift of the Almighty God. Therefore, whatever other means may be pursued, without fervent, heart-deep prayer, the ultimate cause of depression can never be vanquished, even in a believerâ€™s heart.
Concluding Thoughts on Depression
All of the foregoing thoughts are only a foundation to bring us to understand how we as Christians might combat the unbelief of depression when it confronts us. The victory is ultimately a gift of God; but in seeking that gift, it is vital that we remember several things. In order to help Christians as they fight for joy in the face of depression, I have compiled a list of five things to keep in mind when despair attacks. These five things are as follows.
1. Depression is preferable to complacent contentment.
No matter how uncomfortable and undesirable depression may seem to be, we must remember that it is a better condition than the complacency which finds contentment in the things of life that can never ultimately satisfy. We must remember when we are depressed that our state is at least one step beyond that of those who find happiness in unreal diversions. We have at least come to recognize, by the grace of God, that the fleeting, mindless pleasures of the world cannot give us eternal joy. In the midst of depression, let us be encouraged that we are not given over to self-delusion in our extremities, and let us be motivated to turn to God, who alone can bring eternal pleasure!
2. Depression is not Godâ€™s ultimate desired end.
Although depression is a condition somewhat better than ungrounded, temporal happiness, we must assure ourselves as well that depression is not the ultimate design of God. He may use it as a means to break us of any tendency to look for satisfaction in things outside of Christ; but in the final analysis, he breaks only so that he may bind up. He brings people to the end of themselves only so that he might introduce them to the one who is infinitely more able to bring joy and peace than they are able to find in themselves. Depression, when it comes, is not its own end, but is a means to make us more accommodating to the free grace of the only One who can give eternal happiness.
3. Depression must lead to a desperate seeking of Godâ€™s face.
If the two previous points are true, then it stands to reason that we are not able to overcome depression by our own power. On the contrary, we must look in faith to the one who is able. We must cry out to him for the joy that Christ has to offer. The great tragedy of Christian depression is that, those who suffer from it tend to think that they must overcome it before they come to God. That was not the way they found salvation; and that will never be the way that they are enabled to overcome depression. The only way by which to find ultimate victory is to recognize oneâ€™s own insufficiency and to cry out to the One who alone is sufficient to conquer.
4. Depression must be fought with the belief that God is ultimately merciful.
In order to find the strength to call out to the One who is able to conquer depression, the Christian must assure himself from scripture that God is indeed merciful to them that love him. He must be confident that, although weeping may tarry for the night, yet God is pleased to bring joy in the morning (Psalm 30:5). If the Christian would ever find true victory in the midst of despair, let him remember the example of Job, and know that the Lord is pitiful and of tender mercy (James 5:11). If he should lose sight of this reality, then all hope will indeed be cut off.
5. Depression may be used to equip a Christian to minister Godâ€™s grace to those who are hurting.
When one is in the midst of severe battles with depression, the pointlessness of it all may quickly overwhelm him. It is always helpful, in these times, to remember that there is a purpose for the struggle. It may be to purge him from dross and cause him to come forth as refined silver; but even beyond that, the Lord may use the experience of depression to enable a believer to minister grace to those who are hurting. This may not be much comfort in the time of trial. But it well may be the most lasting earthly good of the difficulty; and remembering that there is a sovereign God who has a purpose for everything he brings across the paths of his children cannot fail to be comforting.
I cannot know who may read this article or what difficulties may be confronting him. It may be that someone is greatly distressed by obvious, pressing hardships. It may be that someone is battling with depression even without any obvious cause (which could be more difficult, because those around him see no reason for his struggles, and are unable to sympathize). Whatever your struggle may be (I am speaking to Christians), let me give you a few words of truth and comfort. I can promise you that God has not abandoned you. No matter how you feel, the God who has given up his own dear Son to bring you to him cannot fail to provide everything for your greatest and lasting good. The God who cannot lie will never renege on his promise to complete in you the work of grace which he began. Whatever your struggle, hold fast! You are an overcomer in Christ! It doesnâ€™t matter how hopeless the situation seems, or how tedious, or how infinitely long â€“ look to Jesus, cry out to him, reflect on who he is from the pages of scripture, beg him to bless you again with a taste of the joy with which he alone can flood your soul. You are not lost. Rescue is coming. Whatever is the sickness, Jesus is the cure. You are his now and forever. Battle to believe those truths. Search the scriptures, enlist your Christian friends to intercede for you, and cry out to the Savior. He will never leave you nor forsake you.