Depression

I'm not feeling particularly depressed at the moment, but it's something my personality tends towards in general, and I was just talking to someone about it by email.  I thought I'd collect some thoughts here.

A lot of people are deceived by what I call the "emotional prosperity gospel", that Christians should expect be happy all the time.  Many of these people would never be deceived for a minute by the financial version of the prosperity gospel—that Christians will become rich.  But both are based on a superficial reading of the Bible which totally ignores the fact that Christ was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief".  The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the one who was to come, writes this dialogue between God and our Messiah:

He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”  (Isaiah 49:3-4)

This is not, of course, the end of the passage.  God's plans do end with joy.  But depression is often found in the middle of things, in the difficulty and orneriness of life.

The emotional prosperity "gospel"—which is really no gospel at all—ignores that the Prophets and Apostles often had emotional poverty as well as financial poverty.  2 Corinthians makes it clear enough that St. Paul was not always happy, even though he found joy in his sorrows.

We live in a fallen world, and our bodies and minds are broken in various ways.  Emotions are physiological, not just spiritual; our bodies affect our minds and vice versa.  So depression is partly a medical issue.  If the chemical balance in our brain is off, it can cause us to feel sad, or withdrawn, or lazy without being able to help it.  This web comic is famous for its accurate depiction of what severe depression can be like:

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

Because depression is partly a physiological issue, there are physical changes which can be helpful.  Many people find that getting better sleep, exercising more, and/or making dietary changes can help.  I get seasonal depression in the wintertime, and in the evenings, and I have a lightbox which produces bright light, which I occasionally use to feel better.

For severe depression, it can be appropriate to seek medical help, such as drugs or psychotherapy.  (For talk therapy, I would recommend that Christians normally try to find a psychologist who is also a Christian, if reasonably possible.  If you just want someone to prescribe drugs, this might be less relevant.)

This link says more about what to expect if you go to a doctor:
http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/06/16/things-that-sometimes-help-if-youre-depressed/

Many people are resistant to doing this because they think if they get help it means they are "crazy".  If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that we're all a little bit crazy; people should realize that mental issues are normal and common, and not look down on themselves for being born a human being.

If someone can't walk because they have a broken leg, we wouldn't just tell them to trust God and snap out of it—we might pray for a miracle, but we should also go to the doctor.  It ought to be the same when the organ that's broken is our brain.  Also, we wouldn't say that a crippled person was "irresponsible" and "immature" for using a physical crutch, if it helps them to function better in their everyday life.  So we shouldn't say this about psychological crutches either.

To be sure, the fruits of the Spirit include joy and peace.  I would question the faith of a supposed Christian who never found any emotional consolation at all in Christ's resurrection.  Despair, a belief that God can't make your life better, that is a sin.  And we need to spend time in the Scriptures learning about God's promises about salvation, prayer, and the redemption of the world.  But there are many moods in Scripture: it contains Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and the questioning Psalms, alongside the exhortations to rejoice and be glad.  If the Bible had only authorized some kinds of feelings, it would be superficial, unadapted to the world, uninspired.  Fortunately, God gave us something better than this.  Christ was fully human, not just divine.

Emotions come and go.  Depression often dampens all emotions, making it seem difficult to feel anything at all.  It is commonplace that "love", the primary fruit of the Spirit, has to be regarded primarily as an act of the will instead of an emotion.  I would suggest that "joy" and "peace" are the same way, and that it is possible to be sad or depressed and still have an attitude of rejoicing.  And one can't forget that it's the "peace that passes understanding", not the peace that comes from a well-calibrated cocktail of genes and circumstances.

Some Christians have both kinds of peace and are naturally happy and bouncy all the time; that's okay too as long as neither kind of Christian looks down on the other kind for being different from them.  Our emotional "set point" is largely the luck of the draw, it's what we do with it that matters.  Depression can, at times, be a legitimate response to the fallenness of the world.  We are pilgrims on a journey, not yet settlers in our final home.  Sometimes we have no choice but to feel sad.  But we can try to direct our negative emotions towards the things that actually matter in the world.

God can and does rescue many people from depression in this life.  But our faith is not primarily about this life, it is primarily about looking forward to the next, which will last forever.  Remember, St. Paul opined that Christianity just isn't worth it, if it only helps us in this life (1 Cor 15:19).  This is an increasingly unpopular thing to say in an increasingly worldly age.

But paradoxically, looking forward to Heaven makes us better able to deal with Earth.  Earthly sorrows are not as big of a deal, if we know that they are going to come to an end.  If we suffer with Christ, we will also reign with him.

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford.
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10 Responses to Depression

  1. Dec says:

    I was actually going through some pretty steep depression when I was approaching you for answers to some of my queries! You were a big help in my own struggle with the condition and an encouragement as well. I hope you feel better soon!

  2. Jason says:

    Hi Dr Wall,

    Just wanted to say that I also find listening to contemporary Christian music a way to over come depression as well. There are some truly blessed souls out there with amazing music that helps me in my walk with the Lord. Also I wanted to thank you for your blog for your unique perspective. Keep up the great work. God Bless you.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Jason,
    Thanks for your comments. Yes, listening to music can be helpful, especially if it is a reminder of the truth of the faith.

    Dec,
    I'm glad you felt encouraged. As for me, I didn't write this post because I was feeling depressed right now. I wrote it because I was talking to somebody else about depression.

    It's possible I might be starting to get a little bit of "slow down" as the sunshine is lessening, but right now it's subtle. These days, now that I'm more aware of my own chemistry, seasonal depression often feels more like tiredness than like sadness. But it's hasn't been a big deal in recent years.

  4. Jack Spell says:

    Great post, Aron; it was exactly what I needed.

  5. TY says:

    Excellent post indeed, Aron.
    Many years ago, I read some insightful books by the late Church of England priest, H.A. Williams, and two of his writings that I have found useful in my own life were (1) True Wilderness (contemporary Christian insights) and (2) True Resurrection. I still read them from time to time. He explores Christianity from a psychological perspective, which is not surprising given his personal background.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Williams_(priest)

  6. Michael Rathbone says:

    Dear Dr. Wall,

    I really enjoyed this post. The last link was a very useful tool. Thank you for sharing it.

    I have been through two depressive episodes in my life. The first was in 2011 and involved a crisis of faith. That was a really dark time for me. Every minute was a struggle not to burst into tears. Every time I left the house I would leave crying because I was afraid I would not see my loved ones again and that every second I wasn't with them was a second I could never get back (technically that's true, but emotionally it felt a lot different back then). I took no pleasure in anything and all I wanted to do was sleep, although sleep was very hard to come by. Sleeping meant that I didn't have to be awake and endure my constant fretting about whether God did or did not exist and what if so and so came along to destroy my faith (a prospect, that in my weaker moments that I still have, but manage to put aside).

    Thankfully, I still went to Church every week and kept praying (and kept going online searching for answers to my crisis. That's how I came across St. Edward Feser's site). Eventually, with a big assist from a Dominican friar (thank to that firar I will be eternally grateful to that order and him in particular. I truly feel he saved my life) I talked to, I got over my crisis of faith and I overcame my depression.

    The second one involved some job difficulties. Thankfully, I found a new job so that crisis has been resolved. Also, it wasn't nearly s bad as the first crisis, because one was spiritual in nature and this one wasn't. Prayer and the Sacraments really helped me along.

    There are people out there who say that religion is an emotional crutch like it is some sort of bad thing. Well, religion is an emotional crutch for me. I don't think that is a bad thing. The one thing that saves me from the soul crushing despair of nihilism. Think about it, under atheism, you and everyone you love will eventually die. The planet will die, the sun, this galaxy, the entire universe will become a cold dark void and all of your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and accomplishments will be gone forever. Only through the hope that Christ brings to me am I not emotionally crippled by this by this prospect.

    Anyway, long story short. Depression is lousy. If there are any people with depression reading this, I won't give you any platitudes about "it gets better". Prayer and the sacraments helped me, but I don't want to suggest that it should replace medical treatment. All I can say is that when my depression was at its worst and I couldn't sleep (because I had to work), I tried to break things down by getting through each hour of the day and treated sleep as the finish line. I thought to myself, "Okay, it's 9:00, get to 10:00 and you're one hour closer to sleeping. Just get to sleep and you'll be okay for a while." I don't know if that is doable for everybody, but it helped with me.

    Sorry for writing such a long post here Dr. Wall. I just figured I would share how Depression affected my life. Thank you for your posts. They have strengthened my faith and made a real positive impact on my life.

  7. TY says:

    Michael, when you hear such foolishness from people who say religion is an emotional crutch, ask them what are theirS? You'd be shocked at the answers and then you'd thank God for yours because it is grounded in Him. Jesus said "The thief comes not, but to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." Sometimes to have life abundantly, we have to "lose" it. As Aron says, Jesus was a man of sorrow and grief (and that is also life) but he also valued happiness, and we see him enjoying a good vintage at the wedding in Canaan and spending quality time with people, even with the so-called pariahs of society.

    It is interesting that Jesus didn't say that people "must" have life more abundantly and the "might" opens the window for the exercise of free will and the willingness to experience out personal "Gethsemanes" to emerge as stronger people.

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Michael,
    Thanks so much for that heartfelt and personal account of your experiences with depression. I really appreciate your willingness to share, no need to apologize at all!

    By any chance, was your dominican friar living at the Dominican House of Studies in DC? I've had some good experiences with those people myself.

    PS Maybe you won't say the platititude, but just in case any depressed people are lurking in the background, I will: IT GETS BETTER!*

    *with high probability, but if not God still loves you.

  9. Sean Glazier says:

    I enjoyed this post. I see so much of the feel good mantra being preached in the mega churches especially. I am Russian Orthodox and we are taught that life will test us certainly some more than others and certainly at times it does not seem fair. I am an RPI graduate in BSEE and physics is a serious hobby and love of mine and So is my love of God. in 1984 I suffered a car accident that fractured C2-C5 and in 2003 I got struck by lighting and have had many things happen in my life including losing my first wife to a car accident in 94. It was in November. In spite of living in Chronic and acute pain, measured in Belgium to be the equivalent of 33 broken bones (labor is a 22 broken bone equivalent), I went on to have a career in software engineering. I was raised in an abusive home by high level freemason parents who were in to the satnic rituals and abuse. (this does not mean that free masons in general do these things, most have no clue about any of it).

    God has sustained me over my life. I learned through experience that pain does not necessarily entail suffering. If you seek the Holy Spirit , he can and does give me rest so while I am in pain I am not necessarily suffering. suffering is an emotional response to some thing and we can choose. I dislike the pain and these days being a chronic pain patient is like having leprosy with the current war on patients. Indeed the pain management fentanyl that I have been on for a long time will go away under the new laws and I will be left with nothing to help. perhaps this is the final test of my faith in God.

    Throughout history Christians have had to endure persecution and in fact Jesus said the world will hate you because they hated me. Indeed today Christians are going through persecution and it will only increase. God does not say that being a Christian will be easy. It will be hard and you will question your faith and Gods plan. But He does say that everything you endure will be worth it and God himself will wipe every tear from your eyes. God knows I have cried an ocean of those. It pales in comparison to what Jesus suffered for us.

    In fact through Gods property of being timeless, He was able to pay for our sins. Jesus did not get a volume discount and in greek his last words on the cross meant paid in full. So every time we sin we add to the suffering Jesus had on the cross.

    When I think about what He gave to be with me, I do not feel as depressed, and I do deal with depression. But I also know that He knows everything we bear. Jesus did not turn away from the cup of suffering His Father gave to him. Nor should we turn away from ours. We must drink it down to the dregs and pick up and bear our cross. It is ok to ask or receive help. Jesus got some help dragging his physically up the hill and he was scourged. I am sure He could have done it alone, He is God after all, but he accepted help as an example to us. Be willing to accept help and if you are able help those in need of it.

    Right now I am looking and have been looking for work with out much success and it is difficult to get through. I have lost lots of material things I worked hard for, but I realize those are inconsequential to my goal of being with Him once my course is run.

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for that testimony, Sean.

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