Christians don’t talk enough about depression. Emotional pain, for one thing, can be hard to share. Despair can feel very physical for the sufferer, weighing heavily on the heart and clogging the brain, but its surface features can be easily overlooked or missing altogether. A depression that finally lifts leaves no scars on the skin to show how deep the wound was and how long the healing took. Besides, such anguish is so personal that it is hard to share it with anyone other than members of the family or the medical profession.
Those who suffer from depression are usually very grateful for all the pharmacological breakthroughs surrounding serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Philip Rieff brilliantly criticized the triumph of the therapeutic in American culture, but the fact is that chemistry has rendered psychology suspect at best or irrelevant at worst in the treatment of mental illness. This trend has not served the church well. Theology is a form—arguably the original form—of therapy, and if the church is to compete with the pharmacy, it has to have some good news of its own concerning depression.
Depression is a complex phenomenon with multi-causal roots. Medical definitions are informative and essential, but no other kind of pain has such a visceral spiritual component. Ironically, faith can be a source of aggravation as well as relief. Anyone who even thinks about suicide typically feels deeply ashamed, but Christians in this situation have even more guilt heaped upon them due to the way suicide is usually treated as the gravest of sins. The helpful sometimes tell Christian depressants that they should look outward, to the service of others, and upward toward God rather than obsessing over inward states of mind that are typically defined in secular psychological terms. This is surely right, but Paul tells us that the faithful have the mind of Christ. Does that apply to the faithful whose minds have become utterly confused?
Many depressed Christians instinctively turn to God-help, not self-help, literature, but there is little of that out there, and God himself is distant to their cries. Perhaps that can serve as a theological definition of depression: When your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.
The cruelty of this situation is as transparent as it is impenetrable. If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence. It is not just that your depressed emotional state does not permit you to experience God’s presence in your life. Depression itself tends to be a deeply religious experience, but it is an experience of God’s resistance to your most pressing personal petitions. The more you cry out for help, the more distant God can appear to be. This is negative theology gone deeply awry.
Perhaps this is why church leaders and theologians talk so little of this befuddling malady. Those who are emotionally distraught can push others away with their overt displays of neediness. Similarly, the depressed can be a source of embarrassment when their spiritual needs are so raw and yet so beyond a healing touch.
Thanks to the great Catholic theologian Von Balthasar, theologians have much to say about Christ’s descent to hell, which corresponds to many peoples’ experience of depression, but I find depression to be more akin to purgatory, a topic even more neglected than hell these days. Purgatory is the time for coming to terms with the past, more specifically, all the woes, deficiencies, and sins that we could not muster sufficient sensitivity to in this earthy life. Depression too can be a time of reckoning, a retreat from the world in order to shed everything inessential even if the benefits of this paring down are discovered long after the pain has subsided.
Nonetheless, the absence of anything like grace in the experience of depression means it holds a dark mirror to the healing promised in purgatory. The case can be made that depression is not really accurately named, since it is a state of heightened sensitivity as well as lessened energy and lowered expectations. The depressed react to fears, worries, and deprivations without any of the ordinary resources that filter and contextualize those emotions. The depressed know on some level that they are confronted with exaggerated fears, but that only makes their hypersensitivity worse. As a kind of contrition out of control, depression can be a lesson in how close purgatory is to hell.
Middle or upper class Americans who feel depressed can be doubly assaulted, first by their emotional condition and second by their knowledge that, compared to those in the developing world, they still have so much to be thankful for even if they can find no thanks to give. Seminaries and graduate programs teach the God of the Oppressed, and rightly so. Poverty, war, and racism are so much more public in their debilitating consequences. But we should not forget the depressed, especially in this time of Lent. Jesus himself must have experienced depression while being famished for forty days and nights in the wilderness, praying while his disciples slept, and descending into hell.
He also spent many years hidden from public view, his mission kept secret, his life so obscure that the Gospels tell us nothing about them. He had a long time of waiting, and he knew what awaited him. It is this time of hiddenness, I think, that most captures the depressant’s emotional state. The depressed wait for the long nights to end and the anguish to subside. The depressed, like Jesus during his so-called lost years, are hidden from sight, waiting for their lives to begin.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.