Russell and Duenes

Thoughts on Depression, 2

with 3 comments

Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
Not long beneath the whelming brine,
Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.
At length, his transient respite past,
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.
No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.
William Cowper, from The Castaway

There seem to be some paradoxes, if you will, surrounding depression. Jesus was called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.” Yet is it clear that he was not depressed, as we would define that today. He knew the joy of the Lord. Christ told us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” St. James tells us, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” This type of self-abasement does not comport well with our desire to be upbeat and chipper.

Also, and my experience is limited on this point, but as I said previously, depression is one of those things that Christians want other Christians to “get out of” as soon as possible. Yet we are at the least ambivalent about people who take medication to “get out of it.” We assume that taking medicine is simply “masking the problem,” and perhaps it is to a degree. But it may be that we understand a lot less about depression than we think we do. How do people, with such a wide variety of experiences and circumstances, find themselves depressed. Doubtless the literature on this is vast,  and yet we’re still unclear on it, which says something about our understanding, or lack thereof, in and of itself.

I think, too, that there’s a sense in which Christians tell themselves that “the gospel has to get them out of it.” But this “gospel” gets conceived of in a narrow way. We get freaked out that we’re going to end up preaching a “therapeutic gospel,” and that we’ll minimize “sin and repentance.” So we keep coming at it in the same narrow way, applying only the same set of Scriptures, leaving out the ones that don’t fit the “sin problem” paradigm, and lo and behold, the depressed person isn’t getting better. No doubt many a Christian who is or has been depressed was trying to read the Scripture, trying to preach the gospel to himself, trying to pray, going to counseling, having others pray for herself, going to Bible studies, talking to others about it…and yet he or she is still depressed. The black thoughts and emotions, the despair, the mind-numbing dullness inside, the anxiety, the weeping, the inability to eat, the sleeplessness or its opposite, the mental haze keep coming. The depressed person may try to “preach themselves” out of it, but when they try they find they can’t concentrate, they get anxious, intrusive thoughts overwhelm them and there’s not much they can do. And then they are made to feel slightly guilty or unspiritual for taking medication. They’re between a rock and a hard place.

Clearly the depressed person needs more than just information about God. One of my commentors wrote: “The church has to do something to embrace depression and move through it. Kind of like sin. We don’t embrace sin, but we recognize it and hope for more. How can we (all) do that with depression?” What I’m nibbling at here and in conversations with my wife is just this idea of “embracing.” When the church cannot embrace depression, can only talk about “the joy of the Lord,” and has no room for lament, dirge, and despair, then I think it will be impossible to walk with the depressed among us. They will simply conclude that there’s no identification with their blackness, no good spiritual condition other than “chipper.” Our songs, our preaching, our pastoral counseling, our conversations, our small groups, etc, have to be OK with being “in the valley of the shadow of death.” We have to be good with, “Lord, all my desire is before you and my sighing is not hidden from you; my heart throbs, my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me.” (Ps.38:9-10) There has to be a culture, an ethos that embraces this reality, which is far more prevalent in Christians, I believe, than we think. But these are just initial thoughts. How does all this work when the despair is really deep?



Written by Michael Duenes

January 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Duenes, Reflections

3 Responses

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  1. […] Continue reading here: Thoughts on Depression, 2 « Russell and Duenes […]

  2. Good thoughts, and I’d be interested to read even more. I’m not particularly well acquainted with depression or grief, but there’s a distinction to be made between the two. I’m not sure what that distinction is. Fresh in my mind is Vanauken’s quote of Lewis’s letter (in A Severe Mercy) that commends him for being “merely sad” rather than resentful and despairing, though I’m not sure those constitute depression either. Maybe there’s some overlap among all these things.


    January 5, 2011 at 8:27 am

  3. Very interesting. I appreciate your acknowledging that there needs to be more dimension to a Christian than just being happy. Not very many people think about that. Besides, there is no compassion, I think, without a hefty amount of sadness.

    Rachel Vincent

    January 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm

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