Godly depression?

Last night my psychopathology class focused on the topic of depression. We covered the usual stuff: various experiences and features of depression and bi-polar disorder, potential medical causes, common medical and psychological treatments, etc.

Depression, as you most likely know, comes in all sizes and shapes and is multifactorial in etiology. Depression involves the body, the mind and spirit, and the environment. Thus, treatments should also cover the gamut, focusing on thoughts, faith, body, and environment. I ended the class pointing briefly to the fact that the English Puritan treatment of depression covered pretty much the same. They encouraged their parishioners to treat their despair and melancholy with these ideas,

  1. Seek the benefit of “Physick” or medical interventions
  2. Accept the comfort of Scriptures and in community with friends (and they also counseled others to avoid over-use of exhortation)
  3. Be mindful of God’s present and past mercies
  4. Utilize the sacraments and other spiritual disciplines
  5. Avoid too much time in introspection, but
  6. Examine oneself to see if there are also hidden issues to be dealt with

Notice the “heart surgery,” as one of my students put it in her paper, doesn’t happen til much work has been done to stabilize and comfort the despairing individual.

KEY QUESTION: Is there such thing as Godly depression?

If so, what would it look like? This question comes out of the view that depression and accompanying hopelessness reveals, to some degree, that a person is failing to trust the Lord.

Or does it? Is it possible to be depressed and spiritually mature? I believe so. So, what signs might you look for to determine that the person in front of you was experiencing a Godly depression? Was St. Paul despairing to the point of death but wholly trusting the Lord at the same time? (2 Cor 1:8f)


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Depression, Doctrine/Theology

25 responses to “Godly depression?

  1. Scott Knapp

    If deep sorrow occurs in response to a disconnect between what we long for and what we have (or expect to have), no element of living in a fallen world is left untouched by deep sorrow, even to the most healthy, since we are hard-wired to long for the perfection of Eden. We are not built to live with sustained deep sorrow, and learning to cope through the resources of Christian community, deepening dependence on and relationship with God, and grace by the Spirit of God are our only sources of hope. If we throw into the equation that our twisted “flesh” longs to satisfy those legitimate desires through idolatrous, self-sufficient means, deep legitimate sorrow is exacerbated well beyond the capacity God intended us to “cope” with, and His resources are (blessedly) useless in aiding us toward that end. I thought it was fascinating when a secular psychologist (was it Adler? or Glasser?) said we are not “depressed,” but “depressing”, in an actively chosen sense of the word…we’re escaping the conclusion that we are unable to close the gap between what we want and what we’re able to secure (in the non-biologically caused sense).

    Can godly, healthy people become depressed? I think so. We’re all in a constant state of flux, in terms of spiritual development. God has all tools at His disposal to bring us to that end, and who am I to say He can’t use depression. Should it be regarded as a healthy state of sustained being, as evidence of godliness? I’m not on board with that extreme, but I’m also not comfortable assigning a “time limit” to the work of God if He chooses to sanctify through a period of depression. Naomi was in a state of “Mara” (Ruth 1:20) for a full decade, though by the end of the Book of Ruth there’s little room for doubt that God was at work in her life the entire time. I think we assign time limits most often when we’ve become weary of walking with the depressed individual, and WE would like a rest.

    • Scott, your last line is exactly in line what I said to the class. I asked them how long someone could stay in a Psalm 88 frame of mind. Usually, our time limits come out of our own desire not to be discouraged. WE, as you said, want rest.

      Just for kicks, I asked students whether or not it was possible to be in Ps 88 and 131 mode at the same time.

      • Scott Knapp

        ….and what was the response? (Prof’s love to stir the pot, just because they can!)

      • Scott, stirring the pot…raising the tensions…it IS what we profs do. 🙂 We certainly don’t work for the big bucks! Response? sure, we can be in both Ps 131 and 88 at the same time, content, silent, but in darkness.

      • D. Stevenson

        Whew! Glad you said Ps. 88 and 131 can be at the same time because when I read them I thought…, what’s the difference? Nice to know my mind isn’t wacko. Um…, at least about this. 😉

  2. Rusty Langford

    Do you record any of your classes? If so, are they available to download?

  3. Lou

    Footprints : Walking through the Passages of Life (1981) ISBN 0930014553, Dr Howard Hendricks. the good Dr. taught at Dallas Theological Seminary, preached across the nation and suffered with depression for years. We are so spiritually and physically complex, as brother Knapp said, we can not put a time limit on God’s methods or purposes. God may even be working on the counselor and using the counselee in the process.

    • D. Stevenson

      See also William Cowper and David Brainerd (although the etiology of David Brainerd is likely the tuberculosis)

      I especially identify with the poetry of William Cowper. It awes (and encourages) me that the same man who wrote these words suffered numerous periods of feeling totally and hopelessly rejected by God.

      (There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
      And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
      Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
      Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
      E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
      Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. )

      And see this poem! Here are the words of one who has known depression and might even be in the throes of it at that time. Here is godliness in depression.

      For a brief look at the life and death of Cowper see here:

      • D. Stevenson

        Forgot to note on the last link – look to the bottom where there is the funeral message by John Newton

  4. Erin

    Christ himself was described as a man of sorrows ,grief and affliction. He understood our humanity the best.

  5. Naomi

    As a sufferer I can’t deny that lack of trust in God’s love and goodness can be one contributing factor. Yet I think the times I’ve felt closest to God is when I’ve been enveloped in darkness, feeling completely at the mercy of God and able to say to Him “I know you love me. I know you are good. I know you have a purpose”. It’s interesting also that sometimes my husband says that my depressive thoughts are more in line with reality then “normal” people’s eg my tears about hell and the suffering in this world.
    Thanks for your blog.

    • Naomi

      I guess the reality is everyones suffers because of lack of trusting God yet He can use all things for His glory.

      • Naomi, we all lack in trusting God fully. That is true. But I wouldn’t say that everyone suffers for this. Some do not seem to…at least in the present. Further, I would not want someone to assume that their suffering is the result of lack of trusting. We are invited into Jesus’ suffering and that is a gift not a punishment.

  6. Brooke

    I found this definition of trust interesting….
    If one who is depressed is feeling hopeless, which is probably common….then its clear trust cannot be the first thing assumed when talking about a relationship….with anyone.

    TRUST: dependence on something future or contingent : HOPE

    • Brooke

      OOPS…I wasnt done..

      This post reminds me of a blog a while ago on similar topic….
      Lack of trust, be it either an unwillingness or a lack of understanding exactly what it is….there must be a part in a believers walk that flat out ‘Trusts’ blindly….it may never feel right, or feel good….walking in obedience will bring about the gift of feeling…..just some thoughts on a tough topic….:)

  7. D. Stevenson

    Does sorrow = depression? If I feel gloomy, down, and discouraged, am I depressed? How exactly, are we defining depression?

  8. Thank you for sharing this…I just stumbled upon your blog the other day, and I am glad I found this in my reader. I have been struggling deeply with depression since the birth of our son nearly 3 years ago – it wanes into a milder depression at times, but sometimes it is just full force…and it is actually in those moments I find myself crying out to God more than ever.

    Thank you for approaching this question with your class – this different viewpoint is very healthy to explore, and it is one I can concur that it is lived out by many people. My only hope, and prayer, about going through all of this is that in the process of my own journey to become a Christian Counselor – that God will utilize all I have experienced, and still do right now, as a means to truly help other people.

    • Marni, thanks for coming by and sharing. In our class we also talked about the widespread but hidden problem of postpartum depression. Some 80% of women report moderate episodes, but few talk about it to anyone because you are supposed to be happy.

  9. Depression as you say has physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. Looking historically at Christianity I can find many examples of each separately and combined. Saint Teresa of Avila had extreme physical pain, Saint Anthony of the Desert had intense mental distress in his hallucinations and visions, and Saint John of the Cross had tremendous spiritual depression. All three used their pain as a way to experience oneness with God.

    Saint Teresa said “The pain is still there. It bothers me so little now that I feel the Lord is served by it.” John of the Cross and Anthony of the desert had similar views on their experiences. If God is in everything, then the real suffering is our inability to see it in our pain. Bliss is not happiness, it is the ability to see God in everything, including our depressions. When we do see God in our depression we see Him everywhere and suffer no more.

    It took me nine months of contemplation while in deep depression to understand how Saint Teresa was able to say that the pain bothered her so little while being clearly affected by her condition. There were long periods where she was bedridden and in extreme pain even after her enlightenment, yet she still held that it didn’t matter. What I have learned from her is that my body, mind, and emotions may be very bothered, but when I focus on my soul and its oneness with God I am in Bliss. From equanimity (bliss) I can see that pain is part of bliss just as much as pleasure, happiness, and all other conditions.

    Suffering is confused with the feeling of pain, but it is really our resistance to it that is the problem. There is nothing more beautiful that the sweet sorrow of not feeling our direct oneness with God if it inspires us to desire Him even more. If despair is what gave Saint John of the Cross the oneness that he sought his whole life, then the spiritual thing to do is follow in his footsteps and see it as a valid path to it. Godly Depression is being able to see God while in it, not in thinking that it must go away first.

  10. I don’t believe the term “Godly depression” is viable. All can feel “depressed” (emotional) for hopefully a short season but then we bounce back. Those tormented by “clinical” depression and the like would be hard-pressed to see that as Godly. God does not put depression on his people but He desires us to be free and can bring good out of every bad situation.

    • Don,

      God certainly CAN bring us out of every bad situation but he also does not always choose to do so. The Psalmists clearly understood that God was choosing to have them walk through dark valleys and suffer, and not merely because they were sinning. There is a long tradition in the Puritan Reformed writings that suggests that God chooses to turn his countenance away from his children for a season for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is because of personal sin, but other times it is merely so we feel our need of Him more.

      How long is a season? I guess we might ask the Israelites who spent 400 years as slaves in Egypt…can be pretty long.

  11. Scott Knapp

    The question of whether despair has any redeeming qualities hit home for me this morning, when I was informed that one of my counselees in group therapy ended her life last night. She apparently saw no redeeming value in her despair, but she was also not receiving Christ-centered counseling in our facility. It will now always remain a mystery as to whether a different focus in therapy would have made an impact.

    • D. Stevenson

      Interesting word choice. “Redeeming” I suppose you mean something other than Christ’s redemption.

      In relation to the original question of this blog post, if I understand it correctly, the question is whether godliness and depression are mutually exclusive. Perhaps you are asking the same thing about despair. I think the first thing is to clarify how we are defining the word godliness. By godly, do we mean truly redeemed? By godly, do we mean reflecting God? I think it is necessary to clarify what we are actually asking.

      For me, the answers are clear, though perhaps I am just a simple thinker. My answer – being a truly redeemed person doesn’t exclude depression or despair. A truly redeemed “saved” person can kill themselves. It doesn’t take away from who they are in Christ. His righteousness “godliness” is imputed to us, nothing we do or don’t do.

      On the other hand, if by godliness we mean reflecting God, then no. It is not a sin to be depressed or feel despair. However, it is not godly. Sin is a part of it definitely, obviously in the murder of self. We can’t escape our flesh. We doubtless sin in some way even as we reach out to others in love.

      Depression can be fertile ground for godliness to grow. What makes the difference? Why does one grow in grace and another end their life? (That presumes ending life means they did not grow in grace which might not be true.) It is the age old mystery that man has choice and God is sovereign and both together and same.

      I know a man sitting on the edge of his bed getting dressed to start his day. In the short time his wife went into the master bath he picked up a gun and shot himself. She heard him say, “What have I done?” He was gone before she made it back into the room.

      I know a teen, ready to go to college in the fall. He came home from work dismayed because he had expressed anger at a co-worker and felt he had ruined his witness. He talked with his father about it and both went to bed. He was still asleep when Mom and Dad left in the morning. In the few hours they were gone he killed himself with a shotgun.

      Why did God allow them to die and I am alive? Was my depression not as bad? Is it because I told my family to keep guns inaccessible to me? Is it because I was told of numerous suicide attempts that didn’t succeed and the person was left with half a face or brain-damaged, or paralyzed and I didn’t want to take that risk? There were other stops just as there were many reasons why I thought death was the sensible choice.

      I know that God provides a way of escape. Does that mean I can congratulate myself because I took that way and it seems they didn’t? I don’t think so. I suspect there were times when I wasn’t going in the direction of escape. I am only here because God grabbed me and pulled me through the door into safety.

      We don’t, can’t and won’t know why.

      We cry deep wells of sorrow, but not as those who have no hope, for death has died and is swallowed up into victory.

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