The Twilight Struggle: Depression is a Hell of Thing

Depression is a Lady without Mercy.
Depression is a Lady without Mercy.

When I have faced depression, especially as the result of difficult circumstances, the dullness and sorrow often comes wrapped up with confusion or depression about certain ideas. In talking to hundreds of students over the years (not in mass meetings, but one-on-one), I have noticed a pattern: sometimes we try to self-medicate spiritually by agonizing over issues that distract us from getting our physical, emotional, and spiritual health in order. Depression sucks the life out of a person’s emotional life just as cancer kills the energy in the body. Sometimes the root of depression is physical, sometimes it is emotional, and often there is a spiritual component. Physical problems need physical solutions, including medication at times, emotional problems benefit from therapy, and spiritual depression needs the mature guidance of a spiritual mother and father. Intellectually gifted people are tempted to solve every problem intellectually and so sometimes puzzling over a theological or philosophical problem is a way to feel somewhat powerful.

This will not help the depression which can even skew our thinking about sad issues.

The Saint Constantine School is a sister program to  Wheatstone Ministries and one of our students asked me a question that caused me to (once again) share what I can about depression. First, I responded to how to handle depression generally and now I will take on a frequent issue those of us who suffer this illness deal with through a question asked of me this week by a very bright student, Miss Sayers*:

Also I don’t know if you’d remember x years ago at Wheatstone, Miss Chesterton talked about embracing all parts of you, but while I was talking to her after we couldn’t come up with a way or reason to embrace anxiety/depression. Do you have a way or reason? I also have questions about like hell because I have many close non Christian friends now, or Christians that have had bad family/church experiences and are turning away, and I can’t imagine them going to hell, so honestly I would rather that Christianity wasn’t true because nothingness is less painful than eternal hell. My friends are really good people, there’s no one else who has done more for me than they have but I can’t convince them of Christianity and sometimes I can’t convince myself because it’s just too painful and I don’t actually feel God like people talk about so I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to stop being a Christian, I can hardly fathom the idea, but I don’t know how to continue being a Christian either. Thank you for letting me ask these questions! 

Dear Miss Sayers,

Thank you for great questions. Whatever you decide the answers to be, I am your friend and fellow follower of the Logos, the God who loves questions and walks with us toward answers. My life has not been a straight progress from spiritual victory to victory and I am not sure I have ever met anybody being real who had such a life. Go read a good book like Way of the Pilgrim and you will find the spiritual life is a struggle this side of Paradise. I do not know why Christians do not make this plain: There are no easy answers, because the questions are so difficult. As children we ask easy questions and get jolly answers in Sunday School that work, but when our questions grow up, our answers must grow up as well. There is no solving your problems with one essay. Let’s keep talking.

You misunderstood Miss Chesterton I think. She was reminding you that you must acknowledge without shame your dryness, your depression, and your sorrow. You do not have to wish to stay that way. You do not have to embrace the evils done to you by other people or the evils you have done to yourself. That good will come of bad things over time is true, but the bad things are no less bad. Your depression is not the way God made you to be, but it is the way you are. You can accept that burden without thinking it is “good” or the real, best you. Paradise is coming when all burdens will be burned up and we will be free at last.

What good can come out of acknowledging depression? God has used my depression to make me more sympathetic to hurting people. I know easy answers do not work and just as my nearsightedness cannot be wished away (this side of Paradise), so I cannot wish away this sorrow. God has also shown me that I can survive my depression. I am not just my feelings and even my feelings are complicated. Just now I am sad and happy. I am sad because I am always a bit sad. I am happy to be in dialog with you. I am happy to work at The Saint Constantine School and for Wheatstone. I am sad for my nation and for the suffering Church of the Middle East.

What are my feelings? They are complicated. Adult feelings will always be complicated this side of Paradise if you look at the world honestly. No day is so perfect that it does not contain pain for humanity and no day is so bad that Love is not at work to mitigate our choices.

As for hell, it is not surprising that in a spiritual dry period, your mind is turned toward the Inferno. If I can give you advice, go read a great deal of Jerry Walls. When done, go read all of Dante’s Comedy, not just the Inferno. Then ask (as I often do myself): is this now a real intellectual problem or am I stewing on suffering because I am suffering? You do not know the eternal fate of anyone (save Judas!) and can hope for the salvation of any person. We do not know, and God is not telling, what happens to a person at the moment of death. We do know this. God is love and does not desire the death of any human. God will clarify to every human the ultimate choice and let us freely choose . . . now or at the hour of our death. Read That Hideous Strength and focus on the deaths pictured there.

Nothingness is less painful, but sadly nothingness is not available. We cannot wish hell away because it is unpleasant, rather we should avoid going ourselves. What of your friends? I know this: the love you have for your friends is noble. That love is a seed in their life. Say what you feel, love them, and leave their fate to God. You are not their messiah and you are not responsible after you have given your opinion for what they do. I bet you hate Christian movies as much as most Christians (don’t go see War Room) not just for their bad movie making, but for their simplistic story telling. You will not give the truth and see most people simply embrace the truth. Truth might set free, but it is also painful and some people cannot see beyond the blinding pain. Prayer is not a demand we make of Genie God. Do not stay in abusive relationships praying: leave and pray. Be patient. Life is long and our witness is in our life and not just in our words.

Augustine, Chrysostom, Calvin, Luther all agree: you cannot pray away all sin, pain, and problems this side of paradise. Relax. The end is not yet. You do not know how you will end (the joy of Paradise!) or your friends will end (hope of Paradise!) and you will never know about your friends because God is not a narc. He is not going to rat on your friends to you to defend Himself. He respects their inner life. They may be better off than you know, but I am sure of this: their internal life is more complex than you know.

Be honest with your friends about everything: you are no less a Christian in the “dark night.” Do not ever pretend to a faith you lack. For virtue’s sake: be honest with everyone about your inner life.

I do not blame victims of bad church or family experiences from turning from the church, but I do live in the hope that they will find a healing church and family experience. There are snappy things to say here (“You don’t reject medical doctors because of a bad experience with a doctor!”), but in practice these strike me as odious. Hurting people are not hurting because they have an intellectual problem, but because they have been hurt. Love them. Show them that the church is more than their experience by loving your friends. Don’t blame

How can a person continue to be a Christian during a dry, spiritual wasteland period? Should a person remain a Christian?

If you wish to be a Christian, then you are one by faith through grace. Feelings matter, but they do not make us “in” or “out.” Things are not so simple. God takes our stupidity, our confused yearnings, and takes them for what they are: a crying out to love. You write and ask because you love God. And this is enough for now.

Or so it seems to me.

Under the Mercy,

 

John Mark

 

__________

*Miss Sayers is not his or her real name. I have changed or excised certain details to prevent identifying the student. This letter was used with permission.


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