When I first started calling the Christian faith my own, I had a long list of objections, questions, and doubts. One of these was how to reconcile my understanding and personal experience of depression with what I was learning about Christianity. I (mistakenly) believed that if my faith was strong enough, or my “quiet times with God” profound enough, or my sense of identity secure enough, I wouldn’t struggle with depression.
I thought that Christians equated depression with weakness – or, even worse, with sin.
But I have known depression for years – decades. I have struggled with volatile emotions and hopelessness, fought the demons that insisted life wasn’t worth living and tempted me to cut into my own skin. I wrote in sixth-grade handwriting in a spiral-bound notebook, This can’t be normal. What I’m feeling is too much. I don’t know how to live like this.
I know depression. I know its ugliness, its self-centeredness, its reality of hopelessness and despair. I know emotions that are explosive and debilitating.
I first hurt myself when I was thirteen.
I remember so vividly the clarity of that moment, the stillness. I remember the feeling of the carpet I was sitting on – the speckled blue berber not yet soiled from decades of use – and I remember the coolness of the scissors and their orange plastic handles. I do not remember the time of day, or even the time of the year, nor even the exact occasion (although I can guess at general circumstances). There is no record in my journal about this date – for years I kept the topic out of those handwritten pages, fearing that even “sharing” with my private, spiral-bound world would make it less mine. A risk I couldn’t take.
And yet – I am a Christian, too (although at thirteen I believed only that there was a God out there bigger than me). I believe that our bodies are gifts, precious and to be cared for, and temples for the Holy Spirit. I believe in a good God who gives us the strength and grace that we need for each day. A God who wants us to live joyfully, to experience the wonders and beauty of the world, and to bring Him glory and honor.
In that context, how can depression – feeling like life isn’t worth living, sensing the ugliness of the world instead of its beauty – not feel like a failure?
There are many kinds of bad days. There are the days when I am so tired of fighting, fighting every hour, that another day, another 24 hours, seems like too much. I can’t imagine continuing to go through the motions when everything seems pointless.
There are the nights when I am torn apart with self-hate and anger, when my thought patterns travel in circles, How could you have hurt that person so badly? How can you live with yourself? If you were worthless, that would be bad enough, but you actually cause others’ pain. You are worse than worthless. And so self-centered, too! You can only think about yourself, how bad you are.
And there are the days when everything is fine, even good. When maybe I’ve had a few good days – weeks, even – in a row, and I’m feeling lighter and happier and it’s probably warm outside. And then – there’s an explosion. I’m suddenly a fighting animal, fierce, white-hot and raging, my anger destructive and unpredictable.
I have read many books on depression. About a year ago, I read Edward Welch’s Depression: Looking up from the Stubborn Darkness, and although I was skeptical when I first opened the book – written by a psychologist, Christian, and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) – some of the ideas Welch presents have changed me profoundly. For the first time, I am beginning to understand how depression and Christianity can coexist.
Welch addresses three questions: What is depression? What is God’s role in depression? How should we treat depression?
So. What is depression?
Welch’s opening chapters describe the experience of depression (you should read them – really good) and then Welch articulates an extraordinary idea:
…depression is always and profoundly spiritual in that it always directs our attention to the most important matters of human life.
Depression is related to the state of our own hearts, and it is impossible to separate depression from our deepest beliefs.
Depression, regardless of the causes, is a time to answer the deepest and most important of all questions: Whom will I trust? Whom will I worship?
I know I have witnessed this in my life. In times of despair, do I trust myself and my perception of life, or do I trust words that I believe have been inspired by God, and written down to help me know how to live? Do I worship feelings of comfort and security, or do I worship a God who promises never to leave me or abandon me – even when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death?
As Welch articulates it, depression, simply, issuffering. And this is what ties it, inexorably, without excuse, to Christianity.
Welch writes that suffering is inevitable, and it refines us and reorients us towards God. Nice idea, Welch, I think. In my own life, suffering drags me into doubt, despair, and disbelief. A far cry from reorienting me towards God. So, then, what is God’s role in depression? How does God use depression for good – or does he?
Join me next time to explore Welch’s take on God’s role in depression – a view that is slowly changing my life.
 Not to be overly dramatic, but seriously – why else would I be bother to spend so much time addressing this topic and book?