Depression and the Spiritual Life
My God, my God, why have you forsake me,
Far from my prayer,
from the words of my cry,
O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not;
By night, and there is no relief for me
Depression is not only a physical and emotional problem, but it is a spiritual problem as well. In fact, for the individual who is concerned with spiritual matters, the impact of depression on one’s spiritual life is keenly felt. Our thoughts and emotions continually influence that part of us which we call our spirit. Because of this very close relationship, a disturbance in one affects the other. It is important to recognize this for it helps to understand why we also experience the effects of depression in our spiritual life.
The best way to describe the spiritual experience of depression is to think of it in terms of darkness. This comparison seems apt, because darkness is the opposite of all that we think of as resulting from the light of God in our lives. In other words, when we are depressed we feel unhappy and discontented instead of joyful and peaceful; we feel barren and empty instead of filled with the Spirit; we are overcomed with doubt and despair instead of faith and hope; we feel guilty, sinful and unworthy instead of redeemed, forgiven, cherished and loved by the Father; lastly, we feel abandoned and alone, cut off from the light and life-giving presence of God. This darkness seems to cast us deeper into depression than ever.
God may be leading one into a deeper way of prayer, faith and union with Himself. Such purifying spiritual changes may even bring an end to one’s cherished and consoling experiences in prayer. As one is led to follow Christ more by faith than by feelings, a sense of abandonment, spiritual dryness, or a “desert experience” is not uncommon. Because of this possibility, there is no good substitute for discernment. When a Christian experiences spiritual darkness like this for any prolonged period, it would be advisable to seek discernment and counsel from an experienced spiritual director or pastoral advisor in order to determine the source of the problem.
There is nothing like depression for making one feel shut off from all that is good. For the depressed Christian, this sense of being shut off is often interpreted as sinful alienation from God. Because they rarely recognize that depression is the cause of this painful feeling of separation, most depressed persons blame themselves. As a result, they sink even deeper into the darkness of guilt and despair.
Depression is not a sin nor is it a reasonable cause for guilt. Feelings of quilt often serve a healthy function in our lives. Like a “caution” or “stop” sign, they warn us about the appropriateness of the decisions we make and the actions, which follow from our decisions. Guilt feelings are based on how our self-concept, expectations of others, and God’s inspiration are either in harmony or in conflict with the situation about which we are making a decision. Some people are paralyzed by these feelings even when making the simplest of decisions. Such an obstacle to inner freedom represents unhealthy guilt. In the depressed person’s life, unhealthy guilt and failure feelings may impair healthy decisions when these feelings are based on a process tainted with distorted perceptions and thinking, with false values and unrealistic expectations.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness,
In your great tenderness wipe away my faults;
Wash me clean of my guilt,
Purify me from my sin.
— Psalm 51
The article is based on information in the book, “Depression and the Integrated Life: A Christian Understanding of Sadness and Inner Suffering,” Richard F. Berg C.S. C., Christine McCartney, 1981.