Depression and faith

Hi friends,

Today, the liturgical reading includes Psalm 119:81-88:

I long for your salvation;

I put my hope in your word.

My eyes grow weary

looking for what you have promised;

I ask, “When will you comfort me?”

Though I have become like a wineskin dried by smoke,

I do not forget your statutes.

How many days must your servant wait?

When will you execute judgment on my persecutors?

The arrogant have dug pits for me;

they violate your instruction.

All your commands are true;

people persecute me with lies—help me!

They almost ended my life on earth,

but I did not abandon your precepts.

Give me life in accordance with your faithful love,

and I will obey the decree you have spoken.

As I read this passage, I felt weighed down.

The image of a wineskin dried by smoke is so vivid. In this period, wineskin was made from animal skins. But dried out, it would be cracked, brittle, and unable to hold wine. So, it still existed and resembled a good wineskin, but it had become useless and empty.

And why was it dried out? Long exposure to smoke. The harsh, acrid, choking environment has drawn all the moisture, vitality, and strength of the wineskin. A wineskin is valuable - it should have been protected, honored, and kept safe.

By contrast, if we imagine a good wineskin full of wine, there’s a sense of fullness, anticipation, joy, friendship, and celebration to come.

As I meditate on this image, I sense how, when we are depressed, our lives can feel useless. We exist, but why? What are we good for? It appears we are so damaged by our circumstances that there is no purpose to our lives.

To further deepen my reflection on this, I used AI to generate an image of a dried-out wineskin. I’m not suggesting this is historically accurate (!), but it helps me to sense and feel something like what the Psalmist had in mind.

Later today, as I was reading for my D.Min. class, I read an overview on a study about depression. The authors write:

All of the participants in the study appeared to have an intrinsic form of spirituality, that is, their religious/spiritual tradition was considered to be a fundamental part of their lives, the foundational bond that they used to bind themselves to the world. Depression destroys this bond and leaves the person with a serious crisis of identity and spirituality.

The sense of being abandoned by God is more than just a negative cognition. It is indicative of a serious existential crisis. ‘If God has abandoned me, then what and who am I?’

If a person can no longer relate to God, and if their self-image and interpretation of the world is dependent on their experience of God, then to experience such abandonment is, in a very real sense, to lose a part of themselves. The experience of being abandoned by God leaves them with a wide, gaping wound where once there had been a powerful source of hope, love, meaning and purpose.

Thus the person is thrown into a void of unknowing that is much more profound and devastating than simply the lowering of their mood. In the midst of the sadness of depression, there is a significant loss of self which the person has to struggle to understand and come to terms with. Depression destroys that which is most dear and significant to a person.

It challenges a person at the very core of their being and forces them to reconsider who they are and what their life is really about. (John Swinton; Harriet Mowat. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research (p. 134). SCM Press. Kindle Edition. )

As I sit with this, it reinforces my understanding that there are no quick fixes to depression. As the researchers found, one theme that emerged was

The healing power of understanding. [The participants shared] A desperate need for others to understand their situation. The key for recovery and health was not simply therapy and medicine, but understanding and deep, resonant empathy (130).

At the same time, I am encouraged by the Psalmist’s perseverance. Twice in this stanza he prays, “I did not forget your statues” / “I did not abandon your precepts.”

And he asks God for what he most needs: “Give me life in accordance with your faithful love.”

What a beautiful prayer for whenever we face the acute pain of depression.

I don’t have a neat way to tie this all together. But I thought that in sharing these reflections, it might help someone else feel less alone.

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Hi @Carson
This is indeed a tough concept to consider. I liked your AI image, very helpful!
I’m struck by the seeming paradox of:

  1. loss of self

and,

  1. retaining God’s precepts

To crudely summarise this, it is in a sense that whilst a person may lose themself, they do not lose their understanding of what God has ordained and set in place. They may lose sight of God’s presence, He may seem silent and distant, and yet a very intrinsic knowledge of God is still in place. This is a remarkable contrast to another familiar scenario of the complete reverse: losing a sense of God’s precepts and holding onto an out-of-proportioned sense of self. Both scenarios lead to a person going on a burdensome journey until they find the ability to hold both in the right balance again.

I suppose what this shows us is that the scenario you have described is heartbreaking and lonely. I agree with what you said here:

To know that someone sits with us in deep, resonant empathy is incredibly powerful, and I don’t think we should underestimate the significance of doing that with friends who might be going through a period of depression. Meanwhile, it may be an unexpected comfort to know that the path ahead has been trodden before, both by those who have lost their sense of self in their depression despite their holding onto God’s precepts, and those who have an unhealthy sense of self through their rejection of God’s precepts.

There is the optimism of the Psalmist’s request for God to “give him life in accordance with His faithful love”. I do not know if the writer had great faith for this or not in the moment of his prayer, but he seems to push on and request it anyway. I imagine this situation in my own moments of emptiness and suspect that the prayer may be more out of habit than from deep conviction. Perhaps in that place of loss and emptiness, to clasp onto a prayer like this may feel like all the person can do. I think that even in that moment, there is great value in the prayer, and that the person will look back another time and see that they held onto the Giver of Life through these moments of desperate darkness.

Like you, I have no solid conclusion, other than standing with the Psalmist and saying “I don’t get it, but You’re all I have, God, so I’m going to cling to You!”.

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