Existential depression

One of the things I struggle with from time to time is depression or discouragement. Here is a facebook note I wrote about it a couple of years ago. The only change I’ve made is to add links to some of the people I mentioned in it.

————————————– Existential Depression ———————————————-

Existential depression: depression based on the hopelessness or meaninglessness of life in general.

I regularly struggle with it. This is in spite of the fact that I believe with all my heart in the infinite love and goodness of God, and that I will spend eternity in joyful, glorious fellowship with Him.

About 20 years ago a friend of mine asked me why he still felt deeply lonely and unsatisfied with life after becoming a Christian, since Jesus said that knowing Him would satisfy our spiritual thirst. At the time, I couldn’t understand what he meant. I myself felt spiritually satisfied. I had no answer for him.

Today I share his question, but I am less sure that Jesus promised spiritual satisfaction in this life. 2 Cor 5 says we are groaning inwardly, longing for the day when our mortal nature will be swallowed up in eternal life. Living by faith means accepting that we may feel spiritually empty until our salvation is made complete on that day.

Most people have no idea what I’m talking about when I describe my sadness. Yet, they don’t seem any happier than I am if you look closely. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau). My brother David is an exception to this. He seems deeply and truly happy. Being around him strengthens my capacity for joy too.

Last night Kate and the girls went to a Beth Moore telecast, which they discussed with me afterwards. She is teaching on Ps 37:4, “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” As usual, she seems to have profound insight into the issues she is discussing. I get frustrated, though, that most of her audience won’t get what she is saying. They will hear her teachings as a series of trite assurances along the lines of “trust God and everything will be right”.

The question of how to find spiritual satisfaction in God has far-reaching implications. Our thirst for real life drives our personal relationships and fuels our addictions. Sometimes I feel as though the church I’m a part of reduces this to: if you want spiritual things and obey God, you’ll be happy; if you want worldly things or disobey God, you’ll be unhappy. It angers me that my fellow Christians treat these profound questions so flippantly.

The sins I struggle with most are those which grant me temporary relief from my sadness. As a result, the holier my life, the heavier my heart. I wish more people understood that life is hard without the anesthetic of addiction.

For years I’ve dreamed of seeing God reveal himself in revival, of growing in holiness and love in my walk with him, of becoming caught up in worship. Aren’t these spiritual desires? Yet somehow God’s satisfyingness does not depend on my seeing them fulfilled. Even if he hides himself from me the rest of my life on earth, he will still be the source of all joy in principle. He will still be gracious and glorious and worthy of worship.

It’s hard to maintain the tension inherent in faith, believing that God will fully satisfy in time, while acknowledging the hunger I feel now. Should I expect that knowing God will make a difference to me today? When I do, I run the risk of idolizing my own spiritual experience, but when I reject the expectation, I drain God’s promises of their meaning, making them abstract and irrelevant to my life.

If I simply refused to think about my sense of emptiness I’d generally be less depressed. That’s what everyone else seems to do. It seems wrong to me, though, to close my eyes deliberately to something that is true. Also, God uses that emptiness to draw me forward toward him spiritually.

At the same time, this can become the sin of discontent, deliberately doubting the goodness of God. I don’t want to be like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle”, refusing to be taken in and missing some of the easy joy there is in a walk with God. Somehow as a believer I am responsible to *interpret* my life in joyful terms. There must be a way to do this with my eyes wide open.

Furthermore, in some Scriptural passages, discontent is linked with grumbling against God. We are supposed to praise God in all circumstances, but grumbling is a kind of anti-praise. We believers are called to give glory to God by the way we speak about him, but it’s a call I’ve often neglected. I hope to see that change in the next few years.

In the meantime,

… is a puzzlement.

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4 thoughts on “Existential depression

  1. You are happy in your faith? If so, then perhaps it isn’t a matter of spiritual contentment, but of a personal contentment. “It’s hard to maintain the tension inherent in faith, believing that God will fully satisfy in time, while acknowledging the hunger I feel now.” What is it you hunger for? A deeper reflection on what you hunger for and the things that relieve your hunger (those things you struggle against) may answer your questions. God satisfies your spiritual thirst, your need of faith and a higher power that grants His benevolence on those that hold faith with him. But what of human hungers? God acknowledges that they exist, Jesus acknowledges them. You are enjoined to not sin against your fellow humans (and the world itself) but if what you are doing SEEMS sinful, simply because you enjoy it, then perhaps you should look again at those things that bring you relief from the emptiness. Perhaps they aren’t sins at all, but your guilt that weighs on you.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response.

      I agree with your suggestion that “a deeper reflection on what you hunger for and the things that relieve your hunger” has been the key to working through this.

      As far as human hungers, I think even our “spiritual thirst” is something deeply human. It isn’t faith we need most, it’s deep connection with God, with someone bigger than ourselves. Faith is just the way to get there. But I also agree that God acknowledges other human hungers, and cares about whether they are met for us.

      Finally, I said “The sins I struggle with most are those which grant me temporary relief from my sadness. As a result, the holier my life, the heavier my heart. I wish more people understood that life is hard without the anesthetic of addiction.” You responded, “if what you are doing SEEMS sinful, simply because you enjoy it, then perhaps you should look again at those things that bring you relief from the emptiness. Perhaps they aren’t sins at all, but your guilt that weighs on you.”

      I agree. If something seems sinful *simply because I enjoy it*, it’s probably not really a sin. But for those things that seem sinful because the Bible names them as such or because I can see their clearly destructive effects in my life, I’d rather go without the “relief” they provide.

  2. I often become frustrated and dis-satisfied with different things in life. But generally I find myself very happy. Life is so full of many great gifts from God. How great it is to have a job, be able to go to classes, be married to a wonderful wife, play a fun game, etc. Even tasks that we don’t want to do (like homework), I try not to let them get to me. Everyone has to do things they don’t enjoy, it’s just part of getting through life. There is so much to be happy about, so many blessings that God has given us to enjoy. I generally find it hard to be depressed. It’s more likely that I will get so frustrated/upset about something that I won’t be able to think about anything else for a day or two. Then I eventually calm down about it, lol.

    • That post was originally written a couple of years ago, and I’m better now. 🙂 I sometimes still feel like that, but it isn’t any longer the only way I feel. I probably am genuinely happy these days about as often as I am sad.

      But when I wrote the post, it was important for me that people understood that my depression wasn’t really about circumstances at all. It wasn’t a matter of being “frustrated … with different *things* in life” or letting “*tasks* … get to me” or getting “frustrated/upset about some*thing*”. It was slowing down from the busyness of life and looking within and discovering a fundamental sadness there. It was a sense of emptiness, a feeling of “so is that all there is”, or perhaps “so is this all *I* am”. Sometimes it was being blessed but finding I’d lost my appetite for the blessings. Most people seem to be happy by default, until something messes up their mood. For several years I was sad by default, except when I could find something to inflate my mood for a while.

      God’s been faithfully changing that in me, a little at a time.

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