Depression and Grace

I’ve been down, I’ve been discouraged, but I’ve never really been depressed, at least not for longer than a few hours, or maybe a few days. According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the symptoms of depression is “loss of interest in normal daily activities.”

Loss of interest. Imagine what it would be like to experience a total loss of interest in everything good and desirable. If that wouldn’t come close to living hell, I don’t know what would. Think of it in Augustinian terms. Everything that exists is good, in that it does exist and God didn’t create anything bad. Evil and badness aren’t really existing things, strictly speaking, but good things that have lost something of their original or intended goodness, or are put to a bad use.

Even when things are put to a bad use, some aspect of the end being sought is still good. Suppose someone delights in killing insects. Suppose he doesn’t just kill insects because it’s sometimes necessary but that he devises ingeniously cruel ways to kill insects; he is always on the lookout for little bugs to make his next victims.

Such a person is not depressed (never mind the fact that cruelty to insects isn’t, for most of us, a normal daily activity). He experiences desire and also has the object that satisfies it, which together give him pleasure, make him happy. Desire and satisfaction are mates that should always stay within sight of each other; that’s how God intended that things should be. God made us with the capacity to be, like him and together with him, satisfied, pleased, and happy. To be sure, there is something wrong with our bug killer. In his own character and being, we would say that he is deficient in qualities such as love, kindness, mercy, compassion; and, by bringing bugs to a bad end, he puts himself to a bad use. The desire and satisfaction he experiences, however, are in themselves good things, as are his experiences of pleasure and the happiness he is ultimately seeking.

This makes it clear how gracious God is to all people by allowing them to experience desire, satisfaction, and pleasure, even when their desires are misdirected and they take pleasure in wickedness, as is true of all of us at different times and in different ways. The Israelites in the wilderness craved meat; their capacity to crave and to imagine an object that would satisfy it was all of grace. Paul says in Romans 1 that people had turned away from God, so God gave them up to their desires; that was an act of judgment, but God’s grace in making us with the capacity to desire and be satisfied is still evident.

It would help us to remember this when we experience unsatisfied desire. When we’re frustrated about something, we’re longing for the satisfaction of seeing our efforts achieve their purpose. When we feel the lack of something, we’re longing for an experience of satisfaction that is promised to believers in a new heavens and earth, either because the good thing we desire will no longer be scarce or unattainable, or our desire itself will be reoriented to the object that will truly bring lasting satisfaction. Desire itself is like a homing beacon pointing us to the eschatological consummation that God has prepared for us. If we keep that expectation before us, and contrast it to a depressed lack of all desire, maybe that will give us some rest and contentment now, even if we’re frustrated and our desires go unsatisfied.

If you’re depressed, it doesn’t mean you’re bad or that God is punishing you. Your reduced capacity to experience desire and satisfaction is one of the many effects of our turning away from God to find happiness, wisdom, or satisfaction elsewhere. If you desire not to be depressed–if you desire to experience desire and satisfaction the way God intends for us to–then that desire itself means that all is not lost and hopeless for you. If you turn to God now, you can look forward to a repaired capacity for desire, along with a superabundance of everything that will truly satisfy you, in the new heavens and earth that God has prepared for his people. That will be the first step toward spiritual health. Depression may have physical causes too, so you should also see a physician or a counselor to help you manage your condition in the here and now.

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