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Tag Archives: Depression

I’m writing a blog for Christians or people with an experience of Christianity and/or the church about doubt. This second blog is about the relationship between emotions and Christian doubt. This isn’t a blog about “right” or “wrong” emotional responses as I don’t believe such a thing exists – an emotional response cannot be controlled or judged. What it can be though is observed and learnt from, which is what I’m going to have a shot at doing. I’ve actually decided to post this blog in two parts as I ended up coming at this from two angles: mental health and suffering.
The power of emotions

Emotions are powerful things. As a blog immediately gains more credibility by quoting dead philosophers, I am going to quote Nietzche who said about emotions, “One ought to hold onto one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.” Emotions are so powerful because they influence so many aspects of our life – how we behave; how we relate; how we perceive the world…and how we think. That influence is also lasting in terms of the impression it makes on us – it sticks around. Maya Angelou said, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

(I don’t want this blog to turn into war and peace so I’m not going to attempt to go into how emotions work. It’s a super interesting subject though and I would recommend having a read of my mate Dave’s blogs on different types of therapy as that gives you a good intro to emotional management. The book “The Chimp Paradox” also has some good stuff on the subject. )

In many ways, how we feel about God and Jesus can influence doubts and questioning of the Christian faith – so it’s worth digging into those feelings and thinking about the role they have. 

Mental health problems 

Anyone who has experienced any kind of mental health problem will know just how awful mental illness can make you feel – loneliness, hopelessness, irritability, tiredness, suspicion… these can become the norm and everything appears to be painted grey. Vigour and vitality disappear, inertia and heaviness dominate. When I was suffering from depression I remember just how hard it was to even get out of bed – I watched multiple seasons of 24 over a short period of time, wanting to escape reality and barely leaving my room. (I can’t watch that series any more as it has too many bad associations!)

The way we see people and our relationships with them also changes when our mental health is struggling. If we have mental health problems or are struggling with our emotions, this can colour how we view God. Some people find solace in God when they are feeling bad mentally – but others find they start to see him in a negative light. Others quite simply don’t have the headspace for him.

One huge step forward through is to gain an awareness of how our emotions are effecting us – so we can start to figure out how to work through them and manage them, rather than them managing us. One of the key factors in my recovery from depression was learning to notice when I was becoming really angry and down and tracing the events and thoughts which had led to that. Noticing emotions rather than just blindly feeling them is a pretty powerful breakthrough. Talking things through with a counsellor, practicing things like mindfulness can help us slow our minds down and process our feelings – including the thoughts and feelings about God. 

I’ve also found that when I’m struggling mentally, lots of things seem less certain. I’m less certain of other people’s love for me (or suspicious about if they have ever loved me); I’m less certain of my own abilities; I’m less certain that I’m doing the right thing or saying the right thing. I find it hard to cope with uncertainty in situations like going into a room full of people I don’t know or trying something new at work. 

When in that kind of mental state it can be really comforting to be reassured of things which we feel are certain. Spiritual consolation is hugely important with massive comfort and strength being found in God. I have definately experienced that myself, with my faith in God being a key factor in beginning to live in mental health recovery. 
I think it’s important to be aware though of the “Christianity as a crutch” criticism where people solely rely on faith in God to prop them up through emotional struggles, to the point of neglecting to work on their own emotional resilience and mental health issues, leaving their inability to cope with uncertainty and their mental health problems undealt with. It’s easily done but I’m not sure it’s helpful in that it doesn’t encourage growth in faith or in emotional management. (More on certainty in the next blog). I’ve seen the “Christianity crutch” happen before in a really sad case – a man my family knew became increasingly spiritually fervent and intense in his insistence about certain beliefs about God. His mental health deteriorated in the meantime, ending up with a total breakdown which resulted in his marriage ending and him being homeless for a period of time. 

Another complicating issue can be the tendency of some Christians to spiritualise mental health issues and doubts. If mental health issues or emotional rooted doubts are perceived as some kind of demonic attack or a lack of faith, that can be incredibly damaging emotionally to a person’s faith in the long run. If the answer is solely to ‘pray away’ the emotional problems or emotional doubts, little attention is given to the need for psychological treatments or work required on emotional management. Without that kind of specialist support or work a person could become increasingly emotionally unstable- which could in turn damage their faith even more if they perceive their continued struggles as abandonment from God – or perversely as some kind of spiritual inadequacy on their behalf. 

The sum of it I guess is that doubts about God and mental health do have many intrinsic links. Whether spirituality is healing or helpful really does vary from person to person, but I do think it’s worth being aware of and sensitive, to given the number of people who have mental health problems. 

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On the rare occasions that I blog, it tends to be provoked by either something going on in the world, or a song. I’m pretty sure that music touches an area of my brain that nothing else is able to get to.

There is a song called ” A Reason to Sing” by the band, All Sons and Daughters, which is all about experiencing loneliness, what would appear to be depression and a sense that God is absent. 

Over the past year, I’ve been struck by just how many people have been struggling with depression, anxiety and poor mental health in general.  There have been eight people within my social circle who have taken or are currently taking medication and receiving counselling for one or a combination of the above.

I’m not a stranger to struggles with mental health myself – in the past I have suffered from depression.  There were a whole range of things that it did to me which I really resented – the emotional instability, the physical tiredness…  and the feeling of weakness. For myself, I struggled with admitting that I was in such a dark place. There is a history of depression in my family – I found it difficult growing up around it, so when I saw it in myself, I was mortified.   I feared other people’s judgement – as I myself had judged those I knew with depression.  Once I was told by a friend, “I thought you were fixed” – I could see the disappointment in her eyes – it mirrored the disappointment I had in myself for not being stronger. But it also amplified the feeling of chronic loneliness which I think is one of the worst parts of depression.

I think I would put loneliness up there as part and parcel  of the struggles with mental health. I have a number of friends who have experienced a sense of God’s absence –  the pain on their faces is perhaps some of the worst pain I’ve seen from a depressed person, as they are experiencing loneliness on a whole different level.

Feeling the absence of God is not something which many people talk about openly as far as I’m aware. I remember reading an issue of Time magazine which had extracts from Mother Teresa’s letters to a friend where she poured out her pain at God’s apparent silence.

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.

— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

At the time I was flabbergasted – this was an amazing woman of God, who had dedicated her life to following Jesus through serving the poor. She is probably one of the most famous Christians who has ever lived. Yet it was clear that she went through periods of great spiritual depression – great loneliness.

I thought about it though and realised somebody more famous within Christianity experienced the same feeling –  when Jesus was being crucified, he cried out “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  Until that point, Jesus‘ trial and execution had been marked by his silence – or very few, carefully chosen words on his behalf. But at this point – Jesus becomes very emotional and calls out in pain. The loneliness of not experiencing God’s presence was another painful cross for him to bear.

Of course, in hindsight we look back and know that God had not forsaken Jesus – but in that moment, he felt completely shattered.

The song which I started with, has the lyrics:

When the pieces seem to shatter

To gather off the floor

And all that seems to matter

Is that I don’t feel you anymore

No I don’t feel you anymore

I need a reason to sing

I need to know that You’re still holding

The whole world in Your hands

I need a reason to sing

When I’m overcome by fear

And I hate everything I know

If this waiting lasts forever

I’m afraid I might let go

Will there be a victory?

Will You sing it over me now?

Your peace is the melody

You sing it over me now

Oh Lord

I don’t feel like this song really has a resolution – which is probably best as I don’t think there is a simplistic answer to the experience of spiritual loneliness and depression. But there is another song by the same band which starts with the lyrics:

Lord I find you in the seeking

Lord I find you in the doubt

And to know you is to love you

And to know so little else

Oh how I need you

In the midst of depression, whether it be mental, emotional, spiritual or a combination  – it is hard to see things through a different framework other than our own experience. I guess that’s what mental health struggles create though – a broken framework, a tinted window as it were. But in seeking God, in the straining to see through that tinted window – God can and does break through.

Another verse says:

Light, glorious light
I will go where You shine
Break the dawn, crack the skies
Make the wave right before me
In Your light I will find
All I need, all I need is You

I don’t want to pick out random verses…I don’t want to be trite…but stepping back and looking at history as a whole, God has shown himself to be faithful – and incredibly patient – with Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Peter…the list goes on.  I believe that didn’t stop with Mother Teresa – and it didn’t stop with Jesus – and I believe it will not stop with us.  God has demonstrated seemingly endless amounts of compassion with humankind – and his compassion extends to those of us being plagued by our own minds…with the church having the potential to be the embodiment of that unconditional love and support. But Christ also has a different perspective to that of our own, a different framework on life – he’s God so we can never fully get our heads around it. But in the straining, in the seeking – I believe the light starts to break through.