I was in a Christian bookshop today, buying my next few months’ Bible study notes. As usual, they had some recently released worship album playing in the background. And in the middle of whatever it was, I heard this line:
Depression has no place in your presence O God
I very nearly walked straight out in silent protest. I seriously thought about saying something nasty to the man at the till when I did in fact, like an over-civilised person, go to buy my books.
Perhaps we need to dig back into what was going on behind that immediate shock and pain (I think my pulse rate may still be raised now. Or that may be from biking home).
I have suffered from clinical depression for about the last eighteen months. Not to a suicide attempts and hospitalisation degree, but pills and therapy and at times feeling really terrible and quite often feeling not within most people’s bounds of the normal.
Now let me make this clear: Depression is not necessarily a permanent part of me. Unlike the Type 1 diabetes I’ve been more recently diagnosed with, there’s a good chance that I may eventually completely recover from it. It is quite easy to make the case that it’s not intrinsically part of who I am.
But let’s look at that line again: Depression has no place in God’s presence. In which case, what do I do about praying while (as at present) I am still depressed? There are other things that I haven’t (yet, says the part of me that hopes) succeeded in removing from my life which I think probably don’t have a place in God’s presence. But I like to think that I can make a strong effort to, as it were, leave them at the door of the church. Not that I have to be in church to be in the presence of God, obviously, but spiritual ‘places’ can have similar properties. But. I know that I can’t leave depression at the door. It’s too deeply entangled. If it was that easy to be temporarily free from depression, I would have cost the NHS and my own back pocket a lot less money by now. So do I abandon the idea of entering into God’s presence unless and until I’m fully recovered from depression?
Here’s a further point: depression makes it very difficult to main a good spiritual life. If everything seems black, or grey and unremarkable, then perceiving God’s blessing and having an attitude of joyous thankfulness is well-nigh impossible. If, at an extreme, what you think you most want is to not be aware of anything, not have to bother about existing, any more (and that happens significantly more often than actually being dangerously suicidal, I can assure you), then eternal life doesn’t seem like much of a gift. And if you can’t get away from the voices and memories and images in your head that are about anything, past, present, future or hypothetical, that isn’t going to be positive or helpful, then prayer, worship, praise, confession, adoration, the whole spiritual shebang, is like swimming through treacle.
Under those circumstances, it wouldn’t really help to be given the impression that my current state of mind, or mental illness, is incompatible with spirituality, would it?
Now I am a rational person, and I don’t actually believe whoever wrote that song, or ad-libbed that line, had a crusade against mentally ill people. And, though I know counter-examples are fairly widespread, I’m prepared to give him/her the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t think you can only become depressed if you are spiritually bankrupt to start with. The line I’m quoting came at the end of a list of things which the song says have no place in God’s presence – things like pain, illness, fear, etc. I assume (as I didn’t hear or at least didn’t listen to the start of the song and the end just seemed to become ever less coherent and ever more an abstract emotional outpouring) that the idea is when we stand fully, immediately in God’s presence in the resurrection, God dwelling among His people and being their light (see St Paul, Revelation etc.), all these things will be driven out of us by that pure and completely purifying presence. Which is actually wonderful and no cause for angsty posts like this at all.
But here’s the thing. I’m a Christian, and I’m doing fairly well with my depression at the moment, circumstances considered. And, it must be said loud and clear before I enf this post, my churches and my Christian friends and family have had no Job’s comforters among them about my mental illness. I have received great support, great advice, great testimony of living through similar times, immense love and understanding, and no suggestion that depression’s hold on me means I have inadequate faith or a lack of true spirituality. Unlike, sadly, quite a few, I have no reason to have a martyr complex about my depression. But I had an instant visceral reaction to the apparent idea this song presented that it took significant willpower to suppress; and it took more willpower to actually think about what might have been the intent behind the line and write a relatively balanced post about it.
We need to be careful what we say. We need to be willing to retract and rephrase and explain. Because like any other group of people, and I’m afraid the church is only another human institution, we are too given to having our own slang, which we understand and don’t even think about by long exposure, which can mean something very different to other people who aren’t used to it. We need to listen very hard to everyone that isn’t a member of our group because they may be hearing some very unpleasant things from us even when we don’t think we’re speaking to them.
After all, it may seem fine to go round proclaiming ‘Jesus is the answer!’. But not if the question was ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’