One might, upon searching fruitlessly for the word “depression” in a Bible concordance, conclude that no such emotional state existed in antiquity. There is neither a Greek nor a Hebrew word that corresponds exactly to our English term. The New Testament speaks of being sorrowful, distressed, troubled, perplexed, in agony, and very heavy, all of which seem to be more industrious states of suffering than what we mean by the modern affliction of depression.

The Old Testament, when describing states of inner agony, is more graphic: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” begins Psalm 130. Using the same spatial metaphor, Psalm 69 recreates a powerful image of one “sunk” in despair: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Isaiah, who prefers the image of “desolate places” to objectify this inner state, describes the experience this way: “Among those in full vigor we are like dead men. We all growl like bears, we moan and moan like doves.”

Still, both the psalmist and the prophet are documenting a response to a clearly identifiable situation. In the Psalms, it is the ever present enemy who makes the poet’s life miserable. In Isaiah he is protesting lack of justice. The very recognition of such a solid source of one’s unhappy state makes it slightly, but significantly, different from what we call depression today. Indeed, the absence of a cause to which we can pin our sudden drop in spirit is what frightens us about depression.

Where we do find an example of this supposedly modern emotional phenomenon is in the book of Ecclesiastes. Like Luther, I had long dismissed this book as a most unfortunate inclusion in the canon. The author, obviously well off, seemed nevertheless constantly bogged down in ennui and incapable of joy. This ancient philosopher is always brought up short at the dead end of merely human wisdom. “I might as well be chasing the wind,” he admits. As with the psalmist and the prophet, there is no precise word in his lexicon for depression. Yet his constant refrain of “vanity” comes closer to what we mean by that state of physical and spiritual inertia than any other ancient term. In fact, in some ways it surpasses our contemporary term, specifying as it does the content of depression, the feeling that nothing is quite worth the effort.

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Yet the very fact of the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon of Scripture shows that there is no human experience that cannot be embraced by faith. The Bible encompasses all of life, even futility and doubt. The writer of Ecclesiastes was correct about at least one thing. There is nothing new under the sun. Neither Darwin nor Freud nor all the philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment invented depression.

Ecclesiastes may have recorded our earliest case of depression, but in the thousands of years that followed, its proliferation has been widely documented. The Stoic philosophers and the statesmen helplessly watching the disintegration of the Roman court were no strangers to it. It played a part in the chaos and confusion that accompanied the break up of the civilized world in the fifth century. Curing the Renaissance, Robert Burton’s huge Anatomy of Melancholy was a best-seller. Hamlet is, at least in one sense, a case study in depression. “What should such fellows as I do,” he asks, “crawling between earth and heaven?” The first obstacle that Bunyan’s pilgrim on his progress toward the Celestial City has to overcome is the Slough of Despond.

Of all the illustrations, however, perhaps the most instructive is Martin Luther. His markedly severe depressions were not abated by the renewal of his faith or the posting of the Ninety-five Theses. Neither his translation of the Bible into German nor his marriage to Katherine von Bora alleviated permanently these psychological seizures. In fact, the agony of these times of darkness only intensified as he grew older. Lest any twentieth-century sufferer imagine that his private throes of depression bring him unspeakably near the edge of ruin, let him listen to Luther’s own description of his emotional and spiritual extremity. “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God” (in Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, Abingdon, 1950, p. 36). He even entertained the notion of writing a book about these Anfechtungen, “for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God.”

Thus, despite the fear we all have of these black holes in our worlds, which seem to suck us into an incomprehensible quagmire of doubt and despair, they often turn out to be, as Luther’s biographer claims they were for him, a mode of revelation. The fear of depression, especially among Christians, has been so great, appearing to be the antithesis of faith and the opposite of what is currently called “victorious living,” that we have shied away from any close examination of the pit. When we do manage to cast a furtive eye at its murky depths, our involuntary defense mechanisms immediately try to protect us from the perilous vision by finding another name for what lurks there. We say that it is loneliness or bereavement or failure and thereby imagine that the cause has been identified and can then be either eliminated or ameliorated.

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Pilgrim’s episode in the Slough of Despond, however, shows that the frantically sought for “cause” of depression is nothing less than the total experience of being human. Not any particular death in the family, not any single failure, not an isolated disappointment, but an overwhelming conviction of the helpless human condition. “The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”

After Help has rescued Christian from the slough, Bunyan enters his own dream to ask him the question we all would like to pose: “Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the city of Destruction to yonder gate, is it, that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security?”

Help’s answer is not to point out a causeway across the swamp built of pop-psychology or self-help instructions or the sustained mirage of inspirational writing. His answer is in fact what we all tremble to hear. “This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended …; for still, as the sinner is awakened by his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place.”

When Help says that it is “such a place as cannot be mended,” he is in earnest. He has no cosmetic cheer to apply to the bleak landscape. Indeed, he goes further with his discomfiting truth-telling, explaining that though it “is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad,” nevertheless the effort of sixteen hundred years to reclaim the swamp has been fruitless: “here have been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart-loads, yea millions of wholesome instructions, that have at all seasons been brought from all places of the King’s dominions, (and they that can tell, say, they are the best materials to make good ground of the place) if so be it might have been mended; but it is the Slough of Despond still, and so will be when they have done what they can” (The Standard Bunyan, Hitchcock and Walden, 1876, p. 114).

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Once we have stopped fighting the fact that the Slough of Despond is a reality that cannot be avoided, not even by Christians, and once we have realized that we can see it more clearly for what it is once we remove the rose-colored spectacles being shoved at us like headache remedies, then we can get on with the business of slogging through it. Despair is a deadly sin. If one does remain in the slough, he eventually suffocates. But just as fatal is it to struggle out on the wrong side, as Christian’s companion Pliable did, and return to the city of Destruction because we cannot bear the experience of spiritual suffering.

Some of Luther’s advice suffices for the milder bouts of depression. He admonishes the sufferer simply to ignore his heavy heart and instead to shun solitude and seek convivial company, discussing irrelevant matters. Music, dancing, joking, and feminine company he found especially helpful. However much one feels driven to fasting, it should be avoided at such times. Manual labor too offers surcease. “A good way, counseled Luther, to exorcise the Devil was to harness the horse and spread manure on the fields” (Bainton, p. 364).

There are, however, times when the simple remedies fail us as they failed him. No distraction can delight us, no favored face make us smile. In those days, it is “the world,” not our particular circumstances nor our singular situation or relationships, but the actual, objective, physical world itself, that turns fetid and sour, like the lilies that fester. This is the experience that Sartre writes of so horrifyingly in Nausea, when sitting on a park bench, looking at a tree, he is convinced of the voracious stupidity of the cosmos.

The figuration of this state of depression when everything in the world seems somehow hollow, off-center, and shabby varies with individuals. Some become obsessed with the dirt and disorder of human living, the fouled nest. The fact that human beings can do nothing—not eat, sleep, work, or study—without causing dirty dishes, smelly clothes, muddy feet, worn out furniture, smudged pages, becomes the central cosmological fact of life. All human living is symbolized in our own excrescences; that is the burden on Christian’s back.

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Some people in a state of depression experience the world as armed and dangerous. Everything becomes a portent of its hostility—the splinter in the finger as much as the cancerous tumor. Every thing threatens to undo us with its harmful intentions. The world is demonstrably ungracious and not to be trusted. The very physical world gives way beneath the touch and we live in a world of delusion and bad dreams.

Others see the world literally turn grey before their very eyes. They become incapable of perceiving color in an antisacramental rejection of the joy of life. Some people retreat into sleep, getting up later and going to bed earlier every day to escape the pain of consciousness.

At such times it is not the devil we feel is assailing us but God himself. In all Luther’s severest depressions, he found it was God who was his adversary rather than Satan. “I dispute much with God with great impatience,” he said. His chief source of comfort during these times was the example of the Canaanite woman who had the temerity to badger Christ into healing her daughter (Bainton, p. 363).

In these times of emotional extremity, there is often a transvaluation of feelings. A disputatious anger is sanctified by its ability to keep us from suffocating in despair. The playwright Lillian Hellman wrote about a particularly cantankerous friend of hers “that sadness often looked like temper, often turned into it, as if he were rejecting despair for something healthier” (Pentimento, Signet, 1973, p. 194). Likewise, Luther’s shaking his fist in God’s face was far better than turning his back on him.

All these hard truths about depression, while neglected in our age of mandatory optimism, should nevertheless leave room for the insights of someone like George MacDonald, a seer whose simplicity and strangeness convicts us with a truth we can scarcely name. In his tale, At the Back of the North Wind, the boy Diamond is seized by North Wind, a changeable, incomprehensible creature, and blown about with her on her adventures. Sometimes this means pollinating flowers with gentle breezes and sometimes it means sinking a ship in a storm. Promising to take him to the country of marvels that lies at the back of the North Wind, she carries him to a polar region full of spires and caves of ice. There, for the first time in their acquaintance, North Wind becomes motionless, “with drooping arms and head.” Diamond is frightened and demands if she is ill.

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“No. I am waiting.”

“What for?”

“Till I’m wanted.”

“You don’t care about me any more,” said Diamond, almost crying now.

“Yes I do. Only I can’t show it. All my love is down at the bottom of my heart. But I feel it bubbling there.”

North Wind then tells the boy that if he wants to go to the country at her back, he must go through her.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean just what I say. You must walk on as if I were an open door, and go right through me.”

“But that will hurt you.”

“Not in the least. It will hurt you though” (Macmillan, 1956, pp. 110–111).

Here is a new and illuminating image of the depression we feel even as redeemed humanity. It recognizes the cold inertia that sometimes settles on our hearts not as a matter of mud and filth but as a time of waiting and dormancy. As North Wind explains to Diamond, she must be still if South Wind is to blow. The periods of spiritual inertia we experience would perhaps be easier to bear if we simply recognized our need for expanses of inactivity instead of demanding a bustling busy spirituality that is mostly an attempt to fulfill a culturally conditioned expectation. Indeed, there are quite a few biblical counsels of passivity—to be still, to watch, to rest. Somehow we have mistaken our exuberance for our faithfulness, and when it begins to ebb, as it must from time to time, we become frantic with fear that we are losing our faith. We have a hard time sitting quietly and feeling it bubble at the bottom of our hearts, even when they are icy.

Beyond that, there is the realization that we must go through the frozen land where all seems lifeless in order to emerge in the pleasant pastures at the back of the North Wind and that the journey is necessarily painful. As North Wind later tells Diamond before his death, “I don’t think I am just what you fancy me to be. I have to shape myself various ways to various people. But the heart of me is true. People call me by dreadful names, and think they know all about me. But they don’t. Sometimes they call me Bad Fortune, sometimes Evil Chance, sometimes Ruin; and they have another name for me which they think the most dreadful of all” (p. 386).

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Gethsemane was the place where Jesus had to face that most dreadful word. Not just death, but the desertion of God the Father. The picture of anguish we have there should be enough to banish forever the easy triumphalism of current commercial Christianity. Obedience in the face of despair was the example he set us, and the one even his most bedeviled disciples have followed. None of his companions smugly advised him to “claim the victory.”

Both the biographers of Luther and of C. S. Lewis have reminded us of their dark days before death, sometimes grim to the point of terrifying hallucinations. Does this mean that the spiritually advanced, like Job who was “blameless and upright,” are allowed to see depths of darkness the rest of us are sheltered from? Roland Bainton observed that the ones “who are disposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle, and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid” (Bainton, p. 361). It is only from that vantage point which lies at the back of the North Wind that we will be able to give the right name to our depression.

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