Holiness and Depression

by Ethan Mack


What is the key to happiness? This question has occupied the lives of philosophers, mystics, prophets and gurus throughout the centuries. However, what is the Christian response to this question? Well, believe it or not, the Church gives a very simple answer: holiness. In other words, if we strive to become saints, we will be happy. Now this might immediately bring to mind the phrase “easier said than done”, but that doesn’t diminish the simplicity of the method. The formula remains simple, even if the execution is difficult. However, what if we reversed the question? Can we easily point to the cause of unhappiness? Could it be that reversing the question also reverses the answer, so that unhappiness is caused by a lack of holiness?

It certainly can feel that way. Troughs of depression often cause us to search our past for the sinful offense that made God punish us in this way. This hyper focus on our own sins in turn leads us to greater despair. Thus begins a vicious cycle that is not easily halted. It is hard to imagine that the God who is love would want to anyone to exist in this state. Unhappiness can be the result of sin, and such shame can push us to break continual habits of sinning. But I don’t believe that drowning in constant unhappiness brings about the same result. Such depression does not help us pursue the good, rather, it paralyzes us.

If depression is not caused by the moral fault of the depressed person, what is the cause of it? I am not even going to pretend I have the answer to this question and even if I did, it would give little comfort to a person in the midst of depression. It would be like explaining St. Thomas’ response to the problem of evil to a Holocaust survivor who lost his faith in God. The more pressing question for us is how we can alleviate the suffering of our depressed brothers and sisters. How can we help them see themselves as God sees them?

The first thing we have to understand is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to reason someone out of depression. Arguments in this context are like waves crashing on a brick wall. No matter how powerful they are, they will almost always fail to make a dent. While the thoughts and feelings behind that “wall” may be false, they are quite real to the person experiencing them. What than can we do? Well, first and foremost, we can pray. God’s words can get to a person when our words prove totally fruitless. Prayer is the way in which we can take part in that grace. We can also reach out to that person in whatever ways are available to us. Even something as simple as asking someone how they are doing can go a long way. Finally, we can be always willing to talk to someone when they reach out to us for help. If a person experiencing depression reaches out to another, you can be sure that it was not an easy thing to do. Don’t make them feel embarrassed or foolish for making the decision they did.

If we can be the means through which people rise up from depression, it’s hard to imagine how we could be a more profound notion of God’s grace. For what could be more  miraculous than a person engulfed in self-hate coming to see themselves as God sees them.

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