Can a good Christian Hedonist struggle with seasons of depression? A listener to the podcast, Hannah, writes us from her home in Los Angeles with that question. “Hello, Pastor John. I read your book Desiring God years ago, and it completely wrecked me in a great way. I couldn’t believe that God wanted me to enjoy him! It has been such a blessing to learn from you how to experience the love and pleasure of God. But my question comes from a place of fear. I have a tendency to be depressed, and have spent at times months (and once years) in darkness. I learned how to move through it, forsaking lies and seeking the promises and truth of God, in order to be free of them. However, there’s a very real place of deep darkness that I have experienced. When I hear you speak of Christian Hedonism and joy and pleasure in God, I feel a tinge of fear because I have often lived in valleys where I feel little joy. Can flourishing Christian Hedonism coexist with seasons of dark depression, or is that a stark contradiction of terms?”
Maybe it’s a sweet providence that we are recording this just days after Jon Bloom, who works at Desiring God, published at the website an essay called “‘My Soul Refuses to Be Comforted’: A Song for Long Nights in Darkness.” It’s a meditation on Psalm 77. I don’t think there are many better guides for people like Hannah than Jon Bloom. So, Hannah, you can go back into the archives at Desiring God and search for that article. I think you’ll find it really helpful.
“God holds us decisively — not the other way around. We reach out because we are in his arms.”
I mentioned that not only so that Hannah can find it, but also to remind us that the most experiential parts of the Bible, especially the Psalms, are very realistic when it comes to the ups and downs of human emotion in relation to God. That in itself is encouraging, because there is nothing about Christian Hedonism that claims anything different than ups and downs in the Christian life, nor does it deny that the downs can last a long time. I have a little book called When the Darkness Will Not Lift, which is also free at Desiring God.
So, Hannah, you asked specifically, “Can flourishing Christian Hedonism coexist with seasons of dark depression, or is that a stark contradiction of terms?” Now, the word flourishing in your question complicates it for me. If you say, “Can Christian Hedonism coexist with seasons of dark depression?” my answer is yes. If flourishing means that the fullness of Christian Hedonism is being experienced, then that would be something triumphant over depression. But let me try another word: What about the word rugged or solid or unbroken? Rugged, solid, unbroken Christian Hedonism — can that coexist with seasons of dark depression? And my answer is yes.
More Than the Blues
Now, we need to think about the difference between depression and some typical Christian Hedonist battles. Depression is not mainly a spiritual battle in which a person is finding joy in something other than God, and thus showing that God is not the treasure. That’s not what depression is. Depression is not your ordinary battle with idolatry.
I’m distinguishing genuine seasons of depression from the more ordinary kinds of disappointment or sadness or frustration or anger or discouragement, say, that we have when we lose something of value. Such losses naturally cause certain levels of sadness and melancholy, but that sadness is rooted in a particular loss, and a healthy Christian soul moves back into a sober-minded assessment of reality and rests in the supreme preciousness of Jesus, even though the loss is felt. It doesn’t cause an un-lifted darkness.
Depression is more complicated than that, and probably has significant physical components, perhaps genetic tendencies, perhaps satanic oppression. And the darkness is not obviously because the depressed person is cherishing some idol more than God. Depression is when the capacity to cherish at all has dried up, and there is a deep, dark numbness of soul.
So, the battle in depression is not primarily to persuade the soul that Christ is more precious than, say, money or family; the battle is to persuade the soul that Christ is worth waiting for in the darkness, and that his beauty will dawn again, not just on the mind as a truth, but on the soul as a treasure.
Five Words of Hope
Let me mention (and that’s all I have time to do, I think) five biblical passages that might serve Hannah in a kind of season that she’s describing.
1. Learn the secret of gutsy guilt.
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication. (Micah 7:8–9)
Now, I call that gutsy guilt. Not all darkness, not all depression, of course, is brought on by particular sins. But this text says that even when it is, the justified saint can admit it, own it with gutsy guilt, and say to the enemy, “Don’t rejoice over me that I’m down; I will rise. Until he raises me up, I will wait.”
2. Know that God is never far.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence? . . .
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7, 11–12)
So, here’s a person who feels far from God and says, “Darkness is covering me,” and then in the face of the darkness says, “Well, my darkness is not dark to God, and he is not far from me.”
3. Preach truth to your soul.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:5–6)
That text served me for years in a struggle with discouragement — so much so that we put it as a big sign on the side of the church building. For decades, it was out there. We were called the hope-in-God church because Piper wanted Psalm 42:5 on the side of the building, so that when he’s walking to church from his home, he’d be reminded in all of his doldrums, “Hope in God; you’re going to praise him again.”
“Christ is our fountain. He is our life, our joy, our final joy.”
And what’s amazing about this text is that he’s preaching to himself. All Christians know this experience. The Christian says to himself, the depressed person says to himself, “I’m not praising God. I don’t feel anything. I’m numb.” But then he looks at himself not praising God, and he preaches to himself. The hooks of God’s grace are so firmly in him, he says, “I’m going to praise you someday, God.” That’s a glorious text to lay hold on.
4. Keep desiring God.
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3)
Now, all true Christians have tasted the truth and the kindness of the Lord. That’s how we became Christians: something in us awakened to the reality of Christ as true and kind. We have tasted it, and we know there’s nothing better. He is our fountain. He is our life, our joy, our final joy.
But they need to be told, “Desire him.” That’s what Peter is doing. He says, “Desire him like newborn babies rooting around at their mother’s breasts, trying to get a drink.” Now, you may not be drinking now, but you have tasted and you will drink again.
5. Hold on because Christ holds you.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)
In other words, we press in, we press on to know, to taste, to feel, to love, to delight in, to own Christ, because we know we’ve been owned; we’ve been known. God holds us decisively — not the other way around. We reach out because we are in his arms.
This is all kindling. All those verses are kindling for the fire of joy. So, Hannah, keep piling it on. Keep piling on the kindling. God will set the match in due time.