Faith, depression, and clinging to the rumor of grace.
God’s good news runs opposite to what the world presupposes.
This article was originally written for 1517.
For the past several weeks, I have been unable to escape the incredible sermon that was delivered by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. As I scrolled through various news feeds, I repeatedly saw this sermon posted and re-posted by a wide array of media outlets. What caught my attention, though, was learning that Mr. Gerson delivered this sermon only a few short days after being discharged from the hospital for depression. “When your Dean and I were conspiring about when I might speak,” Gerson begins, “I think he mentioned February 3rd as a possibility. A sermon by me on that date would have been considerably less interesting, because I was, at that point, hospitalized for depression. Or maybe it would have been more interesting, though less coherent.”
Such statements don’t meet the usual criterion for sermon introductions. In fact, considering his opening remarks and his lack of any explicit Scriptural citation, a homiletics professor might not grade Gerson’s sermon all that well. Yet, when listening to him speak, there’s no question that, in a most expressive manner, God’s truth was proclaimed. In a demonstrative way, Gerson’s homily is a quintessential specimen of grace in practice. His agonizing testimony of the crippling effects of despair and depression is paradoxically a mobilizing referendum of the gospel. It is the embodiment of crippling weakness juxtaposed against all-sufficient grace (2 Cor. 12:9–10). Accordingly, any sermon that has as its endgame the good news of Christ crucified will be a witness to one’s own deficiencies.
And so it is that Gerson’s words have become an inestimable treasure to me as they’ve simmered in my thoughts. The vulnerability, honesty, and equanimity with which he spoke cradles my own misgivings and anxieties that have manifested in recent months. The season of distress my family has endured has been nothing short of relentless. You are, perhaps, aware of the fierce affliction my mom endured in June of 2018 and the long, winding path of recovery we’ve been led down since then. That has been, perhaps, the most difficult hurdle in all of this: the notion of “recovery” and “returning to normal.”
There is a selfish sense in which you just want this mayhem to dissipate without even a vaporous trace of its debilitating effects. There is a yearning to go back to the status quo of life “before.” But in moments of honesty and clarity, which can only be derived from the Spirit, you are made to understand that maybe the traverse through the fog is the “new normal.” And as much as we all want to be rid of this insidious affliction — and even though my mom’s fog seems to be thinning — maybe this is what we were meant to endure, for a plan and purpose of which we don’t yet know the details.
And such is why Gerson’s sermon hits so close to home. He is keenly aware of the conflict in his own mind, the war that rages between fog and faith — that which seeks to devour reality in a farce. The absurdity of depression is the mental alchemy it works in you, leaving you to believe in sundry terrifying clichés: “Everybody hates you.” “You’re nothing but a burden.” “There’s no future for you.” “No one would miss you.” The false dichotomy postured by some between faith and doubt leaves no room for those who are battling the sweeping effects of depression. Its cruel fingers extend and clench the truth once believed in, suppressing reality. Doubt, then, is a natural byproduct of suffering such malaise. I would even say that to be human is to doubt. And while some wish to crush such notions, the gospel is no cruel thing. It is deep and wide enough to cover all our trembling uncertainties. “Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt,” Gerson asserts. “It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.” Indeed, the gospel’s pronouncement of mercy beyond our wildest imagination whispers to us in these moments of trial and reminds us of what is true, and what is real.
Notwithstanding the farce by which depression swindles us, Christianity’s respite is no abstraction. Though we may doubt its reality, the gospel’s offering is no immaterial thing. “Jesus is never intimidated by our doubts,” writes Daniel Hochhalter, “no matter how silly or unacceptable they may seem to others. Instead, he meets us in the midst of them.” And there is the glimmer of hope that eclipses our fear. Whatever theoretical or conceptual ideas to which we surrender in despair, the Christian faith offers something wholly different. It offers a person. “At the end of all our striving and longing,” continues Gerson, “we find, not a force, but a face. All language about God is metaphorical. But the metaphor became flesh and dwelt among us.” The transcendence of the Christian faith is the Son’s Incarnation. The beautiful mystery of the gospel is not really that ambiguous, it’s actually the exquisite fact even in seasons of doubt and despair, the rumor of grace is whispered in our ear by a living person, by he who is the epitome of the Father’s heart, by none other than Yahweh enfleshed. As Richard Trench so boldly declares in his Hulsean Lectures:
The prerogative of our Christian faith, the secret of its strength, is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person. This is what has made it strong, while so much else has provided weak, that it has Christ for a middle point, — that is has not a circumference without a centre, — that it has not merely a deliverance, but a Deliverer; not a redemption only, but a Redeemer as well; for oh how vast is the difference between submitting ourselves upon a beating heart; between accepting a system and cleaving to a person. (222)
I get the sense that Gerson himself has come to believe this in a very real, very palpable way — that is, in such a way that his entire life has become a venture staked upon the rumor of grace. Upon the beating, bleeding heart of faith itself. It is this to which he clings and in which he believes, notwithstanding the creeping doubts that haunt him. Even still, the catharsis of this moment is conditioned by the understated notion that it might occur again. Gerson testifies to the fact that depression isn’t a once-conquered thing, rather, it’s a circuitous malady that follows him like an ominous shadow. Likewise, I pray that any who happen upon these lines who are in the midst of their own personal mental anguish seek professional assistance that can only come from the outside.
Depression’s perfidious conditions aren’t vanquishable by self-made swords. As Gerson asserts, “There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.” No amount of self-forged fortitude can overcome the maladies of despair and depression. The reluctant truth of the matter is that the specter of depression might never go away, but the face of love never leaves either (Heb. 13:5). God’s good news runs opposite to what the world presupposes. Where bookstores and gurus offer a sundry of tips and techniques for “overcoming depression” and maintaining “spiritual wellness,” as Gerson affirms, “God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.”
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:7–8)
Richard Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (London: MacMillan & Co., 1880).