Depression: What we can learn from St. Paul


“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair… “  – Paul

Many Americans struggle with depression.  Statistics show that depression affects more than 16 million people in a given year, and almost 10% of doctor office visits are due to depression.  In the US, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, and The World Health Organization has forecasted that depression will be the number one cause of disease by 2020.  

But we do not need statistics to relate how prevalent depression walks among us.  Many of us personally come into contact with depression, either as experienced within ourselves or more indirectly through some friends or family members.  

What exactly is depression?  Most simply put, depression can be considered as a loss of confidence in the self to handle various problems that are thrown before us.  We no longer trust ourselves to adapt, cope, or manage, with satisfaction, certain problems or challenges that in some way threaten something we find necessary to our well being. 

This thing we find necessary is so because it satisfies, or provides for, one of our various needs.  Events that occasion depression are ones that usually threaten, and come down to bare on, one of our needs.  This could be a need in the form of security, and so struggles over finances for example often can bring about depression.  It could be a need relating to our esteem, in which case struggles over performance can trigger depression. Esteem has to do with how we believe we are evaluated in the eyes of others and can revolve around not only issues of performance, but around other issues such as our appearance.

I find it fascinating that Paul can say he has trouble on every side and is not distressed.  He was perplexed, but not in despair. Perhaps the word distressed can offer some insight as to what strengthened Paul, and provided him with some sense of fortitude during those times he felt most overwhelmed.  

Even more prevalent than depression is anxiety.  Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting over 40 million adults any given year.  Anxiety is a type of fear, and it is natural that depression would presuppose fear or anxiety.  For it is what we fear and yet cannot conquer, and have no hope to conquer, that brings about depression.  However, depression does not necessarily follow fear.  We may fear something, but have hope or some level of confidence that we can deal with it. In such cases, fear would not lead to depression.

Paul said he was hard-pressed on every side, or was troubled in every respect, yet he did not slip into internal turmoil.  Paul did not succumb to despair most likely because he was not overcome by his fear.  Like Paul, many of us are no strangers to stress and anxiety.  The constant pressures to meet various demands in life are a real source of strain and stress. Especially as one accrues more responsibilities, be that with family or work-related, stresses mount up and can be overwhelming.  We start to believe we do not possess the resources required to meet the mounting challenges, that the compounding issues become more than we are capable of handling.  

Part of the problem with anxiety is the fact that we are uncertain whether something is going to work out the way we desire or fear.  Many of us have experienced situations where the anticipation of the event was worse than the event itself.  It is a fear of the unfolding of future events.  So how does Paul experience trouble all around and yet does not agonize over the uncertainty of it all?  No doubt Paul was familiar with and even embraced the verse “lean not on your own understanding, but in all things commit your ways to the Lord”.  Possessing such an attitude allowed Paul to absolve himself from the burden of needing to know, from his attempts to manipulate and navigate through circumstances based on his ability to understand.  He rather was able to take a more accepting position and give the situation to God.  Trusting that God’s plan was the right way, regardless of its uncertainty or outcome.   

By not mandating to himself the need to understand, and thus control, Paul created within himself more flexibility, or adaptability, to his situations.  He was willing to allow God to work the situation, regardless of the outcome – that “Christ may be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death”.   

Not only does Paul become more adaptable, allowing himself more flexibility in terms of the outcome of certain events, he also ascribes a certain goodness to the bad events he encounters.  Paul allows for suffering in his life; he accepts it.  Most probably this is because he can interpret the experience to include God’s working in his evaluation of the event. It is not only the quality of the event that affects us, but how we evaluate it.  Paul embraces his weaknesses, his lowliness, his pains, and fears, and he allows God to work through them.  Events, or even Paul himself, are not defined by Paul in terms of how weak or insufficient he is, but in terms of how sufficient God is – whether it be God working in situations externally, or bringing about changes internally within Paul himself.  However bad the situation is, Paul can redeem it by interpreting it within the perspective of God’s design, plans, and providence.  

Paul could find reasons for joy in the most debasing situations.  By relaxing his grip on his command of reality Paul could adapt himself to situations more readily – “for I have learned how to be content regardless of my circumstances”.  In addition, by seeing the good (God’s work) in bad situations, Paul was effectively redirecting his evaluation to focus more on what needs the event provided for, rather than on what needs the event deprived him of.    These are powerful devices that allowed Paul to grow up in fortitude that enabled him to weather the storms and ultimately to do mighty things, things that were the seeds that would influence western civilization probably more than any other person in our western tradition.     

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