Is it Depression or a Dark Night of the Soul?

“I (Kristi) thought God loved me, but now he feels so distant and uncaring.” 

I often hear this from people. Sometimes they’re struggling with depression. Other times they’re in a Dark Night of the Soul, feeling spiritually dry and far from God. I’ve been through both. (Below I describe the difference.)

When I was a young mom in my 30’s Bill and I attended a spiritual formation conference. One of the keynotes gave a strong message against “consumer Christianity.” She even publicly criticized the conference worship leader for choosing songs focused on receiving blessings more than praising God. 

I felt like, “My Christian faith is immature because I want God to bless me. I haven’t died to self-enough.” (Even though I knew her tone and approach were unloving, I also knew that there was truth to her message.)

Later that day another speaker gave a strong message on being willing to suffer for Christ. I thought about the great saints of the Bible and church history who did that. Then I felt for my children and therapy clients who already had so much stress and pain and conflict to deal with. I wanted for us to be secure in God’s love.

When the speaker raised his passion level and repeated his call to “to total surrender” I was emotionally triggered. I plummeted into my abandonment wound as a baby. I saw myself alone in a cold hospital, on the operating table, crying in terror. 

God, I can’t go through this again. I can’t surrender myself to that level of vulnerability and pain. I can’t say, “Yes, you can do anything to me.” 

People all around me were standing, but I was frozen in my chair. Head down. Trembling. I couldn’t trust a God that called for so much sacrifice and allowed so much suffering!  

After that day I couldn’t pull myself out of shame and confusion. I isolated from people and didn’t want to go to church. 

I’ve taught that God is good and loving, but don’t even believe it for myself anymore. Look at all the suffering God allows. Where’s the compassion? He’s distant. He expects too much. 

I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I was experiencing the Dark Night of the Soul that we write about in Journey of the Soul.

In the Psalms Asaph prayed, “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted” (Psalm 77:1-2). That was my experience. 

But Asaph’s psalm continues with appealing to the Lord’s mercy, remembering past instances of God’s love and proclaiming that God is good (even though it doesn’t feel like it now), and waiting for deliverance.  

Later I was able to see that my tears and questions were actually expressions of enduring faith (like with David in Psalm 27:9-14). 

My experience with feeling desolation, disorientation, aloneness, and shame might sound like I had clinical depression. But actually it was a Dark Night of the Soul. 

What’s the difference between depression and a Dark Night of the Soul? The two are mostly different, but can overlap and some people have both. 

Depression fills your whole life with melancholy and gloom but a Dark Night of the Soul is more localized to feeling distressed and disoriented in your relationship with God. 

Depression brings a loss of energy, concentration, hope, and pleasure in your life (e.g., hobbies, sex, work, and relationships). In a Dark Night of the Soul usually the loss of zest is mostly in your spiritual life (e.g., prayers, Bible reading, spiritual disciplines, Christian friendships, church activities, and ministry). 

Depression often includes sleeping too much or not enough and gaining or losing weight over an extended period of time but these are not typical in a Dark Night of the Soul. 

In depression life seems meaningless but in a Dark Night of the Soul you can eventually find a sense of spiritual purpose in your spiritual desert.

If you’re caring for someone who is depressed it will likely make you feel depressed (it’s like the depression is contagious) but when you care for someone in a Dark Night of the Soul you’re more likely to feel the warmth of God’s love for that person. 

Depression infects your whole body, brain, and being and impairs your ability to function in your relationships and work. A Dark Night of the Soul depresses your spiritual life and leaves you unable to feel God’s comfort or hear his voice.

Depression can be caused by negative attitudes, a chemical imbalance, painful losses, abuse, internalized stress, or self-shaming. A Dark Night of the Soul is caused by feeling that God has abandoned you or stopped blessing you.

In short, depression is a mental health disorder (or mood disorder) and a Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual desolation. 

The treatments for clinical depression and a Dark Night of the Soul are mostly different. 

Depression can be alleviated by psychotherapy, medicine, social support, and emotionally healthy faith practices. So it’s very important if you or someone you care for is depressed that you do not spiritualize that and forego treatment.

For the Dark Night of the Soul most ancient Christian writers and spiritual directors teach that it needs to be waited out and endured until the sovereign Lord has finished the work of purifying your heart and faith. 

At the same time I have found that actually you can participate in the Spirit’s mysterious, inner work of transforming you in a season of spiritual darkness and desolation. 

Here are some soul care practices that can help you receive grace from God in a Dark Night of the Soul:

  • Ask for empathy from a spiritual director or soul friend.
  • Learn about the process of spiritual formation and the rhythms of spiritual consolation and desolation.
  • Understand that the Spirit of Jesus is drawing you into a new stage of faith and you have different needs now. (God has not abandoned you but is near in a new and mysterious way.)
  • Meditate on Jesus’ cross and other trials and give thanks for how the Holy Spirit is with you in your desolation, even if you’re not yet feeling God’s blessing. 
  • Try new spiritual disciplines (the ones that helped you before probably won’t now) like praying psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 13, 22, 42, 77, 88), enjoying the arts and nature, reading spiritual stories, and meditating on Jesus sleeping in the storm as you take a nap (Mark 4:35-41).

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Listen to this week’s Soul Talks podcast: “Don’t Let Depression Cause Shame & IsolationWhat do you do if you feel down and depressed? Sharing your struggles with close friends as well as a counselor or spiritual director can make all the difference. Bill & Kristi sit down with friend Gary Kinnaman, pastor and author of Leaders That Last and Seeing in the Dark, to share the encouragement and hope of Jesus in the midst of a dark season.

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