October 21, 2020

Depression and Delight

The opposite of depression is delight, being spontaneously surprised by the goodness and beauty of living. This is not something we can ever positively crank up and make happen in our lives. It is, as every saint and sage has told us, the by-product of something else. It is something that happens to us and which can never, on our own, make happen to us. As C. S. Lewis suggests in the title of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, delight has to catch us unaware, at a place where we are not rationalizing that we are happy. The famous prayer of Francis of Assisi, with its insistence that it is only in giving that we receive, suggests the same thing.

This is what it would mean to not be depressed: Imagine yourself on some ordinary weekday, walking to your car, standing at a bus stop, cooking a meal, sitting at your desk, or doing anything else that is quite ordinary. Suddenly, for no tangible reason, you fill with a sense of the goodness and beauty and joy of just living. You feel your own life — your heart, your mind, your body, your sexuality, the people and things you are connected to — and you spontaneously fill with the exclamation: “God, it feels great to be alive!” That’s delight, that’s what it means not to be depressed.

– Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality

Rolheiser suggests that the default position for many of us in contemporary culture is “depression,” which he defines as the inability to access our inner energies in order to engage life. When we are depressed (not clinically depressed — that’s something else) we feel dead inside, or at least lethargic. There is a dimness or dullness of spirit that deflates us. We are right to see this as a spiritual problem — it is traditionally recognized as the deadly sin of acedia: a state of restlessness or listlessness that keeps us from our work or prayer, or at least from finding joy in them. We can’t find the energy to care.

The American approach to overcoming such spiritual problems is typically direct and technological in nature. I identify an area of sin or weakness, a habit or fault that I imagine hinders my relationship with God or others, something that displeases God or keeps me from being effective in his service. I develop strategies for conquering this problem, and then seek and make use of proper tools to win the battle. This is the (inadequate) Christian practice of “sin management” that Dallas Willard and others write about.

Life becomes a project. A self-improvement project. Or, in more Christian terms, a “sanctification” project.

I understand the attraction of this kind of methodology. It is logical and consistent with the way people approach work and many aspects of life in modern society. It is easy to understand and communicate. It is practical and satisfies our common sense realism about dealing with life and its problems.

And in the final analysis, it is all up to you and me to accomplish — with God’s help and blessing, of course.

However, Ronald Rolheiser puts his finger on something we forget. God rarely signs on to our projects. While we are diagnosing, strategizing, and implementing solutions for our lives, he’s smiling. He has something entirely different in mind.

When we first moved to Indianapolis twenty years ago, we lived in a rental house. I offered to do some painting for our landlord in exchange for rent, and he agreed. So I went to work, painting the house and garage. When I got to the back of the garage, I thought it would be fun to let my little preschool boy “help.” I poured some paint in a bucket, put a brush in his hand, and let him have at it. Oh, that was fun! Paint everywhere! Of course, I had a lot of clean up and touching up to do later, but I wouldn’t trade anything for those hours “painting” with my little boy. It was, as Rolheiser says, delightful.

I sometimes think that all my work for God, all my sin management projects, all my attempts at improving myself are like my young son trying to paint the back of the garage. I really have no idea what I’m doing and even when I understand what God is telling me to do, I don’t have the spiritual coordination to pull it off.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was my Father’s smile and the delight in his eyes. I never knew it could feel so good to be such an utter mess — with him. There I stand, covered in paint, having completely botched the job, yet never closer to him, never more filled with joy.

It’s not up to me after all.

Joy breaks through.

Delight descends.

Suddenly, in the middle of my ordinary day — the laughter of God.


  1. Wow, Mike that is a wonderful meditation. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    I have come to the place where I know I cannot manufacture delight; but I can recognize and be thankful for the times when I have this gift from God.

  2. “The Holy Longing” has been a very significant book for me on my journey. Incredible insights, very positive, God-honoring, Christ-centered, Spirit-upheld. I think the section on sexuality is the best thing I have ever read on the topic, bar none.


  3. Randy Thompson says

    The Christian life is a journey under a cloudy sky while remembering that the sun is shining despite the clouds. Occasionally, there’s a break in the clouds, and you’re given a new surge of energy and excitement for the next part of the journey.

  4. Beautiful, CM. Nouwen writes in “With Burning Hearts” how deep despair is often the companion of great joy, giving the examples of crucifixion and resurrection as co-partners that simply can’t be without each other. You express similar sentiments here in a wonderful way.

    Peace be with you…

  5. “God rarely signs on to our projects. While we are diagnosing, strategizing, and implementing solutions for our lives, he’s smiling. He has something entirely different in mind.”

    Boy did I ever need THAT today!!! Breathe, Rebekah, breathe!

    On a side note, why is my picture not showing up anymore??

  6. This reminds of Charlie Peacock’s song “Cheer Up Church” which he wrote when the pastor of his church passed away.

    The chorus goes:

    It’s just like God to make a hero from a sinner
    It’s just like God to choose the loser, not the winner
    It’s just like God to tell a story through the weak
    To let the Gospel speak through the life of a man
    Who’ll be the first to say

    “Cheer up, Church
    You’re worse off than you think
    Cheer up, Church
    You’re standing at the brink
    Don’t despair
    Do not fear
    Grace is near”

    I often hear people say that God works through us despite our weakness, but I think even that’s not a fair assessment. I think God works through us because we’re weak.

  7. One thought I have struggled with is separating clinical depression from the normal melancholy life. The phrase ” the inability to access our inner energies in order to engage life. ” got me thinking about that again. That may be the way I separate it. At times, we have clinical reasons we cannot access our inner energies, but at other times their are spiritual reasons.

    • I had the exact same thought when I read the post.

    • Josh in FW says

      So, how does one determine if he is suffering due to a clinical reason rather than a spiritual reason?

      • I suggest going to the doctor as a place to start if a person is depressed enough that is affecting his/her life in significant ways. A simple example — I have always been able to sleep easily and well. I went through an extended period of depression when I could not sleep. This was so unusual for me that it got my attention and I went and got a check up. The advice I received helped me take care of my body in some ways that helped my depression and its symptoms.

        • For me it was appetite. When a 19 year old male in college loses all desire for food, to the point where eating feels like a chore, you know there’s something wrong.

  8. I, too, enjoyed the comment that God rarely sings on to our projects and efforts to fix ourselves. I think the problem cannot be fixed on the outside. The answer always resides on the inside, and it takes time with God to realize the exact solution.

  9. So there is no use at all in trying to bring myself out of a funk? I mean, clinical depression is a reality in my life, but is there any use at all in deliberately listening to joyful songs, or watching comedies, or all the practical things we are told should help? It’s true, all they really seem to do is put me in a better mood…for a while. A better mood is not really what I am after.

    I’ve also noticed, though, that when I read serious book on spirituality (right now I’m reading The Ragamuffin Gospel), I actually feel more depressed…not that I don’t enjoy them (I don’t dread picking them up). But they seem to make me realize how spiritually poor in spirit I am. I am torn between seeking out this book…and wondering if it’s going to make me feel the same way!

    • Clinical depression, as I’m sure you know (perhaps better than I) requires attention and some interventions: perhaps medicinal, therapeutic, and/or lifestyle changes.

      As for reading: I remember in college reading David Brainerd’s diary (missionary to the Native Americans). He was so OCD and melancholic that I could not read it. Other theologians, like Jonathan Edwards, are also off-limits to me, along with many of the Puritans and today’s new reformed writers. They are so morbidly introspective that they turn my eyes from Christ. You must know yourself here.

      On the other hand, the older I get, the more joy I find in simple things: a fine meal, a friend’s companionship, my grandchild’s laugh, a well-played ballgame, a beautiful melody, taking a good picture, hearing a good story, etc. We each must find what refreshes.

      • “They are so morbidly introspective that they turn my eyes from Christ. You must know yourself here.”

        This makes a lot of sense, and is helpful…too much introspection is probably bad for me right now. Not like introverts suffer from lack of introspection, anyway!

      • Richard Foster calls this morbid introspection “worm theology”. It’s a type of self-loathing that for some reason seems to be very appealing to a lot of people. I’ve seen a lot of people beat themselves up over what they perceive as failures in their lives, and it’s just not possible to live that way in the long term. Actually, I think what happens it people try for a while, but eventually give up altogether. I suppose giving up can be a good or bad thing depending on how it turns out.

  10. Wow, beautiful. My life makes a little more sense now. I suppose the reason we’re so miserable is because we take our “painting” too darned seriously. Like Steve Brown says, the reason we’re so bad is that we’re trying so hard to be good. We sang the prayer of Francis of Assisi tonight. How often I have prayed it like a Puritan: Lord, help me to make myself a more giving, loving, serving person. Well, the answer so far has been no. That’s depressing. A part of me refuses to accept that there’s nothing I can really do to bring this delight into my life. But if I could stop trying so hard and open my eyes, perhaps I would see that Christ is already doing so much.

  11. I really appreciated the words on “sin management” which seems evident in so much so-called biblical teaching.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And when you add OCD and paranoia to sin management, you get what my church calls “Excessive Scrupulosity”.