In addition to connecting more deeply with other loved ones around, many spoke of the impact of transcendent experiences and connections with the divine as a catalyst for deeper emotional healing.
The role and value of human relationships in supporting healing is so widely known as to be beyond dispute. That is not the case when it comes to another kind of connection—one with beings who are more than human, or supernatural and divine.
Although the research literature around spirituality as a benefit for healing generally is large and respected, the specific role God might play in one’s healing journey from depression is, at best, largely side-lined and ignored—and at worst, so controversial as to be impossible to discuss.
These people had plenty to say about it though. In what turned out to be the major surprise of the review—even for someone who values faith in his life—the number of people who shared special spiritual encounters as an important part of their healing journey was large. Strikingly so.
An important prefatory note. We’ve spoken about some kind of external and internal adjustments and growth as fairly universal to deeper emotional healing from depression—and said the same about some kind of improvement in connection and relationship with others around us. Our final two themes won’t be presented as universally, partly because of the deep philosophical differences that exist when it comes to their importance and role. In the first case, spirituality and faith—although cited prominently by a surprising number of participants—is challenging and contested enough in society today, that it’s clear this isn’t something universally regarded.
Obviously, people have very different experiences of spirituality and faith. And especially when someone’s relationship to a particular faith has become unhealthy, we heard in some stories about relief that can come from stepping away for a time. Some have reported emotional healing being helped by such distance. This was a minority experience, however. It was much more common that people found help in their emotional healing by engaging on a deeper level with faith and spiritually transcendent practices. The discussion that follows draws upon excerpts from 31 different accounts (4, 6, 10, 11, 12, 21, 26, 36, 43, 44, 46, 47, 50, 59, 69, 72, 73, 75, 77, 78, 80, 82, 85, 86, 96, 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 112).
Seeing the truth about your life. As long as we’re running to and fro, with hardly any time to breathe— let alone think—it’s hardly surprising that we aren’t very attentive to deeper realities, let alone even the basic realities of our life. It’s equally unsurprising, then, to appreciate the value of deeper stopping to set the stage for spiritual discoveries.
As Thomas recounted:
I remember the first time that I really decided to just sit still and take a look at what was going on in my life. I think we all come to those moments where we just say, “I’m exhausted, it’s not working, I need to be still, throw on the brakes and take account of what’s going on.” When I did that for the first time, I was a freshman in college, and I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of someone had taught me to do this, I just threw on the brakes, just looked, and I was just really stunned by what I saw.
He described this as a “turning point”—prompted in that “moment where I just stopped, I calmed, and I just looked at what was going on.” And that’s when “I realized that my house—the house that is me—was in total shambles.”
And that was hard to look at. I couldn’t believe how profound and extensive the damage was. And yet, I was seeing it. For the first time, I was actually seeing it without censoring it, without trying to avoid it, or distract myself, because I knew deep down how bad things were. I just looked at it. (11)
Joanne reflected on a similar earlier admission, “Everything was stripped away. I’d made such a mess of things.” (72) Such evaluations needn’t be made with harshness, of course, and can be done with compassion, as Vicki emphasized:
Part of this work really has to be the work of self-compassion. We may not be in the place that we want to be, but can we take a step back and thoroughly understand where we are? With compassion. ‘Here’s what I’m feeling. Here’s what happens to me during the day or during the night. Here’s how I act out. Here’s the maladaptive coping habits that I have now, that I know are not doing me any good, but I don’t know where to turn.’ That kind of self-informed picture can help me seek out the help that I need, that’s appropriate for me as a person. (12)
Similar to the processing of trauma and abuse described earlier, this kind of deeper look at the full scope of life is often part of working through regret and allowing yourself to grieve. As Joanne said:
I’d had a short and quite catastrophic marriage. I had to…re-build us a life and adrenaline kept me going. It was only when I came to rest it hit me what a complete mess I had made of my life. That hit me quite hard. We were as skinny as you can be without being homeless and at that point, I was definitely clinically depressed.
This same woman described finally allowing herself to grieve something difficult in her life, “I had enormous explosion of emotion, and I cried and cried and cried.” (72)
Looking, of course, is the opposite of not looking—avoiding, running away. As one woman said, “I had to stop running away from myself and the broken parts that were left unhealed. This was my body…and if I wanted to find happiness, I had to learn how to mend her.” (26)
Admitting you are stuck. For many people, important epiphanies emerged seeing their emotional struggles more honestly. Aaron recollected the moment when he said, “I acknowledge I don’t have the strength, these mental illnesses they’re so heavy, they’re crushing me, I can’t handle it.” Juanita admitted, “My life was taken down to the bones” and recollected feeling that “I had come to the end of myself. Couldn’t do a thing. Nada….Nothing that I had previously valued as being me—my accomplishments…my roles, my to-do-list—remained; it all crumbled.”
After so many other failures to help alleviate the pain of depression, there can be understandable urgency and desperation to find relief. Following a long period of seeking answers, Nicole ultimately began to “cry out to God” for her to save him from the pain, “because I didn’t know what else to do.”
In a place of desperation, Linda said, “I begged God to help me, to give me a chance ..to find an opportunity for happiness.” And that’s where she came to have a new experience.
A new encounter. “In the darkness of the crash,” one woman described a sacred experience that left her full of joy. “I came to know the God who had found me. This was not the god of my childhood making….I came to know…a deep, loving union with God.” Juanita elaborated:
At the bottom I settled into the kindness and incredible peace of God, the kind of pace I’ve heard spoken of by those who have experienced a near-death episode. There, I was surrounded by love I had never experienced, love that was dense and filled the space all around me. This love stayed with me from the point on in the bottom of the dark pit, accompanying me just as consistently as my cat Angel had been doing, lying on my bed with me during the crash. Here, in this place, there was no fear, no anxiety, just pure love.
She went on to describe experiencing new levels of “peace, stillness, compassion, and kindness that fed the deepest part of my starved soul.”
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
One woman who had experienced brutal abuse as a child in her home—and many subsequent mental health problems, including depression— said, “On a cold February day in 1985, fully prepared to kill myself, I desperately prayed once more, asking God what He wanted of me. I was in my daughter’s room as she napped in her crib. What do you want me to know today, God? Because I am going to do it. Then I closed my eyes.”
Sarah continued, “That’s when the vision began…I am tied to a cross. No nails are used. There is an eerie darkness everywhere. I am outside in a barren landscape. There are no buildings; there are no trees, no vegetation of any sort. There is no sun, no moon, no stars, no clouds, no color of any kind.”
“Through the darkness, I can make out others being crucified. Hundreds of people on crosses, a virtual killing field of unknown souls, but all seemingly in the distance. There is no noise—no crying, no moaning. Everyone is suffering in silence, each of us alone in our dying, too far from each other to communicate. No one is there to grieve for us.”
“I am naked. I am dirty and filthy, and I feel disgusting. I have a sense that I am two to three hours from death and I just want to be over with. I am past anger, past fear, past caring. Whatever it is I have done, I know I am deserving of this fate.”
“In the distance, I notice a man dressed in a clean white tunic walking among the crucified.”
“I know instinctively that this man is Jesus. Soon he is coming toward me, an ethereal light surrounding him, and I am suddenly filled with dread and self-loathing before the most holy of persons. I feel shame in every fiber of my being. I am tortured in my nakedness and vulnerability, and, as he comes toward me, looking right at me, I am terrified. What will he do? Will he rebuke me? Take me? Abuse me? He nears me, speaking not a word. The time has finally come. The judgment is upon me.”
“And then Jesus placed a step stool in front of my cross and raised himself up to where he could reach my arms. With scissors, he cut the ropes from around my wrists and body and I fell into his arms, onto his body, even more ashamed now of my filthy condition.”
“Then he carried me a short distance from the cross and laid me down on a pure white blanket, where he began bathing my naked body, lovingly and tenderly, as if every part of me was precious, just as I had washed my daughter when she’d been ill as a baby. The water he bathed me in glowed with light.”
“All the while, Jesus looked into my eyes with a deep knowing and an incredible depth of love and compassion. When he was finished, he cradled my head and offered me food for strength, and something to drink in a crystal chalice. I ate the food…then he dressed me in a clean, white robe with a gold sash. All the while, he never said a word.”
Concluding her recollection, Sarah reflects, “I embraced Jesus, grateful not only for being alive, but for being deeply understood and loved.” Sarah subsequently felt nudged and strengthened by this experience in extending more grace and forgiveness to the people who had caused so much of the pain in her life (see section on reconciliation).
“I found God,” said Ashley—who quipped, “I believe there is a god, and it’s not me.” She pointed to one part of the 12-step process, “step two is believing in a power greater than yourself. Understanding, and really feeling, that you aren’t alone is a big part of feeling better because you don’t have to carry so much … and you don’t feel so heavy.”
Juanita reflected, “I can honestly say that I am grateful that my mind and body did for me what I could not do for myself: they shut me down, stopped me dead in my tracks.” It’s precisely this paralysis which she felt gratitude for later:
I had to fall past the depth of my willpower to stop believing that I was strong enough to pull myself out. I had to fall past the depth of my knowledge to stop believing that my intellect would get me through this. I had to fall past the depth of my determination and even my physical stamina toa place where only God could provide security.
Aaron likewise described the excruciating experience of depression and anxiety itself as a tool to bring him to this kind of deeper awareness, “God uses this trial in a Christian’s life to bring him to the end of himself so that person can die to himself, deny yourself, carry your cross so you can follow him”—adding, that he brings you to the dissolving one oneself “so you can recognize your rightful identify in Christ.”
Glimpsing a bigger grandeur. Not everyone had a detailed vision. But many others spoke of poignant glimpses that left them feeling like they were walking on new ground. For example:
- “My eyes were opened to creation itself—“rocks, clouds…oh, God swirled those clouds! Engaged in my heart for a moment. Oh, my goodness, this is created! A euphoric joy came upon me.”
- “Gradually, my personal experience expanded to become a universal understanding that God is in everyone and everything, loves everyone and everything. It was a recognition of a universal unity, a great oneness, and…a universal goodness. Everywhere….God had never been gone after all. God had been here the whole time.”
- Mendek spoke of an “awakening”—a “joyous outpouring…of grace” where he felt that ‘everything was in harmony with the One who created it—a God of pure love and serenity.” This experience, he said, “awakened my spiritual sensitivity to the sublime and the profound. Never before had I perceived God to be an all-encompassing energy of pure love and beauty—not the judgmental, omnipotent dictator of my childhood….For the first time in my life, he said he “believed that the world was a kind and magnificent place.”
This last individual added, “My growing awareness of the strength of love and goodness in the universe was revolutionary to me. Just the possibility that I could, in fact, be living in a safe and affectionate world was itself a partial liberation.”
None of these were constant awareness, but even the short glimpses seemed to generate profound new healing momentum. As Mendek put it:
These happy, peaceful moments provided a respite from the dreariness that still lived within me. Intermittent experiences of a joyous cosmos— sporadic realizations that love is a powerful adhesive that holds the world together—gave me a taste of how wonderful it could feel to be alive. These experiences showed me that there was far more to this life than just what my analytical brain could perceive or explain…..At times when I least expected it, the gates of my internal fortress opened to green meadows and pastures of endless calm. I experienced moments of spontaneous joy and wonder over the freshness of a rainy day or the beauty of a flower. Ordinary things that had previously held only utilitarian value—houses on the street, cars on the road, people walking around—appeared vivid and dazzling.
Nicole described how the higher assurance he’s had about his future means she no longer fears for his life—“The thought of there being a God who was in control of everything was a comforting feeling for me—I then didn’t need to worry as much and do everything on my own.”
Recentering your life. Such orientation to the transcendent is a very different focus from the one we often witness around us today. Johann described recognizing the futility of all the materialistic pulls in his life—describing what he called the “The I-Want-Golden-Things-Rule” as “the more you think life is about having stuff and superiority and showing it off, the more unhappy, and the more depressed and anxious, you will be.” He elaborated, “the more materialistic you become, the shorter your relationships will be, and the worse their quality will be”—suggesting that “materialism leaves you constantly vulnerable to a world beyond your control.”
Johann continued, “I learned to spend less time puffing up my ego, seeking material possessions, seeking a superior status—they were all, I see now, drugs that left me feeling worse in the end. I learned to spend far more time on pursuits that feed my intrinsic values.”
Another individual shared their feeling that “people who are the center of their own universe are the most wretched beings alive.” Jim remarked, “it’s totally pointless to spend our whole lives creating and curating some specific identity…desiring to be important, to be someone, to matter.” He added, “To feel whole, we must let go of trying to maintain an image of ‘me.’” Based on his own spiritually transformative experience, this man observed, “the feeling of wholeness is a different feeling than me-ness.”
Linda acknowledged that “if I wanted to heal and become whole again” she would need to do something more than just relying on other human beings around her. “The emptiness I had spent a lifetime trying to fill could no longer be filled by other people or objects.” She then added, “The escape from depression starts when you see the world as larger than yourself.”
Others spoke about yearning for something higher and bigger than their own thoughts and feelings. Another person reflected:
You will never be satisfied and people won’t like to be around you. As you shift your focus away from your physical and emotional self, you are no longer obsessed with meeting your own needs. As you practice focusing on your eternal soul and on God, your life perspective inevitably begins to change.
“Hitting my own bottom of depression has enabled me to come to an amazing awareness: I had been sourcing my life from an illusion” one woman said. “For all my life to this point I had presumed that my effort sustained me,” she admitted. “But through the depression, I was being freed from those notions of self-sustainability. Thank God for this awakening. In the depth of the darkness I found my being in the presence of God.” She elaborated:
The dark night of the soul is the place where one is invited into a deeper, more transformative relationship with the divine. It is the place that, when all that had been our life no longer serves us, lures us, or compels us, we find ourselves void of any identity that matters, with an emptiness in us that longs to be filled. Yet the reality is that none of the old filling will suffice any longer.
Rather than being discouraged and overwhelmed by these realizations, one woman described feeling “pure gratitude” and relief in this discovery– “now I knew where my sustenance was coming from, and I was being fueled and filled.”
Aaron expressed appreciation at the failure of the drugs. As he put it, “I’m so grateful drugs didn’t work—Thank God for that. Because if they had I would have depended on them, rather than finding healing through Christ.” Brooke said, “I do not want to lose myself in a pill. I want supernatural healing” and another, “I’m going to wean off psych meds and become more serious about God.”
I had been parched by life, sucked dry. I was humbled, grateful beyond words, thrilled speechless in the presence of God who was quenching in me a thirst that only God could satisfy. I was being energized and charged to live and move and to know what it meant to be fully alive. God met me at the level of my thirst. There was no effort on my part, no scheduling, no doing, no talking, just being, and being fully aware that that was all I needed. My aliveness was God’s doing.
She added, “At the bottom of the well I had been found by God and I had found God, and indeed I had found a new center, a place of communion with the Creator.”
Looking up for healing. Despite the soul-stretching involved, many people who described profound healing in their lives likewise described a renewed or deepened spiritual connection. Sometimes this is a deepening of existing faith and other times discovering this possibility for the first time. As Jane said, “I will always be indebted to my first sponsor, who showed me God. I am a miracle of this program and living proof that the steps work. I am a real person today.” Another person described the “greatest day” as when they “received the Holy spirit” and came to “knowing God’s real.”
One woman recounted how they “began going to church. I developed my faith and relationship with God, which I never had before.” Another individual spoke about a sacred experience where his “eyes were opened to the incarnation of Jesus—that God came to this earth. The son of God walked on this earth. I knew all these verses—I had learned about them before, but In those moments my EYES were opened…He walked on this earth!”
Even while still facing patterns of “panic attack in misery,” something about this realization shifted things for me—“the same Jesus who engaged in these miracles is alive right now. Oh my goodness, He’s alive! I remember going from anxiety and panic, to weeping and joy, because he’s alive.”
Crystal recounted, “My roommate and I read the Bible cover to cover for the first time. This was the most transforming year of my life, and the healing was so drastic that I consider it an emotional death to life miracle.” She added, “I have no doubt that God can do this for even the most flatlined heart—He did it for me, and He will do it for you if you are willing.”
Matt, who had long experience with faith, described going deeper—“reaching heavenward and achieving an experienced connection with the Divine.” Another woman described the fervor of her new pursuit: “I dove into God. I began reading the Bible again and praying.” Josh said it was “like I was hearing the gospel for the first time—I was just drinking it in.” He added, “Previously pick up the bible and read a few words and feeling bored—now it’s coming alive.”
New hope in new possibilities. This reflects the value of what one person called “explor[ing] your spiritual side.” As Jonathan put it, “start to look at how you are going to move forward, and start to embrace your positive, creative, loving, caring and spiritual side; the real essence of what makes you, and takes you away from fear.”
This became a new place of possibility for many. Jim spoke of how “these days” he “relies on his spirituality to get him through the valleys” and “turned towards spirituality and art as refuge.”
“I have found that my relationship with God and my practice of abiding with God, being joined with God, are what makes me solid inside and out,” said Juanita, adding, “The word love best describes what seemed to be flowing into me; yes, a deep knowing that I was loved.” Aaron said, “as I did everything in faith, God started to give me more faith—the ability to rest in him.”
Juanita compares it to coming home to “find all her prized possessions turned to ash—and shown to her for what they were: nothing.”
But rather than feeling sad or grieving, there is so much relief and gratitude. I’m thankful that there is now more space for what can be and the clear awareness that my life is distinctly simple, not the complex self I had known; this insight has been amazingly refreshing and life-giving.
As you can see, this life felt exciting and vibrant to those finding it. As Linda said:
I was finding healing in the Bible. Getting to know God, talking to Him and asking Him repeatedly to help me, gave me hope. My connection to God…was intimate and personal. I know that everyone believes in Him…but I know Him, and He was all I had to lean on. Believing in Him was hope that escaping my pain was even a possibility.
She went on to express hope that others facing similar pain could find the “faith and courage to seek something bigger than our isolated suffering. A bigger meaning that says there is more to this world than what we see through our broken and teary eyes.”
Moment by moment guidance. Describing her period of grappling with depression, this same woman continued, “God took me to the “school of the spirit’ during those months. Just Jesus and me….I didn’t talk to anyone except God. No one helped or guided me through this time. I prayed and read the Bible and God met me there.
Rather than just a general communion, this woman described specific direction that came about healing from her depression: “Over those next months, God showed me step by step how to heal from my depression [and] how to control my thoughts—to recognize and reject the negative thoughts that fed depression.”
This kind of direction of her thoughts bore powerful fruit. “Our thoughts are real, they have power,” she said, “the more you focus your thoughts on God, the more healing you will receive from depression.”
Rather than something instantaneous, another woman described her experience of God choosing to “partner with us to reach our healing.” As she summarized:
God accomplishes the divine healing work as we surrender to Him and follow His guidance. He sometimes will lead us through a series of steps, a pathway to reach and remain in that place of healing. Many times that pathway, those steps we take, are actually an integral part of healing itself. Whatever those steps are, whatever He teaches us along the way, are the skills that we need to be healed and continue to live out our healing….This is what God did for me. He taught me how not to be depressed.
“I became increasingly aware that I was in a school of sorts,” Juanita said. “I was being homeschooled by God”—“learning to be still, to be calm, to be cared for, and to know God’s love. I was being taught that to live my life in the presence of God was to know total sufficiency. I was learning how to be present to God’s unconditional and limitless love…as a power flowing through me and it was giving me life.”
Surrendering your own will. After coming to believe that God had power to heal him, Aaron described what he prayed next, “So, I humble yourself before your mighty hand—and I cast it all unto you…everything”—adding, “God, I surrender.”
This went well beyond a transactional relationship where he simply begged God for what he wanted. As he put it, this was “not about asking God to give me this or that, but to live in me…and align my will with His.”
Josh described a question coming into his mind, “Do you want to be free of this?…Will you live for me?” He responded, “Yes, I will live for you.”
“I was being invited to surrender” Juanita similarly said—remarking, “In the Twelve Step program they [encourage] this turning your life over to the care of God.” As central to her own healing, Jane similarly remarked, “I turned my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understood God.”
You could think of this as another kind of mindfulness skill. As Marsha put it:
I learned to focus. I had to be completely in the moment. It is the notion of not doing all the time what you want to do. It is letting go of having to know everything. Letting go of what you want. This was the road to freedom. …Acceptance is the freedom from needing your cravings satisfied.
She later described this as a specific skill called STOP, which “help you not make a bad situation worse”:
Stops the urge to act immediately. Take a step back and detach from the situation. Observe, so you can gather information on what is happening. And proceed mindfully, by evaluating the most effective option to take, given the goals, and follow the option.
Alignment with higher truth. Josh described feeling guilt and shame after a time of sexual promiscuity, remarking, “After years of struggling, I decided to come back to the Lord, who knew he was waiting for me, and had something for me. I went through a lot of confession and repentance—which was something I hadn’t taken seriously.”
“Be genuine about repenting,” Josh said, reflecting that he had “opened a lot of doors” through past choices “that allowed the adversary to have lots of control” and which “began affecting behavior and emotions.” Juanita said, “I feel the remorse of having squandered a lot of time and energy in the wasteland I was calling my life.”
In the stillness her depression required of her, Juanita described seeing areas of life that needed some change:
I feel regret, remorse, and a bit disoriented by my new awareness, but believe it or not I also feel a great deal of gratitude. I believe that when we see something, then we can say something, change something, make atonement.
“The old life had its good moments—I will not discount those at all,” Juanita said. “But I see now that I had built my life on my own and only occasionally opened a window to God’s grace and transformative influence on me. I know God was seeking a deeper relationship with me. Now I am so very grateful that I know the robust fullness of the presence of God available to me in the vast hollowness that was the depression.”
Matt spoke of the critical importance of what he called “congruence,” or “living in harmony with core life values and aspirations” as an important part of what helped to “refresh peace, joy, and love in my life.”
One woman described going to her hands and knees and crying out to Jesus, feeling the weight of emotional pain on her shoulders. Because she felt his own actions had played a real role, Nicole plead for help to repent for her sin. She went on to describe “amazing encounters with the Lord.”
Down on hands and knees in a ball—I felt completely encompassed by this warm, tingly presence. It just completely cloaked my body—His comfort and spirit all around me—and took all the fear away that I had. I felt the most intense love and peace—I knew it was Jesus. I cried out…thank you!
“He was communicating with me,” she said, “letting me know I was clean, purified, all that sin was gone.”
Lucie, in a moment of desperate pain, asked her brother to pray for her, “I have depression” and burst into tears. She said, “I don’t remember what he said,” but she recounted, “I felt this warmth on my physical body as if someone was wrapping me in his love—as if I was being hugged. That’s the Lord’s way of telling me that He was still there for me, and He loved me.” Lucie continued:
After two and a half years of turmoil, pain, of grief, of feeling lost, I awoke the next morning feeling the same love—the same unconditional love, safety, comfort and direction the day I received Holy Spirit and was baptized—that love was again inside me, with the smile that started inside and didn’t stop with my mouth.
Reflecting on a moment when he felt “total defeat,” Josh described someone asking, “can I pray for you?” During and after the prayer, as he described it, there were “things coming out of me…Stuff was just coming out—and I felt a total sense of peace, a peace I had never felt before”—the “peace that passeth understanding is exactly what I was feeling.” He remarked that there was “so much freedom after that,” and that the “voice of God was clearer.”
Making amends to others. Juanita went on to speak of the realization of the impact on others of her experience, since she’d been in such a dark place for so long – “Depression had taken my smile away.” She went on to describe how thinking of how long her family had been “living without my smile” made a “tear roll down my cheek.”
More specifically, Juanita spoke of a growing “awareness of how I have been driven by my childish beliefs and how those beliefs have created a side of me that is manipulative, especially with my children and those close to me.” She added, “The long days of silence and solitude during my recovery freed me to see that my old way of life had to be surrendered.”
She added, “My girls bring me such joy. I want to be their safe space, a place where they can gently, compassionately, and wisely be loved, nurtured, and supported… I have the chance to make things better with my girls for the sake of the deep love and respect I have for them.”
Jane spoke of making “amends to all the people who had suffered because of my illness.” And the first woman went on to say, “I pray that I am able to make amends to them for my behavior….we always have the power to make amends.”
New changes, new promises. We often talk about heart and mind change with addiction. But when it comes to depression, there’s such a strong emphasis on factors both external (trauma, stress) and internal (body and mind) that we have less control over, that heart matters can seem irrelevant. But from his experience of healing, Crystal argued:
People or groups in and of themselves do not have the power to change you. Your circumstances may change, but if you are struggling with real depression, it’s your heart and mind that must transform.
As one individual confessed, “I’d become a different person. I had grown in those years, emotionally and spiritually. It had become time to say goodbye, in a sense, to the person I had been.”
From her place of recovery, Marsha described a “deep spirituality and faith” as crucial to her healing—beginning with a “visceral longing to be with God and to please God” arising in her life—which prompted her to become what she called, “lay religious,” which meant, in her words, “like being a nun, but on your own, without formalities of life in a convent.” That centered on sacred commitments, “the usual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the church.” She said she did this for her own mental health—“I am existentially unable to do otherwise.” This kind of sacred “persistence defined me throughout life,” she said, with “fulfilling this vow to God [an] overarching theme.”
“I received the Holy Spirit—and felt changed, having a real inner peace and strength” Lucie said. “Shortly afterwards, I was baptized by immersion. Immediately out of the water I began to smile….My smile began within me and didn’t stop at my face.”
Josh described “incredible peace” at their baptism—“I felt the holy spirit come into my body. I knew all the filth in my life had been left in that water.” He added, it’s “like nothing’s been able to get on the inside,” he said—stating that he’s felt “protected, full of the holy spirit” and that he’s experiencing “real stillness where there was a storm before.”
He added, “I knew my life had changed forever”—admitting, “it’s disorienting” when you’ve been used to “a certain way in my life,” but he “hasn’t gone back to the way things were.”
Even with profound changes, one person remarked on the process that even reverberations of change require:
Even after you start trading in your harmful decisions and habits for good ones…You will have a season of cleaning up the wreckage from past ones….Like ripples in water from a rock being thrown into it, even when you stop throwing rocks you must wait for the waters to calm.
Hanging on to the promises. Aaron recollected feeling like “even the whole world—and everything in it—can’t help me.” Then he said, “But you can.” He described growing in his confidence of God’s capacity to help him when he came across a teaching in the Bible that “my grace is sufficient” implying that God’s “grace will always be enough.” Aaron said, “I just took him at his word, you know, I’m just going to trust you—that your grace is enough.”
“What healed me was the word of God,” Aaron later said. “When the whole world couldn’t heal me—PhD’s, insomnia, CBT, hospitals… instead, I was healed by the word of God. His word is true, living and can be trusted. And there was a new Bible verse I hung onto each day for my life.”
To illustrate, this man was experiencing a lot of sleeplessness at one point. But he said, “whether I get any sleep today—however much sleep, it doesn’t matter—his grace will sustain me tonight. His grace will sustain me.” Aaron added, “On top of that, God will use suffering to do me good—so what is there to be scared of?”
He did go on to admit, “sometimes I will be scared still.” Yet Aaron said, “But then it will be easily snuffed out by those three promises—2 Co 12:9, Romans 8:28, Galatians 2:20; when you hold onto those truths, it really snuffs out all the lies. They just can’t stand in the face of God’s word and the truth.”
One person described a certain prayer she would also invoke “whenever I started feeling a panic attack coming on.” Another individual spoke of revelations and illuminations of scripture “engaging in my heart.” As he said, “He who believes in me in his heart will flow living streams of water—I want that.”
This kind of learning about God, he insisted, was not “like learning about math or history….and there’s a major difference between learning about God (like you do in school) and having an encounter with God and Him speaking those things to you.” He continued, “In that speaking, when I receive those things, I begin to experience overcoming—or defeating—these mental anxieties and illnesses that I dealt with.” He went on to relate:
- “I remember where I was when God gave me a revelation and panic attacks stopped.
- “I remember where I was when despair was gone, when God spoke to me “all things work together for those who love God and who are called according to His purposes.”
He also expressed appreciation that “God can speak and open my eyes to things”—underscoring, “when God speaks that to your heart, that’s when his kingdom is being placed within you.”
Another man reflected on “days where could not sleep” which was “a terror to me.” During those sleepless nights, “I had this chunk of cards, of Bible verses that I’d read over and over.” Then he became aware of a Biblical verse that says, “God gives sleep to the one that he loves.” This man felt that “God opened me to…reality” through that verse and reported that “I’ve slept like a baby ever since—not because of something I did. God spoke this verse to my heart—and that’s what I realized happened.”
Slowing down, opening up. In many cases, it was clear that a pattern of immense stress and busyness was contributing to emotional wrestle and depletion. Matt described “working hard to surrender perfectionism, competitive striving—including competitive Christianity—and frenetic “busyness” as markers of a worthwhile life.” He continued:
I learned to be more dismissive of artificial markers and external benchmarks ‘imposed’ by institutions and other people. In place of these I focused on identifying and living congruent with my own values and in peace and joy with my wife and my Maker.
Describing her past, Juanita said, “I didn’t have time to ‘waste’ talking to friends about getting together. I had things to do and places to go. Though I valued my friendships, my to-do list took priority over my to-be list.” Yet she went on to say, “God was instructing me to stop doing and just be” or rather to pursue a doing that “spring out of our deep and exhaustible well of being.”
In practice, instead of being “so driven to achieve,” Juanita spoke of beginning “to practice being more present to myself, Rudy and the girls” as well as to other things around her. She referenced the Danish practice of hygge, which is taking the time to slow down and enjoy the simplicity of friends, family, and the things of our lives in a cozy sort of way: “Instead of being preoccupied with all the ‘important things’ I had to say, I began to value what others thought and said, and I am learning to listen,” she said. And “instead of feeling like I had to perform to win the approval of every human being who ever lived, I began to relax and give myself breathing space to enjoy my encounters, and to focus on things that really matter, like memorable moments.” Juanita added:
I feel no compulsion to do anything or any need to have work or affirmations to validate me; I just am. God is in this, allowing the flow of God’s love along with this profound awareness that I am. Nothing to earn, nothing to accomplish, nothing to justify or to validate. I am because God is.
As reflected here, a connection with God was closely connected to deepening stillness for some people. As one man said:
Like Elijah, I found God in meditation and quietness, in a “still small voice” that had previously been drowned out by our noisy culture, and my own incessant thoughts. Meditation allowed me to just come to God for the first time in my life completely open, with no filters or expectations. Meditation allowed me to quiet down my brain and emotions so that God could really communicate with my soul.
And this process takes time. Spirituality isn’t, like other things in America, an on-demand product, as Marsha emphasized: “I eventually learned that when it comes to spirituality, the more you actively want it,” sometimes “the less likely it is to happen.” She reflected on what this looked like in her life:
My practice was to lie on the floor of my apartment, palms turned up at my sides, saying the prayer “Thy will be done” at the start, and then the silent acceptance. A prayer without any expectation of a response from God. It was this practice that ultimately led to transformation, because it helped me form a relationship with God that led to a spiritual experience.
Nicole described sensing that God was “telling me to be patient” and that healing “needs to be done slowly, not to rush it”—contrary to his desperation to “be free of this mental illness,” and her tendency to “steam-roll ahead.” She later reflected on his need to “stabilize and mature as a Christian.”
Seeking, even when you’re not feeling it. This spiritual growth is not simply a one-time occasion, as Nicole added, “I continue to have ongoing heavenly encounters on a regular basis.”
The process of finding a deeper foundation for some involved “spiritual practice” and “spiritual nourishment,” which for Matt consisted of “spiritual dailies” that included “contemplative scripture study and truly personal prayer, including ‘listening up!’—an hour every morning that grows sweeter by the year”—along with “weeklies” involving group communion and worship retreats. For others, these regular, even “daily spiritual” practices included ongoing “prayer, meditation” and “worship, singing praises, the Psalms, reading the Bible.” Nicole said, “doing this on a daily basis, I started receiving peace.” Another said, “I find joy in going to meetings, socializing, praying.”
This nourishment included reading for some, as Marsha said, “I would stack my bedside table with spiritual books and read them at night for solace.” David said:
It was just before all of this that I had begun to reconnect with the work of Dr. Wayne Dyer, who is a psychologist and author of over forty books on self-help, psychology and spirituality. I credit the beginning of the turnaround in my life to his work. I would listen to him in the car and I began to read anything of his I could get my hands on. Through listening to him I also reconnected with the work of [others], and their work also helped me connect with a part of myself that began to give me some peace and some hope that I could change things around.
These practices are perhaps especially important in the process of healing from depression, in order to trust that sometimes you won’t feel what you want to feel. As Matt said:
Spiritual self-care also came to mean learning [that] I had to accept sometimes feeling disconnected, without supposing it must mean something was wrong in my life. I learned to accept doubt as part of life and have a peaceable relationship with it. I strive for integrity to core values even in the face of doubt and weakness.
This means continuing to seek and practice even when you don’t feel like it—as he continued to speak of staying in a place where he’s available for “communion” and “spiritual community” with others, “even if [he] can’t always feel either.” As Matt added, “I maintain spiritual routines even though a present moment of depression can make them seem somewhat empty.”
A lack of response from God to pleas for help can be hard, especially with deeper emotional struggles. As Marilyn said, “My life was a living hell and I was furious at God for not intervening. After all, I had attended church for the first eighteen years of my life. I shouted at God in my head, “Where are you and why aren’t you helping me?” When things didn’t “work” quite as he hoped, it threw another woman “back into the anguish, terror, doubt.” Still another person admitted:
When I couldn’t experience the divine firsthand, I doubted its existence and grew increasingly cynical, angry, and depressed. It wasn’t until I learned to be present and tune in to the benevolent energies of the universe that I could stop being physically, psychologically, and spiritually undernourished.
“Right now, you feel totally alone, but you are not alone, my child!” Marilyn speaks reassuringly. “God is with you and he’s walking by your side every day. He’s with you in the dark hours of the of the night, when your mind is filled with nightmares. He’s giving strength to you every moment and endurance for the long road ahead. I only wish that I could have told you to cry out the name of Jesus!” She goes on to share her faith and references eloquently her Bible, which gave her comfort and strength to never give up.
Faith in community. One man, Douglas, describes receiving a phone call from the pastoral counselor at the spiritual center where he was attending services, who explained “When one of our congregants was dying of cancer, we decided to bring all of her support—her family, friends, minister, physicians, and social worker—together in one room. Their combined positive thoughts created a powerful healing energy that allowed Carol to live far longer than anyone expected. I think that the same principle might work for you.”
He arrived at a meeting two weeks later with twelve different people there to support him. As Douglas recounted:
After I described the history of my illness and my feelings of hopelessness and despair, the group shifted the focus away from my symptoms and asked me to create a picture of what wellness would look like for me. Although I could not remember a time when I was not anxious or depressed, I described in as much detail as I could the thoughts, feelings and behaviors I might experience if I were healed of my affliction.
He continued, “The group then agreed to hold in consciousness my vision of wellness over the next thirty days, until we met again….I left the group feeling nurtured by the loving attention I had received, but without any sense that a healing had taken place.” Then Douglas reported:
Nonetheless, seventy-two hours after the members began to visualize my recovery, I awoke with a clarity and a peace that I had not experienced in five months. My normal feelings of agitation and hopelessness were absent. The black cloud of depression had begun to lift. Within ninety days, I was completely free of symptoms.
This man reflected, “If there is there a moral to this story, it is that no matter how sophisticated our brain science and technology become, there is no substitute for human love and caring.” Pointing towards scientific studies such as those in Dean Ornish’s book, “Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis of the Healing Power of Intimacy,” which “repeatedly reveal that strong social bonds strengthen the immune system and ward off the harmful effects of stress on physical and mental health,” he added, “It takes a whole village to shepherd a person through a dark night of the soul. And every day I give thanks that a committed group of loving people took a few hours from their busy schedules to give of their love and support.”
As contributors in their own healing journeys, Matt spoke of “church attendance and service with a focus on worship and uplifting others,” while Nicole spoke of being able to share his “testimony” of healing “in a few different churches.”
Healed by God. As Aaron summarized, “Hanging on His promises, I was healed.” Today, he describes himself as “completely healed—totally free of all those things.”
The other man initially said, “I started having these experiences where the realities of the Christian faith were engaged in my heart—then I was thrown immediately back into panic and darkness.” But over time, sometime deeper began to shift, “Since then, my experience has been one of overcoming anxiety, depression, OCD, intrusive thoughts, irrational thoughts, many other mental illnesses…simply by these revelations God has given me.” As he then summarized the final outcome:
That’s my story of how God saved me and how I overcame mental illness—and how Jesus healed me of mental illness. Very real and very raw—not fake at all. I know the terrors that people go through—to let you know there is a healing available that is so raw and so real. I know what it’s like to be panicked for 24/7—the whole gamut of mental illness. And in my encounters with Jesus, the living being, the person Jesus, I was healed. This isn’t about me—this is about Jesus.
“Make no mistake, it was God alone who brought healing,” Crystal said. “I would be incredibly foolish to give credit to a recovery strategy rather than God Himself. In His mercy, he peeled me up off of the rocky bottom of the pit and lifted me out when I had completely given up on finding freedom.”
A woman likewise reflected, “The truth is that God healed me from my depression”—going on to share her conviction that this is how ultimate healing comes:
My relationship with God has been my strength and my victory. God has called me, instructed me, and walked with me to my healing every step of this journey. God is our Creator and Father. Only God is our ultimate healer. Only through the blood of Jesus Christ are we united with God, filled with the Holy Spirit and made whole. Only through Jesus Christ can we attain true lasting peace and joy in this life.
Then she conveyed, “If you struggle with depression, please know that the God who created the universe knows you intimately and wants to heal you and give you a victorious life. Please search within your soul in stillness and find this wonderful Savior who loves you. Please join me [and all] the saints in this glorious adventure.”
Aaron shared this reassurance for others, “God is enough. Jesus will take care of you. He will take care of it…he’s going to use this for your good—so you can help others. Your testimony is in the making. To exalt his name and free others in bondage.”
Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash