Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

A theological depression

By John A. Wheeler May 22, 2014

In 2004, I experienced what I could only understand as a theological depression. I had recently graduated seminary and should have been at peace with where I was in my life. I was not at peace, however, nor was I at any theological harmony. I had not fully processed my newly acquired philosophy on life, nor had I come to accept my newly acquired theology. This reservation to embrace my new theology created inner conflict. As a result, a depression formed in my life that remained for several years.

depressionAt that time of my life, I was exhausted with anything having to do with the Divine. My relationship with God had reached a place it had never been before. I was mad, I was confused, and I wanted nothing to do with Divinity. As previously stated, I was also depressed, so it took me a while to process what I took with me from seminary. In fact, this was such a significant process that I consider it to be one of the most formative things I have done in my life.

Because this theological depression was so potent in my life, I thought it would be interesting to run it through the psychodynamic, existential, Gestalt, person-centered and cognitive theories of psychotherapy. Theological depression is based on an anti-humanistic perspective, so it does not easily fit into a categorical symptom found in most psychotherapeutic disciplines. As such, I have attempted to go outside of the box in processing this ailment. In doing so, I have processed my perspective, philosophy on life and theology even further. It was good stuff!

Psychodynamic therapy

Alfred Adler might interpret my depression through the idea that I am striving for superiority. He may suggest that I identify theological harmony as the goal for a complete life. The goal of understanding the mind of God is a fictional finalism, with the achievement of that goal equaling the ideal self. Adler might further state that my motivation comes from an inferiority complex in which I identify others as being more intelligent than I am. This may be especially significant as it relates to the perception of older siblings. In addition to the insecurity of intelligence, there is an insecurity of no theological harmony. Longing for harmony with the Divine as seen in others is a motivation.

Adler may explain that my birth order could be significant in determining the origin of my depression. Even though I am the last child of three, I would hold to the traits of a middle child due to the age difference between my first and second sibling and the age difference between my second sibling and myself. I identify with rebel-like characteristics found in the middle child, while simultaneously identifying my older sister, the second sibling, as the pacesetter. Even though, as the youngest of the siblings, I expected to have perpetual attention, I did not recognize that as being the case due to a perceived neglect.

Adler may conjecture that the origin of my depression stems from a perceived sense of neglect by my father. This childhood perception leads me to assume a general sense of defeat in all of my undertakings throughout my adult life. However, in realizing the ideal of self-defeat, I constantly invest major significance in not failing. When failure inevitably occurs, which in this case would be me not understanding the mind of God, it is devastating. This devastation then manifests itself in the form of depression.

To understand the mind of God would be an unreasonable goal. That would need to be articulated and I, as the client, need to understand that. A more reasonable goal would be to accept that having a limited understanding of the Divine could be harmonious in itself. Redirecting the inferiority and compensation outward instead of inward would be quality goals as well.

To assist me in resolving my depression, Adler might suggest bibliotherapy, wherein I would read self-help books. By using the push-button technique, Adler could show that I have more power over the emotion of depression than I had realized. Having me imagine things that bring about feelings of wholeness and contentment, and then creating images that bring about feelings of depression, would prove that the emotion of depression is manageable. Adler would also develop a lifestyle analysis for me in an effort to address my depression.

From a group therapy perspective, Adler might suggest that I join a social interest club or community outreach group that focuses its attention outwardly toward society. Based on my background, Adler could suggest that I involve myself in, or even create, a community outreach program at my church. This community outreach exercise could also include my father as a means of familial therapy.

Adler might disagree with other theoretical disciplines, such as cognitive therapy, that would solely embrace the birth order perspective in defining the source of my depression. These disciplines would not recognize the failure of attainment of the superior self or the failing of the unrealistic goals I had created as relevant in identifying the source of my depression.

Existential therapy

Rollo May would say that my depression is caused by not being authentic. He might expound by conveying that I did not have an authentic relationship with God. An authentic relationship involves absolute trust in the person with whom the relationship exists. The depression may be the result of a failed attempt at knowing the unknown due to distrust. May might suggest that my distrust is a result of my fear of having sinned, as well as a fear of being unaccepted by the Divine. Therefore, I would be “lying for myself,” believing that I would find harmony in my relationship with God by “uncovering” and identifying the true nature of God.

The goal of therapy would be to become authentic by identifying the lie and raising consciousness. Being more conscious of the distrust that was causing the lie would further identify the self-objectification. By no longer seeing myself as an automaton, I would come to the realization that I had individual potency. I would begin to process the concept that I am not merely a pawn, as I had previously internalized in my relationship with God, but a sentient individual who is capable of individual action.

Reality therapy would be productive because it would let me know that I am the one who is responsible for my depression. In an individual or group session, I could be asked what I am doing to make myself depressed. From my response, I could be challenged to realize that I could have made worse decisions that might ultimately have destroyed me, beyond my depression.

The existential therapist might disagree with the psychodynamic therapist regarding the source of my depression. The psychodynamic therapist may see the depression as an inexorable result of my childhood experiences. The existentialist, however, will identify the depression as a self-induced issue formed solely from my will of choice.

Person-centered therapy

Carl Rogers would interpret my depression as a result of seeking conditional love from God instead of pursuing a normal actualization tendency. He would propose that my self-concept exists around my understanding of what my relationship with God is. As such, a need for positive regard has developed and is understood by my interpretation of life events. Positive life events equal positive regard from God and, conversely, negative life events correlate to negative regard from God. Being that positive regard can potentially be more powerful than organismic values, the consistently perceived negative events could lead to depression.

The goal or objective of therapy would be to adjust my self-concept. This adjustment would focus on what a healthy relationship might look like. Identifying my original, rigid understanding of relationships and moving toward a more fulfilling understanding of what a relationship can be would help promote a healthy actualizing tendency. For this to happen, the therapist would have to utilize unconditional positive regard. Furthermore, the therapist would have to be genuine and capable of providing empathy and reflective listening.

As is the case with psychodynamic therapy and existential therapy, many of the concepts of person-centered therapy have been assimilated into the mainstream of psychotherapy. Unfortunately, this assimilation is not typically acknowledged, nor is credit given to the person-centered discipline. Nonetheless, the significance of the relationship between the therapist and client is generally recognized as being paramount across the landscape of psychotherapy. In dealing with my depression, the person-centered relationship with the therapist would be extremely effective.

Rogers might disagree with a psychoanalytic, who would perceive my depression being the result of being stuck in one of Freud’s psychosexual stages — perhaps the phallic stage. Regardless, the psychoanalytic will see the depression as a result of some parental neglect or overindulgence, whereas the Rogerian will see it as a result of swaying away from a healthy actualization process.

Experiential therapy

Fritz Perls might interpret my depression as an immaturity, wherein I am stuck in a childish pattern of dependency on God. Rather than identifying my parents as the objects from which I draw sustenance, Perls might suggest that I have placed God in that role instead. In so doing, I placed God in an overly significant role to attend to my dependence. With that being the case, and on the basis of my negative life experiences, Perls would suggest that I was at an impasse, as indicated by my coming out of seminary more confused than when I went in and no longer sensing God the way I had before. Perls might also suggest that I was at a place to operate independently coming out of seminary, but because I had developed a catastrophic expectation of God ostracizing me and condemning me to hell, I chose to refute my seminary education and remain immaturely dependent on God.

The goal of therapy would be to raise my level of consciousness so that I would become more aware of the phobic level of psychopathology I inhabited. By raising my consciousness, I would also address the catastrophic expectation that I was using for not embracing my post-seminary theology.

To address my depression, Perls might use an empty chair exercise in both individual and group settings, wherein I might “let the dogs out.” My Top Dog persona would address the Underdog, demanding to know why I had stopped cherishing life and had allowed myself to remain depressed for so long. My Underdog persona might respond by expressing its fear that changing its theology coming out of seminary would jeopardize the immortal soul. Unfortunately, the Underdog would explain, embracing the seminary theology had caused the depression because the newly embraced theology often was in direct conflict with the theology taught throughout his life prior to attending seminary.

This might lead up to an empty chair exercise with God. I might ask God why I felt led by Him to go to seminary, but afterward felt as if the seminary experience had jeopardized my soul. Because I see God as omnipotent, I would also ask why He allowed me to be depressed in the first place. Perls might then put me in God’s seat and have me respond to each question. From this perspective, I would come to understand what my theology truly was and find peace and acceptance from that understanding.

Cognitive therapy

Albert Ellis might interpret my depression as the result of embracing a faith-based or even mystical perception of life. By not following a natural, humanistic tendency to be logical or empirical, my depression has become the result of inner conflict. Ellis might see my activating event as the acceptance of a new theology that is in conflict with a lifelong, prior theology. He may then interpret my belief from that event — that accepting a new theology will condemn my soul — as irrational. This irrational belief could be based in the concept of feeling that I must have the approval of my perceived authority figures, such as my mother or aunts, whom I have designated as maternal figures, or the authority figure of God, whom Ellis might consider mythical. Ellis might suggest that my theology, or belief learned in childhood, is no longer an adequate guide for a post-seminarian adulthood.

The goal of therapy would be to identify my irrational beliefs and dysfunctional attitude and then to modify those traits to a more harmonious union with myself by acknowledging my catastrophized ideals. These ideals include the concept that I will go to hell because I believed something different from what I was taught as a child. I would have to process that flawed perception. This goal for me might be difficult for Ellis because, like many psychotherapists, he may see my entire faith-based philosophy as the dysfunction in my life. Nonetheless, with my faith-based philosophy remaining, the ultimate goal would be to develop a more rational belief in the context of theology.

If Ellis were to work under the perspective of my reality, which revolves around Divine recognition, he might challenge my hopeless perception. Ellis could ask me to explain where it is written in the Bible that I will go to hell for believing in a more loving, and less condemning, God. Furthermore, because of my previous stance that the Bible was inerrant, Ellis may challenge me to find where it is written in the Bible that one has to believe the entire contents of the Bible literally or go to hell for not possessing such a literal belief. In a group setting, Ellis might have me teach what I have learned about my irrational perceptions. In so doing, I might be able to draw out more understanding concerning why I embraced my previous theology in the first place.

My culture of faith-based individuals would be challenged by Ellis’ cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The humanistic stance that one’s psychopathology can be rectified solely from within, and by oneself, is in direct conflict with the concept of Divine dependency. For CBT (and many other theories of psychotherapy) to be inclusive of such a population, it would need to be modified in a way that suggests a more tolerant perspective. If the varied perspectives of psychotherapy were to express that change can be created within oneself due to the power of the divinely created self, then the spiritual and religious culture would be more accepting of secular therapy.



John A. Wheeler is a former Navy Seal and a doctoral candidate at Mercer University. Contact him at or


1 Comment

  1. Keith


    This is an excellent article. A subject that I’m sure is more prevalent than is often studied. I would love to collaborate with you more about this (i.e. maybe a journal article?). Let’s talk soon. Great work.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.