Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression Chapter 19

Values Therapy and Religious Despair

Appendix for Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression. Additional technical issues of self-comparison analysis.A person with a traditional Western belief in God sometimes loses that belief because the world of events does not square with the traditional belief in God the Father who rewards good and punishes evil. This is the story of Job - why is the good man Job so afflicted? The other side of the coin is found in Psalm 73, where the Psalmist inveighs that the wicked flourish. The Nazi Holocaust affected many survivors, Jewish and non- Jewish, in this fashion. Such tragedies can shake a traditional Western religious belief to the extent that it cannot be repaired with simple arguments that evil and good get their just rewards in the long run or in heaven.(1) Values Therapy may de the only cure in such sitaution.

A related cause of depression that requires Values Therapy is "loss of meaning," as discussed in the previous chapter. Often this occurs when a person implicitly has a view of the world derived from the Greco-Christian concept of a world ordered by God or nature to "serve" humankind. If for scientific or theological reasons a person comes to doubt this purposive view of the world, life may "lose its meaning" as occurred to Tolstoy. Today this is commonly called "existential despair."

A person's psychological structure and personal history interact with the event that leads to loss of meaning, both in explaining its occurrence and in influencing the severity of the depression that results. But Values Therapy focuses on the beliefs themselves rather than on the precipitating event.

There are two approaches to the good-and-evil crisis - spiritual and secular. The secular approach also is often appropriate for a loss-of-meaning crisis.

Buber's Cure for Religious Despair

Misfortune to good people, and the triumph of evil, causes bitterness and then religious despair to some religious people. This is the theme of Job and of Psalm 73, and it is a subject with which Western religious thinkers have struggled.2 The traditional believer experiences a loss of faith in the concept of God the Father who wisely rules the world rewarding good and punishing evil. A requirement of an appropriate reply to this enigma is that it remove this suffering.

Buber's answer to the contrast and conflict "between the horrible enigma of the happiness of the wicked and [the] suffering" of the author of Psalm 73 is that the sufferer must become "pure in heart."

vThe man who is pure in heart, I said, experiences that God is good to him. He does not experience it as a consequence of the purification of his heart, but because only as one who is pure in heart is he able to come to the sanctuaries. This does not mean the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, but the sphere of God's holiness, the holy mysteries of God. Only to him who draws near to these is the true meaning of the conflict revealed.(3)

But what does Buber mean by "purification?" Laymen - and even other theologians, I suppose - have difficulty in understanding theological writings because they are couched in special theological language and concepts. Hence we often conclude - perhaps correctly - that theological writing is gibberish. But elucidation of theological writings can sometimes reveal great truths, though perhaps stated only obliquely. I believe this to be the case with Buber's interpretation of Psalm 73.

"Purification" clearly does not mean "moral purification" to Buber. He tells us that the Psalmist found that "to wash his hands in innocence" did not purify his heart.

As I understand Buber, to purify one's heart is to turn inward and to seek inner peace. This inner peace Buber identifies with, and labels as, "God," though it could just as well be called "Feeling X" or "Experience X." And the quest for inner peace will almost inevitably produce inner peace. "To seek God is to have found him" in the words of one sage. Or in Buber's words, "The man who struggles for God is near Him even when he imagines that he is driven far from God."(4)

How may one achieve the purification of inner peace? For Buber, prayer certainly was an important element, "prayer" here meaning the reading or saying or thinking expressions of such sentiments as awe at life and the universe, and gratitude for them, though of course there are also many other sorts of prayer. For some other people, however, a similar inner peace and purification can be achieved by systematic breathing and relaxation, concentration exercises, immersion in nature, meditation, or other procedures. A combination of these methods - all of which are related psychologically and physiologically - can be particularly efficacious.

But why "purification?" It is common to identify experiences of awe and wonder and inner peace with the term "God," and hence Feeling X has a connection to God. But how does "purification" fit in?

The answer lies in the commonly-observed fact that, in addition to inner peace, along with Feeling X comes joy and a sense of awe at life and the universe. Even more, Feeling X tends to produce a cosmic sense of kinship with all people and all nature, which dissolves anger, envy, and greed. For this the term "purification of the heart" certainly fits.

The sequence, then, is not from purity to Experience X, but rather from the search for Experience X, to achieving Experience X, to purity of the heart. This process can remove the depression following loss of faith that an active God intervenes in the world to punish evil and reward virtue.

Only some fabled yogis can achieve Feeling X permanently. And few of us would want to.(5) But Buber stresses that, for the Psalmist, God says, "I am continually with thee." (Christians would say that grace is always being offered.) This means that the possibility of Feeling X is always there, to be achieved whenever a person diligently seeks after it, whenever a person directs and molds the mind in these ways that conduce to inner peace.

One may choose to think of the occurrence of Feeling X as purely natural, a product of one's mind (self-control and imagination) and of body (effects of breathing and posture on the nervous system). Or one may believe that a transcendent non- natural force, commonly called God, is responsible. But if one chooses the latter course, the God concept is not a God involved with the course of human affairs or reward and punishment, but rather a God of the creation of inner peace and purification of the heart, concerning which "there is nothing left of Heaven."6

Not all people can or are willing to follow Buber's way. It requires that a person not automatically reject such a spiritual way. It also requires that the person have a modicum of natural capacity for spiritual experience, just as enjoying music requires some natural capacity (though perhaps all persons are so endowed). For those who cannot follow Buber's way there is at least one other way, completely secular. This way also is appropriate for a loss-of-meaning crisis.

A Secular Response to Religious Despair

The secular way is to inquire into what a person considers important - which might be non-violence, happiness for one's children, a beautiful environment, or one's nation's success. Upon inquiry, most people will agree that they have a "taste" for their own values and believe these values to be important without having to justify them from a religious or world view.

Values Therapy then asks the person simply to treat as important the values he says he believes are important - to recognize that he is asserting and affirming that there is meaning in these values and their associated situations. Bertrand Russell commented that no philosopher is in doubt about objective reality when holding a crying baby in the middle of the night. Similarly, secular Values Therapy asks a person to acknowledge that which is implicit in his values and behavior, to wit, that the person does find meaning in various aspects of life even while the person is ostensibly in doubt about meaning in general. This contradiction sometimes leads a person to abandon the general question about whether life has meaning, on the grounds that the question is a meaningless linguistic in the person's mind, and itself the source of the unnecessary and avoidable depression. (For others, of course, statements about the meaning of life can be unconfused and meaningful.)


Sometimes a person with a traditional Western belief in God loses that belief because events in the world do not square with the traditional belief in God the Father who rewards good and punishes evil. A related cause of depression is "loss of meaning." about one's life. There are two approaches to such crises - spiritual and secular. The chapter discusses both these approaches that are so intertwined with a person's most fundamental beliefs.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 11). Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression Chapter 19, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: June 18, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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