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How the Bible portrays depression

22 August 2013 09:53:00

Extract from Insight into Depression, Chris Ledger & Wendy Bray, CWR

How the Bible portrays depression

 

Elijah (1 Kings 19:1–18)

God has finally thundered His judgment against the evil King

Ahab through His prophet Elijah, and He tells Elijah to flee

away from the king’s reach. Although God promises to provide

sustenance and Elijah has given his all to God, he still considers

that his mission has failed and he is left feeling rejected, fearful

and isolated – all typical symptoms of depression. So Elijah prays

that he might die: ‘I have had enough Lord … Take my life; I am

no better than my ancestors’ (v.4). He then does what those who

suffer from depression so often do: he withdraws, and sleeps. He

does the desert version of switching off the phone, locking the

front door, and pulling the duvet over his head. He doesn’t have

the inner resources to withstand the onslaught of hopelessness

and despair, and becomes deeply depressed. Events have become

too much for Elijah, and he breaks down.

But later, in a powerful conversation with God, he is recommissioned.

God doesn’t even mention Elijah’s depression,

but points forward to his new responsibility. It’s not that God

doesn’t care, but that Elijah’s depression is of no consequence

to God’s ends. He still believes in Elijah. It is clear that He still

considers Elijah to be ‘his man’. Elijah’s story offers powerful

encouragement to us when we believe God can no longer use us.

 

Moses (Numbers 11:14–35)

In the initial phase of his depression, Moses blames God for his

struggle with a complaining people. His questions reveal his sense

of despair. This heartfelt outpouring of complaint is a necessary

part of his ‘therapy’ before God. Even Moses, ‘more humble than

anyone else on the face of the earth’ (Num. 12:3), expresses his

intense disappointment.

But notice that he doesn’t complain about or against God – he

just opens his heart in honesty. It is never wrong to tell God honestly

how we feel. Moses’ thinking is distorted by his emotional state.

The ‘burden’ is too heavy, he says, and in verse 15 his depression,

like Elijah’s, culminates in thoughts of death. God’s response gives

us the perfect blueprint for helping those who are depressed.

First, God shows understanding. He does not censure Moses for

his depression, but merely listens. Secondly, God arranges practical

help by assigning a whole team of elders to help Moses with the

people, while still leaving him in control. Thirdly, God offers

encouragement for Moses’ self-esteem (v.17) in re-commissioning

him. God does not remove the responsibility of leadership from

Moses – but confirms him in it. Moses emerges a restored and newly

confident leader, loved and valued by a God who cares for him.

 

Job (encapsulated by Job 30:26–31)

Job’s story of depression is perhaps the hardest for us to take.

Here is a faithful man, brought to his knees by unjust disaster. It

seems that God has allowed almost complete devastation of Job’s

blameless life (Job 1:1,12). He has lost everything.

But God’s agenda cannot be taken at ‘face-value’. He knows

His ‘servant Job’ (1:8), and with Job’s story God gives us a glimpse

of how He sees our lives and the difficulties they contain. God

sees us through a very different lens from our own. Job is allowed

to ask ‘Why?’ over and over again as he pours out his heart in an

effort to affirm his own humanity, before God finally answers. At

the end of Job’s period of great desolation and depression, God’s

reply sets Job’s experience in a much broader context – that of his

relationship with the Creator of the universe. God does not give

simple, easy answers to Job in the midst of his anguish. Instead,

He gives something much more valuable. Michael Mayne writes:

‘Job must learn that there are absolute limits to the extent of

human understanding … that God does not give answers.

Instead, he gives himself.’3

 

Martha and Mary (John 11:1–43)

The fact that God ‘gives Himself’ is poignantly evident in the

story of Martha and Mary, and the raising from the dead of

their brother Lazarus. At first, with Jesus absent as His friend is

first taken ill and then dies, Martha and Mary must have asked

many questions: ‘Where is He? Why doesn’t He do something?’

– legitimate questions from a place of despair. When He does

arrive, Jesus raises Lazarus to life, demonstrating His power over

death and decay: but not before He has stood alongside Mary

and Martha in their confusion, depression and grief, and wept

with them (v.35). Later, of course, He would demonstrate the

ultimate response to death and darkness when He did indeed

‘give Himself’, to give new life not just to Lazarus, Martha and

Mary, but to all of us.

 

The psalmists

The psalmists, King David included, offer us perhaps the most

striking acceptance of the experience of depression. They speak

of ‘whys’ and ‘wheres’; of darkness and depth; pits and blindness

– all metaphors for depression. Psalms 13, 22, 42 and 88, amongst

others, frame the experience for us and offer us words we cannot

find for ourselves, to express our pain to God. These psalms are raw

and honest, and they never pull punches. Walter Brueggemann

writes: ‘These psalms make the important connection; everything

must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech

must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of

life.’4 The psalmists address their heart to God through the psalms

in words which are as contemporary, relevant, fresh and honest

as the day they were written.

These scriptures, together with the stories of Abraham,

Jeremiah, Jonah, Jacob and numerous others, illustrate God’s

response to depression.

What can we conclude? That darkness, depression and despair

are common – and even legitimate – spiritual experiences. The

prophet Isaiah certainly thought so:

 

Who among you fears the Lord

and obeys the word of his servant?

Let him who walks in the dark,

who has no light,

trust in the name of the Lord

and rely on his God.

(Isa. 50:10)

 

If God’s response to the depression of the faithful, as illustrated in

the Bible, is primarily practical and motivating, so should ours be.

 

3. Michael Mayne, Love, Pray, Remember (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), p,49.

4. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg, 1984), p.52.

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