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
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, 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.
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.