Depression in the Bible
In the Bible, the greatest believers found themselves in dire places where we might confidently describe them as being depressed. In despair, Elijah cried out, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4). Likewise, Jeremiah said in anguish, “Cursed be the day which I was born! Let the day not be blessed in which my mother bore me!” (Jer 20:14). In his own personal turmoil Jonah exclaimed, “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:3). King David often expressed deep sorrow in his songs. Here are a couple of lines expressing his inner struggle: “My tears have been my food day and night . . . O my God, my soul is cast down within me” (Ps 42:3a, 6a). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul expressed similar sentiments when he sorrowfully testified that “when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears” (2 Cor 7:5).
Depression in Christian History
Likewise more contemporary Christians have testified about their inability to avoid periods of great depression in their own lives. Charles Spurgeon, called the Prince of Preachers in the 19th century, once gave personal testimony during a sermon that was gut-wrenching. He began by saying: “I have to speak today to myself, and while I shall be endeavoring to encourage those who are distressed and downhearted, I shall be preaching to myself, for I need something to cheer my heart. . . . I feel as if I had rather die than live; all that God has done for me seems to be forgot ten, and my spirit flags and my courage breaks down . . . I need your prayers.”1
Approaching Depression Biblically
What are some practical implications that might be drawn from these accounts? First, depression does not necessarily imply sin; rather, it does imply different personalities. While a Christian’s moral character changes under the influence of Jesus, their temperament may remain fairly constant. We hold this treasure but in “earthly vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). There are factors such as body chemistry, heredity, and emotional patterns that are part of our “earthly vessels” to be taken into account.
Yet, having said this, we need to make a commitment to ourselves that in times of depression we will look to God. Depression tends to drive us further away from God or closer to His presence. Depression can drive us to look for relief through old addictions, unholy relationships, or through total withdrawal from those who love us. Rather, we need to allow depression to drive us into the arms of God. There are actually positive results to depression if we see those periods as constructive to our spiritual growth. Depression can make us far more sympathetic to others struggles. It can make us into more compassionate persons. Depression also gives us new perspectives on life and often opens doors of creativity in our lives that were closed. Much of the world’s greatest art has been born from periods of depression- think Beethoven, Mozart, and Van Gogh. Depression also puts us in a mood to listen to God. C. S. Lewis famously said, “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Advice for Those Suffering from Depression
Is there a way to alleviate depression? Various writers give suggestions that they personally find helpful. For instance, Martin Luther wrote a great deal about depression and experienced constant struggles throughout his life. He gave five suggestions that helped him in his times of despair:
1. Avoid being alone.
2. Seek help from others.
4. Praise and give thanks.
5. Lean heavily on scripture.
On a personal note, I have found Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ advice to be extremely helpful in my moments of difficulty. Lloyd-Jones’ said, “Most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of speaking to yourself. . . . You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You have to say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ (Psalm 42:5)– what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, unbraid yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘hope thou in God’ (Psalm 42:11)– instead of muttering in this depressed unhappy way. And then go on to remind yourself of God.”2
Dr. Nathan Leasure is the Senior Pastor at the First Church of God in Greeneville, TN. He has degrees from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Anderson University, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is married to Jenny and they have four children- Ava, Olivia, Maria, and Samuel.
1 – Spurgeon, from sermon entitled “Fear Not” preached October 4, 1857.
2- Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 20-21.