Depression, if you’ve ever suffered with it, you know it can be a dark, discouraging place to be. At its worst, it’s been called the “dark night of the soul.” But there is hope for those experiencing discouragement, depression, and hopelessness.
Did people in biblical times experience feelings of depression? Is so, what can we learn from their lives and God’s interaction with them?
Welcome to Mondays @ Soul Survival.
We’re in a series on “Handling Emotions Biblically.” Previously we covered how to handle anger in God honoring ways. You can click the link above to read those posts.
Last week we began discussing depression, in particular, the different definitions of depression: the medical definition, the cultural and the biblical.
Handling Depression Biblically – Part 2
Last week I said that no one is immune to feelings of depression. For some it’s a mild sense of sadness, for others it can feel debilitating. Today we’re going to look at the biblical definition again and how it compares to discouragement. We’ll, also, look at Elijah’s and Jeremiah’s lives and how they responded to these feelings.
Depression or Discouragement?
The feelings involved in both depression and discouragement are much the same. They can be extremely painful and difficult and can tempt us to give in to them. The depressed person responds by shutting down. He or she stops functioning in some or all areas of life.
She may stop going to work, quit cleaning the house, avoid people, or refuse to get out of bed altogether. But when a person is discouraged, as I’m defining it here, he or she keeps going, keeps handling life, in spite of their feelings to the contrary.
So, I would define depression as, “a debilitating mood, feeling or attitude of hopelessness which becomes a person’s reason for not handling the most important issues of life.”
The difference between discouragement and depression is immobility. With depression there is an almost total reliance on feelings and those feelings become the basis for their action or inaction.
Numerous people in the Bible experienced feelings of discouragement and/or depression, including: Elijah, David, Jonah, Jeremiah, and Cain.
Today we’ll look at a two of the prophets, Elijah and Jeremiah, and next week we’ll talk about David, Jonah, and Cain.
In 1 Kings 19, the Prophet Elijah had been faithfully serving God by warning Ahab and Jezebel of God’s coming judgment. He had prophesied a three-year drought and most recently challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown. He had watched God work through him to defeat the 400 pagan prophets. But when Jezebel learned that he had killed them, she threatened to do the same to him. Elijah’s response … he ran and hid.
¹ And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” 3 And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
Elijah was exhausted, probably, physically and spiritually. Like all of us, when we’re exhausted, things can seem much worse than they are. At those times, we tend to get our eyes off God and on to our own strength or the lack of it.
As John MacArthur pointed out in his Daily Bible, he probably expected Ahab and Jezebel to repent after that great display of God’s power and when they didn’t, he became discouraged.
God didn’t rebuke him. Instead, He provided what he needed, food and rest:
5 Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” 8 So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah had, also, decided he was the only one left serving God and that Jezebel was going to kill him. He may have felt that all the risks he had taken were for nothing. While that seems amazing to us, that’s the nature of discouragement and depression. They warp our sense of reality.
So, second, Elijah needed God’s perspective on the situation. After announcing His presence with a mighty wind, an earthquake, and fire, God spoke to him and revealed His plan and instructions (1 KIngs 19.15-17).
But only after meeting his physical needs, did God address his self pity and the false belief that he was the only one left who was serving God:
Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him (v. 19.18).
God designed sabbath rest to help us avoid spiritual burnout and physical exhaustion (Mk. 2.27). When we find ourselves discouraged and without the desire to meet our responsibilities, we need to step back and look for ways to take some sabbath time.
We may need sleep like Elijah did, but we also need refreshment, not by vegging out in front of the TV, but by doing things that genuinely bring us joy and satisfaction. We, also, need to refocus our attention on God: His promises, His provision, His truth. As a dear friend told me recently, when we get discouraged, it’s too easy to live inside our own heads.
Jeremiah is sometimes called “the weeping prophet” and with good reason. Because of sin and idolatry the nation of Israel had been divided in two. The northern kingdom had already been taken into captivity by the Assyrians as God’s judgment on generations of idolatry. The southern kingdom, in spite of what they had witnessed with their sister nation, was headed for the same fate, this time at the hands of the Babylonians.
Jeremiah was the last prophet sent to warn them. He was probably about 17 when God called him to a difficult job. Jeremiah preached for 40 years without any real success, even though he warned the people over and over (Jer. 16.10-13).
God told Jeremiah that because of the horrible times to come, he was not to marry or have children (Jer. 16.2-4). Friends and neighbors turned against him because they didn’t want to hear his warnings. So, besides the grief of knowing the fate that awaited his people, there was the loneliness and the discouragement of what must have looked like an unfruitful life. Jeremiah began to doubt:
Then I said,
“What sorrow is mine, my mother.
Oh, that I had died at birth!
I am hated everywhere I go.
I am neither a lender who threatens to foreclose
nor a borrower who refuses to pay—
yet they all curse me” (Jer. 15.10).
The Lord’s response:
19 This is how the Lord responds:
“If you return to me, I will restore you
so you can continue to serve me.
If you speak good words rather than worthless ones,
you will be my spokesman.
You must influence them;
do not let them influence you!
20 They will fight against you like an attacking army,
but I will make you as secure as a fortified wall of bronze.
They will not conquer you,
for I am with you to protect and rescue you.
I, the Lord, have spoken!
21 Yes, I will certainly keep you safe from these wicked men.
I will rescue you from their cruel hands” (Jer. 15.19-21).
Like Jeremiah and Elijah, you and I may have times when we feel like our lives have been wasted, times when it seems like we’re working hard and not seeing much gain, times when we’re disappointed with people in leadership. We will almost certainly see blessings in the lives of others that we wish we had and experience deep painful rejection. People may, even, threaten to do us harm as Jezebel did to Elijah.
When that happens we may experience feelings of discouragement, depression and hopelessness, but we don’t have to give in to them. Neither do we have to grit our teeth and bear it or pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. Instead, we need to turn to God.
And just as Jeremiah and Elijah learned, God is faithful. He will never leave us or forsake us. He has promised to control the circumstances of our lives in such a way that, while they may be difficult and require complete dependence on Him, He will see us through.
He’ll give us the strength we need to take care of our responsibilities, in spite of our feelings. And when we get up and get started, even small accomplishments can encourage us and give us the desire to keep going.
God will give us the strength we need to take care of our responsibilities, in spite of our feelings. And when we get up and get started, even small accomplishments can encourage us and give us the desire to keep going.
Next week, we’ll continue looking at people in the Bible who experienced feelings of depression and in the coming weeks we’ll talk about: guilt, fear and worry, and trials and suffering.
I hope you’ll be here each week (post goes live at 5 PM MST on Sundays).
Note: If you’d like to read a personal testimony about depression, check out Brandi Raae’s post, “Is There a Positive Side to Experiencing Depression?”
Special Offer for the month of June only: If you sign up for “Christian Living” posts and “Bible in a Year” posts here and here (you must click both links and add your email address), I’ll send you a Kindle version of “Help, I”m Depressed” by Life Line Mini-Books.
Does this sound like you? “Troubling thoughts flood my mind. I lie in bed alone, beseeching God on behalf of my three children. The tears come as I wonder why the Lord seems so far away and why prayers remain unanswered. Life seems so unfair. Why is it so hard? In the “depths of despair” I know I have a choice to make. Am I going to allow these feelings to destroy me?”
Exodus is a real story about God redeeming his people from the bondage of slavery and how their difficult journey home exposed their loyalties—though wounded by Egypt, they had come to worship its gods. Most Christians don’t make golden idols like the Israelites in the wilderness, but we do set up idols on our own desert road—idols like substance abuse, pornography, gluttony, and rage. And even those who don’t know the pain of actual slavery can feel enslaved to the fear and shame that follow sexual abuse or betrayal by a spouse, for we suffer at the hands of our idols as well as those created by others. We need more than self-improvement or comfort—we need redemption.
Redemption is not a step-oriented recovery book; it’s story-oriented and Bible-anchored. It unfolds the back-story of redemption in Exodus to help Christians better understand how Christ redeems us from the slavery of abuse, addiction and assorted trouble and restores us to our created purpose, the worship of God. Readers will discover that the reward of freedom is more than victory over a habitual sin or release from shame; it is satisfaction and rest in God himself.
Where Is God in the Struggle? Looking away from despair towards hope can feel risky. What if God doesn’t come through for you? What if you don’t feel instantly better? Instead of offering simple platitudes or unrealistic “cure-all” formulas, Edward T. Welch addresses the complex nature of depression with compassion and insight, applying the rich treasures of the gospel, and giving fresh hope to those who struggle. Originally published as Depression: A Stubborn Darkness Light for the Path, this new edition is updated with added content.
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