Depression in the Bible

The Bible must have something to say about depression – and it does, but the references aren’t that easy to find unless you know where to look. You won’t find the word ‘depression’ in a concordance. But for anything to do with emotions and feelings, the psalms are the best place to go. And we find that they’re not all happy and upbeat. Some of them wrestle with the hard questions of faith: Why do the wicked always seem to be better off than the righteous? Why does God seem to not keep His promises? And there are some psalms of lament. I’d like to have a closer look at two of them, and we’ll see what they can teach us about coping with depression.

The first is Psalms 42 & 43 (which are really one psalm, split into two parts). This was written by a temple singer, taken captive or exiled far away from his home and from the job that he evidently loves. And he feels far away from God too (“My soul thirsts for God” – verse 2). He is so depressed that he can’t even eat (“my tears have been my food” – verse 3) and he describes himself as drowning in misery and sorrow (verse 7). Just to rub it all in, his companions are rubbishing his faith:
“My foes taunt me,
saying all day long,
‘Where is your God?’” (verse 10)
But he refuses to be a helpless victim of his emotions. Instead of wallowing in his depression, he gives himself a good talking-to three times over – a bit of DIY cognitive behaviour therapy!
“Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise Him,
my Saviour and my God.” (verses 5, 11, 5)
What he’s doing is fighting against his negative thoughts with God’s truth: God is there (even though my prayers haven’t been answered yet), God does love me (even though I feel terrible at the moment), God will bring me through this situation and I will know joy once again.

But maybe you’re in an even darker place than that, in which case Psalm 88 is the psalm for you. The author was called Heman the Ezrahite, and that’s all we know about him. But  he’s
“in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.” (verse 6)
(What is worse, he evidently feels that God is responsible for him being there –
You have put me in the lowest pit”!)
This is what he writes:
“I am overwhelmed with troubles… (verse 3)
I am set apart with the dead…
cut off from Your care… (verse 5)
You have made me repulsive to my friends… (verse 8)
My eyes are dim with grief… (verse 9)
Why, Lord, do You hide Your face from me… (verse 14)
Darkness is my closest friend.” (verse 18)
Does any of that sound familiar?
In fact this psalm is quite unusual. Other psalms that begin with the author in deep trouble or despair end on a more hopeful note, brimming with faith. But this one is unrelieved gloom from beginning to end; there’s no hope, no glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, no expectation of relief, only pain and bewilderment – and he never tells us why. And some of us will know what it’s like to be in that situation: unable to find a way out, overwhelmed by darkness, God doesn’t seem to be interested. Is there any point in carrying on?
And yet… Heman does carry on. He keeps on praying to “the God who saves me” (verse 1), every day (verse 9), even when he really seems to believe he has no hope of getting a response. God is his Rock – and he clings to Him, because he has nothing else to cling to.

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