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Coping with Depression: Even Bible Heroes Had to Cope with Depression

I was a pastor for 23 years, and during that time I often heard parishioners talking about mental health issues like depression. The view was often narrow and uninformed. I heard such statements as, “If you have enough faith, you will not be depressed,” “You just need to trust God,” and many other choice comments.

I remember while dealing with my own depression, a friend and mentor told me to “get over it and quit sinning.” He apparently believed that depression was a sin.

There are a lot of well-meaning Christians who do not understand mental health issues like depression. They do not understand that depression is an illness. Most of these people have never dealt with depression themselves. If they had, I doubt they would ever say such things.

Sadly, there is a lot of ignorance in the church about mental health issues. I took in what my friend had said to me and felt guilty for feeling the way I did. For quite a while, I believed him. When I finally went to a counselor myself, I learned that depression is an illness and not a sin. I also learned that people don’t often get over depression by themselves. Once I learned this, I was able to dismiss such unwise counsel.

Through my own struggle with bouts of depression, I have done some research in the Bible. I wanted to see what Scripture had to say about depression. Technically, the Bible does not use the term “depression.” However, in one Psalm, David describes it quite clearly:

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” – Psalm 143:7-8, NIV

In this verse, there is a description of depression and clearly the writer wants to avoid it. It has become apparent to me that many heroes in the Bible struggled with what we call “clinical depression.”

My intention in this article is to present these findings to you. If anyone is out there with a mental health issue like depression, feels depressed, and feels guilty about being depressed, I trust the following information will encourage you.

Coping with Depression: Stories from the Bible

Perhaps one of the oldest stories in the Bible, Job, is about a man who had many blessings, but also had many blessings taken from him. The story of Job gives many insights into loss and suffering, and there is much to garner for the reader.

One thing that is clear, Job struggled with his emotions and likely had depression during his ordeal. For example, his own wife at one point asked him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

Then in Job 3:11, Job himself said, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” Later in the same chapter, Job also said, ““I have no peace, no quietness, I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Around Chapter 10, Job stated: “I loathe my very life; therefore, I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” Finally, in Chapter 30, he says: “Terrors overwhelm me … my life ebbs away, days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones, my gnawing pains never rest.” 

Now this is not the end of the story and the Lord did restore to Job what was lost and much more. However, from these few verses it is clear that Job, at least for a season, struggled with depression.

Jeremiah struggled with loneliness, feelings of defeat, insecurity, and likely depression. “Cursed be the day I was born … why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14, 18)

A case can be made that he was depressed. Anyone who reads the Old Testament prophets knows that all of them had special and peculiar callings from God where they often journeyed through moments of great emotional distress.

Another prophet, Elijah, had just won a great victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), and in the next chapter, the prophet is fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and fearing for his life. He is feeling defeated, depressed, and hoping to die. In fact, Elijah appears to be depressed and at least passively suicidal!

Elijah was discouraged, weary, and afraid. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors”(1 Kings 19:4). Of course, the Lord ministered to Elijah and the rest of the story is an amazing recovery for the prophet Elijah.

Then there is David, my favorite Old Testament hero. He had a heart after God, this was said by the Lord Himself. David won many victories in the name of the Lord. He was anointed to be king in his teens, but he spent his youth (15 years) being chased from cave to cave by Saul, who wanted him dead.

David experienced years of trauma. When he finally became King of Israel, he fought many battles and won many victories for the Lord. Nevertheless, at one point he was confronted with his own sin, and went through many difficult family situations for the rest of his life because of it.

There were some terrible moments in David’s life. David gives some clues in the Psalms that he often struggled with depression. For example, “I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. … I groan because of the turmoil of my heart” (Psalm 38:6, 8).

“Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance. … For You are the God of my strength …” (Psalm 42:5; 43:2). Of course, David repented of his sin and God surely helped him all the days of his life.

In the New Testament, one of the best examples of depression can be found in the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 1:3-8, Paul writes about being in complete despair and says, “burdened beyond our strength ….”

The Greek word for despair in those verses literally means to be utterly at loss and to renounce all hope. When a person is depressed, they lose hope. Furthermore, one might think that Paul never felt bad about his past once he was saved and filled with the Spirit.

I believe he often battled in his mind due to his past experiences. Try to imagine Paul’s thought life at times. After all, he was responsible for killing Stephen and many other Christians before his conversion. The enemy loves to project guilt from our past and beat us over the head with it.

There are other verses that give us hints to Paul’s struggle in his own mind. It seems clear that he struggled with poor self-esteem. There must have been times when the enemy tried to use his past against him.

Paul once stated concerning his apostleship that he was as one born abnormally and considered himself the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8). There was a thorn in the flesh that the Lord did not remove, even when Paul prayed for it to be taken (2 Corinthians 12).

Further, when you do a survey of the book of Philippians, Paul is apparently depressed and joyful at the same time. He is in prison and not likely to get out. He believes he will soon die. It appears clear that he even wants to die and believes it will soon be time. Yet he claims that all he has ever known is worthless compared to knowing God (Chapter 3). Paul clearly gives a message of joy being available to him and to his brothers, even in the midst of great personal struggle and sorrow.

Even the Lord Jesus Christ, when He was in the garden facing crucifixion and preparing to take on Himself the sin of the whole world, was in a difficult emotional state. No other man had ever faced such an ordeal.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Messiah would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53). In the garden, the Lord said to His disciples concerning His condition, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch” (Mark 14:34-36).

In the book of Luke, we are told that the Lord’s mental anguish was so great that He sweat drops of blood. It might not be accurate to call this clinical depression, but it definitely was mental anguish of a severity that no other man had ever experienced.

Of course, Jesus was there to do the will of the Father, which for Him took preeminence over His emotional state. He would ask for this cup to pass if possible, nevertheless, “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Even if Christ was not depressed in the garden, there is insight into understanding the humanity of Jesus Christ. God has come in the flesh (John 1). The incarnation is the greatest miracle. Fully God, but also fully man. Some might think that Jesus, being the Son of God, never experienced what we do because He is God. I believe this is incorrect.

In Philippians, Paul tells us that Christ humbled Himself, set His deity aside, if you will, “made himself nothing … being made in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7). In Hebrews, the writer tells us that the great High Priest (Christ) is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15, KJV). This means that Christ knows the frailties and weakness of our flesh, because He has experienced the human condition.

Christ was tested in His flesh, but never sinned. We also know Christ conquered the flesh. When Christ died upon the cross, fully man and fully God, He took all the sin and the sickness (even depression) upon Himself and became cursed for our sakes (Galatians 3:13).

I believe Jesus, being touched with the feeling of our infirmities, knows what it is like to be discouraged and overwhelmed by emotions. How could He not know? There is comfort in this truth.

The old songwriter says it well with the words, “No one understands like Jesus!” He understands when we are depressed. The risen Savior now sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us. This is our faith, which is the victory! (1 John 5:4)

Why Do Christians Suffer?

Clearly, Bible heroes suffered with depression. Jesus understands what we go through. Still, it is difficult to understand why God allows us to go through such troubles. An important question that springs from this fact is, “Why do Christians suffer depression and have problems with mental health issues?”

Many Christians, especially those who suffer with depression, have asked this question. There are not simple answers. However, the Bible does give some wisdom in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians. These verses give some insight to this question and perhaps some comfort to those who suffer with depression.

First, Christians are not exempt from illness and other difficulties (2 Corintians 1:1-7). We get saved by the blood of Jesus. In this life, many trials will still come. There are things we can learn only through our suffering. The Bible says that even Jesus learned obedience by things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8).

Paul also says that others are comforted through our sufferings. God comforts us and we in turn comfort others. When I tell a client that I have had depression, there is often an instant rapport with that client because I know what it is like to be depressed. I have found this fact alone often brings them some comfort.

It is helpful to know that others go through similar problems. For example, C. S. Lewis, the great Christian author/apologist often struggled with depression after his conversion. He especially had a difficult time when his wife died after a lengthy illness. His writings still bring comfort to many people across the world.

Second, Paul goes on to say in 2 Corinthians 1 that we have problems/troubles as Christians so that we will have confidence in God alone (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). Paul says he and his companions were sure they were going to die and no one could help them but the Lord.

In our humanity, we trust our own experience and instincts, while at other times we put our trust in people. When I had depression, I did get help from a counselor and others, but I realized that it was help that only the Lord could have provided for me.

If I had time, I could tell many stories of my recovery, how the Lord undertook for me, and how He became the only one I hoped in. As Paul states in these verses, He has delivered, He continues to deliver, and we have hope He will deliver us in the future. This hope is sure because Jesus is risen from the dead.

Third, Paul goes on to say we have troubles and problems (like depression) so that we can claim the promises of God (2 Corinthians 1:12-24). No matter how many promises God has made, they are “yes” in Christ. In other words, all the promises are for us for whatever we are going through.

He is the one who has anointed us and is able to make us stand firm. This is especially true when we are going through a dark time. The promises of God remain current even when we are depressed. Nothing we face in this world can nullify the promises of God. We need only believe. It is by faith we stand firm.

Coping with Depression: Finding Hope and Getting Help

There is a belief out there that if you are a Christian, you should not be depressed. I hope in this short article you have seen that many people suffer in this way — Bible heroes, famous Christians, and you and me. If you have depression, you are not alone but in good company.

I hope I have encouraged someone who is walking through deep water in their life. If you are depressed, there is hope. Hope in Christ and in His promises, and hope that He will send someone to walk alongside you as you recover. If the Lord would help me, then I know He can help you.

If you’re interested in meeting with me or another Christian counselor at one of our office locations, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Coping with depression can be very difficult on your own, but progress can be made with the right tools and professional guidance. Call today, help is available.

(All Bible quotes from the NIV version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Photos
“Walnut Tree,” courtesy of couleur, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Majestic Lion,” courtesy of Alexas_Fotos, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Flowers,” courtesy of pixel2013, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Soap Bubble,” courtesy of Alexas_Fotos, pixabay.com, CC0 License 


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