Depression is a somewhat mysterious thing. Definitions are often ambiguous. Although the word depression is entirely absent from the Scriptures, Bible teachers will often equate it with a broken spirit (Proverbs 18:14) or being laid low in the dust (Psalm 119:25). Some understand that it is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, and thus victims are “forced to be sad”. Traditional or folk psychology will render it a mood disorder or an inability to enjoy. It is labeled clinical depression when a person goes over two weeks without being able to enjoy any activities at all. Wikipedia states:
A number of psychiatric syndromes feature depressed mood as a main symptom. Mood disorders are a group of disorders considered to be primary disturbances of mood. Within them, major depressive disorder (MDD), commonly called major depression, or clinical depression, is a condition where a person has at least two weeks of depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities. Dysthymia is a state of chronic depressed mood, the symptoms of which do not meet the severity of a major depressive episode. People suffering bipolar disorder may also experience major depressive episodes.
On bipolar disorder it states:
Signs and symptoms of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder include persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, isolation, or hopelessness; disturbances in sleep and appetite; fatigue and loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities; problems concentrating; loneliness, self-loathing, apathy or indifference; depersonalization; loss of interest in sexual activity; shyness or social anxiety; irritability, chronic pain (with or without a known cause); lack of motivation; and morbid suicidal ideation.
The curious thing about reading a definition like that is how closely it resembles certain passages in the scriptures:
For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes–it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off. Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes. (Psa 38:2-14)
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Psa 32:2-4)
For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh. I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places; I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop. All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (Psa 102:3-11)
Here the Psalmist feels guilt, heaviness, “plagued”, abandoned, dried up, shame, sunk, sad, and nearly hopeless. His days waste away. He can’t sleep. He feels incredibly lonely. But notice how he remarks, “because of your indignation“. He later says, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.” (Psa 38:18) Here, at least, sin is a very real element in the depression. You will also notice how God is behind a lot of these feelings: “your arrows have sunk into me”. Whatever the case may be with respect to depression, it is clearly beyond dispute that the Word of God has very significant things to say to these common feelings we humans go through during times of depression. And because they address the reality of sin so poignantly, the last thing one should do when they’re going through depression is to ignore them. Sin is no game.
But before we call all depression sin let’s clarify exactly what we’re talking about. The depression we are after and that we want to nail to the cross is self-pity depression. If there be situations such as chemical imbalances in the brain that contribute to our “feeling down” then we can say such “depression” is forced upon us. This has proved a great point of contention for Christians and non-Christians alike. If such were the case it would seem our complaint to God is just, and we are simply suffering from another disease as though it were cancer. However, one difficulty with this is the fact that cancer, HIV, and other diseased patients can, and do, rejoice and have joy, life, and peace in God. But being depressed is, by definition, some kind of inability to have joy, peace, and life. This presents a rather huge problem for any Christian who believes that there is life, peace, and joy in Christ. Nonetheless, whether this is all true or not is not our concern in our present study.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand when it comes to self-pity depression is that it is not forced upon us. That is just stating the obvious. We lead ourselves into it as a reaction to bad circumstances in our lives which can be our own fault, the fault of friends and family, or even the fault of God. The life of Job is a outstanding example of this. Anti-depression drugs will not solve anything in this regard. More likely than not when we face this kind of depression, we tend to find its cause in what others have, or have not, done to us. Some desire is unfulfilled. We want what we cannot get. We instinctively believe that fault lies outside of us. From a biblical standpoint this kind of depression is sin. We are not talking about godly sorrow, sadness, or pain here. Neither are we talking about the anguish or affliction of the heart. Those are such things that are indeed caused from without when circumstances beyond your control weigh heavily on you. Paul, Jeremiah, and Jesus were well acquainted with such emotions:
Paul – For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Cor 2:4)
Jeremiah – Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. (Lam 1:12)
Jesus – And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luk 22:44)
Self-pity, on the other hand, is what the bible would categorize as “worldly sorrow”. It is not something to be taken lightly either for this kind of sorrow leads to death.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:10)
This means there is an element of pride mixed in the emotion. Hence when you feel self-pity depression you can sense a “dirtiness” to it. There is an evident lack of righteousness. And in case you haven’t noticed, people are not very sympathetic to your depression. Often they will rightly judge that you simply need to stop “throwing a pity-party” and just get over yourself. The great thing about understanding the sinfulness of this depression is how it ultimately liberates us from it altogether. It stands in direct contradiction to the Way of Christ. Truth is what Jesus said would set us free. The depression literally sucks the life out you. In fact, in the U.S “over 60 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from major depression…If one includes alcoholics who are depressed, this figure rises to over 75 percent.” (AFSP) Christ, on the other hand, puts life into us. (John 10:10) 1 John 1:9 and James 5:16 say that life comes through confession and repentance. The sweet sorrow of brokenness and contrition lead to life. When we are broken and contrite we are actually mourning for the sake of God’s righteousness because we (or others) profaned it. It was him who did not deserve what we did to him. This is true humility and why God delights to “lift up the humble” but “cast the wicked to the ground” (Psalm 147:6). (And I can’t think of anything more depressing than to be cast to the ground by God) The humble one is he who cares more about how God is treated than how he himself is treated. The fool thinks he is righteous in his ways and deserves good–worldly sorrow/depression. The wise man knows he is unrighteous in all his ways and deserves eternal damnation–godly sorrow.
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecc 7:3-4)
Loathing your self or loathing your life?
Notice how scripture makes a distinction between loathing the self and loathing your life.
Job – I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. (Job 7:16)
- Interpretation: I hate my life, I don’t want to live any longer. Leave me alone, my life is useless!
Elijah – And he begged that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4)
- Interpretation: I’ve had enough of this crap, God. I suck! Please let me die!
Jonah – When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” (Jon 4:8-9)
- Interpretation: This is bull trash. I don’t deserve this!
God – Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. (Eze 36:31)
- Interpretation: I want you see that your heart is sin. Then you will know godly sorrow.
Job – …therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)
- Interpretation: I have seen my heart and it is evil! I’m so sorry God, please have mercy!
Notice how repentance follows Job’s loathing of his self but not when he was loathing his life. The former was an example of godly sorrow, while the latter was of worldly sorrow. The People’s New Testament Commentary notes on the suicide of Judas (Matt. 27:5), “The sorrow of Judas was remorse. In the case of many besides Judas, it has resulted in despair, which has led to destruction of life, or to eternal death.” To hate your life is to despair. The loathing of your life is a sinfulness that, if left unchecked long enough, can lead to the desire to commit suicide as it did for Judas.
Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (Jas 1:15)
Even if we don’t get to the point of hating our life and wanting to hang ourselves, all of us will at some time feel like life sucks. It can be as simple as the remorse of child getting caught for doing something he shouldn’t have, or a disciple of Jesus having to let go of materialistic things as was the case of the rich young man:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mat 19:21-22)
Whatever the case may be, all forms of worldly grief must be repented of as quickly as possible. Arthur Pink gives us some powerful commentary on 2 Cor 7:10,
The sorrow of the world is the grief and mortification of disappointed worldlings, of those who know not God but whose trust is in themselves or in some arm of flesh. They have relied for prosperity from the world, and the world has sadly failed them. They have sought satisfaction from its broken cisterns, only to have their hopes dashed. The bitter springs from which their ambitions have proceeded are pride and carnal self-respect, and their motives and occasions for indulging the same are as manifold as the deceitful lusts of the flesh. But frustrated plans and defeated expectations sour and enrage, and nature’s greenness is turned into the drought of unrepentant grief. So far from leading the soul to God, it fills with wrath and enmity against Him. Its miserable subjects seek consolation from the world, endeavouring to drive away serious reflections by drowning themselves in its pleasures.
The sorrow of the world does not arise from just views of sin, nor does it proceed from any concern that God has been offended. It does not lead the soul to God in true penitence, nor turn to Him for consolation. The sorrow of the unregenerate is occasioned by temporal losses, which fill them with chagrin and dismay; by crimes which incur public disgrace for their perpetrators and their families; from the squandering of a goodly heritage which terminates in poverty and despair; from wandering from the path of chastity, and in consequence losing their good name among men: from intemperance and reckless living, which ends in ruined health and vain regrets for having played the fool. In all such cases there is no contrition of heart for having violated a righteous Law, offended a kind Creator, or been an occasion of stumbling to their fellows. It is only that they are incensed at the harvest which follows their evil sowing and fretful because lack of money or health prevents them from continuing such excesses. (Arthur W Pink, Studies in the Scriptures)
The Exhortation to Rejoice
To exhortation to be joyful is the exhortation to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We’re not talking about the ‘happy-clappy’ smiles of toothpaste commercials but a true joy that comes by choosing to rejoice.
For the kingdom of God is…of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)
It is a foreign idea to our carnal minds yet spiritually liberating on so many levels. John Piper has a great work on the subject known as The Dangerous Duty of Delight. While it’s not fitting to be happy in the midst of trials, it is completely fitting to rejoice in the midst of trials. If it weren’t so, the Apostles are conflicted:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:6-7)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas 1:2-4)
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom 5:2-5)
Notice how Paul says “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” in this passage. When we go through loss, pain, suffering, affliction, fiery trials, etc., we rejoice not for our own lives but in hope of the glory of God. God cares about himself very much and Paul is saying that this very fact is cause for rejoicing. But why is that? It’s much easier and makes more sense to rejoice when God keeps us out of suffering! Or at least relieves it quickly! But many times he does not. And when our suffering is prolonged, by and by our sinful nature begins to eat away at us from the inside and we slowly turn into self-justifying, God-accusing, bitter old people who hate life and everything about it. If suffering is long, you are not alone.
David – For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. (Psa 31:10)
Job – For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. (Job 3:24)
Hezekiah – What shall I say? For he has spoken to me, and he himself has done it. I walk slowly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. (Isa 38:15)
And if there was any solution to this selfish depression it would be this: repent and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. We must be fully liberated from our self by his glory before we can overcome deadness of self-pity.
Lord, forgive me of worldly, selfish sorrow!
Restore in me a right vision fixed on you
for I have wandered from you into the darkness of myself,
Behold I am of small account, what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.