What Does the Bible Say about Depression?
- Jessica Brodie Contributing Writer
- 2019 27 Jun
It’s like being in a hole you can’t climb out of, or a net that won’t let you go free. Crying doesn’t help, and neither does rage. You’ve prayed with all your might, yet it’s still there.
For those who don’t have it, depression can be hard to understand. A mood disorder with both mental and physical impacts, depression is different from typical feelings of sadness or grief. Some people describe it as feeling like a series of weights have been placed upon their shoulders, dragging them lower and lower until they can barely crawl. Others say it’s a persistent, invading melancholy that won’t go away no matter how good life seems to be.
Still others feel numb, lethargic — like they’re running on a battery that’s slowly, methodically winding down to a bare hum of energy.
And it affects so many of us. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in 15 adults experiences the chemical imbalance that is depression in any given year, with one in six experiencing it at some point in their life.
Christians who are taught to tackle life’s problems through prayer, faith, and other spiritual practices, often wrestle especially hard with how to understand their battle with depression, as it’s not something that typically “just goes away” if you pray hard enough.
What Does the Bible Say Depression Is?
Depression is a relatively newer psychological term, coined in the early 20th century as doctors began to learn more about it, but it’s a disorder that has cropped up in ancient texts, including the Bible. A number of people throughout the Bible experienced what appears to have been depression, from Moses to King David.
Still, the word depression doesn’t appear in Scripture as it is used today with the exception of Proverbs 12:25, which offers just a quick note among other snippets of wisdom: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” The Hebrew word for “weighs down” is “shachah,” which translates to “bow down” or “depress.”
Where Does the Bible Talk about Depression?
The psalms are rife with depression. Most of the psalms are thought to have been written by King David, who penned many of them during extremely low periods in his life.
“So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed,” he writes in Psalm 143:4, and then a few lines later, “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” (143:7).
Other references appear in Psalm 3:3, Psalm 23:1-6, Psalm 30:5, Psalm 30:11, Psalm 34:18, Psalm 40:1-3, Psalm 42:11, Psalm 77:4, and Psalm 102:1-11. But it’s not just the psalms. In 1 Kings, when Elijah made King Ahab understand how much evil the ruler had done to the Lord, Ahab fasted, slept in mourning clothes, and walked around depressed (1 Kings 21:27). In 1 Samuel, King Saul was so depressed he sank into fits of despair and rage (1 Samuel 16-20).
And the entire book of Lamentations is a poetic expression of the Hebrews’ deep, unabashed depression after the fall of Jerusalem, with no hope of redemption or rescue.
Which Bible Characters Struggled with Depression?
In addition to David and Saul, other Bible characters wrestled hard with depression and mood disorders.
Moses had a dark wilderness period of his own several times over the course of his long life. God had tasked him with leading Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, a job Moses did not want, yet God insisted. Again and again he’d do as God told him, only to face opposition, complaint, and rejection from his people, who were dissatisfied and scared. At one point, after the people railed against him in the desert, Moses cried to the Lord, “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me — if I have found favor in your eyes — and do not let me face my own ruin” (Numbers 11:14-15).
The prophet Jeremiah — rejected, mocked by his people, poverty-stricken, and deeply lonely — struggled with depression throughout his days. At one of his lows, he cursed the day he’d been born (Jeremiah 20:14) and, a few breaths later, cried out, “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (20:18 CEB).
Judas Iscariot, so overcome with guilt and pain over the wrong he did in betraying Jesus, hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5).
Here are some others who struggled deeply with depression:
- Job was despondent after he lost everything he held dear in what some might argue was a cruel test. He lost his seven sons and three daughters, his servants and livestock, his wealth, and his physical health, to the point that he was struck with painful, dreadfully itchy sores from head to toe. After his friends arrived to mourn, he became so depressed that he declared he wished he’d never been born (Job 3).
- Elijah, after he achieved huge success for the Lord against the prophets of Baal, sank into depression after he was forced to flee for his life into the desert beyond Beer-sheba. He even begged God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).
- Jonah, the reluctant prophet who ran from God’s call before spending three days in the belly of a fish, became bitterly, angrily depressed after his ordeal over God’s decision to spare Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-11).
How Should Christians View Depression?
It’s clear, then, that depression isn’t just a problem today, but one people struggled with hundreds of years before Christ. They might have called it anything from “melancholy” to “spirit possession,” but it caused great suffering, despair, and in some cases, suicide.
It was a real, pressing problem, one that started wars and leveled leaders — and one that had no easy solution. Time after time, the Bible presents stories of depressed people crying out to God, begging for help or for Him to just take the pain away. It’s not identified as a sin but an earthly hardship, perhaps much like oppression or even poverty, which Jesus himself said we will always have with us (Matthew 26:11).
What Does the Bible Say about Treating Depression?
But, as with all the problems people face, there is one thing we are supposed to do with them: bring them to God.
Jesus acknowledged the weight of our troubles, whether physical or emotional, promising,“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Hope does lie in God, as the psalmist writes (42:11), but it’s important to understand that just because we put our hope and faith in God doesn’t mean our problem will go away. Like cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, sometimes we’ll have it the rest of our earthly life.
The apostle Paul struggled with what he called “a thorn” in the flesh, a physical ailment that caused him much torment (2 Corinthians 12:7). He begged for God to take it away, but God told him no, that God’s power was able to shine more brightly in Paul’s weakness (12:9-10). As he wrote about the same time in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul discovered what was, for him, the secret to contentment: focusing on the Lord and drawing our strength from Him (Philippians 4:10-13).
And to his young friend and mentee Timothy, whom Paul knew struggled with frequent illnesses, stomach issues, and other hardships, Paul offered some encouraging words: Flee from evil, fight the good fight, take hold of eternal life (1 Timothy 6:11-12).
As for whether or not to take medication for depression, the Bible does not address that specifically. But Jesus, in His life and ministry, made it clear that healing — and seeking healing — is a good thing. He also acknowledged that the sick need a doctor (Matthew 9:12). And Paul, when he mentioned Timothy’s chronic stomach ailments, didn’t indicate he should suffer in his illness but rather take measures to alleviate it (1 Timothy 5:23).
Sometimes Depression Lingers
Depression, like other diseases or disorders, might be something people can’t always cure. Still, Christians can take comfort in knowing they’re part of a suffering fellowship, not only today but also among many other strong and faithful leaders throughout the Bible. And as with all hardships, setting sights on God and drawing strength from Him in spite of the difficulty can be a big help.
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism, and a member of the Wholly Loved Ministries team. Learn more at http://jessicabrodie.com.
Article photo credit: ©GettyImages/Marjan_Apostolovic