As Christian Hedonists, we’re not unfamiliar with the pain of depression. And we get a lot of questions in the inbox about how to work through those unavoidable times in life when depression hits. There’s often a physical and medical side to depression, but also a spiritual side to these seasons, too. In that vein, a question comes in an email from one female listener.
“Pastor John, what Scripture passages do you return to when you are suffering from depression? I am suffering from depression pretty bad at the moment, and I need some help from Scripture. Can you help me?”
This is the central question for her to ask — namely, “Where shall I turn in Scripture, in God’s word?” This is what God said we should listen to: his word.
“The Bible does not present our walk with God as uninterrupted brightness.”
Now, I don’t want to be naïve here. To be sure, there are many dimensions to depression — from genetic, to dietary, to exercise, to trauma, to demonic harassment, to relational stress, to financial burdens, to weather conditions, to sinful entanglements, to sleeplessness, and on and on. I don’t want to give the impression that I am oversimplifying the complexities of what might trigger a season of darkness, or depression.
Nevertheless, I’ll say it again: under and over and through all these issues that may need to be addressed — and I would encourage her to address all of them that are relevant — the key question is “What has God said to me?” That is, “What does the Scripture say?”
The reason this is so key is that the Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Depression regularly involves a weakening of our faith and our hope, and God is clear that reawakening of faith, reawakening of hope, will not come if we’re not hearing the word of God.
The Scriptures do not present themselves as an automatic guarantee of emotional turnaround, because the Scriptures themselves describe people who hear the word of God and do not emotionally turn around — like the parable of the soils, or 1 Corinthians 15:2 (“You believed in vain”), and so on.
The Scriptures aren’t naïve, as if they are the quick and easy panacea for every emotional blankness. But the point is that, without the Scriptures, there’s no hope of a Christ-exalting turnaround of our emotions.
Medication might turn us around emotionally, but by itself, without the word of God, it won’t put us on a right footing with Jesus Christ. It may feel good, but without the word of God, it may not have done you any long-term good.
This listener has posed the absolutely right question without being naïve about the complexities of how difficult, and dark, and multi-causal depression can be.
So let me answer by giving five kinds of texts that she might turn to, and that I turn to.
Wait and Pray
Take note of the Scriptures that speak about the necessity of waiting for God. Psalm 40 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord” (Psalm 40:1). It doesn’t say how long — days, weeks, months. All it says is, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock” (Psalm 40:1–2).
“We do not despair, and we do not feel presumptuous. Our confidence is in God and his vindication.”
There’s this season of being in the pit and in the bog, and the assignment for us believers in those seasons is to wait patiently for the Lord.
Or Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” That’s not literally intended, like, “You get only one day of weeping, and then you get another day of joy.” That’s not the point, because this command might be read at 11:59 p.m., and you would think, “Hey, you get one minute of weeping, and then 24 hours of joy.” The point is, there are seasons of weeping, and they’re going to be followed, for the believer, with joy.
Or Psalm 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”
So the point in this first group is that the Bible does not present our walk with God as uninterrupted brightness. We feed in green pastures, yes, and we walk through the valley of death. We experience the shining of his face, and we experience the hiding of his face. So in the scriptural prescription what we find is that when his face is hidden, we are to wait and pray. That’s the first group.
Here is the second group of texts for her to look at with me. Turn to passages that show how to experience gutsy guilt.
I love this phrase, and I’m thinking of Micah 7:8–9, where it describes in a most phenomenal way how sinful people like us under the darkness of God are to be gutsy as we deal with God because of our justified standing. Listen to these words:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness [now that’s what I would call depression], the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.
All of us have sinned. I’m not saying every darkness is a specific punishment for sin. I’m just saying we’ve all sinned, and therefore there’s no point in trying to play goody goody while we’re under the darkness. We can’t say, “Oh, he’s treating me worse than I deserve.” No, we’ve all sinned. Micah continues,
I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me [not against me, but for me]. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.
That’s what we say when we’re in the darkness: “I shall look upon his vindication.” That’s an amazing and wonderful passage. There is nothing sentimental or naïve about it. It is utterly realistic in dealing with our own sin and God’s grace.
This is the way a justified sinner talks. We do not despair, and we do not feel presumptuous. Our confidence is in God and his vindication. Which leads now to a third group, where seeing that vindication worked out by God in history is absolutely crucial.
This may be the most important group of texts to look at. So fix your attention especially on the passages that describe the stunning work of Christ on the cross. The work that was outside yourself to provide your vindication as a justified sinner before an all-holy, all-loving God.
“There are seasons of weeping, and they’re going to be followed, for the believer, with joy.”
For example, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8). Oh look to that text again and again.
Or: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3) — that is, in the flesh of his own Son, not your flesh.
Or Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Oh, what an amazing promise.
Or 1 Peter 2:24–25: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” So the great healing is, you were headlong heading for the cliff of destruction, and the Shepherd, dying, reaches out to you, and pulls you back. And it says, “You have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Let it sink in: “My soul has a Shepherd. My soul has an Overseer.”
And there’s so many more texts like that: 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:12, Philippians 1:6, Isaiah 53:4–6. That’s the third group of texts to look at.
Thanks and Praise
The fourth group is to recite Scriptures of thanksgiving and praise, even though you do not feel them. Here’s one example. Psalm 86:10–13:
For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Psalm 86:10–13)
Now, if you are honest with God, and with yourself, and with others about the absence of your feelings, then the recitation of these thanks are not hypocrisy. They are expressions of longing and a belief that God alone is worthy of thanks and praise.
Here’s what Richard Baxter, a pastor from 1600s, says about what I’m asking you to do.
Resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God. If you cannot do it with the joy that you should, yet do it as you can. You have not the power of your comforts; but have you no power over your tongues? Say not that you are unfit for thanks and praises, unless you had a praising heart, and were the children of God; for every man, good and bad, is bound to praise God, and to be thankful for all that he hath received, and to do it as well as he can, rather than leave it undone. . . . Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it better. Thanksgiving stirreth up thankfulness in the heart.
It doesn’t have to be hypocrisy, in other words, for you to read the Scriptures about thanks and praise, and say them back to God — all the while knowing your heart is aching to feel them, and doesn’t yet.
Seed of Joy
Here’s the last group of texts. Turn to texts that cry out to God for the restoration of life and joy. Psalm 51:12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 85:6: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”
“Let it sink in that your soul has a Shepherd. Your soul has an Overseer.”
The reason for turning to texts like these is not only that they are prayers which God may be pleased to answer soon by restoring your joy. They are also evidences that the seed of joy in God is still alive in your soul.
Let me close with this, and this is so crucial because you may feel, “I don’t even know if I’m a Christian because I feel so blank.” There are four things that characterize that seed of joy that is still alive in you. See if these are there.
- You can still see objectively that God is the supreme treasure of the universe, even if your feelings about him are very flat.
- You can confess that objective sight of God with your lips, that God is supremely valuable.
- You can cry out for the restoration of true joy, and that very cry is the seed sown by the taste of the joy.
- You can refuse to turn away from God and embrace idols.
So may the Lord use those five kinds of Scripture to give you patience, and bring you through the season of darkness.