Depression, I have suggested, has many potential causes. While some in the Christian community are quick to trace all causation back to some personal sin, the Bible does not. In fact the Bible presents a very comprehensive understanding of the various influences of despair and melancholy in the life on an individual. Last week I explored the Bible’s teaching on Depression and sin. The Bible also speaks, however, to the relationship between depression and sorrow.
Sometimes depression arises because of life’s sorrows. It’s not that we are directly involved in sin, but rather the fallenness of our world has fallen on us. So depression can arise because of chronic or terminal illness, it can beset us because of betrayal, or loss. Some individuals develop depression through a natural development of grief. Grief is, of course, good and natural, but sometimes a grief can so overtake us that it actually dramatically impairs our functionality and can lead to greater despair and depression. The Bible knows this dynamic. In the midst of depression caused by sorrow God invites us to look at the bigger picture.
Psalm 73 can helpfully illustrate this principle for us. In this Psalm the author is writing retrospectively. He is looking back at a moment in time when his “feet had almost stumbled,” and his “steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2). There was a moment in time where he experienced profound discouragement and which was leading towards despair, to falling deep into that miry pit. The cause of this near slip was the injustice and wickedness in the world, and more pointedly the seeming lack of consequence for wickedness. He writes:
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. (v. 3-12)
The scene he depicts is one of injustice. The wicked prosper, they live at ease in this world. Meanwhile, he says of himself “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (v. 13). He has done what is right and reaped no reward for it. He describes a reality that is not fair. It’s not a pouting sense, however. We know we can all be prone to disappointment, to pout when things don’t go our way. In this case, however, the psalmist is describing a real horror. Wicked people do prosper. This is injustice! And God, he knows, is supposed to be just. So how can this be?
The world as we know it and live in it is broken. It is full of agony, pain, and sorrow. We lose loved ones. We experience hurt and betrayal. We contract deadly diseases. Life is full of trouble and we all experience it at some level; some of us experience it deeply and persistently. It should not be surprising, then, that would would fall into the pit of depression as we live through this life. But the Psalmist describes the firm footing he found, that which kept him from falling into the pit: an eternal perspective.
There is plenty of ugliness around us, and plenty in our own lives. Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). We know that. But to fix our eyes on only trouble is to miss all that God is still doing in our world. To fix our eyes solely on the pain, evil, injustice, and sickness of our world is to be consumed by despair. Instead, the psalmist directs His thoughts to God. He write:
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. (v. 16-17)
He was wearied in trying to understand the way of the work and to explain the immorality that thrives in it, until he went to God. In light of God, His character, power and promises, the psalmist began to see things differently. He recognized that while the wicked do prosper now, they have an end date. God has prepared a time and a judgment for them. He changed his perspective from the temporal to the eternal and this brought him hope and encouragement. He writes:
Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. (v. 18-20)
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (v. 27-28)
The psalmist does two things here that help him to find hope. First, he submits to God’s sovereignty. God is in control and just because I am experiencing the wickedness of the world now does not mean that his plan is failing. He will bring His justice, power, and healing to bear when it is time. Secondly, he changes his perspective to an eternal one. He does not allow himself to be consumed by what he sees immediately infant of him, but rather looks to what he knows of God’s character. A change in perspective helps him to see more clearly his current experience.
The Apostle Paul does a similar thing when he speaks of the pain and suffering of our world. He does not minimize the reality of suffering in this present age, but he states that it pales in comparison to the glory that God will give His children. He writes:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)
There is a way to use this passage that is trite and simplistic, and even unhelpful. We can use it to discourage people from feeling sad or sorrowful. We can use it in a way that encourages people to suppress their pain. “Don’t be sad, it’s just a little suffering.” There is a way to use this truth, however, which brings great hope and anticipation. Suffering is real, but so is eternal joy!
We cannot escape the sorrows of this world, and we should not feel the need to pretend like the sting of death, sickness, broken relationships, etc. doesn’t hurt. But when we can shift our focus to God, and remind ourselves of who He is, what He does, and what He promises then we can once again find hope in the midst of sorrow. If your feet have slipped, if you are close to slipping, find sure footing in this eternal perspective.