The Bible and Depression: Self-Talk

It has often been said that the person you listen to the most is yourself. So, what are you hearing? We all have specific themes that dominate the narrative or story that we tell about ourselves to ourselves. Those themes can be both good and bad, but often they can involve very destructive elements. Some of these themes, especially when reinforced by our emotions, can sometimes lead us into a deep depression. The Bible knows about depression arising from self-talk and it offers us some guidance on how to fight back. When depression arises from negative self-talk the Bible encourages us to fight back with the truth about God.

Depression can develop because of the thoughts we dwell on. Sometimes it arises from the self-critical, self-condemning thoughts that consume us. Those destructive narratives say to us things like: You are no good; nobody likes you; you are too screwed up to ever change; etc. This self-talk filters out all compliments and successes. It overemphasizes mistakes and ignores victories. It magnifies offenses and disappointments. So, this self-talk is consumed with the negative and its myopic perspective colors our experience of ourselves, our world, and our God. If this negative self-talk is left unchecked it will grow into a type of depression. But the Bible responds to this type of depression like it does the other types, and offers us a counter-measure to fight back.

Psalm 42 is one of my favorite Psalms to use in both my life and the lives of others. It is a good picture of this type truth-talk which can counter negative self-talk. The author’s description of his sorrow parallels the lived-experience of many who suffer from depression. He begins by describing feelings of divine abandonment:

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (v. 1-2)

He has a longing to speak with God but there is no answer, no reassurance that God will give him an audience. He asks the question with uncertainty about its answer.

He moves on to describe the way in which his sorrow has impacted his appetite and emotional stability. He is so weary from crying that he doesn’t even eat: 

My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God? (v. 3)

His tears even mock him. With each cry he feels his own doubts about God’s care growing.

Then he adds that he didn’t always feel this way. There was a time in his life when he had great joy, when his relationship with God was one of dancing and praise. So he says:

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. (v. 4)

Depression can feel like it has taken so much from us. It changes our experience of life, our experience of self, and our experience of God. He used to be somebody different, but depression has destroyed that person.

It is a sad scene and yet we can rejoice that God chose to include in His Holy Word a description of our own emotional pain. He wrote in order to reassure us that He knows how we feel. These words echo the cries and feelings of many a sufferer.

The Psalmist does not, however, merely give expression to his sorrow. He also challenges it by preaching truth to himself. So he says:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (v. 5-6)

He speaks to himself in the psalm, challenging his “soul.” The question seems odd, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” He feels like God has abandoned him so why shouldn’t he be “cast down”? But the Psalmist is doing something important here, he is refusing to accept his emotions as the total truth. He is not repressing or suppressing his emotions – he gives expression to them, but He doesn’t let them have the final word of authority. I may feel that God has abandoned me, but, if I am a follower of Christ, I can bank on His promise – “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; see also Deut. 31:6). I must challenge my emotions by preaching the truth to myself, like the psalmist.

In this text, the Psalmist recalls specifically they faithfulness of God in the past. He remembers God from the “the land of the Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” These are historical landmarks that hold significance for the history of Israel. It’s not entirely clear what each is intended to reference in specificity. Some conclude that the reference to Jordan is to God’s drying up the Jordan river so the people could cross it, and Hermon is a reference to the Amorites whom God defeated on behalf of his people; and Mizar is a reference to the hill where the law was given. But even without our knowing the exact referent for each, the point is that the Psalmist is focusing on God’s activity of faithfulness in the past as a means of encouraging our faith in the present.

This is not, of course, a simple process. Telling yourself the truth doesn’t automatically make everything better. It’s not a simple issue of information, it takes time and consistency to believe God’s Word over and against the influence of my emotions. So, the Psalmist continues by describing how persistent his sorrow is. He talks in verse 7 of God’s “breakers and waves going over me.” The idea being that the pain and anguish, the trouble is constant. One wave knocks us down and as I come up for air another wave comes right behind it. It causes him to ask questions:

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (v. 9)

These are strong words of discouragement, confusion, and perhaps even frustration. Where are you God?! Once again, however, the psalmist does not let his emotions have the final word. He speaks to himself:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (v. 11)

He preaches to himself once again, challenging himself to believe against his emotions. He recognizes that right now he is struggling to worship, struggling to believe God, but He points to the future and asserts that it will be different: I will again praise Him. He reminds himself not to hope in a change of circumstances but to hope in God himself, for this God is His “Salvation.”

What are the lies you are tempted to believe? What is the negative self-talk that sounds so loudly in your own head? Express those thoughts, fears, feelings, and discouragements, but don’t just listen to yourself – listen to God. What does God say in His word to challenge those thoughts? What Scriptures push back against the lies you are tempted to believe? Challenge your self-talk with truth. Depression can sometimes be caused by our negative self-talk, but God’s Word demonstrates how we can fight back against that, namely by preaching the truth to ourselves.

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