Depression is always suffering, but its causes may vary. In this series we have explored several common causes already. Some depression arises from our own bitterness, others from our negative self-talk, and still others from our experience of sorrow in the world. But sometimes the cause of depression can be very hard to identify. Sometimes the cause is rooted in depths unknown. The Bible speaks to this type of depression too by encouraging endurance.
Some depression can be very hard to understand. This is particularly true for Christians who, despite studying the Bible, praying, and worshipping, still find no answer to their feelings of despair. Pop psychology will tell us that this type of depression lies in faulty brain chemistry. Chemical imbalances in the brain leave us in a depressive state. While this was, at one time, a dominant theory in clinical psychology, it no longer holds sway. Pop psychology and popular culture continue to perpetuate the theory but it should be challenged.
Elliot Valenstein Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Michigan University, has said, “Contrary to what is often claimed, no biochemical, anatomical or functional signs have been found that reliably distinguish the brains of mental patients” (“Blaming the Brain”). He points to a number of conclusive arguments against this theory, including:
- The theory cannot explain why there are drugs that alleviate depression despite the fact that they have little or no effect on either serotonin or norepinephrine.
- Drugs that raise serotonin and norepinephrine levels, such as amphetamine and cocaine, do not alleviate depression.
- Although some depressed patients have low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, the majority do not. Estimates vary, but a reasonable average from several studies indicates that only about 25 percent of depressed patients actually have low levels of these metabolites.
- Some depressed patients actually have abnormally high levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, and some patients with no history of depression at all have low levels of these amines.
Valenstein’s conclusions are insightful and challenging to this popular theory. Mark Ruffalo, associate professor in Psychiatry at the University of Florida, adds his voice to the discussion. He wrote a piece for Psychology Today in which he pleaded with people to stop using the language of chemical imbalance because it is not true (“The Myth of Chemical Imbalance”). This is not to suggest that biology has nothing to do with the experience of depression, but simply to say that a purely biological causation is too reductionist.
Disagreeing with the chemical imbalance theory does not mean that all depression is simple and easy to explain or address. Some depression, despite our best efforts, persists and has causes that cannot be easily identified. The Bible’s means of addressing this depression is to encourage persistence. Psalm 88 serves as the best case study for addressing this type of depression.
Many of the Psalms speak of despair, sorrow, and grief. They express the cries of our own hearts, but they often do so in conjunction with urging themselves to believe and hope in God. So, the grief is offset by a confidence in God’s continued care. Psalm 88 is noticeably different in that the Psalm has no ounce of hope within it. In verses 3-5 he describes himself and his troubles with poetic detail:
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
He describes himself as “full of troubles,” and as lacking strength. He is like a walking dead man and cut off from God. More pointedly, in verses 6-8 he asserts that God is the cause of his troubles:
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.
And to make matters worse all his prayers to God go unanswered. He writes:
But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? (v.13-14)
The Psalm ends without any consolation or comfort. The final words read:
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. (v. 18)
He is completely alone in his sorrow and despair.
Psalm 88 is the darkest of all the psalms. It is startling to read within the pages of Scripture such a despondent voice. And yet God did include these words within the pages of Scripture. Why would God add this hopeless voice to His Holy Word? Why include a chapter like Psalm 88 that has nothing to offer us in terms of encouragement? I think we can safely conclude several reasons for the presence of Psalm 88 in the Bible.
First, Psalm 88 encourages us to endure in our emotional pain. This psalm gives us the permission we need to feel discouraged. The psalmist expresses heartfelt and honest sorrow. He genuinely describes how he feels and God did not condemn him for those feelings. Instead God inspired the recording of these Words for all generations! God gives us permission to feel depressed sometimes. It is not always sinful, and it is not always wrong. Of course how we respond in our depressed state is important, but the feelings themselves may not be wrong.
Second, Psalm 88 encourages us to endure in faith. The psalmist may include no words of hope or confidence in God’s care, but he continues to cry out to God. The Psalm begins with a direct address to God:
O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! (v. 1)
He prays even as he prepares to confess his hurt and despondency. He holds to faith even in the face of despair. We do not have to choose between the two. We can embrace each without minimizing the other and this psalm is proof. Allow yourself to feel both of these dynamics at play, embrace both.
Finally, Psalm 88 encourages us to endure in life. There is sometimes very little that we can do to resolve our depression. God does not promise that all depression will lift, that we will be able to escape every experience simply by prayer and Scripture reading. Some depression lingers. Some weight simply sits on our chests and there’s little we can do to make it go away. God seeks to comfort and encourage us in these experience simply by saying, “I know.” He knows that this depression is real too. He knows that it is hard and painful, and He may allow it to stay with you for a season because He is doing something through it. Whatever the reasons, God encourages us simply to endure…to keep plodding forward.
God knows about all types of depression. He offers hope and help for each, but some depression requires simply endurance. But we never endure alone. The very fact that God included Psalm 88 is the reassurance that even in the deepest state of despair God is with us and He understands.