Related Verses: 1 Kings 19; Job 3, 6, 7; Psalm 88; Jer. 20:14-18
Leading Question: Is God willing to listen to Christians who are so discouraged that they curse the day of their birth?
Among devout believers, discouragement and depression are some of the most difficult mental states to address. After all, we know Jesus. So cheer up! In Steps to Christ Ellen White wrote, “Make it a rule never to utter one word of doubt or discouragement” (p. 119). And the New Testament doesn’t let us off any easier: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” exclaims Paul, “and again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil. 4:4-6, NRSV)
Does Job give us permission to be discouraged? This week’s lesson gives us the chance to look long and hard at discouragement and depression. Our goal must also be to rejoice. But rejoicing on command is as difficult as laughing or crying demand. It cannot be done.
So beginning with Job 3, let’s focus on the shadow side of our experience, looking at Job, Elijah, the Psalmist, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Ellen White. The key passages are reproduced below:
Job: Cursing the day of his birth (Job 3:1-17, NRSV)
1 After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 Job said:
3 “Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
4 Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
6 That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
7 Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard[a] in it.
8 Let those curse it who curse the Sea,[b]
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
9 Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.
11 “Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
12 Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
13 Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest
14 with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
15 or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?
17 There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
Elijah: Wishing that he might die (1 Kings 19:1-9, NRSV)
19:1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Psalm 88: “Darkness is my closest friend” (NRSV)
Note: Almost half the psalms are laments. Most of them descend into the depths, but then return to the light at the end. Psalm 88 is the most notable exception to that pattern. It is a testimony to misery that stays down in the depths to the very end:
Psalm 88:1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken 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.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
Jeremiah: “Wishing that my mother’s womb would be forever great” (Jer. 20:14-18, NRSV)
Note: In Jeremiah’s so-called confessions, he bares his soul in despair. This following segment is one of the more vivid images, recalling the words of Job;
Jeremiah 20:14 Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
15 Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,”
making him very glad.
16 Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
17 because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
Jesus: “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1, NRSV)
Note: Jesus’ cry of godforsakenness is a quote from Psalm 22, another lament psalm, but one which breaks out in to the sunlight at the end:
Matthew 27:46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Ellen White: “Many times the wish arose that I had never been born” (1T 25)
Note: In her autobiography in the first volume of The Testimonies to the Church, Ellen White twice expresses the ultimate despair. The first one is triggered by the dark shadow of the belief in an eternally burning hell. In this case, accepting the belief in the non-immortality of the soul may have saved her from the insane asylum. But until that happened, she had come to the point where she said she wished she had not been born.
The second cry of despair came later in her experience when she felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of her calling and believed that God had forsaken her. Both quotations are cited below:
Testimonies 1:25 “I thought that the fate of the condemned sinner would be mine, to endure the flames of hell forever, even as long as God Himself existed. This impression deepened upon my mind until I feared that I would lose my reason. I would look upon the dumb beasts with envy, because they had no soul to be punished after death. Many times the wish arose that I had never been born.”
Testimonies 1:63 “I coveted death as a release from the responsibilities that were crowding upon me. At length the sweet peace I had so long enjoyed left me, and despair again pressed upon my soul. My prayers all seemed vain, and my faith was gone. Words of comfort, reproof, or encouragement were alike to me; for it seemed that no one could understand me but God, and He had forsaken me. The company of believers in Portland were ignorant concerning the exercises of my mind that had brought me into this state of despondency; but they knew that for some reason my mind had become depressed, and they felt (63/64) that this was sinful on my part, considering the gracious manner in which the Lord had manifested Himself to me.
I feared that God had taken His favor from me forever. As I thought of the light that had formerly blessed my soul, it seemed doubly precious in contrast with the darkness that now enveloped me. Meetings were held at my father’s house, but my distress of mind was so great that I did not attend them for some time. My burden grew heavier until the agony of my spirit seemed more than I could bear.”
Discussion: In the light of the quotations from Scripture, namely, the words of Job, Elijah, the Psalmist, Jeremiah, and Jesus, and in light of Ellen White’s experience, how should a Christian address the question of depression in one’s own life and in the lives of those close to us?
Note: Ellen White’s comments on Elijah can be instructive in this connection:
“Into the experience of all there come times of keen disappointment and utter discouragement – days when sorrow is the portion, and it is hard to believe that God is still the kind benefactor of His earthborn children; days when troubles harass the soul, till death seems preferable to life. It is then that many lose their hold on God and are brought into the slavery of doubt, the bondage of unbelief. Could we at such times discern with spiritual insight the meaning of God’s providences we should see angels seeking to save us from ourselves, striving to plant our feet upon a foundation more firm than the everlasting hills, and new faith, new life, would spring into being.” Prophets and Kings, 162
Later in the same chapter, however, Ellen White reminds us of the ideal with these strong words:
“Hope and courage are essential to perfect service for God. These are the fruit of faith. Despondency is sinful and unreasonable. God is able and willing ‘more abundantly’ (Hebrews 6:17) to bestow upon His servants the strength they need for test and trial. The plans of the enemies of His work may seem to be well laid and firmly established, but God can overthrow the strongest of these. And this He does in His own time and way, when He sees that the faith of His servants has been sufficiently tested.” – PK 164
Final question: How should we deal with depression?