Along life’s journey, it’s not uncommon to experience seasons during which everything seems to be winter in one’s soul—seasons defined by feelings of loneliness and desperation. Although life goes on, a deadening sense grips us. We often can’t explain it. The sun may be shining, the sky blue, and there may be nothing to worry us—but nonetheless, all seems bleak, and we are deeply unsettled and spiritually weighed down.
In Psalm 13, we encounter David in the midst of such a season:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (vv. 1–2)
Loneliness. Disregard. Desolation. David was well acquainted with each of these facets of depression. Even more crushing, he felt isolated from the God who had made him.
Times of great blessing can be the forerunner to times of dreadful depression—and we need to learn how to prepare for and deal with that possibility.
During times of depression, turmoil of mind and soul can be so great that our perceptions become disconnected from reality, as was true for David here. We should therefore take care not to judge our spiritual lives (or anyone else’s) at such moments. After all, some of God’s choicest servants—men like David, Elijah, Jonah, and Jeremiah—have faced great depths of sorrow, as have many great preachers and hymn writers. Instead, then, we should ask: What causes depression, and how can we escape its strong clutch?
Causes of Depression
The exact cause of David’s depression in Psalm 13 is uncertain; unlike in others of the Psalms, he gives no indication of what prompted him to write it. Yet there’s a sense in which not knowing is relatable for many who struggle with feeling forgotten and forsaken. We can arrive in that position for a variety of reasons, and we are often unable to identify the cause.
Even so, there are some common contributors to depression’s bleak landscape. While we could by no means assemble an exhaustive list, these broad categories will at least help us realize that depression can seep in from many angles.
Some of depression’s causes are rooted in the realm of medicine, such as chemical imbalances and certain physical factors of life. For these causes, it is important to remember that we are indeed embodied souls. Sometimes we simply need doctors and other medical professionals to help us navigate our way through and out of a depressive state.
Fatigue can also induce depression. When even the most devout Christians are physically exhausted, they can be far more susceptible to an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time. We cannot fall into the trap of doing everything, all the while driving ourselves into the ground. It may be that a deep sense of unsettlement and emptiness is born out of nothing more than needing to go home, give our bodies some rest, take a calm walk, breathe some fresh air, and sort ourselves out physically.
Individual temperaments, too, can make us more prone to depression, which is why some are deeply troubled on a recurring basis while others hardly seem troubled in even the most challenging of times. We live our lives and work through our days as unique individuals with differing God-given experiences, personalities, and dispositions, all of which lead to some being more prone to bouts of depression than others.
In addition, spiritual warfare can play a role in our experience of depression. The devil is “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Paul tells us that we must take up the whole armor of God that we may be able to stand against the fiery darts of the Evil One (Eph. 6:11), who seeks to penetrate us at our places of weakness. This means that those who are easily laid low by bouts of depression will be attacked frequently in those valleys. Satan’s goal is to bring us down enough that he can remove us from usefulness in battle.
For David, the bridge that took him from wrestling to singing was prayer. In his communication with God, he discovered consolation.
Depression can even be induced in reaction to mountaintop experiences. This was Elijah’s lot in 1 Kings 18–19: just a few days after having dealt with the prophets of Baal and seeing God glorify Himself in a remarkable way, he became so grieved that he prayed that he might die. Times of great blessing can be the forerunner to times of dreadful depression—and we need to learn how to prepare for and deal with that possibility.
Learning from David’s Response
As Psalm 13 proceeds, we see David not only giving testimony to the reality of his depression but also modeling a spiritually healthy response. Whether our experience is a few days of post-holiday blues or longer-term despair, whether we are simply worn out from a hectic life pace or are unable to discern the cause of our sadness and isolation of spirit, it’s helpful to see how David reacted to his own sense of sorrow:
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. (vv. 3–4)
While terminology has changed as modern psychology has framed human realities in different packages, the experience of depression has remained largely the same since the beginning of time. Thus, when we view contemporary methodologies for dealing with depression—both their successes and their failures—there is no need to be apologetic for also looking at old ways, and particularly this biblical pattern:
- Cry out in prayer. David started by praying. Though he felt isolated from God, the reality is that God’s love is constant, and He will not forget us (Isa. 49:15–16). For many, when the tidal wave of depression knocks us down and rolls us over, our prayer life is the first thing to go. The last person to whom we cry is God—which is exactly what the Evil One desires. A sense of isolation and alienation from God need not paralyze our prayer life. Rather, let it do what it did for David: prompt an even greater urgency!
- Cry out to God. It is helpful for us to speak with the one who, deep down, we believe is responsible for the condition we’re in. David felt that God was hiding and had forgotten him, yet he still directed his plea heavenward. We, too, may be mad at God, disheartened and annoyed, asking Him, “Why did you make me like this?” God understands, and it is better to confess what we feel to Him than it is to bottle up our emotions or vent to others.
- Cry out for consideration. David also appealed to God’s mercy, asking that He would regard the helpless situation in which he found himself. We should do the same. Such pleas do not need to be lengthy or eloquent. In coming before God, some of us have known the experience of only being able to say one word, “Father,” before the tears begin to fall. But that will suffice. Our loving heavenly Father’s ear is attuned to our cries for help. Even when, as Paul writes, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought,” we can trust that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
- Cry out for illumination. Finally, David asked the Lord for the eye of faith to see in the darkness. God doesn’t often grant us the path of least resistance out of our gloomy surroundings, because He has greater plans. Yet He still gives the grace to live whether the lights are on or off (2 Cor. 12:9)—provided we’re prepared to come before Him and be honest in our cry.
As Psalm 13 ends, we find David in a completely different frame of mind from the one in which he began:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (vv. 5–6)
For David, a measure of lightheartedness and joy has returned—and the bridge that took him from wrestling to singing was prayer. In his communication with God, he discovered consolation. There is no reason to assume that his circumstances had changed; God simply changed his perspective. He was transformed by the renewing of his mind (Rom. 12:2), and we discover him resting in God’s unfailing love.
When David declared that his heart would rejoice in God’s salvation, he was operating no longer solely in the realm of feelings but in that of will and trust in God. David took the gloomy, depressing circumstances of his life and framed them with God’s past activity in his life and the future activity that God promised to fulfill. The anchor of the past and the hope of the future thus allowed him to find joy in the present.
If David could do this before Christ, believing and looking forward to that which would come, how much more ought we be able to reflect on the work at Calvary and rejoice in God’s salvation?
David took the gloomy, depressing circumstances of his life and framed them with God’s past activity in his life and the future activity that God promised to fulfill. The anchor of the past and the hope of the future thus allowed him to find joy in the present.
Only in heaven will all tears be dried up and the perfect fullness of life be realized (Rev. 21:1–4). In the meantime, we need to ensure that our lives are rooted in Jesus, who knows what tomorrow brings. He can handle every fit of depression, deal with our emptiness, and restore us when we hurt the most. It is in Jesus that we find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:29) and liberation from the deepest traumas of our earthly experience. His character and work of grace provide our only sure and everlasting foundation.
When we find ourselves feeling bleak and alone, like David, we can cry out to God for mercy and faith. He will listen to our cries. And as we frame our circumstances by the faithfulness of our all-sufficient God, our hope and joy will be strengthened and restored.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Dealing with Depression” by Alistair Begg.