Suffering and Depression

     It was early January and I was dining after dark with friends when I heard faint cries coming from outside.  Standing and looking out the nearby window, I saw a young man who looked to be in his early twenties, stagger down the sidewalk and collapse about ten feet from the building.  I rushed outside and knelt on the ground next to him while others inside called for medical help (which took about five minutes to arrive).  He lay on the cold asphalt, shivering and sobbing, and appeared to be more in emotional distress than physical pain.  He looked at me, a total stranger, and through his tears said he was on the verge of losing his girlfriend and newborn baby and that his life had been ruined by bad choices and the use of cocaine and other drugs.  After saying these things he turned his head and cried uncontrollably.  His life had not always been marked by bad choices.  Phantom memories surfaced and he spoke of a Christian childhood when Christ was Lord of his life and all his friends were wholesome believers.  Somewhere in his teenage years he had turned away from the Lord and the suffering of bad choices and worldly friends helped bring about his present sorrow.  I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed quietly as I sat next to him.  He cried out to the Lord, and not knowing what to say, he started praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…” (Matt. 6:9, KJV).  I verbally joined him in his prayer so that he would not feel alone, but would know he was in the presence of a caring Christian.  He heard me praying with him, and through teary eyes stared for a moment.  For a brief instant we connected, but a minute later an ambulance pulled into the motel parking lot and I was moved aside so they could perform their necessary service.  Apparently he had been using harmful illegal drugs and was in need of medical attention.  The young man called out to me as he was put on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance and I could only watch and pray for him as he was taken away.  I never saw him again, though I’ve prayed for him many times. 

     I was marked by that brief encounter.  That young man was at a place of personal brokenness when the paths of our lives crossed.  There seemed to be sorrow and repentance on his lips.  It mattered little to me that much of his pain was self-induced, but only that he was crying out to the Lord for help.  To turn away from him at such a moment would betray a spiritual poverty and sickness within my own soul.  More so, it would ignore the sovereign hand of God who creates such opportunities for us to show grace and love to others.  A year earlier I was in a similar place of personal brokenness, for my life had been ruined by many bad choices and I knew what it meant to have others praying for me and showing grace and love when I needed it most. 

Jeremiah     Looking into Scripture, we find the greatest examples of suffering anywhere.  Job and Jeremiah were two men who suffered greatly.  Both were sensitive men who knew depression as a result of their suffering, and as we read about their lives we can cry with them.  In the midst of his sadness Job said, “why then hast Thou brought me out of the womb? Would that I had died and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been, carried from womb to tomb” (Job 10:18-19).  Because of his sorrow, Job saw his life as a “land of darkness and deep shadow; the land of utter gloom as darkness itself, of deep shadow without order” (Job 10:21-22a).  During his time of sadness, the prophet Jeremiah wished that his “mother would have been [his] grave, and her womb ever pregnant” and in his great anguish went on to ask, “why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?” (Jer. 20:17-18). 

     What shall we say to Job and Jeremiah?  Shall we ask them to be silent and not use such language because it makes us feel uncomfortable?  Shall we be callous and accuse them of hidden sin or not having enough faith?  Shall we fault them because they are not expressing joy in the midst of their sorrow?  There is a joy to be had in life, but let’s not rob these godly men of their sorrow, or turn away from them for expressing themselves with such grief-laden language because it makes us feel uncomfortable.  Let’s not turn away from them for at least two reasons:

  1. Because their response to suffering reveals their humanness. Job and Jeremiah were real people living in a real world who were touched by real circumstances.  Though most of us will never know the depth of suffering and sorrow that Job and Jeremiah knew in their lifetime, we can identify with their pain and cry with them because we understand in a smaller way what it means to suffer, and this is our connection with them.  Suffering connects us all together.
  2. Because despair was not their only perspective on life. Job and Jeremiah also had the divine perspective on life and at times spoke words of truth and hope, and this gives us truth and hope as well.  Though they suffered in the furnace of affliction, they proved God and His Word to be reliable and more than sufficient to sustain them.  During and after their time of suffering they spoke words of praise to the One in whom they had placed all their confidence.  Worshipping God as the One who sustains and gives us hope in the midst of our trials is what binds us together with other believers, even those who lived long ago in a foreign land and who spoke a different language.  God and His Word connect believers together.

     Job was a righteous man who loved the Lord and turned away from evil (Job. 1:1-5).  In one day Job was confronted with the sudden death of all his sons and daughters, the destruction of his business, and the loss of his personal health (Job 1:6-19; 2:1-8).  Though he could have cursed God as his wife suggested (Job. 2:9), Job kept his faith and continued to trust the Lord (Job 1:20-22; 2:10).  In the midst of grief Job said:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me. (Job 19:25-27)

     Jeremiah had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army.  The city had been burned, tens of thousands of men and woman put to death, and many taken away into slavery to Babylon as Jeremiah watched.  One can see why he is often referred to as the weeping prophet (cf. Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17).  Yet, even after witnessing Jerusalem’s destruction and enduring personal persecution, Jeremiah stated:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him. (Lam. 3:21-24)

     Other men in Scripture such as David, Elijah, Peter and Paul all knew suffering and sorrow, yet expressed words of hope and faith in God.  Of course, no one knew suffering more than the Lord Jesus Christ, who throughout His life was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).  During the time of His public ministry, Jesus knew He would suffer and die upon the cross, and He declared, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  And just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus “began to be grieved and distressed” (Matt. 26:37), telling a few of His disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38).  In spite of His personal pain, Jesus was willing to suffer and die for the benefit of the salvation of others.  The Scripture declares that “as a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).  The death of Christ had meaning, because God’s righteousness was satisfied and others were blessed to enjoy the gift of eternal life (Rom. 3:21-26). 

     Suffering touches us all.  It moves and shapes us in ways we never imagine.  It breaks us down and builds us up, but it never leaves us where it finds us.  In Scripture we learn that God’s power is magnified in our weaknesses and that suffering reveals our true state as weak creatures who need the Lord in our lives for strength and guidance (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  As we develop spiritually, we learn to keep our eyes more and more on heaven, knowing that ultimate relief from suffering will only come when the Lord returns and establishes righteousness on the earth (Rev. 20-22).  There is much Scripture on the subject of suffering and there is hope and strength in God for those who turn to Him in the midst of life’s sorrows.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

An excerpt from my book – Suffering: A Biblical Consideration 

The Value of Suffering

Romans 5:1-5 Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

       Adversity helps the obedient-believer grow spiritually, when he responds properly in faith (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4). Suffering by itself does not advance growth, but rather, the believer’s faith-response to it. The obedient-believer knows God is in control of every aspect of his life and that He produces the events that help the believer reach maturity (Rom. 8:28). There are no chance events in the believers’ life.

       Adversity serves to bring the rebellious-believer back to fellowship with God (Ps. 32:1-5; Heb. 12:5-11; 1 Jo. 1:9). However, if the rebellious believer rejects warning and intensive discipline, God will remove him from earth to heaven through the “sin unto death” (1 Jo. 5:16). The three stages of discipline for the rebellious-believer are:

  1. Warning (Dan. 4:4-27; 1 Cor. 11:30).
  2. Intensive (Dan. 4:28-37; 1 Cor. 11:30).
  3. Death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30; 1 Jo. 5:16).

       For the growing believer, divine pressure produces humility by helping him realize his weaknesses and overall inability to cope with life (2 Cor. 12:7-10). As a result, the growing believer looks to God to sustain him, and lives by faith in His word (Isa. 26:3; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). The pressures of life help the believer grow in dependence on the Lord. God is glorified, and the believer is benefitted, when God’s resources are utilized in pursuit of spiritual maturity.  The process of growing into spiritual maturity never ends so long as the believer is alive. There’s never a time when the believer can say “I don’t need to grow anymore. You can stop now God; I’ve arrived!”

       The power of God is available to the growing obedient-believer. Once the believer turns away from God, he grieves/quenches the Holy Spirit and cuts off the source of divine strength. Relying on others and/or self will bring disaster when the pressures of life become too great. Francis Schaeffer illustrates this truth as follows:

“A culture or an individual with a weak base can stand only when the pressure on it is not too great. As an illustration, let us think of a Roman bridge. The Romans built little humpbacked bridges over many of the streams of Europe. People and wagons went over these structures safely for centuries, for two millennia. But if people today drove heavily loaded trucks over these bridges, they would break. It is this way with the lives and value systems of individuals and cultures when they have nothing stronger to build on than their own limitedness, their own finiteness. They can stand when the pressures are not too great, but when the pressures mount, if then they do not have a sufficient base, they crash—just as a Roman bridge would cave in under the weight of a modern six-wheeled truck. Culture and the freedoms of people are fragile. Without a sufficient base, when such pressures come only time is needed—and often not a great deal of time—before they collapse.” (Francis Schaeffer, How Should we then Live? page 23)

       Adversity comes to everyone, but only the believer – armed with Scripture – has a sufficient base with which to handle to pressures of life. Mental and emotional stability comes from learning and living God’s word on a regular basis. This means the believer must submit every area of his life to God, and be willing to do His will no matter the cost. Many Christians compartmentalize, giving God some areas of their life, while holding on to other areas. Those areas of life that are kept from God are used by Satan to defeat the believer. There is no middle ground. The believer who compartmentalizes wants to keep control of his life, and comes to God only as he feels safe. In such an immature life, Christianity becomes a self-serving religion in which God is allowed control so long as He blesses and does not cause discomfort. Blessing and safety becomes the all consuming concern in the life of the baby Christian. The growing believer “exult[s] in tribulation” (Rom. 5:3) because he knows God is working in Him to form the character of Christ, and that’s what he wants more than anything. The growing believer accepts suffering as means of becoming more like Christ. It is important to stress that there is no real value inherent in suffering, but rather in how the believer handles the suffering by living by faith in God’s word.

       Divine suffering tests the believer’s faith, exposing those areas where he is weak and in which he needs to trust more in God; obeying His word. The believer who loves God wants to mature and become more like Christ, and praises God for the fire of suffering that burns away that which is worthless.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.