A Depression Observed, Part 3 – Is Depression Real?

(You are reading part three of a 12-part series. Visit noeldear.com to read all articles as we post them throughout December 2023.)


Psalms 39:1–3 | I said, “I will guard my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle as long as the wicked are in my presence.” I was speechless and quiet; I kept silent, even from speaking good, and my pain intensified. My heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. I spoke with my tongue.

Whether we call it despair or depression or despondency... We must first wrestle with the question: Is it even a real thing?

We could all argue that it is a very normal experience to have bad days and maybe even seasons of sadness. Perhaps this whole idea of depression, emotional pain, and mental illness is just a modern invention, a social construct created by weak people spending too much time contemplating their navels. Could we not just shake it off, grow up, get over it, and press on?

We must get this important question right!

As a pastor and armchair counselor, I am afraid I've discounted the gravity of mental illness and given people that get-over-it-already kind of advice way too many times. I've told people that their emotions will inevitably follow their actions. So, they need to move forward with urgency, and all this talk of emotional struggle will soon fade. I have told people that we live in a fallen world, and consequently, no day will be perfect until we arrive in heaven. So, quit making such a big deal about today's emotional wounds and focus on the glories of your promised inheritance.

As I have recently learned, that kind of advice-giving is the spiritual equivalent of telling a kid who has scraped the skin off his elbow to rub some dirt on it and keep playing. Sure, there are times when that kind of instruction is needed to keep us in the game. But, in actuality, that counsel suggests that emotional pain is not authentic or at least is not significant.

So, is depression (or anxiety, or stress, or despair, or melancholy) a real thing?

Well, what does the Bible say?

In Psalm 39, where I have been stuck for weeks, David wrote about his personal experience with mental and emotional pain. He said, "My pain intensified. My heart grew hot within me... a fire burned" (1b–2a). This is the statement of David, the king of Israel, the mighty warrior, the champion who slew Goliath, the general who led the victory in the trenches against the deadly Philistine army. This is David, the psalm-writer, the "man after God's own heart." This is the one who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Sure, this is the man who will be forever connected to the scandal with Bathsheba and Uriah, but it is also the man who penned the twenty-third Psalm.

David was a man's man, a warrior of warriors, a leader of men, a champion, a sinner and a saint, a king and a worship leader, an artist and a scholar. And David, by his own account, suffered and struggled with emotional pain that was often debilitating.

As we noted, in Psalm 39, David called out his pain and said it was intensifying; it grew hot inside his heart and mind and burned him like a fire. But that is not the only time this warrior-king wrote about his sometimes-torturous emotional pain.

David often described his sorrow by drawing parallels with physical pain. He said his emotional pain felt like a fire in his gut (Psalm 38:6–8), like a wounded heart (109:22), and a parched throat (69:3). He repeatedly compared his depression and despondency to a pain in his bones. He said it was like his bones were shaking within his body (6:2), like they were painfully disjointed (22:14), like they were wasting away (31:10), weak and brittle (32:3), crushed (42:10, 51:8), and burned (102:3). Please understand. David's bones were fine. But, his emotional pain was like a bone-deep cancer.

David also connected his emotional struggle with mental exhaustion. He said the burden was too heavy for him to bear (Psalm 38:4). He declared his strength was fading away like a lengthening shadow (109:23). David said he was weary from groaning (6:6), weary from crying (69:3), and weary from grief (119:28). He used words and phrases like consumed (31:10), overtaken (40:12), overcome with dismay (143:4), oppressed (40:17), dejected (42:5, 11), deeply depressed (42:6), without courage (40:12), shaken with terror (6:3), and more. He said he was ridiculed by his enemies and dreaded by his friends (31:11). He felt alone and abandoned even by the Lord (22:11, 69:3, 17).

Is emotional pain, whatever we might choose to call it, a real thing? Just ask King David!

My pain intensified, my heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. (Psalm 39:2b–3a)

But David is not the only Bible character we could ask.

The prophet Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. He was lonely, insecure, and felt defeated. He was often filled with sorrow. His depression was so deep that he cursed the day he was born and said it was a tragedy that he didn't die in the womb (Jeremiah 20:14–18). The prophet Jonah experienced the miracle of the great fish and then preached a revival where an entire city turned to God. Then, in his mental exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, and anger, he became so depressed that he begged the Lord to end his life (Jonah 4:3)! The Bible describes similar circumstances with Elijah, Job, and even the Old Testament's greatest leader, Moses.

And we do not have to go all the way back to the Old Testament to find Bible heroes struggling with emotional pain. Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born, yet John struggled with significant doubt and discouragement that some today might label depression (Luke 7:18–30). The apostle Paul, the premiere leader in the New Testament church, said that during his ministry in Asia, the pressure was so great that he "despaired of life itself" (2 Corinthians 1:8). What could that have been other than extreme depression?

If we step away from the pages of Scripture, we can find many noted examples of those who struggled with severe depression (or what was until recently called melancholy). I am a sort-of history buff, and have read many U.S. history books. One of the finest of those is Joshua Shenk's 2006 bestseller, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Shenk describes how Abraham Lincoln, one of the most outstanding leaders in the last 500 years of world history, suffered with an almost deadly depression throughout his life.

We will learn more in this book about perhaps the greatest English-speaking preacher in history, Charles Spurgeon, and his life-long battle with depression. We will also learn about the lesser-known William Cowper, who penned the famous hymn, There is a Fountain Filled with Blood. Cowper struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies for much of his life. We will learn how his life struggles provide lessons for us today.

Depression's roll-call doesn't end with those historical figures. Sir Winston Churchill, The Roaring Lion and great military and political leader of World War II, had a well-known mantra that became the motivation of the Allied troops in their fight against the Nazis: "Never give up! Never, never, never give up!" Yet Churchill almost gave up due to his continual bouts of depression, which he called the "black dog that hounds me." It seems that for Churchill, depression was a greater enemy than the Nazis. The list of well-known people in history who struggled with the pain of severe depression seems endless: Martin Luther, Edgar Allen Poe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Nikola Tesla, Ernest Hemingway, and even the namesake of the mighty Sherman Tank, William Tecumseh Sherman.

I want to take you back to that fateful Tuesday night meeting where I went public with my struggle for the first time. I told those seven friends and leaders that I had never faced a personal problem that I could not solve by just getting up a little earlier and working a little harder. That had been my modus operandi for my entire adult life. However, I told them the effectiveness of that strategy had ended. This despair or whatever we might call it... It was not imaginary. It was not the common cold of emotions. It was not just a difficult day or a sad season. It was real. It was as real as a broken leg or a staph infection. And it was bad.

My pain intensified, my heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. (Psalm 39:2b–3a)


Pastor Noel