“The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14).
The shocking news of the suicide death of actor Robin Williams has left millions of people all over the world with a mystery: how could someone known for a whole-face smile that caused multitudes of people to laugh to the point of tears be so distraught that he would take his own life? Many are perplexed, and there are many others who are saying to themselves: if anyone knew how desperately depressed I am, they would be surprised.
I write as someone who has seen depression across numerous generations in my own family, and as a pastor who has officiated at the funerals of those who have taken their own lives.
Many are turning to the Scriptures to understand, and if they look widely, they will find not only the hope the Scriptures offer, but also the honesty and accuracy with which the Scriptures account for one of the most common inner maladies of all time: depression.
King David despaired of life more than once. Not only do we have dozens of “psalms of lament,” but we have physiological descriptions of the effects of the broken heart, as in Psalm 38: “there is no health in my body…. my guilt has overwhelmed me, like a burden too heavy to bear…. I am bowed down and brought very low… all day long I go about mourning…. I am feeble and utterly crushed…. my heart pounds, my strength fails me…. I am like the deaf, who cannot hear, like the mute, who cannot speak…. I am about to fall, and my pain is ever with me…. LORD, do not forsake me.”
This is not a description of “feeling low,” or sad, or unhappy, but rather, what can happen when sadness deepens into despair and then into a physical condition.
Even powerful and successful people can be brought low in depression. The prophet Elijah defeated the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It was a stunning victory by God. And yet, fleeing the wrath of Jezebel, Elijah went into isolation and prayed, “I have had enough, LORD, take my life, I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4-5).
God did not condemn Elijah for being destitute and depressed. God did not say: Buck up, man. Where is your faith? Shake it off. Instead, an angel of God came, touched Elijah, and offered fresh-baked bread and a jar of water (1 Kings 19:5-6). This is the way God is. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
At a desperate moment the prophet Jonah wanted to die: “Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).
And then there is Job, whose illnesses and profound losses made him despair of life—and his wife and “friends” did not help. It has often been said that God did not offer Job answers for his questions, but instead, God offered himself.
This is what God does and what we must do for each other—to be a caring presence. What makes deep depression dangerous is isolation. Often someone else needs to help the seriously depressed person get connected with the right medical and spiritual resources. We need to know when we are the right people to make those connections. None of us should be put off if our well-meaning words do nothing to help a depressed friend. That may be the time when we need to do less talking, and just be there.
As one desperate man said: “Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14).
Listen to Mel Lawrenz’s audio interview with Dr. Doug Schoen on the topic “When We Are Ill.”