Crossing a Deep River — Biblical and Practical Advice for Dealing With Depression
By George O. Wood
I speak from personal experience.
In the early 1990s, I went through a steep 2-year valley of depression. I could share the details, but I will opt for the example of the apostle Paul who described his thorn in the flesh without ever revealing the underlying cause.
I only mention that season in my life to give pastors the perspective that this article is not theoretical advice thrown down from a mountaintop to sufferers below. I know whereof I speak. When the tough time was over I could say with the hero of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that my life journey involved crossing a deep river, but “my feet have touched the bottom, and it is sound.”
Pentecostals do not often talk about depression. Maybe it is because the experience is so removed from the exhilaration of Spirit baptism or the second fruit of the Spirit — joy. Leaders, pastors, or ministerial spouses particularly, have a rough time admitting to anyone that things are not chipper. We are trained to keep a stiff upper lip and model for others a life without shadows or heartache.
Long before I experienced depression at its depths I had preached and taught on the subject. So, let me invite you first to look at a biblical perspective on depression from one who, at that point of time, had not experienced much of it.
Causes Of Depression
The Bible gives plenty of insight into why believers get depressed. Six reasons stand out.
Pastors can go at such a maddening pace that depression rises because they are run down. Look at Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 18 and 19.
Elijah won the battle with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, then ran across the Armageddon Valley to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:46). From there, he raced more than 100 miles to Beersheba at the southern tip of Israel (1 Kings 19:3), because he was afraid of Jezebel. After a day’s journey into the desert, he sat under a broom tree depressed, praying that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
In other words, he prayed, “Just go ahead and kill me Lord; I am done” (1 Kings 19:4).
What was his problem? Too much running. What was the solution? Sleep and food (1 Kings 19:5–8). Strengthened by rest, bread, and water, he then trekked 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Elijah was depressed again, this time not under a tree, but in a cave. He was swamped with self-pity and declared, “I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10).
He had Moses’ syndrome — the idea that the entire burden of caring for God’s business fell on his shoulders (Numbers 11:10–17). God’s solution for Moses and Elijah was to remind them that everything was not dependent on them alone. Their feelings of isolation and depression arose because they were exhausted.
Illness may be another physical cause of depression. Read the soulful lament of the sick man in Psalm 88. With his life drawing close to the grave he mourned his isolation from people and believed God had rejected him. His prayer closes on a down note: “The darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18).
Closely related to sickness is the aging progress. If you are older and would like to be further depressed, read Ecclesiastes 12:1–8 in a modern translation. Hear the plaintiff cry of depression from a man whose foot was almost in the grave, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
In addition to lack of proper rest, sickness, or aging, other physical causes for depression can be chemically related, a reaction to medication, or poor eating habits.
Pastors often make the mistake of searching first for emotional or spiritual causes of depression. I suggest searching first for physical reasons. If the depression stems from physical reasons, then get some rest. Take a break. Exercise regularly. Start eating right. Get a thorough medical checkup.
Sense of loss
People can become depressed when they lose someone or something.
My college years were among the happiest in my life. When they ended, I drove my 1954, green and white Pontiac to the Los Angeles area to attend seminary. I moved into a small apartment with purple walls. I knew no one. A dear elderly couple brought me a CorningWare® dish of lamb casserole. I do not like lamb. Never having cooked for myself, I put the dish on the kitchen counter because I had no refrigerator. Every day I would pass the dish thinking, “I need to take a bite so I can tell them how good their casserole was.” Two weeks went by. When I finally opened the lid, I nearly fainted from the smell and the sight of maggots.
That summer I was so depressed — and it was not just the lamb casserole. I had lost all my friends, and I was alone.
My loss was inconsequential compared to the mother and father who lose a child, the husband whose wife is killed in a car wreck, the longtime employee who is let go a few years before retirement, the individual looking at a stack of bills and an empty checkbook, the married person dealing with the infidelity and abandonment by a spouse, and an empty nest when the last child is gone. The list goes on and on — each is related to losing what is dear to you.
For pastors and ministers the loss may come with the death of a dream or ideal. It may result from church problems, a betrayal by a trusted board member or parishioner, or a deteriorating situation.
If you want a biblical example of loss, read Lamentations. Jeremiah sobbed over the loss of homeland. The book has five chapters — the first two and the last two chapters each have 22 verses. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, and each verse in these chapters begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. The third and middle chapter has 66 verses, and the pattern is replicated. Three times in that third chapter Jeremiah runs through the Hebrew alphabet. It is his way of mourning loss — from A to Z — over and over again.
Look at Job. He not only lost his 10 children and wealth in 1 day, but he also lost his health. He developed painful sores that he scrapped with broken pottery as he sat in ashes. His wife harped on him to curse God and die, and his three best friends, along with a smart-mouthed youngster, vex him with words. No wonder he said, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11).
A depressive environment can be both physical and emotional, as we see with Job. That is why I clean off my desk when I leave work. Clutter tends to make me depressed. When I am physically organized, I do better.
A depressive environment can stem from the company one keeps. Job’s wife certainly did not help him. He could not walk away from her and remain faithful to God. So, he endured, and God helped him. Ultimately, everything turned out right; even his wife got better and went on to have another set of 10 children (and after 20 children, Job’s wife could have been the one suffering with depression of the postpartum kind).
As a young minister I found myself getting negative about many things. The Spirit spoke to my heart one day and said, “You are hanging around with friends who are negative. You either need to change friends, or change them.” I did a little of both and got relief.
A healthy self-concept comes from our sense of identity (we are comfortable with who we are), worth (in a humble way, we know our value to God and others), and competence (we are able to succeed in the roles given to us).
A poor self-concept can lead to depression. Look at Naomi. In the opening chapter of Ruth she had given up on life and God. Her identity had been stripped through the loss of her husband and sons. The fact she had no descendants left her feeling worthless. And, she felt helpless to do anything about her situation.
When she returned to Bethlehem she asked her friends and family to start calling her Mara (bitter) instead of Naomi (pleasant, lovely, delightful, see Ruth 1:20). She had lost her sense of identity, worth, and competence.
Maybe you feel like being called Brother (or Sister) Bitter. Life has thrown you a wicked curve ball, and you no longer have confidence in yourself or feel you are worth anything. That perspective can certainly breed depression.
Psalm 32 records the depths of David’s depression after his sin with Bathsheba. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (verses 3,4).
Thank God for that kind of depression. Why? That form of depression leads to repentance. An individual who sins and then walks away without sorrow endangers his soul eternally.
The best thing a pastor can do when he has sinned is to follow David’s example. In this case, depression is a sign that the Holy Spirit is using His Brillo® Pad to clean the soul.
At one point in my ministry I went through a brief time of feeling down. I examined the causes for depression listed above and none of them applied. Then it dawned on me — the church was in a major growth spurt. The enemy was trying to pick me off through discouragement and depression.
In doing the Father’s will, Jesus knew about depression produced by spiritual warfare. In Gethsemane, “He began to be deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The English Majority Text Translation states, “He began to be greatly amazed and deeply depressed.”1 The Phillips Translation: He “began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.”2
Jesus then told Peter, James, and John, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). The Greek text has one word for “overwhelmed with sorrow” — perilupos. This word can be used to describe a tight-fitting girdle — encompassed (or literally, girded about or surrounded) with sorrow. Depression is often not a sin at all or a lack of faith and trust — it may be a deep sadness.
Before facing the outer agony of Calvary Jesus faced the inner agony of Gethsemane. The spiritual warfare was so great Luke tells us He was in “anguish” and “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
There are six major causes of depression: physical, a sense of loss, depressive environment, poor self-concept, spiritual failure, and spiritual warfare. Take a moment and ask yourself if you have experienced or are presently going through depression arising from any of these sources. It helps to identify the source before getting to the solution.
Jesus’ Model For Handling Depression
We have just considered the lowest moment in Jesus’ earthly experience — Gethsemane. His way of dealing with overwhelming sorrow provides a six-step pathway out of depression.
Jesus’ way of dealing with depression provides a powerful model that pastors can use in their personal lives when they experience a season of great sorrow.
Jesus did not isolate himself
Jesus let others into the inner circle of His apprehension, trouble, and grief. Too many believers have imprisoned themselves by treating their depression as a deep, dark secret that cannot be talked about with others. Jesus openly revealed His sadness to His closest and most trusted friends. Do you?
Jesus did not put on a mask
Jesus avoided the trap of saying to himself, I am the Son of God, and therefore, I cannot let anyone know the trial I am going through. He did not pretend to be happy when He was not. He verbalized what He was experiencing. Do you have anyone to talk to when you are feeling low?
Jesus did not try to handle His problems without the Father’s presence, comfort, and help. In the privacy of Gethsemane’s garden, He poured out His heart to His Father. He exampled for us the power of accepting the things either we cannot or should not change when He said, “Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Are you praying for God to help you accept what has been thrust on you?
Jesus did not dissipate His strength with bitterness or blame
Even the failure of His closest friends to stay awake and pray with Him did not deter Jesus from a right spirit and continued prayer. Are you keeping a sweet spirit in a difficult season?
Jesus rose to action
Events of life can momentarily paralyze or even cause people to flee in the wrong direction. Jesus could have abandoned the way to the cross by quickly leaving Gethsemane, ascending the Mount of Olives, and disappearing like David in a southeastern direction into the Judean wilderness. Instead, from His place of sorrow He rose to face what confronted Him.
What would you be doing today if you were not depressed? The challenge is to go ahead and do it anyway. May the Lord give you strength to face your difficulties and not run from them. Remember, the same wind that uproots a tree can lift a bird because the opposing force becomes a lifting force if faced in the right direction.
My Personal Testimony
I realize that my journey through depression may not parallel yours. None of us experience life in exactly the same way. I wrote some observations about depression after I emerged from it. I share them with you in the hope that a thought or two might be of resource and encouragement.
- The descent into depression may at first seem to overwhelm you. It can hit with such force that you question whether you can survive. Both Jonah and the Psalmist put it this way: “All your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Jonah 2:3; Psalm 42:7).
- God instantly starts to work. In the first weeks of my depression I spoke at a family camp. No one knew what I was passing through, but an older lady came to me privately and said, “Take courage, George, take courage. God’s way. God’s time.” I hung on to those words like a drowning man to a lifeline. Whether you have only a thin word from God to hold on to — or nothing at all — fall back on your faith. God is at work even when you cannot see it.
- Do not be surprised if things get worse. After surviving a few thunderous waves, my instinct was to think I had survived the worst. Not true. More was coming. Had I known in advance that things would get worse, I could not have taken it. I developed a new perspective on “God will not give you more than you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13). I wished that God did not have so much confidence in my carrying ability. A friend later told me, “God will pull you through if you can stand the pull.”
- Depression will either drive you to God or away from Him. There were times I hung in the balance just like Asaph (Psalm 73:21,22). I spent 1 hour every day for nearly 2 years journaling through the Psalms. I found that the Word drew me closer to God, helped me gain steadiness, and gave me the wisdom to let heaven deal with issues I might not be able to resolve. Spend time in the Word — take it in massive doses. I made a three-page typewritten list of my favorite promises in the Bible. I tucked this list into my Bible so I could read it over and over. I called it “God’s Exceeding and Great Promises to Me.”
- Get in control of some easy area. For me, that meant exercise and proper diet. I listened to great gospel music on my Sony Walkman® while on long, daily walks. I decided to eat healthier and cut down on my weight. I could control these things. When I could not sleep at night, rather than condemn myself to a night of tossing and turning, I took sleeping pills. My doctor offered to prescribe antidepressants. I only declined because I felt I was making progress without them.
- Take time daily for something you enjoy. I love to walk or read. I did plenty of both. I did not read heavy material. I am almost embarrassed to confess that I have a weakness for legal novels. They provided hours of escape for me. My consolation is that the great missionary Lillian Trasher loved Zane Grey novels — as did J. Philip Hogan, former executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions.
- Pray whenever you can. I prayed using the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern, or by employing ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). I prayed through the concepts of surrender, self-emptying, abandonment to God, relinquishment, and resurrection (per Richard Foster).
- Talk. Talk. Talk. Depression seeks to isolate you within yourself. Break down those walls by talking with the Lord, with a close, personal friend, with yourself (through journaling), and with a professional counselor.
Pride often keeps pastors from seeking help. I had to learn to surrender my pride and admit I needed the resources of an experienced Christian psychologist. His weekly insight helped me stay on the course of recovery.
- Develop a checklist. Every day I asked myself five questions: Have I talked with the Lord? Has the Lord talked to me? Am I in the Lord’s will? Have I lived Mark 8:34–38? Have I helped anyone?
I do not know what your checklist might be, but mine helped anchor me and give me purpose. The last question was especially important because it made me realize that other people were in pain and that I could do something about their need.
- Sow the seeds for a good future harvest. It was during this season of depression that my two published volumes on the Psalms were birthed; that the inspiration came for doing a Roots of Pentecost Tour in Los Angeles with Mel Robeck that has now resulted in thousands of people visiting the Bonnie Brae house where the Azusa Street revival began and other sites connected with the Azusa Revival; and that the outlandish idea occurred of asking Tommy Barnett to take a small church in Los Angeles and build a great work for God — a task he accepted — now called the Dream Center.
God wants to work in your down times. Let Him birth something in you. Psalm 84:5–7 suggests when we pass through the valley of weeping (Baca) we make it a well.
Near the end of my time of depression, I picked up Guideposts and found reference to the following verse taken from a plaque hanging on the wall in the ranch guesthouse kitchen of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowman, Colorado.
I was regretting the past,
and fearing the future.
Suddenly God was speaking:
“MY NAME IS ‘I AM.’ ”
I waited, God continued:
“When you live in the past,
with its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
MY NAME IS NOT ‘I WAS.’
“When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears,
it is hard. I am not there.
MY NAME IS NOT ‘I WILL BE.’
“When you live in this moment,
it is not hard. I am here.
MY NAME IS ‘I AM.’ ”
Depression has the tendency to toss people back and forth between the waves of their losses in or regrets over the past, and their fears or anxieties for what the future holds. However, since He is with you in the present moment — be present in this moment with Him. You cannot live in either the past or the future. All you have is now — live in it.
The most helpful moment in my depression came one day while I was admiring a wood carving on my desk. I thought to myself about how I had always wished to have artistic talent, but I still drew stick figures for humans the same way I did when I was in grade school.
As a child, I so badly wanted to draw that I bought dot-to-dot coloring books. As I sat at my desk, I remembered that even before I had connected the dots, I had a general idea of the picture that was going to emerge. Suddenly, I felt the Holy Spirit say to me, George, the problem in your life right now is that you no longer see the dots. The desert sands have blown into your life and covered the dots. All you can see right now are the dots of this morning and this evening. Go ahead and connect them, and trust Me that I know where all the other dots are.
The “I AM” God was present with me through the days when I only had the morning and evening dots. I encourage you to keep connecting the dots. The Lord knows where He is leading you, and the full picture will emerge some day. Continue daily trusting His providential care for you (Proverbs 3:5,6).
1. Scripture taken from the English Majority Text Translation of the Holy Bible (EMTV). Copyright © 2002 by Paul W. Esposito. Used by permission of the copyright holder. Courtesy of Stauros Ministries.
2. J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English,1962 edition, published by HarperCollins, is used with the kind permission of Mrs. Vera Phillips and the J.B. Phillips estate.