30 November 2006

Unbelief is depressing

by Dan Phillips

Sad to say, I have the personal resumé to write an extended series of articles about depression.

In reading through Numbers, I was reminded of one potent cause of depression. (No, I don't mean that reading through Numbers causes depression.)

The nation of Israel was dallying in the desert. They were there as a penalty for their unbelief. In these wanderings, they came to Kadesh, and ran short on water (Numbers 20).

This was their reaction to the situation:
And the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink" (Numbers 20:3-5)
First, I'd observe that their concern had a basis in reality. I've lived in the desert. Water is nothing to spit at. (Pause for laughter to die down.) (Very short pause.) You just don't go anywhere without spare stores of water on-hand. And so here were hundreds of thousands of people, in the desert, and they'd come short on water. This isn't an "Oh, well, what's on TV?" situation. It is a legitimate crisis. Without water, they would die.

Depression doesn't need an objective cause. M'man Spurgeon spoke of causeless depression, and I may add my own thoughts someday. Dealing with free-floating depression is like boxing a fog bank. This was not of that nature. This depression was able to fix on objective realities.

Second, their viewpoint was incomplete, and that in two specifics. Glaringly, the Israelites had forgotten why they were still in the wilderness. They were stuck in the desert because of their own unbelief. Surely you remember the story, from Numbers 13-14. In sum:
God said "Go"
They said "No"
So God said "No go"
They said "Woe!"
(Some tried...
...they died)
So in their response here, they blame everyone — everyone, that is, except themselves. It's Moses' fault. It's Yahweh's fault (cf. 21:5). But of course the truth is that it was their fault, it was the fault of their unbelief. And so, having failed to learn from the previous lesson, they simply repeat their sin.

Let me underscore that point.

"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction," (Romans 15:4), and we mustn't miss the lesson here. Refuse to learn from discipline for sin, and you will repeat both sin AND discipline. This is why Proverbs is so full of thunderous warnings and reproofs for the man (or woman) who bull-headedly refuses to accept discipline, rebuke, correction (cf. 1:24-31; 10:17; 12:1; 15:10; 29:1, etc.).

You and I may stop our ears, stiffen our necks, harden our hearts, and turn our backs. We may even eventually forget. But God doesn't. We can be sure that it will come up again, and again, until we either address the issue or fall under it.

I think of my kids in our home school. On occasion, some kid may give me a bunch of sloppy, slapdash, thoughtless homework. I take my red pen and (as my wife says) proceed to bleed all over it. Then I lecture. Then I add some stiff penalties in terms of lost privileges and/or extra work.

And if that child then clearly seethes with anger at me, I say, "If you blame me for what just happened to you, I guarantee it will just keep happening to you, again and again. Today is a result of the decision you made yesterday. Think and do the same today, and the same (or worse) will happen tomorrow, and for the same reason."

So why were these knotheads still in the desert, in the first place? Unbelief. So how do they respond to the crisis they face, here, in-the-desert-because-of-unbelief?

With unbelief.

And in their unbelief, they had left God out of the equation. On the one hand, nobody could argue with part of their assessment of the situation. They were indeed short on water. Without water, an unpleasant death was certain. That's "dire" according to any dictionary.

But what of God? Their thinking did not include Him fully. That miscalculation, from the matrix of unbelief, was the cause and sustenance of their despair.

The essence of depression, and the unbelief that is so often at its root, is not that it is completely baseless. It may have a fragile and tenuous basis, or it may have a large and overwhelming basis. Either way, its vantage point is incomplete. It is incomplete in a way that makes it end up completely wrong.

Suppose I meet this little shrimpy old guy in an alley, and he tries to rob me. I say, "Dude, you're old, and I've got a hundred pounds on you, plus a green belt in karate. You're completely outmatched."

He shrugs and says, "Except for this gun."

"Yeah, well, except for that," I reply, noting sagely that one factor can alter the entire equation.

And so Israel, never having dealt with their sin head-on, never having confronted the abhorrent and appalling nature of their unbelief head-on, and never having estimated God correctly, once again miscalculate. They leave out one crucial factor. They leave out God. And they're depressed.

And so I suggest to you that, at the root of much (not all) of our depression is a similar miscalculation.

But while we're shaking our heads at what nincompoops those dumb Israelites were, we should reflect pointedly on our own unbelief. We have one thing they didn't have. We have their story. Plus a truckload of additional revelation, including the whole New Testament.

So when our own unbelief casts us down into our own depression, let us learn from their example, that we not repeat it. Let us reach into our own coats, and pull out the precious key called Promise. Let us make it ours by faith, use it, escape from Giant Despair, and head for the joy that is our portion.

Dan Phillips's signature


A Birdy said...

Good post

Questions - Are all types of depression caused by sin/unbelief?.

Are there types of depression caused by "chemical imbalances" that require medication to treat that are not direct results of sin/unbelief?

étrangère said...

Helpful. Like Gavin, I'll be interested in your post on 'causeless depression', that floating fog bank (I'd say more like a mile long block of reinforced concrete settling over the heart) which has as its root that we are bodies still affected by the fall, until we're given resurrection bodies. But good post on unbelief - so often we blame circumstances rather than admitting that our hearts have sinfully siezed on the circumstances as an opportunity for sin rather than faith.

[It took me 3 times reading the illustration of the robber to understand it, cos when I read, "I've got a hundred pounds on you" I thought pounds sterling, not pounds weight... which made it make no sense whatsoever.]

James Scott Bell said...

Dan, no one ever needs to be depressed. Don't you know that? Listen, if you stand up straight and start smilin', and just say to yourself "I'm not gonnna have this stinkin' attitude," you'll have your best life NOW? This is true Christianity! I know this because I heard it on TV. The guy preaching it smiled all the way through! He wasn't depressed! Come on, man.

DJP said...

If you'll read me carefully, Gavin, you'll see that I in turn was very careful neither to state nor imply that all depression is caused by unbelief. Hormonal issues, for instance, may require supplements, and so forth.

StrangeFrenchishGirl -- that floating fog bank (I'd say more like a mile long block of reinforced concrete settling over the heart) -- I very much agree with your sentiment. I chose "fog bank" very deliberately, because you can swing and kick and blow away at it, and mostly you just succeed in wearing yourself out, and further losing heart. Hard to find a picture that combines the very palpable effects of this sort of depression, with its intangible polymorphicity.

So, how many "stone" would 100 pounds be?

Kay said...

I think it's about 7 stone. Could be wrong, though, maths is not my strong suit.

donsands said...

Excellent post.

The blame game is a big problem in the world. In the Church? Yep.

You got that right, We blame everyone but ourselves.

Is God sovereign? If we believe yes, and we let this truth sink deep down into our ears, then we have the foundation to endure and overcome.
If we don't, then this unblief needs to be dealt with. Repent and cry to the Lord for mercy and grace in time of need.

I went through a down time, because the church was quite judgemental toward me. Very depressing.
By God's grace, He has brought me through, and I have a way to go, until the next desert, but hopefully I will have learned, and grown in His grace, and am better able to fight the good fight of faith. "To Him be glory for ever. Amen". Rom. 11:36

joey said...

I was just encouraged by a post on depression...hmmm...I am reminded to trust God, no matter the circumstance. Thanks Dan.

Connie said...

Excellent topic to address during the Holiday season--often a tough time for many people.

When I recognize that I am slidding down toward depression, or when I'm encouraging a brother or sister-in-Christ who is slidding down, I am constantly reminded of Philippians 4:8, "Finally, Brethern, whatever is true,...let your mind dwell on these things." Before anyone accuses me of "Polly Anna" theology, please hear me out.

In Dan's example, the need for water was very real, or "true" according to Phil. 4:8. But what we often forget is that "whatever is true" of God is of infinitely more value and reason for hope!

The Psalmist in 119:52 understood this when he said, "I have remembered Thine ordinances from of old, O Lord, and comfort myself". There are plenty of other Psalms that reflect this sort of "self counseling" done by God's people--all because THEY KNEW their God.

This is NOT a "magic pill"!! It requires humbling ourselves to His will and providence, and recognizing that whatever He chooses for us is right and good--for His glory.

As my husband recently pointed out, this is our "working theology", not the theology we recite when questioned by others.

I don't look forward to times of depression--I know they come and go--but each time I find myself better prepared for the next time, and better prepared to walk alongside my sisters and brothers during their dark times.

Kim said...

Dealing with free-floating depression is like boxing a fog bank.

That's a good analogy. I have always seen it more like being locked in a room with windows and no door.

C.T. Lillies said...

Dan wrote:

God said "Go"
They said "No"
So God said "No go"
They said "Woe!"
(Some tried...
...they died)

Let me guess, they now have a "Bill and Ted's Excellent Version" of the Bible?

Unbelief IS depressing but if it makes us sit down and think about what we've done it's a blessing. I have to look at it like it's sort of like an emotional timeout.

except for that Good one...

"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

Tim said...

The one whose attention is focused on the Lord can rejoice, even when the worst imaginable circumstances occur:

Habakkuk 3:17-19

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,

18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.

DJP said...

That passage has been a great encouragement to me as well, Tim.

Catez said...

this is our "working theology", not the theology we recite when questioned by others.

I like that Connie - nice. I think of it as living out the theology, and that's a process for me when something big happens or is happening.

I think I get you on this Dan. I think most people have had some kind of depression, albeit mild for some.
I do see a difference between the floating fog and the reactive kind - which I think you pointed out (it's early here and I'm doing my best).

Unbelief - yes. In thinking about it I am aware that faith is from God. Which I say because I have come across the whole idea of some-one trying to make themselves believe something (like Norman Vincent Peale's positive thinking) only to end up feeling worse.

I think too of some of David's psalms - "why are you cast down my soul" - and the process he goes through of first realising his depression and then through to recognising that his hope is in God (belief).

DJP said...

Yes, catez; D. M. Lloyd-Jones makes good use of Psalms 42 and 43 in his Spiritual Depression. He points out that the psalmist preaches a sermon to himself. He says our problem is that we spend too much time listening to ourselves, and not enough time preaching to ourselves.

Connie said...

Regarding, "...are all types of depression caused by sin/unbelief...types of depression caused by "chemical imbalances"..."

You might consider reading Ed Welch's books, in particular "Depression A Stubborn Darkness". Joni Earechson Tada's endorsement of the book says, "Having wrestled through years of depression when I was first spinal-cord-injured, it was biblical insights that finally dissipated the fog of my feelings."

Hmmm, there's that "fog" again.

Unknown said...

I am only commenting so that you can reclaim the crown from Phil:-)

Good post. And I like the picture.

Ebeth said...

Good work, all. I have a close friend dealing with this. Not using "close friend" to hide my identity, by the way. But I have been there and done that [fog bank, and eventually Phil. 4:6-8, as well as other passages].

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

So every time we are "up against the wall" should we expect a miracle? Water flowing from a rock?

The running out of water kind of experience seems to get more frequent as we get older. Youth is a time for optimism because when we are healthy and strong we can withstand hardship and deprivation with the assumption that things will get better. As we get older we discover that some things don't get better they get worse. This becomes the source of dark thoughts about our future.

Leberwurst said...

Chemical imbalance?

What chemical?

How much of it am I supposed to have?

Being depressed because of unbelief, this I don't know much about, but anger and frustration because of a failure to trust in God, and instead wanting to do things my way and accomplish the results I desire...

that's something I can relate to.

DJP said...

The characteristic Biblical pattern, C Bart, is cross, then crown (Hebrews 12:1ff.) Each age has its own temptations, its own trials, its own promise. There is hope, in the Word, for each. Depression, living in the embrace of dark thoughts, is not a necessity.

Evan said...

I am a frequent reader and never commented because I usually don’t have anything to add. I just thought I would comment on the Chemical imbalance thing since I have been thinking about it lately because my brother is schizophrenic, which is said to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It seems to me that when people use the term it is just an excuse to shift the blame from being caused by sin to being caused by something physical. Though I haven't ruled out the possibility that some people might have a "chemical imbalance," I still see a real problem with this diagnosis. The main problem is that people who are suffering from depression or some other problem like schizophrenia are given medicine for a chemical imbalance they supposedly have, but in every person I know who is on medication for depression or schizophrenia have never been tested for this "imbalance." It is just assumed based on their evaluation. That to me is scary! So the doctor is giving medicine to balance out chemicals that may not even be out of balance in the first place. Also from what I have seen the medication doesn't really fix the problem it just dumbs down the symptoms a bit. From my point of view it seems that the root of the problem is almost always spiritual. It may not always be sin for a person to be depressed but I can be sure that even then the root of the problem is still the effect of sin. I think we should start with the presupposition that the problem is sin and the unbelief of fallen human heart (as Dan said) rather than immediately shifting the blame on the brain. Then we will be able remedy the problem more effectively and biblically.

DJP said...

It's a worthy caution, Evan. Still, chemical/physical causes are real. I met a lady once who, if memory serves, had spent something like 20 years in deep depression. Finally, a doctor diagnosed, if I recall correctly, a thyroid deficiency. She was prescribed a supplement, and almost instantly it was as if she woke up and saw herself in the mirror for the first time. She saw she'd put on a lot of weight, and a lot had gone to seed. She got right to work, cleaning up shop.

That would seem to me to be an example of a fairly clearcut physically caused depression.

But as you point out, an actual specific imbalance was identified and treated. She wasn't given a pill to make her feel better about being in bad shape.

Jmv7000 said...

One thing that helped me was to discover that depression in and of itself is not a sin, rather it is usually caused by an unbiblical response to an event. In this instance in Numbers, it is specifically caused due to Israel's unbiblical response to their sin.

Wayne Mack in his article "Biblical Help for Overcoming Despondency, Depression" does an excelent job of outlining this issue and how we should respond.

Here is what he says about why "blue" feelings turn into depression.

"Why did this [depression] happen? It happened because we failed to “rejoice in the
Lord.” It happened because we did not properly focus our mind on God.
It happened because we failed to do what the Psalmist did in Psalm
16:8, 9. The Psalmist said, “I have set the Lord continually before me;
because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore, my
heart is glad, and my glory [inner man] rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely."

This is in the Biblical Counselor's Journal, or you can email me and I will send you a copy.

S.G. said...

We don't know "jack."

Being in "da mental health biz" for nigh 30 years I'll give my educated opinion that we're really guessing about most of it.

Ultimately I think medicine is pragmatic. "We've got this pill, it seems to work. We theorize that it inhibits the uptake of a certain chemical and that seems to lessen depression or anxiety or both."
(Somehow depression and anxiety are connected; we're not sure how.)

Why do agrarian cultures in third world countries appear to have much less depression and anxiety?

Maybe it's the artificial lighting of our world? Who the heck really knows.

BTW, my little girl (now 21) functions well in life only if she stays on meds. Anytime she's tried to come off them it's all "gone south" really fast.

I'm thankful to God's common grace to a wicked and messed up generation. I am sure we're doing life all wrong.

Rachael Starke said...


As someone who has struggled with depression of both the hormonal (pregnancy) and circumstantial (3 young little sinners at home, currently without church family)nature, as well as close family with supposedly the chemical variety(schizophrenia and manic depression),you have forever justified your and the other Pyros existence with this post! I've actually committed it to a slice of tree and placed it on my fridge - haven't even done that for a Challies post.

c. stephen -
IOW, when Paul lays out the extent of our depravity in Romans 3, his ommission of the brain in the list of depraved parts was intentional because it was somehow overlooked at the Fall?? I'd respectfully have to disagree with you there.

Unlike the field of Creationism, where at least there is some kind of battle for the truth, the entire field of medecine seems to have been given over entirely to the world, who deny any interaction between the physical and the spiritual. Are there physical factors (lack of sleep, improper nutrition, difficult/horrible life circumstances, genetics) that can contribute to our spiritual outlook? Without doubt. But the bigger questions for me are what is primary, what is secondary, and, most importantly, to what or Whom do we turn FIRST? My vote is for the One who is omniscient! That being said, after trying in vain to find a single Christian with sufficient integrated medical knowledge and spiritual discernment to adress my family member's issues properly, I have begun to pray that one day there will be a schools of medecine attached to seminaries, where godly men and women with a passion for God and who are called to that field might be trained to care for the body and the soul at the same time.

Leberwurst said...

What chemicals are out of balance that cause depression? How are they measured? Are they produced naturally in the body? What is the benchmark? Are the chemicals being used to treat the problem a temporary or permanent solution? Is there a beteter way?

Leberwurst said...

I mean "better" way...

Also, is it possible the imbalance is the result of teh depression and not the cause? What exactly was the cause of David's depression that he alludes to in Psalms 51 and 32? And how was the "imbalance" corrected?

In other words, if there is an organic problem that you can identify and correct, please do so. But if there is a nebulus "imbalance" that cannot be quantified perhaps it would be better to submit to the scalpel of scripture rather than turning to the psychologist's cure o' the day...

DJP said...

Mike, you sound like someone who just speed-read Jay Adams and thinks he knows the answers to every human problem, personally.

Read the comment thread. You were, I believe, pointed in several directions for physically-caused or -related depression.

Leberwurst said...

I am not unsympathetic to those who suffer either because of physical or mental problems in this earthly life. I apologize if my tone offended. Sometimes a pithy response comes off that way.

Tim, your post is well taken, I included in my comment that if it can be measured and quantified to take advantage of available treatment. My comments were also not intended to belittle those who seek help in these areas, but rather that we as christians be cautious when submitting to many of todays philosphies with regard to mental illness and syndromes.

I understand that "take 2 scriptures and call me in the morning" is a callous and inadequate treatment. As with any difficult life situation the spiritual solution is bound to be equally difficult and will require discipline, examination, and the love, support and prayers of the body of Christ.

DJP, I certainly do not have all the answers, in fact I know I am totally inadequate with regard to wisdom insofar as it comes from my human reason, and uncontrolled tonque. I must trust the Word of God to reveal my sin, and correct my errors.

I certainly do ask for forgiveness from those I offended. And please accept my apology and sympathy in your difficult plight.

DJP said...

That's a very gracious response, Mike. For whatever it's worth, I totally agree (as do, I think, other commenters) with a general attitude of skepticism about psychotropics. A doctor gave me Valium once for a knot in my back, I took it once, and immediately was happy and content. I thought, "Boy, I can see how people get hooked on this."

Emotional pain, like physical pain, can very well point to a deeper problem. It'd be malpractice to give a pain killer, only, for undiagnosed cancer. And so medicating away sadness that is actually caused, in part or whole, by sin or unbelief, is in the long run actually counter-productive.

Equally, though, preaching at an under- or over-productive gland is also futile.

But on the third hand, or wherever we are, I'm not certain that some depression can't be so deep that the person can't even rally to do what needs to be done, without at least a little temporary relief.

I'll add my "Amen" to the thought of more integration of Biblical wisdom with physical knowledge.