23 July 2009

Unbelief is depressing [requested classic re-post]

by Dan Phillips
[Well, friends, I've finished the complete first draft. Now some select folks are reading and giving feedback, and I'm editing it in preparation for submission to the publisher. It's coming down to it! Also, I've a Bible conference in October to be thinking about. So... in this thread, commenter Deborah bids us reach back to November of 2006 for this re-post, slightly edited. It provides perhaps a balancing consideration to some thoughts I just offered on depression over at my blog, with attendant discussion, as well. Oh, and before you ask, I'm just fine, thanks!]
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.) (It's a very short pause.) You just don't go anywhere without spare stores of water on-hand. And so here were many 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, however, 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 deadly fog bank. But this situation 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 we 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 dear wife puts it) proceed to bleed all over it. Then, if nothing comes of that, I lecture. If there is no change in direction, I may add some stiff penalties in terms of lost privileges and/or extra work. It escalates.

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 when you were supposed to be doing your homework yesterday. Think and do the same today, and the same (or worse) will happen tomorrow, and for the exact same reason."

So why were these Israelite 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 more 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, "True. 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 miscalculates. 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 instructive 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 that let Christian and Hopeful out of Doubting Castle. 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


Eric Kaminsky said...

Speaking from someone who often finds himself in the throws of seasonal depression, it is often difficult to discern whether the depression is caused by unbelief, sin, and not responding to discipline of God, or a seasonal time of my soul being downcast for the purging of my pride and self reliance for God's sovereign plans and works planned before the foundation of the world.

Either way, it appears that God uses my down times for my Sanctificaiton if I hang onto the vine, disciple and be discipled by others, and pray and read (especially when I don't feel like it) Medication for such a condition is a opening up another can of worms. (I won't go there)

Penn Tomassetti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Penn Tomassetti said...

Believe me, if I had known what kind of discipline God would give me for my sanctification and because of my unbelief, I would have fought much harder to believe His warnings and do what was right in the first place by His grace.

It is better to fully believe and take to heart all the warnings of the Bible. God's Word never fails. Believe me... or, no rather, believe God's Word the Bible.

But we know God is completely Sovereign, so I see how He even answers my prayers for sanctification by His merciful discipline. Though it is indeed painful at the time.

gary and brenda said...

Wow, that was really good and helpful. I had missed that one. You should write a book on that -- oh yeah, there's that other thing you're doing...

DJP said...

Thanks. But this book isn't on that. So maybe if this one doesn't sink the company....

Paula said...

Our pastor preached last week on the "Discipline of Discontent" using Psalm 106, which I think is a close brother to unbelief. Verse 21:

They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea....murmur, murmur, murmur....v.26: Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them that he would make them fall in the wilderness, and would make their offspring fall among the nations."

More tragic than a believer who experiences unbelief & depression is an unbeliever who suffers from depression. I received a call this morning from my friend who is bipolar and an agnostic Jew in her 70's. She's in the throes of depression and going through morphine withdrawal. She said she hasn't called in a week because, "I just can't believe in Jesus and I thought you'd be mad at me."

Now, we've been friends for nearly 10 years and I know it's just the mental illness/paranoia speaking. I've stuck with her through her darkest times and never held her unbelief against her. There's a tangible darkness to the depression/mental illness an unbeliever experiences that seems to be almost physically at war with Jesus Christ. This is the only person I've ever had refuse when asked if I could pray with her (in the hospital).

It's agonizing to see someone at rock bottom with no rope to reach for. I'm not a big "Frank Peretti-spiritual warfare" type person, but I think Satan has a special foothold to demonstrate his evil in the mental illness of unbelievers.

Stefan said...

Dan: This was a really good (as in enriching) article. I'd rather say I sometimes get melancholic, and there is a direct correlation between melancholy and feeling distant from God—I think the latter is the cause of the former.

Regarding Hebrews 4:1 ("...while the promise of entering His rest still stands..."), when I come upon that verse, I think of Jesus Christ's words in Matthew 11:28-30 (and, for that matter, Jeremiah 6:16):

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

So the implication seems to be that entering Yahweh's rest (and Jeremiah's "walking in the good way") entails giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, taking his yoke and burden upon us (==> taking up our cross and following Him?) and learning from Him.

I guess this is all self-evident, but in the midst of spiritual inertia, it's good to remember that the promises of the Lord are sure, and that He is waiting for us to make the conscious effort to turn our sights back in His direction.

Stefan said...

By the way, that "feeling distant from God" is, in my experience, always a direct result of my own lapsing in prayer and Scripture reading, and never because God just suddenly seems to be far off.

Then the melancholy comes, and the struggles of work and home life—which, when not in a prayerful season in my life, seem that much harder to deal with, because I'm not regularly turning my challenges over to the Lord God for help and guidance, or focusing my mind on what's essential.

I'm not saying that's the case for anyone else here, but "feeling distant from God" sounded vague and flaky, so I thought I should clarify.

Penn Tomassetti said...


It is good that you are re-reminding people, like myself, that unbelief is not a handicap, but a sin, and a serious one at that.

Susan said...

Hooray!! Thanks, Dan. I needed this. Good companion piece to your post over at your blog.

One of the OT narratives that get me depressed is precisely this Numbers account--more specifically, the way Moses sinned because of the people and God's subsequent punishment of that sin. It's perhaps human nature to empathize with Moses and think God's judgment too harsh (after all, Moses had been provoked by these stiff-necked people time and again), even though I ought to know better than that. When I read that narrative and think about God's judgment upon my own sins, it simply cuts me to the heart. To think Moses missed out on the Promised Land because of one lousy "mistake" caused by some stupid people!!

My depressed thoughts over this continued until one day I was talking with a friend, and she said, "But Moses DID go to the Promised Land!" She was, of course, referring to Jesus's transfiguration episode. Later one of RC Sproul Sr's lectures confirmed that as well. In fact, RC said (paraphrase), "Isn't it just like God to do that?" (To finally allow Moses to have the blessing, I guess.) Knowing this gave me a glimmer of hope.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

(Psalm 103:8-14)

David Sheldon said...

Just an FYI for your readers (with which I think you will agree).

I have both personally read through for myself and discipled individuals through the Biblical texts/concepts in: "Spiritual Depression: It's Causes and Cures" by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

I have seen hearts turned (including mine) from depression to belief and the fruit that results. It graciously and lovingly brings one under Lloyd-Jones scalpel. As you have rightly pointed out - ownership of unbelief is critical. But sometimes seeing "unbelief" as our sin is difficult. Lloyd-Jones has one take ownership of unbelief in various areas per chapter titles. For example: That One Sin, Vain Regrets, Fear of the Future, Weary in Well-Doing, Learning to be Content, etc. Worthwhile reading that essentially has your exact premise as the topic: Unbelief is both depressing AND sinful.

DJP said...

Yep. Unbelief was a major contributing factor in my own depression.

I will only stand up and start throwing chairs when anyone tries to insist that the Bible demands that all aspects of all depression are all due to unbelief.

David Sheldon said...


I agree. We may even find ourselves in situations where our sorrow/depression/weeping is actually the result of us hearing from God! All one has to do is consider an O.T. Prophet like Jeremiah.

Isn't there a text in one of the prophets that states that God is actually looking for someone like this to USE? (My memory escapes me.)

David Sheldon said...

Text I was probably thinking of was Ezekiel 9:4.
"...put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst." NASB
Still agree with you.
Not all our depression is always and only the specific sin of unbelief.

Jason Brown said...

I read all of the blog posts and generally agree with your thoughts on this. I think those who have never suffered from real depression should be very careful about making judgements about those who do.

I have never suffered from depression myself, but the task has fallen to me to help some of these poor souls cope. There is so much I don't know about this, but I know it is real, and I believe it can have different causes. JI Packer says it can be physical, mental, or spiritual. I believe him on this point.

I also don't think depression is always the result of unbelief, or of sin in some form. When I read the account of Jesus in Gethsemane, he says "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death." Matt 26:38. That sounds like something very close to the depression that I have seen in others. I know Jesus never sinned, yet here he is in what appears to be despair. Maybe I am wrong about this, but I think we should be careful what we assume about others in this state, particularly if we have never been there.

In my experience, depression often seems to be a function of unbelief at some level, but it may not be the only cause, or the trigger. I have seen medically induced depression, where someone who has never suffered depression was suddenly in the pit of despair, shortly after medication was prescribed to them for some other reason. I have seen this depression last for as long as a year after the medicine was stopped. I also believe depression can be a function of hormones, particularly in women. I think it can be triggered by different things, including dire circumstances. I think some people are more predisposed to it than others, as a matter of their temperament (melancholy).

I do know that people who are depressed, I mean really depressed, may not be thinking rationally at all, so using logical arguments to bring them out of the pit they are in will only make it worse, and they may stop listening to you. I also believe that the enemy comes and takes advantage of that person's weakened state, whispering lies in their ears, like they are no good, and no one needs them, and God does not love them. In my uneducated opinion (so take it for what it's worth), these people need unconditional (1Cor 13) love. Jesus said also in Matt 26:38 "Stay here and watch with Me.". People in despair need someone to just be with them, to weep with them, to counter the lies of the enemy, to physically pick them up off the ground if need be. They need the Word read aloud to them, they need prayer, they need their closest friends to come sit with them (Jesus took Peter, James, and John). They need us to persevere with them.

When the poor soul you are helping gets through the worst of it, and they begin thinking rationally again, then you can go about gently helping them to battle their unbelief, or other issues that may be contributing to their depression.

Again, I claim no expertise in this area, but I believe that assuming anyone who is depressed is in sin, or being a selfish jerk (Mike Adams 2009), or just needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is the wrong way to approach this. I think we start by loving and caring for them, and then we move on from there.