Carl Trueman on Depression
Do we make too much of suffering? Is depression sinful? Is it always the result of personal sin? Or poor preaching? Or defective theology and unbalanced homiletic emphases? I am convinced that this is not so. Once one moves in that direction, one is positing a tight and necessary connection between personal issues and specific suffering. That is not biblical and is pastorally very dangerous. Yes, suffering can sometimes be that way: the man who cheats on his wife and loses his family suffers as a direct result of his personal sin. But is the depressed person necessarily suffering because of some specific sin? The Bible, I believe, teaches that this is not so.
Preaching through Job recently, I was very struck by the Lord's final intervention. Job has suffered incredibly throughout the book; and we, the readers, know that none of this is his fault. It is the result of the battle between God and the Accuser and, if anything, Job's suffering is thus the result of his devotion to the Lord, which Satan wishes to test. And by the end of Job's last big speech (Job 31) he is depressed, and with good reason. The man has lost everything.
When God finally comes to Job, to this man who has suffered so much devastation, it is stunning that he comes in the whirlwind. No still small voice here: he comes in the whirlwind (and a brief search of 'whirlwind' passages in the Old Testament indicates that is not indicative of what we might call good bedside manner). Further, the Lord tells Job to arm himself as a man ('man up', I guess, would be the modern cliché) and then, rather than telling Job to deal with his own sin or even expressing the tiniest fragment of sympathy for him in his suffering, he subjects Job to a blistering lecture about divine greatness and sovereignty. Then, when Job has been crushed into silence, the Lord pushes on relentlessly, describing two terrifying beasts, Behemoth and Leviathan. If Robert Fyall's exegesis is correct (and I believe it is) then Leviathan is Satan; thus, only at this point does God offer any real help (as we might understand it) to Job, as he lifts the curtain just a little and allows Job to grasp that his suffering is a function of a greater and more complicated universe than he can possibly imagine, and that, whatever the empirical facts, the Lord has ultimate and overall control.
As I preached on this passage, I highlighted the fact that, by the criteria of today's world, even by the criteria of modern pastoral theology, the Lord is a total failure. Far too abrupt, harsh and unsympathetic. This is even more striking, given that the Lord knows that Job's suffering is nothing to do with any specific sin Job has committed or harbours in his heart. Job is not responsible for his own suffering: that is, after all, the basic premise of the book.Yet the Lord comes in the whirlwind. Not exactly touchy-feely pastoral, is it?
The Lord knows Job's suffering is not Job's fault. Thus, he does not tell Job to examine himself to root out his sin. Further, he seems to show no sympathy for Job; he berates him from the whirlwind; he offers no kind words of encouragement; and he does not even restore Job until after the sacrifice and intercession of the last chapter. We should also ask: how complete was Job's restoration? This man had lost ten children. Yes, he receives ten more. But children are not like iPods: they have individual identities, faces, histories, personalities. The loving father knows that each and every one of his children is, quite literally, irreplaceable. How many nights in later life would Job have lain awake, remembering with a broken heart the names and faces and the stories and the good times of his first children? And none of this was anything to do with Job's own sins or faults.
The lessons of Job are manifold but it seems that a few rather stand out: this is a complicated, fallen, evil world; Christians can expect to suffer - hey, we all die in the end, no matter how jolly we might feel at points in the interim, so we had better get used to the idea; Christians are no more exempt from depression than they are from cancer or strokes; and the idea that these things are necessarily linked to our lack of faith, to our personal sin, to our outlook on life, or, indeed, to anything intrinsic to us, is nonsense and unbiblical. A pastoral theology which has not grappled with the whirlwind and the speeches of the last part of Job is sub-biblical; and preaching which does not take these things into account is not biblical preaching. One might add that perhaps one of the key lessons of Job (and the Psalms, for that matter) is: it is OK to be depressed. It is horrible and grim and dark. But it may not be your fault, any more than cancer or a stroke are your fault. Above all, it does not mean that you are forgotten by God, even if God only ever seems to come to you in the whirlwind; and, finally, it does not mean that you will not participate in the glorious resurrection when all the travails of this world will be definitively left behind.
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