Depression - A Biblical Case Study Jonah
‘About two in three adults have depression at some time in their life. Sometimes it is mild or lasts just a few weeks. However, an episode of depression serious enough to require treatment occurs in about one in four women and one in ten men at some point in their lives. Some people have two or more episodes of depression at various times in their life’.1 Is this information only relevant in respect to men and women of the world, or does depression afflict believers?
If that seems a strange question to ask, it is asked because some Christians still feel that fellow saints should not get depressed. Indeed, that reflects a view within society as a whole. Another organization states, ‘Depression is a loaded word in our culture. Many associate it, however wrongly, with a sign of weakness and excessive emotion. This is especially true with men. Depressed men . . . tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in work and hobbies. Other signs and symptoms of depression in men include anger, aggression, violence, reckless behaviour, and substance abuse’.2
Was Jonah a spiritual weakling? Was he demonstrating what a useless prophet he was when, in his anger and frustration, he cried to God to ‘take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live’, Jonah 4. 3.
As we read the early verses of Jonah we might be persuaded that he was, at best, a reluctant messenger, or, at worst, a very weak prophet. Did Jonah really believe that he could ‘flee . . . from the presence of the Lord’? I suggest the reality is rather different. As Malcolm Horlock wrote, ‘A prophet who acknowledged the Lord as “the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land”, v. 9, would not have been so naive as to believe that he could elude God’s omnipresence’.3 Indeed, as we come to chapter 4 of Jonah we see something of his knowledge of his God. He can say, ‘I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness’, 4. 2. Why, then, does Jonah react in the way that he does?
Whilst his actions were primarily to get away from the nation and the land specifically associated with the presence of God, there was a deeper problem at work. The spiritual state of Israel may well have burdened Jonah, but the fact that God could act in mercy with their enemy seems to have become too much for Jonah to bear. Although Jonah’s symptoms may not have been as severe as those of Elijah, there is evidence of the reality of his feelings:
- Jonah was angry and irritable, 4. 1, 9.4
Jonah’s prayer in verse 2 demon- strates a man who is in a poor frame of mind. Throughout, we see Jonah arguing with God with respect to His actions
- As a consequence of that anger he displays a degree of irrational thought in respect of the gourd.5
‘In the final analysis Jonah was not angry with himself, or with men, but with the holy, righteous, perfect God. Jonah’s anger was so intense that he would rather die than live’.6 Is this the rational thought of a prophet who, from other verses, clearly knew his God?
- He expresses a degree of helplessness,7 ‘O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country?’ v. 2.
Essentially, Jonah’s problem was that he ‘became aware . . . that the repentance of Nineveh had prevailed with God and that Israel’s most dangerous potential enemy was to be spared . . . Jonah had suspected all along that this had been God’s design’.8 Although he had tried to rebel against God’s mission, he was helpless to counteract that which was the clear purpose of the Almighty.
- Jonah isolates himself, v. 5.9
How, then does God treat Jonah, and what might we learn from this study?
‘It is good to talk’
‘Doest thou well to be angry?’ v. 4.
God asks the question of Jonah and, in so doing, invites the prophet to talk. Initially, Jonah is unresponsive, reluctant to discuss his feelings. Indeed, it might be suggested that Jonah still entertained some false hope that God might yet visit judgement upon the Ninevites, v. 5. But God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy, Rom. 9. 15.
Yet God does not desert Jonah because of the prophet’s intransi-gence. God moves, behind the scenes, to provide for his disgruntled servant. We might have written him off, but God does not! Indeed, He returns and asks the question again, albeit this time in reference to the gourd. God shows that He cares, by listening, and encouraging Jonah to talk.
If we are to offer any help to those in ‘hard places’ we too must be prepared to listen, to talk when appropriate, but above all to care. We need to recognize that depression is as much a medical problem as a broken limb. In that sense, we must encourage and support the sufferer in seeking appropriate medical advice and treatment. It must not be confused with a lack of faith, or even weak faith, for, if success were to be measured by the number affected by the preaching, Jonah must be ranked amongst the most successful of all prophets and preachers!
‘Just being there’
‘Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd’, v. 6.
Jonah, in his high dudgeon, did not want to talk. God’s actions toward his prophet demonstrate His willingness to care for him even though much of that care seems to be rebuffed. If we are seeking to work with people who are suffering depression, some of our actions may be misjudged, despised, or ignored. Just as God in His handling of Jonah, we must be prepared to work with a person, expressing our affection in what we feel able to do, often, perhaps, secretly.10
‘Positive results take time’
In Jonah’s case the actions of God in providing the gourd brought an element of joy back into the life of the depressed prophet. However, the underlying anger is not far below the surface and, as the gourd withers and dies, Jonah’s mood takes a turn for the worse.
Unfortunately, as the book of Jonah comes to its close we are left wondering what the eventual outcome of this account was. Did Jonah respond positively to God’s patient correction of His prophet? We do not know. We hope that as Jonah was the author of the book that bears his name, he wrote this full account of his spiritual journey to underline the need for compassion for the spiritual needs of all people.
Some suggest that there is a positive indication in the historic account of Jeroboam II: ‘He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher’, 2 Kgs. 14. 25.11 Perhaps Jonah was restored to active service for the Lord once more. There is a sense in which Jonah needed to be brought to an end of himself and to an appreciation of the sovereignty of God. Equally, there was a deep lesson for the nation of Israel in the example of Nineveh. In the repentance of that great city there was salvation from the judgement of God. If only Israel could have taken the lesson to heart!
As we look out upon an increasingly secular society, there might be much to depress the Christian. However, as with Jonah, God is still at work, sometimes in areas that we might least expect. Similarly, depression is not irreversible! May we be exercised to offer what help we can to those in this situation.
1 http://www.patient.co.uk/health/depression-leaflet#. Accessed at 07-12-13. This website produced by Egton Medical Information Systems Limited, Leeds.
2 http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_signs_types_diagnosis_treatment.htm. Accessed at 07-12-13. This website produced in collaboration with the Harvard Medical School.
3 Malcolm Horlock, Jonah in The Minor Prophets, edited by Ivan Steeds, Precious Seed Publications, 1992, pg. 104.
4 ‘Other signs and symptoms of depression in men include anger, aggression, violence’, http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_signs_types_diagnosis_treatment.htm. ‘In some cases some people call depression ‘frozen anger’. You may have experienced something which left you feeling angry and helpless’, Katherine Darton, Understanding Depression, Mind, pg. 7.
5 God asks Jonah, ‘Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?’ 4. 9. ‘Someone with depression may
. . . be more liable to misunderstand others, or feel misunderstood, than usual’, Darton, pg. 21.
6 Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Nineveh’s Repentance and Jonah’s Wrath, found at: https://bible.org/seriespage/nineveh’s-repentance-and-jonah’s-wrath-jonah-3-4.
7 ‘When people are depressed, they often feel helpless, hopeless and alone’, http://www.bupa.co.uk/individuals/health-information/directory/d/hi-depression#textBlock202676. The website produced by BUPA, a private medical services provider.
8 Horlock, pg. 112.
9 ‘People with depression often isolate themselves from others’, http://www.bupa.co.uk/individuals/health-information/directory/d/hi-depression#textBlock202676. ‘Depression is . . . dark, lonely and very selfish’, http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/symptoms/. This website produced by Mind, a mental health charity.
10 As the BUPA website puts it, ‘Try to stay in contact, by talking on the phone and visiting if you can’.
11 Richard D. Patterson, Scripture Interpreting Scripture: A Case from Jonah 4:2, found at https://bible.org/article/scripture-interpreting-scripture-case-jonah-42.