The Psalms as Prescription for Depression

by Nick Murray May 8, 2015

Just the other day, I was meeting with a sister in Christ who battles depression. One of the most raw and honest things that she said was that there are times when she feels repulsed by the Bible. That word really stuck in my head, both for its brutal honesty (which I really appreciated) and for its poignancy. And what I have found in conversations with others, and in the (limited amount of) literature that I have read on the topic, is that this is an incredibly common emotion.

When the darkness is heaviest, it is hard to go to the Word. But I believe that those are the times where the Word is the most necessary. 

One of the reasons that the Bible can feel repulsive to the depressed is that it has a largely hopeful trajectory. This is a good thing, but for the depressed, it feels like a cheap shot. The promises of hope and joy lead some to think to themselves, “Yeah right. If this is true, then why do I feel like this right now?”

It’s a fair question. But it is a question that the Bible itself is familiar with and that the writers of portions of the Bible knew all too well. This is why the Psalms are so important, particularly the psalms of lament. 

What is interesting is that, for those not well-versed with the emotions of the suffering (which, mind you, are the regular emotions of the people of God), these psalms are the passages of Scripture that the “happy” people feel confused by or, dare I say, repulsed by. But for the depressed, I believe that they can be like balm to a bitter soul.

 What I want to do is prescribe a progression through three psalms (or four, depending on how you’re counting). I believe that they are rather eye-opening for all of us, but especially those struggling with depression, in the way that they mirror exactly what we feel in our own hearts. The progression is to show three things:

First, you are not alone. Others have felt this way. And others have taken these feelings to God.

Second, after you have poured out your complaints to God (which is good and right), you must be sure to move beyond listening to yourself toward preaching to yourself. In depression, it’s easy to curve in, to be self-centered, to shut out every voice but your own deflated one. But that sets you up on a downward spiral.

Third, once you have registered your self-directed sermons, your thinking can begin to shift. That is not to say that the depression goes away. Nor is it to say that this is always easy. But, your thinking begins to make room for the truth there is a good God, even in the midst of depression. God’s kindness is not diminished in depression. Now, that’s easier to say that to believe. But I think that’s why this progression is important. 

Now to the Psalms. And I recommend that you read these. Read them in depth. And read them several times through.

Psalm 88

This psalm is unique because it is one of the only psalms that has no positive turn. It’s all negative. But what is remarkable about this psalm is how much of a mirror it is to the depressed. The things the psalmist feels are the things that someone with depression feels. And that is comforting. Because not only are you not the only person to feel this way, but a believer (and then believers down through the ages who have used this psalm for themselves) have also felt this way. This psalm is honest. It’s expressive. And it is a great example of pouring out these thoughts and emotions to God — the safest place to do such a thing. 

Psalm 42-43

These psalms go together, and include the same refrain repeated throughout. So take them together. But after you have felt the empathy of the psalms, the solidarity of one who has been where you are, then you start to see that you can trust these things — that maybe these old poems are more helpful than we think. So, with that foundation, then we turn to the preaching to yourself (taking our cues from Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Here again in this psalm, there is deep sadness. There are tears. There is a loss of appetite. There is a downcast longing for a brighter day. But, then there is a self-directed sermon. The psalmist preaches to himself, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Hope in God.” He says the same thing three times —which goes to say, we must continually preach to ourselves. Not just one time, but consistently. We tell ourselves to lift our eyes, to remember what He has done. 

Psalm 13

Once we have seen that the psalms can be trusted, and that we must preach to ourselves, we start to remember the message. We start to actually practice what we have preached to ourselves. But that doesn’t mean all the difficulty has gone away, or that the depression has vanished. Psalm 13 starts by showing us this. “How long, O Lord?” is the main question, which again, is a primary groan in depression. But, by the end of this short psalm, there is assurance in the psalmist’s mind. Yes, the difficulty is still there, because he is still crying “How long?” But the hope is behind it all. He has resolved to trust in God’s steadfast love, which by definition is unchanging. He trusts, he hopes. The hope is that God has dealt bountifully with Him. So even if the depression still weighs heavy, the hope is heavier. 

To be sure, this short psalm walk-through won’t fix it all. But my hope is that it turns you (or someone you counsel) to the Bible, which will turn you to God. This is our pastoral goal, after all.