In his book Christians Get Depressed Too author David Murray writes:
"My choice of title . . . is intended to oppose and correct a very common Christian response to Christians suffering from depression: “But Christians don’t get depressed!” How many times have you thought that, said that, or heard that? How many times have Christian pastors and counselors made this claim, or at least implied it? If it is true that Christians don’t get depressed, it must mean either that the Christian suffering from depression is not truly depressed, or he is not a true Christian. But if this notion is false, what extra and unnecessary pain and guilt are heaped upon an already darkened mind and broken heart."
It’s true that Christians do get depressed sometimes and that means that the way we talk about this subject has to be very sensitive and very careful. I want to tread lightly in the words that follow recognizing that perhaps some of my readers may be in that boat, some may feel like Jonah. That being said, I think it is important to consider carefully Jonah’s depression and ask ourselves if we find ourselves in his shoes because we are committing the same sins as him.
It is not, of course, that all depression is a result of sin. I most certainly do not want to imply such a thing. But in Jonah’s specific case we are on solid ground to make such a claim. The context of Jonah lets us in on the real character of this man. Jonah is a prophet, a spokesman for the living God, who is actually obsessed with himself. The story opens with the prophet, having been given a task by the almighty, deciding to run from God because he doesn’t want to do what God has instructed him to. He hates Nineveh and refuses to warn them of impending judgment, he does not want to be known as the prophet who warned Israel’s enemies for their doom. The trend continues as we look to chapter four where it reaches its climax in Jonah’s bitterness towards God for showing mercy. Listen to the way he talks about God’s demonstration of mercy on Nineveh:
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
The language Jonah uses here is important. He says that he runs from God’s mission precisely because he wanted to avoid the outcome that has taken place. The New Living Translation interprets verse three in an interesting way, and a way that I think demonstrates the true cause behind Jonah’s resentment. In verse 3 the NLT reads: "Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive because nothing I predicted is going to happen.” A number of scholars believe that Jonah’s bitterness is a result of his fear of being labeled a false prophet.
According to the Old Testament the key to distinguishing a false prophet from a true prophet was 100% accuracy on predictions (Deut. 18:22). Jonah’s fear, then, seems somewhat legitimate. He had predicted “in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” If God has now relented of his wrath against the city then Jonah is going to look more than just foolish. But still the prophet is consumed with himself, with his appearances, with his role, and not with God’s mission. He is even so consumed with himself that God’s illustration of how petty and selfish he is being is essentially lost on him.
As Jonah sits on the hillside hoping to see Nineveh wiped-out God gives him a plant to shade him from the hot sun. Verse 6 is the only time in the whole book that we read that the prophet is happy or glad. But to show him how selfish he is being God sends a worm to destroy the plant. The sun wears on the prophet until he once again cries out to die. And at that moment, finally God interjects a question. We read:
"But God said to Jonah, 'Do you do well to be angry for the plant?' And he said, 'Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.' And the LORD said, 'You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?'” (Jonah 4:9-11)
God’s question is meant to force Jonah’s eyes open. “Is it okay for you to be so upset about something you had nothing to do with, Jonah, and yet it is not okay for me to be equally concerned for the lives of 120,000 people whom I created?” In light of the comparison we are able to see how absurd and backward Jonah’s focus is. He is obsessed with himself.
The guiding principles I want to make from this passage surely do not apply to all cases of depression, and yet I can’t help but see here in Jonah that his depression is rooted in his narcissism. His egocentrism fuels his bitterness towards God and his unwillingness to love others. Jonah would rather die than not see his plans realized. He wants Nineveh dead, and if that isn’t going to happen then he wants off this planet. Of course he had the chance to die only two chapters prior. In the depths of the ocean, from inside the great fish, with seaweed wrapped around his head, he cried out for mercy. He wanted to live, but now that he his plans are not going to be fulfilled, now that he may look stupid, it’s all over. “Kill me now Lord. For it is better for me to die if what I predicted isn’t going to happen.”
Part of the reason the book ends without any sort of reconciliation or closure is because God wants to leave the question hanging for us the reader. “Is it right for us to be angry with God?” This is not a question about whether or not we do get angry with God, or if we, like the psalmists, shouldn’t sometimes express that anger and frustration. The question of Jonah is much less complicated: Is it right to be angry with God? And the question has in mind the context of Jonah. Is your anger, your bitterness, your depression merely rooted in your selfishness? Herein lies Jonah’s failure: he cares primarily about his plans, his desires, his credibility . . . not God’s and certainly not the salvation of Nineveh.
After reading Murray’s book I know I want to be careful. I don’t want to imply that all depression comes from these roots, it most certainly doesn’t. I counsel a wide array of people with all sorts of underlying causes for depression. But this context certainly fits some of us who struggle with a deep darkness. Our self-obsession, our self-focus, can easily lead us to depression. And if you aren’t there yet, then simply wait until God doesn’t do what you expect him to. But such depression is sin. Not all depression is sin, but that which stems from an egocentrism is. The path out of this dark forest then is going to be opposite of the way we came in: love others and serve God. It’s not that this is some sort of simplistic cure-all, but it’s the key starting place. If our depression comes from our haughtiness, then our cure begins with our humility.
Jonah is not a happy book; it ends as a cautionary tale. It warns us not to be like Jonah. Depression is a complex issue with many relating factors and a host of potential causes. It is a serious issue and one that shouldn’t be dismissed or improperly treated. And yet for some the starting place is simple enough: stop focusing on yourself.
Jonah’s depression, like all of Jonah’s story, gives us cause to pause and consider ourselves. Am I like him?
Dave Dunham is a pastor of a GenNext church in one of the most troubled cities in Southern Ohio, as well as teacher at a local university an interdenominational Free Seminary.
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