Since the Bible is essentially the history of the heroes of faith and their interactions with God, you might assume that none of these titans of holiness were depressed in the Bible. Perhaps these heroes of faith might have been surrounded by depressed individuals, certainly they must have been immune to brokenness and despair, right? Yet a closer look at the Scriptures reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. Depression in the Bible isn’t an anomaly, it’s the norm.
Some of the greatest, most well-known people in the Bible’s history had what I like to call “mental health moments”, where their circumstances overwhelmed them and they needed a way out. In their desperation, I can identify at least three of these mighty men of faith that actually appear to have moved beyond depression and into suicidal thoughts.
3 Characters in the Bible who struggled with depression
Again, you might assume that these examples of suicidal people in the Bible are not heroic in any way, but you’d be wrong. These individuals might represent three of the most well-known characters in the Bible, apart from Jesus himself. They are none other than Moses the law-giver, the prophet Elijah, and the Apostle Paul. Each of these prominent men of God had moments where they were overcome by their emotions and longed for, or at least considered, death as a legitimate option. Think there’s no Bible verses for the suicidal? Think again. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these elevated Bible characters, to see what we can learn from them about dealing with depression God’s way.
#1. Moses and Suicidal Thoughts
Did you know that Moses once asked God to kill him? He got so fed up with the complaints of the people of Israel that he demanded that God take his life to spare him from misery. You can find this sobering, unexpected event in Moses’s life in Numbers 11. After God started sending manna down from heaven every day for the people to collect and eat, they complained about having the same food every day. They longed for the variety of vegetables and meat from Egypt and voiced their complaints to God. We pick up the story in Numbers 11:10:
Moses heard all the families standing in the doorways of their tents whining, and the Lord became extremely angry. Moses also became very aggravated and said to the Lord, “Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!”
In other words, Moses allowed a frustrating moment to get the best of him and overreacted, but he overreacted directly to God. This wasn’t an empty cry, because Moses complained to someone who could answer his request. God could have taken his life in that moment to answer his prayer. But God looked behind the request to die and saw the dual reasons for Moses’s frustration.
Moses was exacerbated that Israel whined about not having meat after all that God had already done for them. But there was a deeper issue at work here. Moses found himself overworked because he managed all the needs of millions of people—simply too much for a single person to handle! In his wisdom, God addressed both issues. He gave Moses seventy people to share the burden of leadership with, and he also gave Israel meat. In other words, God responded gently and wisely to Moses’s depression and met both the primary and the secondary needs.
God does the same with us in our trials and brokenness. I know God will meet our needs just like Moses’s needs because our God never changes. We can trust him to be faithful even when it seems like things are falling apart because he says he is trustworthy and has proven himself to be so.
#2. Elijah and Depression
Elijah had just taken part in a tremendous victory with God against the prophets of Baal. In a prophetic showdown, Elijah and the prophets of Baal had both called upon their God to burn a sacrifice with fire from the heavens. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Elijah won because God showed up with fire and Baal didn’t.
But this victory had a high cost—the king and queen worshiped Baal, so Elijah had to flee for his life. He came to a tree in the middle of the desert and sat down. Then in 1 Kings 19:4, he cried out to God, “I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” Just like Moses, Elijah became so upset that he asked God to kill him. I’ve been there, so I understand his thought process. Let’s see how the Lord answered his prayer (hint: God didn’t kill Elijah).
Elijah fell asleep under the tree and woke up to an angel preparing a meal for him. He ate and drank this heavenly hash, then traveled for forty days to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. Here’s where things got really interesting.
God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:9). Elijah spoke out of his despair, stating that he’d zealously served the Lord but found himself all alone and in danger. Then God asked him again, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:13). Elijah again spoke of his despair, loneliness, and fear. After this, God gave Elijah specific tasks to do—anoint some kings and anoint his successor to the office of prophet. Elijah left the mountain cave and got back to work.
So, how does all of this apply to you and me, you might ask? When God sees we are at the end of our rope and despairing of life, he never agrees with our pleas for death. Instead, he guides us to rest and physical recovery as he did with Elijah. Then he invites us to engage with him out of a place of intimacy. In intimacy, we can make our laments known to him. He won’t judge us or get angry at our pleas. Instead, he will patiently listen, and then he will give us a job, like he did with Elijah. Even better, God will give us the strength and courage to move forward into that destiny he laid out for us.
#3. Paul and Despair
Many of us are familiar with the Apostle Paul. He’s the guy who started most of the first churches. Along with Timothy and Luke and Barnabas and others, he went on three missionary journeys where he established churches in cities across the vast Roman world. He also wrote about half of the New Testament. This guy was the real deal!
For Paul, it all started with a miraculous intervention from Jesus himself. Paul zealously defended Judaism, and as such, Christianity made him furious because he thought it distorted his religion. He literally had a letter from the high priests to torture and potentially kill anyone who claimed to be a Christian. Then, on his way to commit sanctioned atrocities in the name of God, everything changed in an instant.
The Lord Jesus appeared to him in the middle of the road and told Paul to stop persecuting the church because it held the truth. Then, in a flash, Jesus struck him blind. Paul would eventually regain his sight and, along with it, a new passion for Jesus. He spoke of this conversion no less than three times to Roman officials in high positions of power. Paul’s Domascus road experience became a foundational and miraculous moment in his life. He was radically saved and had a deep, hopeful, and meaningful life ahead of him.
But then we come across this moment in 2 Corinthians 1:8, where Paul says, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.”
Let’s get real for just a moment now. If you received a letter or a text from a friend and they said they “despaired of life itself,” you’d be worried. You would start wondering if suicide was on their mind. You would probably call that friend right away or go visit them. The Apostle Paul used this exact alarming phrase. The man who started most of the first churches and looms larger in the New Testament than anyone, besides Jesus himself, seems at least severely depressed, and maybe even suicidal! If Paul had this experience while planting churches across the known world, it’s clear that maturity and mental health aren’t always bedfellows.
But Paul teaches us more in this passage. He finds a hope that we must grasp hold of to see his secret for surviving this dark night of the soul experience. Second Corinthians 1:9–10 continues with Paul’s story:
“Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”
Do you see the beautiful contrast between the circumstances Paul faced and how God reacted to them? Paul felt he had received the sentence of death, but God allowed these circumstances so that Paul would rely on the God who raises the dead. And who would be included among the dead at this moment? None other than Paul himself!
The promise of God in the middle of Paul’s busted-up and broken life, in the very moment when he felt the deepest despair, remained—God would resurrect him because that is what God does. God resurrects dead people. He did it with Jairus’s son; he did it with the widow of Nain; he did it with Lazarus; and most importantly, he did it with Jesus Christ. God resurrects dead things, and this includes us, His children. Paul ends his cry of despair with a modicum of hope and declares that God will continue to deliver him. We can join Paul in this declaration that God will continue to deliver us.
Maybe you’re sitting there after reading these stories of these great men of God who had mental health moments and you’re saying, “Big deal! So they had a mental health moment! I’ve had a mental health year and God hasn’t shown up. What about me?”
We live in a complex world, where Jesus has overthrown Satan as the false king of this world, but Satan’s rule hasn’t fully ended yet. Instead, we fight and claw tooth and nail for every inch of ground we gain for the kingdom of God, and we mourn every time we lose ground. We’re in a battle for our literal lives, and sometimes it seems God doesn’t get what he wants. We know that God’s plan for each of us is to purely reflect the love and graciousness of Jesus, and it’s hard to do that when we’re beat down by our mental health conditions.
But I will say this too. Like Paul, I believe God is in the business of resurrecting dead things. Like Elijah, I know that sometimes what I need is a fresh encounter with the tenderness of God to reorient me to God’s call on my life. And like Moses, sometimes my circumstances need to change before I can really see hope clearly. But underneath all that, I am convinced that God is always redeeming the trajectory of our lives to demonstrate his goodness. There are times when we can’t see that goodness because we are buried in the muck and mire of a difficult season. Goodness knows I’ve been there.
I guess what I’d ask you to do is trust me. I’ve been in the psych ward for suicidal ideations and a suicide attempt. I’ve held a gun in my mouth and nearly pulled the trigger. I’ve been close to death too many times to count. I had probably a good decade where my emotional life was uncontrolled. But I’ve come through all that darkness, and I can see the handiwork of God even in the midst of those terrible moments. Hold tight to the idea that God is good, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense or ring true, and in time you too will see the evidence of God’s handiwork in your life.