There are perhaps several examples from the life of Moses that we could examine, but one clear instance of depression in his life can be found in Numbers 11, which relates the account of the Israelites complaining about having to eat manna every day:
NKJ Numbers 11:10-15 “Then Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the LORD, ‘Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,” to the land which You swore to their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, “Give us meat, that we may eat.” 14 I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now – if I have found favor in Your sight – and do not let me see my wretchedness!’”
Here I think we can see that the primary reason for Moses’ depression was stress. He had to deal with the stress of people that constantly complained and of having to look after them all the time. Moses was simply overwhelmed! And he was so depressed that he wanted to die! This is the kind of despair he related in verse 15, where he said, “please kill me here and now … and do not let me see my wretchedness.” The Hebrew term translated wretchedness can indicate evil or perverseness on the one hand, or it can indicate misery or trouble on the other. And I think that perhaps Moses used the term because it carried both of these connotations. That is, I think that Moses did not want to see either his own misery or his own evil reactions to it any longer. So I like the way the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and NASB have translated the term as wretchedness, because this English word can carry both of these basic connotations as well. For example, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives the following definition for wretchedness:
1 : deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind
2 : extremely or deplorably bad or distressing
3 : a : being or appearing mean, miserable, or contemptible
b : very poor in quality or ability : inferior
The first two senses listed overlap nicely with the semantic range of the Hebrew term used by Moses. It helps us to see that Moses may have been distressed both at his own continual misery and at his own deplorably bad reaction to it. Perhaps he was just sick and tired not only of the stress and depression stemming from all the Israelites’ constant complaining and weeping, but also from the trial of being mad at them and disappointed in them all the time.
But at least Moses didn’t continue to try to deal with it all on his own. Instead, he turned to the Lord and honestly communicated the despair that was in his heart. And he found comfort in the Lord as well as help, for the Lord gave him seventy elders to help him in looking after the people and to ease his burden:
NKJ Numbers 11:16-17 “So the LORD said to Moses: ‘Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17 Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.’”
Notice how graciously God helped Moses by giving him a way to minimize the stress he was under through sharing the burden with others. We can learn a lesson from this, namely that, when we are struggling with depression due to stress, we need to share our burdens with the Lord and with fellow believers when they become too heavy to bear alone.
Sadly, too many of us fail to open up to others about our troubles when we should. And, even worse, we fail to open up even to God about our troubles, either because we don’t think He will listen or because we don’t really trust Him. But Moses’ example teaches us that we can always count on God to care, so we need to tell Him all our struggles. I think he would agree with Peter’s admonition to us when he writes:
NKJ 1 Peter 5:6-7 “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”
I am reminded in this regard of the important teaching of Hebrews about the High Priestly ministry of Jesus and the implications of this ministry for believers. For example:
NKJ Hebrews 2:17-18 “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
NKJ Hebrews 4:14-16 “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly [parrēsía] to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
It is significant that the Greek word translated boldly in 4:16 (or with confidence as in ESV and NASB) can literally mean “speaking all things” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, p. 677). Thus it can refer to “a use of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing, outspokenness, frankness, plainness” (BAGD3 # 5720, BibleWorks). This is why it could also be used of the boldness the Apostles had in sharing the Gospel (e.g. Acts 4:29, 31; 28:31) and could even be used to refer to “a state of boldness and confidence, courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness, esp. in the presence of persons of high rank” (BAGD3 # 5720, BibleWorks).
You see, the Greek word refers to the confidence or boldness that one has to speak openly, even in the presence of someone great. And I think this connotation is to be understood in Hebrews 4:16 with respect to the way we come before God in prayer. We need to know that, because Jesus understands all that we are going through, we can truly pour out our hearts before Him and find the grace we need.
Perhaps a brief illustration may help to get the point across. I recall that in my Navy days I could not just go up to the captain of my ship and speak to him whenever I wished. I had to have permission to do so. And even when I was called to stand before him and speak with him, I could not simply say whatever I wished. For that I had to ask permission to “speak freely,” and could only speak freely if such permission were granted to me. Well, in Hebrews 4 we are given permission not only to come before God, but to speak freely when we do so. We are invited to come boldly – to speak what is on our hearts in prayer – before His throne of grace, encouraged by the fact that Jesus, our Great High Priest, sympathizes with us in all our weaknesses, including when we struggle with depression (more on this in a later, when we do a case study of Jesus Himself as one who knew the depths of depression).
But here is where the Christian can encounter a great deal of spiritual warfare, especially since the devil and his minions do not what us to come confidently before the Lord with our troubles. This is exactly the problem Peter deals with in the passage cited above, when he writes:
NKJ 1 Peter 5:5-9 “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ [Prov. 3:34] 6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. 8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.”
So the person with depression is going to struggle with opening up to God and is going to encounter spiritual warfare that will make this even harder. But notice that Peter sees the real trouble as being pride. And he teaches that we will never find the grace we need if we do not humble ourselves before the Lord. Sadly, however, far too many depressed people struggle with pride that will not let them truly surrender their problems to the Lord. Far too many of them believe the devil’s lie that God does not care and that if He did they wouldn’t struggle with depression in the first place. I hope we have seen, however, that this is far from the truth and that God not only cares, but that He cares so much that He gave His one and only Son to be our High Priest and to allow us to come boldly before His throne of grace, where we may obtain “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 14:16). But this boldness is not brashness; it is rather a deep humility that trusts in the Lord and in His grace.
Now, many of you may think, “Wait a minute! Isn’t the depressed person the very epitome of humility? Isn’t he typically the person whose real struggle is with low self-esteem, the very opposite of pride?” Well, to be quite frank, in my own experience with depression, and in my experience dealing with depressed people, thinking that the problem is “low self-esteem” is usually just a way of masking the real problem – pride! In fact, as I observed in an earlier post, some of the most depressed people I have ever known are also some of the most prideful people I have ever known, and their battle with depression is actually rooted in their pride in one way or another. Perhaps it is pride that keeps them from trusting the Lord to overcome their depression, or perhaps God’s purpose in allowing the depression is to deal with their pride, but pride is very often at the bottom of things, and the way they very often seek to avoid this conclusion is by relabeling their pride as something else, such as “low self-esteem.”
But one thing Moses’ example – the example of the most humble of all men in his day (Num. 12:3) – teaches us is that we must be humble enough to trust the Lord to help us, and we must be confident enough in His love for us that we will truly open up to Him. And when He provides a means to help us through the aid of our fellow believers, we must be humble enough to accept this as well.