The final case study I would like to examine may surprise many of the blog’s readers. I want to set forth the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as one who I believe encountered depression as well. For instance, I think it is safe to say that Jesus experienced depression as He faced His coming betrayal and death on the cross, where He would experience the Father’s wrath being poured out on Him:
NKJ Matthew 26:36-37 “Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, ‘Sit here while I go and pray over there.’ 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed.”
I hope we can agree that being “sorrowful and deeply distressed” would qualify as depression. And the fact that Jesus could or would experience such depression shouldn’t surprise us, since it is one of the ways in which He was tempted as we are, yet overcame so that we can know that we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Indeed, we could even say that it was prophesied that He would be a man familiar with depression, as Isaiah said:
NKJ Isaiah 53:3-4 “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows [meaning that sorrows would be characteristic of His life] and acquainted [יָדַע, yāḏa] with grief [meaning that He would be experientially familiar with grief]. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
Why was Jesus to be a man familiar with sorrow and grief? Why was He to experience what we would call depression? Because He was to carry our sorrows and griefs. It was a part of His role as our Great High Priest who would offer Himself for our sins. But this means that depression was a part of God’s plan for Jesus all along, doesn’t it? And I would submit to you that the same may be true for some of us as well.
Of course, all of us will experience some depression, sorrow, and grief living in this fallen world, but it could be that God has planned that some of us should be more acquainted with depression that others, as Jesus was. Regardless how much depression God does or does not have planned for us, however, we should look to Jesus as an example of how to face it. This leads us back to Matthew 26:
NKJ Matthew 26:38-41 “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.’ 39 He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.’ 40 Then He came to the disciples and found them asleep, and said to Peter, ‘What? Could you not watch with Me one hour? 41 Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”
Observe the way in which Jesus handled His depression. He did at least two things:
First, Jesus shared how he was feeling with those close to Him. He told His inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John (vs. 37), not only that He was extremely sorrowful, but also that He was so sorrowful that he felt He could die (vs. 38). Now that is depression! In fact, a parallel passage tells us that the weight of the depression was so great that it affected Jesus physically. This is found in Luke’s account:
NKJ Luke 22:40-44 “When He came to the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ 41 And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.’ 43 Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. 44 And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Dave Miller of Apologetics Press has written the following in an online article entitled, Did Jesus Sweat Blood?:
A thorough search of the medical literature demonstrates that such a condition, while admittedly rare, does occur in humans. Commonly referred to as hematidrosis or hemohidrosis (Allen, 1967, pp. 745-747), this condition results in the excretion of blood or blood pigment in the sweat. Under conditions of great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can rupture (Lumpkin, 1978), thus mixing blood with perspiration. This condition has been reported in extreme instances of stress (see Sutton, 1956, pp. 1393-1394). During the waning years of the twentieth century, 76 cases of hematidrosis were studied and classified into categories according to causative factors: “Acute fear and intense mental contemplation were found to be the most frequent inciting causes” (Holoubek and Holoubek, 1996). While the extent of blood loss generally is minimal, hematidrosis also results in the skin becoming extremely tender and fragile (Barber, 1953, pp. 74-75; Lumpkin, 1978), which would have made Christ’s pending physical insults even more painful.
From these factors, it is evident that even before Jesus endured the torture of the cross, He suffered far beyond what most of us will ever suffer. His penetrating awareness of the heinous nature of sin, its destructive and deadly effects, the sorrow and heartache that it inflicts, and the extreme measure necessary to deal with it, make the passion of Christ beyond all comprehension.
Now, back in Matthew 26, notice also that when Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to stay and watch with Him, He expected that they would stay alert and be in prayer, not only for Him but also for themselves (vs. 41). Sadly, they let Him down in this instance, which may actually have added to the depth of sorrow He felt. But this didn’t stop Him sharing His struggle with them anyway.
But do we share our depression with others? Some of us do, but in my experience many of those who struggle most with depression never talk about it with their brothers and sisters in the Lord. I think Jesus would counsel us to do otherwise. To be sure, some of them will fail to understand and will let us down, as Jesus’ disciples failed to understand Him and let Him down. But there will be those by the grace of God who will listen and who will pray for us faithfully, and we need them!
Second, Jesus prayed about what was causing His depression. In this case it was the task that the Father had given him to do, involving His coming death on the cross, which He refers to here as “this cup,” that was leading to His deep sorrow.
But what precisely was the “cup” to which Jesus referred? Was it just the coming torture and death by hanging on a cross (as if that weren’t bad enough)? Or was it something more? Answering this question will help us to understand more fully just why He described Himself as being “sorrowful even unto death.” I believe that the answer is found in the Old Testament references to the cup of God’s wrath. For example:
NKJ Psalm 75:4-8 “I said to the boastful, ‘Do not deal boastfully,’ and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up the horn. 5 Do not lift up your horn on high; do not speak with a stiff neck.’ 6 For exaltation comes neither from the east nor from the west nor from the south. 7 But God is the Judge: He puts down one, and exalts another. 8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is fully mixed, and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drain and drink down.”
NKJ Isaiah 51:17 “Awake, awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of His fury [or wrath, as in ESV]; you have drunk the dregs of the cup of trembling, and drained it out.”
This metaphor is also used later in Revelation of God’s judgment on those who worship the beast:
NKJ Revelation 14:9-11 “Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.’”
It is my contention that the cup metaphor was being used by Jesus in Gethsemane as a reference to the cup of God’s wrath which He knew He would have to drink for our sakes when He died on the cross as the propitiation for our sins (see, e.g., Romans 1:18; 3:25; 5:9). No wonder the author of Hebrews speaks the way he does about Jesus’ suffering that night in Gethsemane:
NKJ Hebrews 5:6-8 “As He also says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’; 7 who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear [God did not remove the cup of suffering, but He did send an angel to strengthen Him, Luke 22:43], 8 though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.”
Now let’s return back to Matthew 26 and pick up with verse 40 again:
NKJ Matthew 26:40-46 “Then He came to the disciples and found them asleep, and said to Peter, ‘What? Could you not watch with Me one hour? 41 Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42 Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.’ 43 And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then He came to His disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.’”
Here are a couple of other – albeit secondary – reasons for Jesus’ sorrow, namely that His closest friends failed Him in this trial (as we have already seen), and that He knew He was also going to be betrayed by one close to Him (and such betrayal is never an easy thing to endure). But notice also that Jesus persisted in prayer because He had complete trust in the Father’s sovereign will. This can be seen in the way that He prayed three times that the Father might let this cup pass from Him but all three times declared basically the same thing, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (vs. 39, 42, 44). This was a key to His overcoming the depression and anguish that could have paralyzed Him.
Another key to Jesus’ victory in the garden of Gethsemane is revealed both by John and by the author of Hebrews:
NKJ John 17:1-5 “Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: ‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, 2 as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. 4 I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.’”
NKJ Hebrews 12:1-3 “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.”
I think it is important to remember that, although we see in Gethsemane the culmination of the sorrow Jesus felt when facing death on the cross for our sins, He was always aware that he was going to face this. It was, then, a sorrow that He carried throughout his life and ministry, not to mention the many others sorrows of life He had to face. But it was not a sorrow that robbed Him of the joy He had in looking forward to the experience of the glory He had with the Father even before the world was created and the joy He had in doing the Father’s will.
Jesus always obeyed the Father’s will, including when He died on the cross, and He did so because He knew there was something that made it all worthwhile. And this is one reason why the author of Hebrews wants us to look to Jesus in His sufferings whenever we are being overwhelmed with our own trials. But this means that we need to constantly turn to Scripture and listen to what God says to us there about Jesus’ gracious work on our behalf.
As Ed Welch reminds us:
Listening sounds passive, but it is hard work. The book of James reminds us that we are prone to “merely listen,” like people who look at ourselves in a mirror and quickly forget what we look like. So when you read or hear about truth and love, don’t just merely listen; really hear.
What will you hear? When the triune God speaks, He inevitably talks about Jesus. Jesus is the one who had compassion on those who suffer, and He understands those who suffer because His pain exceeded our own. Have you ever noticed that when you listen to someone else’s suffering, especially if that suffering was overwhelming and intense, your own troubles seem lighter? At least, such listening diverts attention away from our own suffering, and we see that we are not alone. This is what happens when you look toward Jesus and listen.
Keep listening, though. Even though you may feel rejected by others, Jesus won’t reject you (Ps. 27:10). Turn to Him in faith —even with a small speck of faith — and He will never leave or forsake you (Heb. 13:5). He swears this to you. (Words of Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression, Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2000, p. 41-42, CCEF.org, website of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation)
What do we hear from these passages we have examined about Jesus? We hear that He moved through His sorrow and anguish by trusting His Father and by keeping His mind focused upon the joy set before Him. Jesus did not sinfully react to the things which brought on depression, and He did not allow these things to paralyze Him or rob Him of the joy He had in His relationship with the Father and in doing the Father’s will. He trusted in the Father’s love and in the Father’s will, and it made all the difference. Indeed, I think He shows us that it is perfectly possible through faith to have joy in the midst of sorrow or pain. And I think any contemplative believer knows this deep in his heart. But we will come back to this idea later, when we examine some of the Biblical teaching about joy.