The Downward Spiral of Depression

“Sorrow found me when I was young. Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” — The National

One of the problems with the way most people read the book of Jonah nowadays is that we distance ourselves from the main character. We don’t see ourselves in Jonah. This is a problem because it was written to an audience who would have immediately identified with the prophet. Jonah is the only Israelite in the story. He was God’s man, and therefore he was their man. We need to be careful about pushing Jonah away because we may have more in common with him than we realize.

One way some people may identify with Jonah is through his struggles with depression. Why do I say Jonah was depressed? Let me first say that I am not a doctor. I am not qualified to clinically diagnose someone with depression, but there are several indicators within the text that Jonah is struggling with some dark feelings. He wants to die at the beginning of the book (1:12) and at the end (4:3). His journey is described as a journey downward. He goes “down to Joppa” (1:3). He goes “down into the inner part of the ship” (1:5). He goes down “into the heart of the seas” and into the belly of a fish. He feels as if he has gone down to Sheol (2:2, 6). Jonah is as down as a person can get. The use of the word down in the text describes the direction of Jonah’s life. He is caught up in a downward spiral of depression.

The reader comes face to face with Jonah’s depression in chapter 2. The book of Jonah is a narrative, but in chapter 2 the narrative is put on hold as Jonah stops to pray.

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

As you read this prayer listen to what Jonah is saying. Pay attention to the pain that he is feeling. He is distressed (2:2). He has been “cast…into the deep” and he feels as if he is drowning (2:3). He is all alone (2:4). He is close to death (2:5). He is imprisoned in darkness (2:6). He describes his situation as being in “the belly of Sheol” (2:2). Jonah’s back is against the wall. He has nowhere to turn. He has gone so far down that he is not sure that he will make it back up. This is what depression feels like. It seems as if the world around you is collapsing.

Depression should be taken seriously. If you are struggling with depression, then you should seek medical help immediately. It is not something to be ashamed of and the help you need may be as simple as a prescription or some counseling. Putting off getting help could be detrimental.

The book of Jonah does offer some clues regarding how to deal with depression. Sometimes depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, but other times it is caused by the circumstances we find ourselves in. There are times where we have no control over our circumstances, but other times our circumstances are a direct result of the choices we make. Jonah put himself in an unhealthy situation. This could have been avoided if he would have made some different choices. Let’s look at the choices Jonah made.

Jonah went away from the presence of the Lord.

God is the source of life. In him we live and move and have our being. To turn away from God is to turn from light to darkness. Humanity has lost its way. We were created in the image of God, but sin has distorted that image. If we want to learn what it really means to be human, then we must do this by seeking God. Solomon sought to find meaning in something other than God, but after exploring all the options he directed his attention back to God.

Jonah went away from everyone.

Jonah isolated himself from other human beings. He found a ship that was going away from his people, his family, and his friends. Once he got on the ship he went down to the lowest part of it and fell asleep. In doing this, Jonah was denying who God created him to be. We have been created to live in community. We need each other. We need friends and family. Healthy relationships are an essential part of life. When Jonah was in trouble he did not seek wise council, but instead he sought to be alone. Cutting ourselves off from others can be very dangerous.

Jonah chose hate.

Sometimes avoiding feelings of depression or anger is as simple as changing our attitude. This string of events in Jonah’s life all began because he hated the people of Nineveh. He did not want God to save them. He wanted this evil city to be punished for the awful things they had done. When we fill our hearts with hate they often become hardened. Hatred corrupts. It makes us bitter. God is love and as followers of God we must continually choose love. We must heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden.”

Although Jonah’s life seems to have hit a roadblock, it is not over. Sheol is a dark place. It is a place that people do not come back from, but thankfully Jonah has God on his side. God is powerful! He is mighty! He is able to save, and this is what God does. Jonah has gone down, down, down, but God brings him up (2:6). He raises him from the pit (2:6). Jonah tried to run away from God, but God never gave up on him. God does not abandon Jonah.

A few hundred years later God will walk a road to Calvary. On that road he will be spit upon, cursed, and beaten. He will endure all kinds of abuse, but he will not retaliate. He will not seek revenge. He will not abandon his plan. When humanity tried to distance itself from the Creator of the Universe, God moved in closer. He went to the cross and showed us what love is. We are never truly alone. God is always with us and nothing can separate us from his love. When life gets you down and you are feeling all alone, just remember that God is near and he loves you more than you can imagine.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

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