Depression and Genesis
If someone asked you, “What study the creation story of Genesis 1?” what would your answer be? You might think about the relationship between faith and science, intelligent design and evolution, or the nature of humanity. Of the many possibilities, I’m guessing mental health would not come to mind. It didn’t occur to me either, until I started studying Genesis for a Sunday school class and asked myself how I could make connections with my day-to-day work in Christian counseling.
I assigned myself this question: Does the divine revelation of the origins of all things have any relevance to depression? My initial, brief answer to that question is “Yes!” But we need to lay some groundwork before arriving at and considering that conclusion. So a preliminary question is, who were the people who first received this text which begins with the grand, sweeping statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” These people were of course the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were spectacularly rescued from slavery in Egypt in order to be made into God’s “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 10:15).
From Shepherds to Slaves
What do we know about these people? Prior to being oppressed into slave labor by the Egyptians, they were shepherds, keepers of flock (Genesis 46:31-34). After being saved from famine by Joseph, and taking refuge in the land of Goshen, this people fulfilled the creational mission of Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”: “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). While appearing to be in the path of divine blessing, Israel’s fruitfulness became the occasion for cursing and chaos: “So [the Egyptians] ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves” (Exodus 1:13–14). It is from this hopeless and helpless condition that “Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help” (Exodus 2:23).
Rescued Slaves, Servants of God
Fast forward to Israel’s time in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, Moses instructs Israel to always keep that rescue fresh in their minds and remember that “we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:7–8). God heard their cry and saved them, “And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:9).” And God reminds them repeatedly in the book of Exodus that his purpose in redeeming Israel was “that they may serve me” (Exodus 4:23, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3, 10:7, 10:26, 23:25).
Although they were promised “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), they had first to pass through the wilderness of Sinai, a region reminiscent of the “formless and void” of Genesis 1:2. Despite their rescue from slavery, “the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortune” (Numbers 11:1). In a startling example of selective memory, “the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at’” (Numbers 11:4–6). Imagine the mental gymnastics required to conjure mouthwatering images of delectable food and at the same time forget how they “groaned because of their slavery” (Exodus 2:23).
There are a few important characteristics to note from this brief overview.
- First, they were a blessed people. Although a distant memory, there was a time in their history when they knew and experienced the blessings of God.
- Second, they were a groaning people, acquainted with hardship, affliction, and pain to a degree that is truly hard to imagine.
- Third, they were a helpless people, knowing what it was like to feel hopeless and helpless, two words that anyone dealing with chronic or clinical depression knows well.
- Fifth, they were a doubtful people, struggling to trust God’s promises, possibly believing them to be too good to be true. Far easier to go back to familiar suffering with what little comfort, if any, it afforded. Indeed, perhaps the comfort was only imaginary, which is often the only comfort depression can conjure in the midst of constant mental torment.
- Sixth, they were a grumbling people. Without wanting to excuse lack of compassion, it is understandable that friends and family of people who are depressed may struggle hearing the continual complaints of depression.
Having made these experiential connections, what can we say about Genesis 1 with respect to depression? Richard Pratt, Jr. observes that “Moses wrote the book of Genesis to answer these two questions:
- Was it right for us [the Israelites] to leave Egypt?
- Is it right for us to move toward the promised land in battle?”
Genesis 1 gives great encouragement in answering those questions by teaching just who is this God who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. He is no mere provincial deity. He is the majestic, almighty Creator of all things. If the ten plagues taught them about God’s power, how much more does God’s power shine through the mind-blowing fact that God has no beginning, he is completely independent and self-sufficient.
Additionally, God is not only all-powerful, he is all-wise, ordering a beautiful world that was initially “without form and void.” God’s purpose to bring Israel from formless land into the land of promise is compared to God’s sovereign work in making the formless earth into a place of beauty and goodness. It is right for Israel to move toward the promised land, because God is doing for them what he already did for the entire created order. If he brought order out of chaos in the grand scale of mountains, hills, rivers, oceans, deeps, and the heavens, then surely he can do the same for Israel and for us. God knows your grumbling. He knows your paradoxical preference for suffering. He knows your helplessness. He knows your groaning. And above all he knows and remembers his covenant to bless you and make you into a blessing to others. God is still in the business of bringing order out of chaos, blessing out of curse, and good out of evil.
If he brought order out of chaos in the grand scale of mountains, hills, rivers, oceans, deeps, and the heavens, then surely he can do the same for Israel and for us.
So when you “look at [the] heavens, the work of [God’s] fingers, the moon and the stars, which [God] set in place” (Psalm 8:3), know that God intends such order and beauty to one day fill your life as well. There are and will be periods of wilderness, to be sure. But the beauty of creation serves as a continual reminder, not simply to God’s past act of creation, but to his coming act of re-creation. Depression demonstrates the chaos in a sin-ridden world, but the hope of the gospel is that God is, even now, giving glimpses and foretastes of the new heavens and the new earth where God “will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4). And while we wait for this renewal, like Israel we press on into the frightening territory inhabited by giants, living out the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” for us who have been “created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10).
As you wait on God and rest your soul in his promises, what can you do to bring order to your world? These might be incredible feats of valor, but more often than not, they are mundane, minuscule acts which push back even just a little bit of chaos. As George MacDonald counsels in a wonderful sermon titled The Eloi, this might simply be “the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend.”