Depression is not a payment for sin

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . ” (Isaiah 40:1-2a).

These words are sung in the wonderful opening of Handel’s “Messiah.” These beautiful words are the great transition passage of Isaiah 40, but what follows is often troublingly misunderstood, especially by those in need of comfort.

Although Isaiah celebrates that Israel’s sin has been paid for, there is the concerning phrase “double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:2). This seems unfair. Why should God demand “double” payment? 

I helped facilitate a church depression support group for several years. I often heard people say that depression felt like a punishment for sin. It was unfair. It seemed like a double punishment.

Israel paid for its sin and was knocked down by God. This was part of God’s justice. The punishment matched the crime. God gave Israel the fair consequence of turning away from him and living by the gods of the world’s power. This “doubling” is not twice the amount, but the matching equivalent.

Depression is not a payment for sin. As Handel’s Messiah sings forth, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” 

Like grass?
Most troubling is how the cry of Isaiah 40:6-8 is heard. 

“A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.’” 

Here we are misled by the punctuation in most translations. It looks like the answer to the question is to cry out how worthless and unimportant people are. This is wrong, but it has slinked into our theology and mental health, especially in aspects of Reformed theology. Too many people hear only the first word of the answer to question 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism. “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil? Yes, unless we are born again, by the Spirit of God.” Reformed theology becomes more known for “total depravity” than “unconditional election,” “irresistible grace.” 

Ah ha!
The first words of Isaiah 40’s cry are not God’s words. They are the cynical, nihilistic, depressed words of the oppressed. The ones called to cry out “comfort” need comfort. It seems to them that it is all meaningless, that people are unimportant, and that God just blows us off. God’s reply to this negativity is that yes, people, including your oppressors, wither and fall, but God’s word is at work fulfilling his promise of comfort.

One parishioner refused to sing “Amazing Grace.” He could not sing what he called “the worm theology.” He had been taught the song as “that saved a worm like me.” In his depression all he could hear was worm, not amazing grace. This person was like the depressed voice of Isaiah, who only remembered the part of Psalm 90 that challenges our arrogance and forgot the ending, 

“Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. . . May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands” (Ps. 90: 14, 17 NIV). 

God hears the pain of the depressed and oppressed. He does not rebuke it. He says, “yes, I understand how you feel, and. . . .” May his messengers bring comfort. “Here is your God!” (Isa. 40:9). 

“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart . . . ” (Isa. 40:11, NIV) .

“Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ: and he shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords” (“Hallelujah” Handel’s Messiah). 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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