Bible characters with symptoms of depression: King Saul

Our second example of a Bible character who may have suffered from some form of depression again takes us to the Old Testament.

Saul, son of Kish, was the first king of Israel. He was chosen for this position by God when the Israelites demanded to have a strong military leader like the other people groups around them.

Saul was an attractive and physically impressive young man yet, as anyone familiar with the Old Testament narrative will be aware, he proved to be weak and faltering on a spiritual level.

Looking at certain incidents in his life may also suggest that he was also mentally weak. Throughout all of the events we have recorded about his life, from his introduction as a young man searching for his family’s lost donkeys to his tragic death far away from God on Mount Gilboa, Saul displayed many of the symptoms of mental illness, perhaps specifically depression.

For example, in the story of the lost donkeys, he struggled to make decisions and take the initiative. He seemed to give up easily unless someone else came up with a solution (see 1 Samuel 9:1-10).

He grew to be convinced that people (even some of those closest to him) hated him and were trying to destroy him. He saw the worst in genuinely good people. He was convinced that David wanted to kill him and believed that David had turned Saul’s own son Jonathan and daughter Michal against him (see 1 Samuel 22:6-8 and 1 Samuel 19:11-17).

He seemed unable to believe that God truly meant to help him. He couldn’t wait for God to fulfil a promise. At the end of his life he gave up on God completely and turned to a medium for help (see 1 Samuel 13:5-14 and 1 Samuel 28:3-7).

He frequently had dark and destructive thoughts that spilled over into attempts to cause serious harm to others. He tried to kill both David and Jonathan in his own palace (see 1 Samuel 18:10-16 and 1 Samuel 20:28-33).

It should be noted that Saul enjoyed periods of good mental health too. With God’s help – whenever Saul was energised or inspired by the “spirit of God” – he could do well.

Yet whenever Saul refused to listen to God or refused to trust him, God “sent him an evil spirit” (most likely meaning that God withdrew his help and left Saul to his natural mental state) Saul went downhill again, quickly and badly.

Saul is the tragic Biblical example of a person who clearly seemed to suffer from some sort of mental illness, possibly depression, and yet (unlike Elijah) was never able to respond in the right way.

Sadly, Saul was never able to trust God. He was never able to let God’s promises override his own negative thoughts and feelings, as Elijah could.

At the end of his life, cornered by the victorious Philistine army, Saul remained unable or unwilling to call on God and trust God for help. He committed suicide as the only way of escape that he could see. He died, as far as we know, unrepentant and unbelieving and unreconciled to God (see 1 Samuel 31:1-6).

This is where depression can be so dangerous for anyone, but particularly for a Christian.

If we allow dark, negative thoughts and feelings to take over our minds, then we will stop believing God when he says that he loves us, that there is hope, and when he promises that one day things will be better and that it is worth us continuing to try.

Unfortunately there is no medical or magical cure for depression. God has never promised to instantly heal us of mental illness and take all of the dark feelings away while we are still mortal. He could if he wanted but we cannot expect nor demand it.

Overcoming mental illness can be done, but it will be a gradual process, like the work of Elijah on a person’s heart.

It will mean slowly, gradually learning to trust God – even when it hurts or seems hopeless, even when it seems like nothing can go right and everyone is against you.

God loves you. God wants you. If you are a Christian then you must believe that, even if your feelings and your thoughts are telling you the exact opposite.

Yet any recovery or improvement must be ongoing and maintained. Mental illness can return, depending on what the initial cause of it was. A person who has suffered from a mental illness and has (to a certain extent) overcome must not sit back and think it’s all over.

Jesus said:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:43–45)

What Jesus appears to be suggesting is that if you do not hold him in your heart, whatever was in your heart before he arrived may return.

Whether it was a mental illness or an addiction or pride or greed or envy or whatever it was that dominated your thoughts and feelings before you became a Christian, your natural weaknesses and temptations haven’t gone away.

They can only be overcome and drowned out by doing two things. First, by focussing your thoughts on Jesus and trying to think and speak and act like him. Second, by trusting every word that God has said and every promise that God has made, even if your thoughts or your feelings are telling you that you cannot be like Jesus or that what God says cannot be true.

This concludes our series of thoughts on depression. Please leave a Like or a comment if you have enjoyed them.

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