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Trade Paperback
192 pages
Sep 2006
Baker Books

When Saints Sing the Blues: Understanding Depression through the Lives of Job, Naomi, Paul, and Others

by Brenda Poinsett

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



•| Moses |•

When the Load’s Too Heavy

I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself, it’s too much for me!

Numbers 11:14

Every time I packed clothes, food, toys, and soft drinks for our family of five to take a vacation, I thought of Moses. How did he ever move a caravan of six hundred thousand men plus women and children with all their possessions through desert areas infested by hostile tribes? We were traveling Midwestern highways in a station wagon, and that was daunting enough!

God called Moses to take the Israelites to the land he had promised them. At the time they were slaves in Egypt, and their workload was intolerable. They cried out to God for a deliverer, and he sent them Moses.

CEO of the Exodus

Moses bravely began his role by confronting the Egyptian pharaoh to seek the release of the Israelites. Naturally the pharaoh didn’t want to let such a large workforce leave, so he resisted. God sent a number of plagues that changed his mind.

As the exodus got underway, the Israelites followed Moses toward the Promised Land. God directed their path with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. After several days, they reached the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go. He ordered his army to pursue them and bring them back. When the Israelites saw the army coming, they were terrified. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exod. 14:11 NIV).

Moses said, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today” (v. 13 NIV). And they did! The cloud that had been leading them moved to the back of the camp, hiding the Israelites from the Egyptians. A strong east wind blew all night and rolled back the waters of the sea. Awed by the sight, the Israelites rushed across the path in the sea. Following them in hot pursuit, the Egyptians raced out across the sea floor where the wheels of their chariots got clogged in the sand. They tried to turn back, but the wind stopped, and the receding water engulfed the Egyptian army. The Israelites were safe!

What a relief! What a sight to behold! What a trust-building experience! “When the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (v. 31 NIV).

With a dramatic rescue like that, so indelibly imprinted on the minds of God’s people, you would think that forever after they would be perfectly obedient to God and follow unquestionably Moses’ leadership. The Bible, though, tells a different story. They complained, rebelled, and generally caused Moses grief until he was a person who could truly sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

The “Troubles” He Saw

The complaints, rebellions, and protests of the Israelites added weight after weight to what Moses was already carrying, making his load heavier and heavier.

What are we to drink? From the Red Sea, the Israelites marched across the desert. After several days, water was hard to find. When they found some, the water was bitter. Forgetting they worshiped the God who parted the Red Sea, they hit the panic button and grumbled against Moses. “ ‘Must we die of thirst?’ they demanded” (Exod. 15:24 TLB).

What are we to eat? After being on their journey a month and a half, they wanted meat. Their lives weren’t in danger, but they acted as if they were. They said to Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (16:3 NIV).

Is the Lord going to take care of us or not? On another occasion, when there was no water, “they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’ ” (17:3 NIV). Their fury was so great they were ready to stone Moses.

Who will protect us? As if providing for the physical needs of more than six hundred thousand people and keeping them headed in the right direction wasn’t enough responsibility, Moses also had to be alert to attacks from other nations along the way. At Rephidim, the Amalekites attacked them. To counterattack, Moses commanded Joshua to draft able-bodied men to fight back.

Who will hear us? Moses spent his days hearing the people’s complaints against each other, deciding what was right and wrong, and giving them wise solutions. When his father-in-law, Jethro, visited the camp, he saw what was happening and how much of Moses’ time and energy was being consumed by the people. He said to Moses, “What you are doing is not good. . . . The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (18:17–18 NIV).

Give us a god we can see. When the Israelites reached the Desert of Sinai, they camped by a mountain where God gave them the Ten Commandments and other laws to govern them. A covenant was made between them. The people promised God, “All that you have said, we will do,” which included not worshiping any other gods.

Their commitment didn’t last long. When Moses left them to meet God on Mount Sinai, the people became restless. They forgot God; they forgot the laws he had given them. They built a golden calf—a tangible god—to worship.

We’ve had so many misfortunes. After the Israelites had been at Sinai for more than a year, they resumed their traveling. The covenant had been contracted, the law had been given, a tabernacle had been erected, and priests had been set apart. The people were developing into a distinctive nation, ready to settle in the Promised Land, but three days out, the people started complaining. To do so now after covenanting with God made their sin doubly grievous. God sent fire among them as a punishment, which ceased only after Moses pleaded with God on their behalf.

Moses, faithful and dependable, held on through difficult and frustrating circumstances that would have sunk many a leader. Through all the difficulties with God’s people, Moses was generally patient and loving. He was a mighty pray-er and interceded on their behalf. Unlike the people, he did not forget about God’s mighty power and trusted God to help them. God showed him how to find water for everyone to drink. God provided food for them. Quails came up and covered the ground. Manna (small seeds or thin flakes that could be made into flat cakes) was waiting for them each morning.

When they were fighting the Amalekites, Moses stood on top of the hill with the rod of God in his hand to give the people confidence. As long as the Israelites could see Moses with the rod upraised, they trusted God and had the courage to fight.

At times Moses became exasperated with the people, as he did when they wanted to stone him because there was no water. He wondered aloud to God, “What am I to do with these people?” At times he got angry with them, as he did when he saw the golden calf. He wondered how they could forget God and his commandments so soon.

Moses didn’t become depressed, though, until a bluebird lighted on top of the load he was carrying. The toll of the stressful events and the leadership demands accumulated until Moses reached his load limit—something everyone has.

One Bluebird Too Many

My husband illustrates talks he gives with a cartoon he saw once in a magazine. The first frame of the cartoon shows a bridge with a sign on the side reading, “Load Limit: 8 Tons.” The next frame shows a sand truck approaching the bridge. On the side of the truck is a sign showing the truck’s weight, “8 Tons.” The third frame shows the truck starting across the bridge and a bluebird flying down toward the truck in pursuit of a free ride. The final frame shows the bluebird landing on the truck now in the middle of the bridge, and the bridge collapsing. The bridge could support eight tons, but not eight tons and one bluebird!

Actually, most bridges will stand up under their posted limit and probably a few bluebirds extra, but all bridges have their breaking point. When the load becomes more than the bridge can sustain, it will collapse.

Like bridges, we too have our load limits. Some of us have higher limits of what we can carry than others, but we all have a point at which we may collapse under the pressure of weight added to our load. Some people may never reach their load limit, because they don’t experience many stressful events or conditions in their lives. Others of us will, and it may just be the touch of one bluebird that causes us to break down.

You’re on an airplane returning home after yet another high-pressured business trip. The airline attendant accidentally spills coffee on you, which means you will have to have your suit cleaned when you get home—one more detail to take care of. You smile at the attendant and tell her, “That’s all right,” but inside you fume, Why wasn’t she more careful? As clumsy as she is, how can she keep her job? When your spouse meets you at baggage claim, your first words are, “I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore.”

Or maybe you have been an active church member, always there every time the door is open. You teach Sunday school, serve as a greeter, serve on numerous committees, and lead mission trips to other countries. People marvel at your energy and hard work. And then one day, after an important meeting where food was served, you are left alone to do all the cleanup, and it is particularly messy. As you are mopping up spilled coffee, some junior highers run through the room and deliberately overturn your mop bucket. As their laughter fades down the hall, you think, Those punks. They don’t respect anything or anybody. You decide, I quit. I’m not cleaning up anymore around here or planning any more trips. Eventually people start noticing your withdrawal and ask, “Are you all right?” You answer, “Sure, I’m fine,” but inside you are not. You are depressed.

Now the depression of these two individuals was not caused by the spilled coffee or the mocking junior highers. It isn’t the bluebird that breaks down a bridge, it’s the eight tons already there that break down the bridge!

The day Moses became depressed, the people weren’t in crisis. They were complaining again, but it wasn’t a new complaint; but this time, it was too much for Moses. He had reached his load limit.

The Bluebird Lands

The grumbling started with the foreigners traveling with the Israelites. The foreigners were tired of the daily supply of bland manna. They wanted some chewy meat, crunchy vegetables, and flavorfully spiced foods. As they recalled the tasty meat and fish they had had in Egypt where they could have all they wanted, they activated the memories of the Israelites. Then the Israelites too began to complain. “In Egypt we used to eat all the fish we wanted, and it cost us nothing. Remember the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic we had? But now our strength is gone. There is nothing at all to eat—nothing but this manna day after day!” (Num. 11:5–6).

They had forgotten how hard they had worked to have food to eat. They forgot the brick kilns, the taskmasters, and the sting of the whip. All the people stood around their tent entrances weeping and complaining. What an uproar that must have been, and sensitive Moses heard it all. God heard it too. He “became exceedingly angry” (v. 10 NIV).

The people’s whining and complaining chipped away at Moses’ already depleted energy. He had guided them out of Egypt, out of slavery; he had sustained his own faith even when theirs faltered; he had led the people to Sinai and helped them become a covenant people; he had withstood their constant griping and kept going. But now he was caught between complaining, uncooperative people on one hand and an angry God on the other, and Moses lost his cool.

Moses’ Honest Prayer

Moses said to the Lord:

    Why have you treated me so badly? Why are you displeased with me? Why have you given me the responsibility for all these people? I didn’t create them or bring them to birth! Why should you ask me to act like a nurse and carry them in my arms like babies all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where could I get enough meat for all these people? They keep whining and asking for meat. I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself; it’s too much for me! If you are going to treat me like this, have pity on me and kill me, so that I won’t have to endure your cruelty any longer.

Numbers 11:11–15

Moses took his complaints to the Lord just as he had taken the complaints of the people to him on so many occasions. And it is in his honest prayer that we see the symptoms of his depression.

    •       Moses asked to die. He said, “Have pity on me and kill me” (v. 15). He was so fed up with the cantankerous behavior of the people and their continual complaining that death was a welcome thought. Wanting to die is a symptom of severe depression.

    •       Even though he mentioned their whining, he didn’t blame the people. In his prayer, he blamed God. He was starkly honest as he made God responsible for his misery: “Why have you treated me so badly? Why are you displeased with me? Why have you given me the responsibility for all these people?” (v. 11, italics added).

    •       He felt sorry for himself. Depression is usually laced with self-pity. The tone of Moses’ prayer is “what have I done to deserve this?” He said, “I didn’t create them or bring them to birth! Why should you ask me to act like a nurse and carry them in my arms like babies all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors?” (v. 12, italics added).

    •       He saw the situation as impossible: “Where could I get enough meat for all these people? . . . I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself; it’s too much for me!” (vv. 13–14). Moses felt hopeless although he had experienced God’s miraculous intervention all along just the way the people had.

    •       He experienced intense inner turmoil. Depressed people feel a particular kind of inner torment that is hard for other people to understand. Moses called it “wretchedness” (v. 15 KJV, RSV, AMP). He felt worthless, as if he had failed in everything he had done.

Moses’ prayer not only shows his symptoms of depression but it shows us one good way of dealing with depression. He prayed honestly, expressing his feelings to God.

The Value of Honest Praying

What is honest praying? Isn’t all praying honest? Well, yes, it is in the sense that it’s impossible to lie to God. On the other hand, we can keep things covered up when we pray. We can do perfunctory prayers and never get real or specific. We can say the same prayer over and over until it becomes a meaningless rote activity in which we never really engage the self. We can pray about some things that need attention, such as the needs of others, and still leave a part of ourselves sealed off, untouched, and ignored.

Others are not quite honest in a different way, as if they have to dress up their prayers and speak in a special language to God; they don’t feel they can be themselves. They think God wants to hear only about certain things, so they pray lofty prayers and don’t mention what’s really bothering them. God, they assume, doesn’t want to be bothered. They have never learned that God is the only being who does not have a load limit. He is the only person on whom we can cast all of our cares (1 Peter 5:7).

So when I use the term “honest praying,” which I’ll use often in this book, I mean coming to God as you are, speaking in a language natural for you, letting God know how you feel and what’s on your mind and in your heart.

Honest praying is valuable. It opens our wills to God, giving him the channel he needs to respond. If we hold back, we limit what God can do. When we pray honestly, we open up our inner space where God has room to work. This is important for those struggling with depression to know because “wretchedness” is on the inside, taking up space where God could be working.

Clogged inner space, where the damage of accumulated stress resides, affects our ability to hear. We may have difficulty receiving wisdom from others or hearing God speak. With honest praying we release the tension, allowing it to escape, and our hearing improves. If Moses had been stubborn and withheld how he felt, he might not have been able to hear God’s solution to his dilemma. God had a remedy for his despair.

Share the Spirit and Share the Load

In response to Moses’ honest prayer, God said to him, “Assemble seventy respected men who are recognized as leaders of the people, bring them to me at the Tent of my presence. . . . I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the spirit I have given you and give it to them. Then they can help you bear the responsibility for these people, and you will not have to bear it alone” (Num. 11:16–17).

What sweet words those must have been to Moses! He would no longer have to carry the huge burden alone. Seventy elders would guide and lead the people along with Moses, thus lifting some of the weight off his lonely shoulders. Plus they would be an encouragement to him as they shared his spirit, enthusiasm, and dedication.

Why hadn’t Moses thought of sharing the spirit and sharing the load? Had he forgotten the advice his father-in-law, Jethro, had given him earlier? When Jethro noticed how the people’s complaints were consuming Moses’ time and energy, he told him to select good people to help him.

Though he applied Jethro’s advice at the time, perhaps Moses simply forgot the advice as he continued to lead the Israelites. Continuing to change geographic locations and deal with cantankerous people would have challenged any system of organization. Perhaps Moses lapsed in overseeing his assistants. He may have found it difficult to delegate responsibility and share the workload. Many people do, even dynamic leaders. I’ve read where delegating work to others is one of the hardest time-management principles to practice, even though it is the sensible thing to do.

Or the consuming nature of continuous stress may have made Moses forget Jethro’s advice. During ongoing, intense stress, such as he was experiencing, thinking can become cluttered. A friend described it as being in a snowstorm where the snow is blowing all around and visibility is poor. You do what you can to keep moving forward but you are never sure you are walking in the right direction. Now after his honest prayer, Moses knew what direction to take, even if he wasn’t completely back to his old self.

Heading in the Right Direction

Moses readily gathered seventy elders for God to speak to and divvy up the load, but Moses had trouble processing another part of God’s answer. God directed Moses to tell the people to get ready, because he was going to give them enough meat to last a whole month.

“Moses said to the Lord, ‘Here I am leading 600,000 people, and you say that you will give them enough meat for a month? Could enough cattle and sheep be killed to satisfy them? Are all the fish in the sea enough for them?’ ” (Num. 11:21–22). While he had witnessed many miracles, the depression had dulled his ability to believe. Even when we sense a decisive moment has occurred in which we are better, we still may have some residue to deal with before we can be completely well. Recovery is a process, and fortunately for Moses, God was going to give him some dramatic evidence to remind him who he was.

The Lord said to Moses, “Is there a limit to my power? . . . You will soon see whether what I have said will happen or not!” (v. 23).

God sent a wind that brought quails from the sea. The people caught the quails and ate so many they became ill. He gave them what they were asking for, thus bringing them to see how foolish they were to despise the sufficient food he provided for them.

It wasn’t long, then, until Moses was back being the strong leader that he had been. His depression had been a temporary dip. The snow flurries ceased, and he could clearly see the road ahead. With others sharing his spirit and sharing the load, he successfully led the people to the Promised Land. This didn’t mean he became a perfect leader, but he did return to being a strong, faithful leader so that he became known as Israel’s greatest prophet.

Replay and Reflect

  1. What kind of load are you carrying?
  2. How do complaining people affect you? Is complaining contagious?
  3. Why are some people reluctant to pray honestly?
  4. What is the value of honest praying?
  5. Why is sharing our workload difficult?
  6. How does a person share his or her spirit?