Wisdom of the Depths
By Anthony Casperson
A man once described his experience of depression as living deep in the dark depths of an endless ocean. Enveloped in the darkness, he held his breath for as long as he could, hoping that his time in that place would quickly come to an end. Finally, he took in a deep breath and realized that this ocean allowed him to breathe. Pain, like lava filling his lungs, quickly eclipsed his momentary hope as he realized that while he could breathe, it was an excruciating life. Certainly not the life of one who was supposed to be a follower of Jesus.
This man was not alone. Others came by, experiencing pain together they dwelt in the depths. However, the others eventually rose from the depths. They took great, painless breaths as they surfaced and began to fly. Through the years, many came and went. Some for long periods of time, some for mere days, but this man remained.
He looked up and saw the once fellow members of misery soaring, smiling, saying how the life of a follower of Jesus is not meant to be lived in the depths. Some beckoned to the man, calling him to rise. Others told him that there was something wrong with him because he remained in the darkness for so long, calling him “Eeyore” and other such names, adding to his pain.
The man said, “I want to soar on the wings of eagles. I want to bask in the radiance of the Son.” He struggled to work up the energy to move, swim, push his way to the surface. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much pain he suffered filling his lungs with the molten liquid with his haggard breathing, he wouldn’t budge. There he floated, gripped by the darkness, an eternal resident of the depths.
What does this story of depression have to do with wisdom? How could it possibly connect to wisdom? Especially when there is no happy ending like “but one day, the man rose and began to soar like the others and now he also tells people that living in the depths is not the way for the people of God.” Are we not, as followers of Jesus supposed to have joy? Doesn’t the bible talk about Christians having joy? Isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?
It is true that joy is all of these things. Paul says in Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice always.” But it is important in this moment to state that joy is not happiness. Joy is not loving the circumstances one finds themselves in all the time. Rejoicing always is not something that comes from a life of happiness.
The same Paul who wrote the epistle to the Philippians also wrote to the church in Corinth that he experienced many “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:23-28, ESV).
No one in their right mind would expect Paul to say, “Oh I'm so happy that happened” when his enemies came to Lystra and stoned him to what they believed was death, but he walked back into the city the next day. If someone were to say, “I'm glad that I'm hungry and cold hanging onto this board keeping me afloat because I was just in a shipwreck” we would have to question their sanity.
Yet when we see a fellow follower of Jesus with a frown on their face, we tell them that they need to have some “joy” and put a smile on their face. We tell them to slap on a smiley face, hoping that they can fake it until they make it to a place where they are happy. This doesn’t lead to happier Christians, this leads to miserable Christians who have no one to talk to without fear of judgement that they are feeling sad or depressed.
Joy is about hope. Hope not that one day everything will go our way and it’ll be all butterflies and rainbows, but hope in Jesus. Hope that one day this sin-filled world will be returned to the sinless state in which it was meant to exist and we will live eternally with the one who saved us. Hope in the truth that the same God who chose to save us will be with us in everything we experience in this life, from the moments of ecstasy to the moments of depression.
Joy is about knowing that no matter your circumstances, God is right there with you. If you find yourself soaring in the skies, he’s the one lifting you up. If you find yourself in the depths, he’s right beside you helping you live, even though your situation should cause you to be dead.
But why would God allow such pain? Why would a loving, powerful, present God allow his people to go into the depths? The answer is that he leads his people into the darkness. I know right now some people are wondering what kind of sadist I think God is (which I don’t believe he is), but the truth is that God sometimes leads his people into the depths, into the darkness.
Look at one of the most well-known psalms, Psalm 23. We look at verse 3 and say, “Yes, God leads our path to make us more in line with his ways. God’s directing hand is ever-present in our lives of becoming righteous.” We then take a breath and long pause and then read verse 4 and say “Yes, I will not fear when I am in the valley of the shadow of death. I have no need to fear death because God is with me.” But, these two verses join together to mean so much more than this.
The place and time of death isn’t the only idea for the valley of the shadow of death. It can be any place that darkness dwells and desires to take the life of God’s people. The depths of darkness, the place of dark emotions and depression, seek to take the life of God’s people by removing their view from God. And when you think about the path down which God leads us to become more like him, sometimes there are hills and sometimes there are valleys. One way to read verses 3 and 4 is “…He leads me in a path of righteousness for his name, indeed because I walk in a valley of death-like shadow. I will not fear evil because you are with me…”
When taken this way, it is God who is leading the one on the path, even into darkness. Why? For our own growth in righteousness, our growth to become more like him. Our growth in him leads to his glory, it’s for his name. And sometimes the best way God can help us to grow is in the darkness. But there is no need to fear the evil of the depths. The darkness can’t kill us without God’s permission. He is right there with us ready to stop the depths from killing us.
Take the events experienced by Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah [a.k.a. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I use their Hebrew names here rather than their more well known Babylonian names because their Hebrew names have meanings that give glory to God] in Daniel 3. These three, in following the path of righteousness by not bowing down to the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the fiery furnace. But God was with them in the fire, keeping them from death in order to bring himself glory as they showed their faith in him. There is no need to fear when led into the depths because Jesus is right there with us.
But the question then comes, why does God lead us into the depths? Why would the God of light lead his people into places of darkness? What part of growth in righteousness comes from dwelling in the depths? I believe that there is a wisdom that can only be found in the depths. This isn’t to say that wisdom only comes from the depths, or that those who have spent much time in the depths are more special than those who have lived a generally pleasant life. However, there is a type of wisdom that can only be found in the midst of the darkness.
Job from the Old Testament is one very good example of a discoverer of this wisdom. God had blessed Job greatly, but he led Job down into the depths by taking away every blessing given to him. After a period of time, Job had some “friends” come to him and tell him that this taking away of the blessings had to be a result of some sin.
After several rounds of debate, Job came to have a large discourse about how these three “friends” were wrong in their assumptions. Right in the middle of this discourse comes chapter 28. This chapter, according to one of my professors in bible college, is thought by some scholars to be out of place. They question why suddenly Job switches from his defense to a discussion of wisdom. I believe that it is not a switch, but rather a continuation of his defense. He is trying to tell his “friends,” who have been trying to use human wisdom to explain Job’s situation, that there is a wisdom they have not seen. A wisdom that explains his situation quite well, but few know of it.
Job brings up the subject of mines. He says that there are various precious metals and stones that humans have found deep beneath the earth. They bring light to the deep darkness of the depths, places that no bird could reach, not even the far seeing falcon. No beast of the earth could even fathom the depths that humans have discovered, not even the great lion. Humans can uproot mountains and stop rivers from flowing. But even with all of this power, all of this great ability, true wisdom is not able to be found.
In this respect humans are no different than the animals. Nothing that humans have can buy wisdom, nor can they stumble upon it on the land or in the seas. It’s not found in the land of the living and even death and destruction say they have only heard of a rumor of true wisdom. Notice this, the closest that humans can, by their own power, get to the wisdom Job speaks of is in death and destruction.
But God alone knows wisdom. He alone can dispense of it. He alone can lead a human to it. And I believe in this case, Job is saying that the type of wisdom God has revealed to him is found in the depths of darkness. Job seems to be at the start of understanding his place in his current circumstances.
Job has had everything taken from him, his wealth, his health, his own children. He became an outcast sitting in the city dump with only his sores to keep him company and broken pottery to give him solace. He’s been in the depths of darkness for probably more than a year. And it is here in the darkness that he comes to clearly see the wisdom of God.
But what is this wisdom? It is the wisdom of faithfulness. This isn’t to say that only those who have dwelt in the depths have faithfulness, but rather that those who have experienced extended stays in the depths of darkness have the ability to discover a unique form of faithfulness, and experience God’s faithfulness to them in a unique way.
It’s a form of faithfulness that stretches out in full abandon of the trappings of this world. It’s a faithfulness that exists even when blessings are few. It’s a faithfulness that looks absurd to those who have never experienced the depths. It’s a faithfulness born of struggle. And a faithfulness that is difficult to stifle once discovered.
Learn once again from Job. When he first lost everything his wife tried to convince him to curse God for all of the loss and die, Job asked if he is only supposed to accept from God the good, but not the bad (Job 2:10). He had a small inkling of the wisdom of the depths. Faithfulness was there, in embryonic form. But this doesn’t say that Job easily discovered the faithfulness that is the wisdom of the depths.
Job certainly struggled during that time. He quickly descended in the depths as he cursed the day he was born, wishing he had been stillborn so as to not see these dark days (Job 3:1). Much of his defense against his “friends” included asking God why this darkness had come to him. He didn’t understand and even called God to trial to give a reason for why he did these things to Job. His place in the depths caused him to question God and left him wailing in his depression.
But notice that twice at the beginning of the book (1:22; 2:10) it specifically says that Job didn’t sin in all these things. And even at the end, after God has asked Job who he thinks he is to question God’s deeds, Job relents of his call for putting God on trial (42:6). [I know most translations say “repent” when Job speaks, but I believe that denotes a place of sinfulness in Job. This would then by definition mean that Job could not say he was sinless and his “friends” would be right in saying that sin was a part of his loss of God’s blessing. Thus, making void the very truth of the book.]
God then tells Job’s “friends” that he will accept Job’s sacrifice for their sin of not speaking right of God’s ways (42:7-8). It’s okay to be sad or depressed, but it’s not okay to lose hope. It’s okay to question God about your circumstances, but it’s not okay to lose your joy of being with Jesus.
The depths of darkness are a perilous place where none should ever want to dwell because it’s so very easy to lose sight of God beside you, to lose the light by turning to the darkness. As much as the darkness can’t kill a follower of Jesus, it pulls all the harder to distract us and make us focus on the pain, darkness, fear, depression and ebb away at our hope. It methodically calls us to turn from Jesus and fall into despair.
Despair is the opposite of joy. We can be sad or in a place of depression about our circumstances and still find joy in Jesus standing beside us. However, if we lose our hope and give into despair, that is when we allow sin to creep into us from the darkness that was meant to help us grow more like Jesus. Thus, pulling our focus from Jesus to the darkness around us.
It’s like Peter walking on the waves to Jesus in Matt. 14. When he began to focus on the waves around him, instead of Jesus, the depths began to overtake him and he sank. Once he reached out for Jesus again, he was once again focused on Jesus and the depths had no power against him. It certainly takes time to discover the wisdom of the depths, the faithfulness to the faithful God who deserves all glory, honor, and praise. It is the fear of the Lord mentioned in Job 28:28 as well as the book of Proverbs.
But certainly there must be some other reason why God would use the darkness to lead his people in righteousness. The wisdom of faithfulness can be discovered in ways other than being in the depths. I believe that God also sometimes leads us into the depths so that we can help others learn of the wisdom of the depths when terrible times come to be.
The prophet Jeremiah proves this most handily. Jeremiah was tasked by God to be a voice of judgement upon the rebellious people of Judah. His mission statement was “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Quite the mission statement.
As he was tasked this, false prophets were recounting the fact that Jerusalem hadn’t fallen when the previous world power (Assyria) came to destroy it. They stated that as long as they had the temple of the Lord, Jerusalem would never fall (Jer. 7:4-7). The people of Judah who chased after other gods needed to be told that dark times were coming and as those times came to be, they needed to be reminded of the faithfulness of God.
Jeremiah spent years in the depths. Most of it coming as a result of people who didn’t believe his message. But also some of it came from his own experiences that God led him down. Jeremiah 20 shows both parts of Jeremiah’s time in the depths. He’s face to face with Pashhur, a false prophet who had Jeremiah put in stocks and beaten. After publicly renaming Pashhur “Mr. Terror on Every Side,” Jeremiah stands up fiercely before the false prophet saying that he’d die in captivity (Jer. 20:6). But then in the very next verse, Jeremiah is out of the public eye and starts calling out to God, questioning God’s benevolence in Jeremiah’s life. Everyone mocks him, turning the name “Mr. Terror on Every Side” back on him.
Jeremiah even questions whether he wants to remain the voice of God’s judgement, desiring to quit speaking God’s words, but it’s like fire in his bones. The word of God consumes him from the inside unless he lets it out. He vacillates between being faithful to his calling and cursing the day he was born. He’s experiencing the same feelings as Job. He calls for God’s judgement to come so that his prophecies are proven true. But it wasn’t yet time. Jeremiah had much to learn still before he could be the voice of hope to those in the depths.
Jeremiah had to live out how the people of Jerusalem would live during the captivity. God commanded him to not go to the house of mourning because there would be no time for the people to mourn their dead when the destruction came (16:5-7). Thus, he had to mourn anyone he loved in a very isolated, solitary way.
God also commanded Jeremiah to not go to the house of feasting because no one would have the reason to go to feasts (16:8-9). No feasts. No festivals. No weddings, not even one for himself. His life was to be marked with the pain and loss of those who would be found in Jerusalem during the destruction that he prophesied.
He cried out for his people wanting them to repent (9:1; 13:17). He was put on trial and nearly put to death (26:7ff). And even when his prediction of Babylonian captivity seemed more of a possibility, because some of the people of Judah had been put into captivity, false prophets tried to say that the captivity would not be for long (Jer. 28). Essentially, “just hold your breath for a little longer, we’ll be out of the depths of darkness soon.” Jeremiah knew that it would be much longer.
Jeremiah often struggled with continuing in his mission. But once the final destruction of Jerusalem came, when the people around him were dragged to the depths, you will never again see Jeremiah vacillate between depression and his mission.
He had been trained by God, because of dwelling in the depths, to build up and plant when everyone else around him fell into despair. His time in the depths of darkness allowed him to be ready to be a light to those falling to the darkness. He had come to find the wisdom of the depths and was ready to faithfully teach it to others.
God leads us into the depths to show us a wisdom of faithfulness and let us help others discover the truth of that wisdom. Many who dwell in the depths believe it to be a curse. While it certainly isn’t the most pleasant place to live, it’s the best place to be for those whom God has led to it. If we focus on him, learn the faithfulness of the wisdom of the depths, and shine forth his light in that dark place, then we are growing on the path of righteousness that he has for us.
If God’s leading in your life doesn’t lead you to the depths of darkness, be thankful, but certainly learn from those who have dwelt there and don’t think less of them. Time in the depths can last a night, a week, a month, or most of one’s life. It’s all in God’s path for the person. So, don’t feel the need to smile if your circumstances are in the darkness, but take joy in the fact that the one who suffered greatly on the cross for you is right beside you. Frown joyfully with him.