Shadow sides 6: Elijah and his depression

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

The epidemic of mental health issues is well-recorded, yet it continues to be difficult for many Christians to see it as it is: an illness no more sinful or shameful than a broken leg. Anyone can break their leg, no matter how holy they are. In the same way, anyone’s mind can end up in plaster. Depression’s regular companion is anxiety; add in a side-serving of PTSD and you have my trio. Charles Spurgeon, widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in British history, suffered from at times crippling depression. Trevor Noah, South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, has wrestled with it. Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘the black dog’ for his battles. Psalm 42 describes tears as food and the soul as downcast; Jesus’ sorrow overwhelms Him to the point of death (Matthew 26); yet for many mental health issues are the Christian’s dirty little secret.

Consider Elijah, whose story is found in 1 Kings 17-19. The people of God are in a bad way, wandering far from where they should be. Elijah’s life and ministry is to call them back to how they should be. For two chapters we get the sense that his is the ministry of mountain-tops and ecstasy; miracles, fire from heaven, slaughtering opponents, standing bravely for God, speaking truth to power. Yet in the wake of his biggest vindication, Elijah crashes. In chapter 19 he fears for his life and runs for the wilderness; he’s suicidal. All told, this episode will last somewhere in the region of 40 days – Biblical speak, we know, for a long time. He asks God to kill him.

What God does – and doesn’t  – do with his prophet is instructive on how we should deal with depression in ourselves and others. There’s no magic cure; first off it’s sleep and food. The latter is miraculously provided, but Elijah scarcely notices; sometimes when you’re depressed just eating a meal can seem like a major achievement. Here begins the hallmark of God’s treatment of Elijah’s depression – gentleness. He doesn’t tell Elijah to stop wallowing in self-pity; He doesn’t tell Elijah’s he’s sinning; He doesn’t tell Elijah to pull himself together. He moves towards Elijah; he meets Elijah where He is and doesn’t ask him to change. Instead, when he’s ready, He lets Elijah talk. He asks open-ended, ‘why’ questions; not closed ‘yes/no’ questions. It doesn’t matter to God that Elijah’s answer to those questions barely changes; He just lets Elijah talk. Neither does He overwhelm Elijah with another intense spiritual experience; earthquake, wind, fire (the mode of God’s presence on Carmel) all pass by with no hint of God’s presence. Instead He’s in the quiet whisper.

At the end of all this, there’s no indication that Elijah is better, that his depression has lifted. His answer to God’s questions are still the same; we don’t know if his desire to die has gone. Elijah’s role hasn’t changed, though. He’s still a prophet; God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. God reminds him of that and gives him a new mission. We don’t get to hear if Elijah even carries it out; as is so often the case for many of us, there is no resolution, no suggestion that Elijah’s problems are solved. Despite his depression – or maybe because of it – Elijah still has a role to play and a job to do.

If God doesn’t dismiss someone with depression, who are we to do so? Add to Elijah’s treatment plan therapy, medication and friends willing to play God’s role, and you have the right prescription. As with Thomas’ doubt, Paul’s thorn in the flesh and more besides, the label doesn’t concern God. If Elijah were in ministry today he might be told to take a sabbatical or change careers or find a less stressful job; in 1 Kings 19, however, God simply embraces Elijah, draws close to him and reminds him of his mission. It seems that God is less choosy about who He uses than we might be.

If there’s stigma, there shouldn’t be; but it’s not my problem. Hanging from a cursed cross, outside the city walls, bearing sin that wasn’t His, we follow a stigmatised Saviour. Which is God’s master-plan for all we need; in Him, God draws close to us whose minds are in plaster. If we know others for whom this is also the case, then let us sit with them. As the stigmatised Saviour does with all of us.

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

Esther: from whom God was absent

These posts are based on a series of sermons

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