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:
These posts are based on a series of sermons
Not him. Please not him.
Robin Williams was one of the first people to make me laugh as a professional in the cause. He died today, apparently at his own hand, in the throes of an ongoing battle with depression and addiction.
There’s a lot of rough stuff, dark stuff, painful stuff in the world right now, but this makes it all a little darker.
For people like me, he was the comic voice of a generation. We grew up on his shows and his movies, laughing even at the jokes we didn’t want to admit to teenage friends that we didn’t really understand. He also – let’s be honest here, it does no one any good to gloss over – made some total rubbish. He could ‘do serious’ so very well. Which shouldn’t be a surprise because good comedy is just as hard to carry off, if not harder, than good drama. I have a little acting experience and know that to be true. To be as funny as he was took real genius; so drama should and did come easily to him. In all cases he just needed the right script – the better to improvise from and around.
That’s one reason this news overshadows much else, for a time. When you lose someone you grew up with, you need to take some moments.
Sadder still that he’s another in the litany of those wrestling with mental illness and who wanted out. We need to pause when we hear this news because to those of us who struggle with depression or love those who do, moments like this can feel like a dangerous affirmation of the choice to end the struggle on our terms. If he’s done it, why can’t I?
You can say as much you like that it doesn’t work like that and it’s worth hanging on, but it makes no difference; possibly suicidal depression has a dark internal logic as irresistible as a whirlpool’s pull. News like this can seem to add a little more gravity’s inexorable, inevitable power.
So pay attention. This matters, as much as Iraq and Gaza. Differently, but as much. Do not condemn those who seemed unmoved by Gaza or Iraq but appear to be paralysed by the death of someone they’d never met. You’re on dangerous, holy ground if you’re with them.
If you are feeling suicidal, or know someone who may be, please click here
Cricket is a strange sport. Steeped in tradition and the nebulous ‘spirit of cricket’; decency, fair-play and public-spiritedness are all part of the sport’s rich history. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and despite what the defenders of the sport may seek to say, it’s much like any other sport. Don’t get me wrong; I love cricket, especially test match cricket, with a passion. But it can be a dark, aggressive, lonely sport.
I once heard a talk by someone who had worked closely with the England team over a good span of years (this is some time ago now – when the current players were still at school); the speaker was reflecting on the loneliness and boredom that can overtake players on foreign tours. He told us that he knew for a fact that on one tour not a single player was faithful to his partner whilst he was away. He was well placed to know that. Times have changed for the better in that regard – wives, girlfriends and children are actively encouraged to travel with the England team for parts of the tour. But darkness remains in cricket’s heart.
Whether it’s sledging – verbal on-field insults aimed to achieve the famed ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent – or fast-bowling aiming a small, hard leather object in the vicinity of the opponent’s head at 90 miles per hour, intimidation with word and deed has been part of the game since well before England’s attempts to squeeze the all-time great Australian Don Bradman out of the game led to a full scale international diplomatic incident. Any individual or team who claims to be above this is simply one that hasn’t yet been caught at it.
This is all because cricket – especially the long version of it – is a game played in the head. It’s a team sport that depends on individuals to excel as individuals within a team context; hours spent in a lonely fielding position; running in to bowl 120 times a day in sweltering heat whilst your colleagues stand stationary waiting for something to happen; long stretches in a dressing room watching others do brilliantly or terribly, all of which adds to the stress and strain when it comes to your turn.
All this and more has been bought into sharp relief when one of the world’s leading batsmen (England’s Jonathan Trott) left England’s scarcely begun tour of Australia with a ‘stress-related condition’ in the wake of the allegedly unrelated comments by an Australian cricketer that Trott was scared and weak. Whatever the cause, he’s the latest in a line of cricketer’s to have his mental health thrust into the spotlight; despite claims that cricket and those who play it are no less prone to mental health issues than anyone else, it does appear to be a sport in which these things at the very least gain more publicity than they might otherwise. The same speaker who told me of English cricketers’ infidelity also told me of a high level of depression, suicidal tendencies and attempts amongst cricketers at all levels.
There is some good coming out of this – if mental health issues, especially those of prominent, admired men – are being talked about openly that does give to the many who think they are alone some much-needed solace and maybe an encouragement to seek help. If cricket does something to people, so does the Christmas season. All the family issues, the excess of food and drink, financial pressures exacerbated by the pressure to spend, the insistence that we must be jolly whilst doing so, the round after round of socialising, the darker days and harsher weather (in the northern hemisphere). It’s a tough holiday season, especially if you add in the heightened reminders of recent bereavements and other loss whilst others celebrate their families. Depression, suicide and general misery seems to rocket in line with the enforced jollity.
Cricket and Christmas force us inside ourselves (imagine, then, for a moment what it’s like for a cricketer, struggling with his profession, away from home for months, over Christmas); they both force the participant into a space where mental frailties and fractures are likely to be pressured to breaking point. Duty or love or some combination of the 2 forces us into situations where we may not like what gets forced to the surface. How to survive? A few tips, whether you love cricket or hate it …
1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to some invitations if they’re not going to put you in a beneficial space. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to another drink or helping if it’s bad for you. It’s OK not to enjoy what others are enjoying. In short, it’s OK to be the person God has made you to be even if she or he doesn’t quite fit in with what’s going on around them.
2) Plan things you know you’ll enjoy. Whether it’s a book you love, a place you like to walk or a film that’s special to you or a favourite piece of music – if the season is full of hard things you know won’t energise you, make sure you actively plan stuff that you like.
3) Remember, when you’re feeling frail and weak, that Christmas is about God packing himself into the frail and weak skin and bones of a helpless baby. If you’re feeling frail and weak you are in good company. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15).
4) If you know you’re going to be in some situations you will find difficult, make a plan for what you’ll say and do when the things you expect to happen do happen. Write them down on your phone or tablet or diary – pull them out to look at them if you need to. You’ll have a safety net and will feel much more confident as a result.
5) January is often harder for people than Christmas. Make plans for positive things in January now.
6) Remember that the worst may not happen. As well as thinking about the bad things you expect to happen, think what the best case scenarios might be and what you might be able to do to help bring them about.
7) Keep reminding yourself that God rejoices over you: The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
Since I first wrote this article, David Warner has issued an apology for his comments about Jonathan Trott.
“What have you got to be depressed about?”
The question is a tenacious one.
What have I got to be depressed about?
I was born into one of the most privileged, advanced, secure societies in humanity’s history.
I now live in the world’s most economically unequal country; but it’s OK. I have a house, running water a toilet and health care. That puts me on the plus side of the inequality equation.
What have I got to be depressed about?
I know people who live in the middle of a gang war. I know people who have to walk through the region’s most crime-affected areas after dark in the rain to get to a toilet. A toilet of sorts, by the standards of most of us who will read this.
What have I got to be depressed about?
Unlike many in my community, I have never been threatened with being forcibly removed from the family home and relocated to places with inadequate drainage, exposed to the worst of the wind and the rain.
In the grip of a depressive episode I could, should, would feel guilty.
That makes sense, seems right, makes sense of the universe, doesn’t it?
If your leg is in plaster people ask why. You explain. They understand and make allowances.
I’ve never broken my leg, never had a part of my body visibly in plaster.
My chronic arthritic spinal condition is invisible. The reasons for it can be guessed at but not explained. The pain ebbs and flows like a temperamental tide.
I’ve been told I’m too young to have a ‘bad back’. That I need to see a chiropractor/exercise more/take different exercise/apply ice/apply heat/sleep more/sleep less/sleep on a harder bed/sleep on a softer bed … (delete as appropriate).
None of these will work. At least not as a fully as the advice-givers expect. I have the same condition as the captain of the Australian cricket team and a former English captain in the same sport. My symptoms are more advanced than both because I am older and a roll of the biological dice has deemed it thus.
The invisible needs explanation to be understood. If it can’t be understood, it must be curable in familiar ways. What works for me must work for you, surely. Ignorance leads to empty advice, kindly meant but building up over time to frustration and snapped responses.
It’s the same with depression. You can’t see it, so when you or someone you know is depressed you feel you must have a peg to hang it on, a circumstance to explain it, something that can be altered to alter the condition.
As with the arthritic pain, sometimes that may be true. A plane ride leads to 48 hours of pain; a circumstance of life can lead to a depressive episode. Counselling may help; changing something may help.
Sometimes. Sometimes not, though. Sometimes my back or neck or joint pain flares for no known biological reason. Sometimes I may experience an episode of depression for no other reason than fluctuation of chemicals I don’t understand.
The cruel trick is that in both cases I can feel guilty. I look at those in plaster, I look at my gender and age and think I should be able to do more than biology allows. So I feel guilty even if everyone around me is terribly nice and supportive. I look around at the need, pain and suffering of the city in which I live and I see people with real reasons to plough to a stop with depression, but they keep going. So I feel soft, guilty, pathetic. What have I got to be in pain about? What have I got to be depressed about?
And most of the time, these are the questions of healing as well as doubt.
What have I got to be in pain about, depressed about?
Nothing. Sometimes, I just am in pain. I just am depressed. Others may understand or they may not. They may be helpful or they may make it worse, like the unsought advice.
But He knows. As mysteriously as I may have been made, He does know. He sees the heart and serotonin. He sees the mis-firing immune system causing waves of pain.
Did Jesus get ill? Did he feel sickness and pain creeping up on him; not on the cross … I mean bent over the carpenter’s bench, getting out of bed. Not from sin, just from existing. He did feel pain on the cross – does that mean he felt pain of the sort I do? Were the chemicals in his brain prone to unpredictability, or was He perfectly ordered, perfectly centered?
Did He? Does He? Unanswerable speculation or healthy questions?
I don’t know.
But it’s a good place to take the creeping guilt, the nagging sense I should be different.
What have I got to be depressed about. As a British comedian has recently said, you might as well ask “What have you got to have a broken leg for”.
This week is Depression Awareness Week in the UK.
I know a man who had to take some time off from his job in a church. A working relationship had broken down to the point of him becoming ill, experiencing a serious bout of depression. Relationship break-downs are complex affairs and as a result the church as a whole wasn’t told why he was absent. Complex as it was, this was a mistake; rumours started to circulate of absence from work for reasons of illegality or immorality, none of which were fully denied by those who had the power to do so. When some of those aspects of the truth which were appropriate for the public domain were allowed into the open, it was too late for some relationships. By then the man was within minutes of suicide.
What’s at the heart of that? A lot, to be sure. There’s a much longer story to be told. Maybe one day it can be revisited; maybe not. There’s explanations, qualifications and different sides of the truth which would doubtless have to be explored and explained. What can be said is that there’s something at play here which speaks to a wider truth; that many of us Christians – and especially we charismatic-evangelical ones, for this was in a charismatic church – are scared to bring issues of mental illness in our communities into the light. Some of us are scared; and when we’re scared of something because we don’t fully understand it, it’s easy to end up with stigma. We keep the thing we’re scared of at arm’s length, away in a locked room, unspoken of and unnamed; or given a different, more comfortable, more morally quantifiable name. We prefer explanations that are easier to explain – illegality or immorality, in the case of this man. That’s much easier than naming it depression, mental health problems; we know where we stand on pastors who have affairs or who break the law. We’re less certain when it comes to Christians (and especially Christian leaders) with depression. Christians are meant to rejoice and walk in victory, so depression doesn’t fit. So some of us push it away and give it another name, find a different box to put it in. Very few, if any, of the people involved in that story I told are likely to articulate it thus; but it’s there in the subtle ways we find to come up with alternative narratives. It’s a human reflex, a knee-jerk reaction which can seem as inbuilt as hair colour or height.
Stigma. The hiding of the dirty secret which may not actually be that dirty, but can make you feel soiled. It alienates, distances, lies, covers-ups … and depends on a lot of other factors to be maintained. It springs from fear that others will see us differently, fear of something we can’t quite understand or explain, something which once it’s out of the box can’t be controlled and can’t be put back in. Stigma stains, soaks into the fabric and can’t be washed out.
That’s understandable – we believe God heals and we want to see that happen. We don’t know, though, how to pray when confronted by some things. Does a person need deliverance or healing? Does he need love or medicating? Des she need prayer or a professional practioner? The question really should be: why do we have to choose?
Here’s the breaking news: the box is open. The tragic death of Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son who took his own life after a long battle with depression, has lifted the lid. If ever it was really securely on in the first place. Now there’s no hint or suggestion that he was stigmatised for his illness. Everything we’ve seen suggests he was held with love, compassion, dignity and grace. But the public stage of this sad story has taken the issue of depression, mental health and suicide in evangelical christianity and thrust it blinking into the spotlight. A perfect storm of stigma, circumstances, panic attacks and depression nearly killed the man of whom I spoke. He didn’t take his own life, but he was mighty close to it. He felt so trapped, so locked away, that for a while only one way out made sense. It’s hard to argue with that dark logic.
I know another man. A man who was stigmatised. Rumour, spite, manipulation, violence, cowardice and religion led him to be tortured and to hang bleeding and suffocating and dying naked on a cursed cross outside a wall, mocked and sneered at, his clothes won and lost by his executioners on the rolls of dice.
Stigma borne. Stigma owned by the one who shouldn’t have to hold it.
There’s a lid to be thrown away, questions to be asked, conversations to be had. It should start with the consideration of a man who chose stigma and let it lead Him to glory. Then it must move to those forced by omission or commission to carry stigma; it must continue with sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and understanding. It must continue thus until we’re left together at the foot of the stigmatised cross, with an ear open to the one we mistake for a gardener, calling us by name.
I have the man’s full permission to share what I did of his story. I also checked this post out with a handful of independent advisers to comment on appropriateness before finalising and posting.