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

Too much reality

I need to tell you how I’m feeling today. I should warn you that some of you will not like it. Some of you will think I need to get some perspective. Some of you will tilt your head to the side and lower your eyes. Some of you will get angry. A few may find common ground with me. I will speak with unvarnished truth about how I feel today, and if it angers you … well, maybe you need to get angry.

I will not stay feeling the way I am about to describe forever. At least I don’t think I will. It is where I was yesterday, am today and probably will be for a few more days. And that is the last qualification that I will make. If you are worried for your sensitive eyes or ears, then look away now.

I am boiling with anger. You know, most of you, that over two years ago my friend was murdered by terrorists in Kenya. In the course of doing my job (a church leader), I had to put my own grief on hold; the result of this is a series of symptoms with which I still live, which I’m told add up to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t think you could get that if you weren’t present, but it turns out you can. I jump out of my skin if someone kicks the dog bowl. A word, a phrase, a weather pattern, a noise, a story can send me spiralling into anxiety and grief. It can not affect me for weeks or months and then it will besiege me until my resources are starved.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was starved. I woke to news of the Paris terror attacks; within an hour my heart and soul were back where I was two years ago, receiving details from inside a besieged shopping centre, comforting a fearful widow-to-be, getting fateful news. Eventually, like many others, I took to social media to both express myself and see if I could find some solace. I found some; I also found people asking why we weren’t grieving also for the many killed in attacks elsewhere – Beirut, for example. And on it went; apparently we who were moved – moved by people slaughtered doing what I like doing, going to rock concerts and football matches – especially by this, don’t care for Arab lives. Apparently we’re over Westernised. Apparently, one person told me, I shouldn’t bring my grief to social media.

The truth is I can’t take it. I have my limits. If I processed all the death and destruction in the world the same way, I would not be able function. I would sit and shake and cry and shout and scream until I couldn’t any longer. Yesterday was almost unbearable at times; I only got going when a 6-year old insisted on a cuddle … now. Today was better because it had to be – I had a job to do.

T S Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. How right he was. I can’t. You can’t either; you who sanctimoniously and self-righteously tell me I should be moved in the same way about everything. You can’t take it. If you felt like I felt yesterday for even an hour you would cease to meaningfully function. Have you tossed and turned overnight, wondering if your friend is safe, or a hostage or lying blood-strewn on a shopping mall floor? Have you been in the room when that phone call has been taken? Have you had to lead people on a journey of forgiving this?

We can’t take it all. We just can’t. We have our limits.

And don’t you dare, don’t you even think of citing Jesus. Even He, faced with the full weight of every moment of suffering, every evil deed, every murder and angry word; even He cried out in fear, asked for another way, sweat blood and asked why God had abandoned Him.

Of course Arab lives matter, the same as French or British or Kenyan or Burundian or Rwandan or Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian or Israeli. But I can’t take it all, and if you say you can then you’re self-deceiving liar. You need to go to some war zones, some terror attack malls, some grieving families to get some perspective on yourself. Then tell me how much reality I should be able to take.

Paris moves me because I’ve walked its streets. Because I’ve been to more rock concerts than I can count and more football matches than I can remember. I can imagine myself there, in the midst of a carnage I can imagine only too well because of what I know from the inside.

So when you tell me, and people like me, that I must care equally … you do not know what you ask.

For the love of Christ, let us shake, mourn, grieve, cry, grow angry for a while. In time we will return to something resembling equilibrium.

We couldn’t do this every time, because we are human.

And if that’s such a sin, then we’re in more trouble than we know.

Trauma, two years on

It’s now 2 years since our friend and deeply committed member of the church I lead was murdered in Nairobi by terrorists at the Westgate mall attack. I’m not one of those people for whom birthdays and anniversaries and birthdays are a big deal; I understand that for other people they can be significant, but for me they tend not to be. The anniversary of my mother’s death, for instance, is one that makes little impact on me. I check in with my family to see how they are doing – but for me it’s not a big emotional occasion. Anniversaries do however make useful markers as to how we are doing on the never-ending journey of grief; they can help us to see not so much how life has gone on without the person we’re missing, but rather they can show how our life has reshaped and maybe even enlarged itself to encompass the griefs with which we live.

The anniversary fell on a Monday. Last year – the first anniversary – fell on a Sunday. At our church we used the opportunity to remember not only James, but all whom we’ve lost and for whom we wish to give thanks to God. We developed a simple process of each person taking a flower and placing it in a vase at the front of church as a symbol of our cumulative memories, grief and thankfulness. It was a moving and helpful process, which we undertook again this year on Sunday. Although I was aware of the emotion around the service, it wasn’t something I found personally difficult; it wasn’t until lunchtime on the Monday that I tuned into the fact that irritability, jumpiness, tears close to the surface but never actually happening and anxiety were all part of my reality. By the evening I was fully on edge, manifesting many of the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress I’m told by an expert I experience as a result of my leadership calling and work two years ago. My wife went out to run a brief errand, and I was a mess of anxiety until she was safely back home; three good friends had been away all weekend and I couldn’t rest until I found social media evidence of their safe return (I was too self-conscious to actually check in with them directly); sleep was a distant hope, so I read and listened to music until well into the night.

Acceptance is a part of any healing process. You can’t get healed of a medical condition unless you accept you have it in the first place and seek the prayer or treatment you need; it’s also a well-recorded part of the grieving process. For me, the 2 year anniversary marks a point of acceptance. Not so much of James’ death – I’m pretty sure I’ve accepted that – but of my response. When it was first mooted by someone who knows about these things that I was experiencing some PTSD, I was hesitant and resistant. It’s not as if I was in the mall when he died; he may have been a good friend, but he wasn’t family. But  – and this is important – what I’m learning to accept is that the role I was called to play at the time placed me in a vulnerable position. It meant I was, amongst those who are not family, in an almost unique position of living through the events with the family but unable to process my own emotional reactions to events concerning my friend. I was living it, but needing to put parts of myself ‘on hold’. Part of me had to pause, the other part had to run. I was involved, privy to much private information and some intimate, precious moments. I was in the story, deeply. Two years on I’m accepting that this PTSD is a normal reaction to the abnormal events in which I was caught up; apparently it’s not unusual for people in jobs like mine in situations like this one.

As a result I found this anniversary harder than the first one; a friend pointed out that this may because there are fewer socially normal rituals associated with it. Last year the anniversary was a draining but helpful flurry of events and conversations; this year ‘normalised’ it all more, which may be part of the difficulty. I don’t want to accept that the new normal; but I must, and I am. It’s a constant, tidal ebb and flow of acceptance and rebellion, of remembering and forgetting; but acceptance is now at least in the frame.

That, then, is where I find myself two years on. The same place; somehow more painful, but healthier.

Related to this post

Trauma, one year on

Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend