Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:3-9
I never have subscribed to the idea that mental health challenges like depression and anxiety are sins caused by a lack of faith. Furthermore, I think this idea is not just wrong but harmful. It not only intensifies the suffering of those who must deal with anxiety or depression on a regular basis, but badly misrepresents the God who longs to “comfort those who mourn”.
Just look at Elijah, who is arguably one of the greatest prophets in the Hebrew Bible. God was apparently impressed enough by Elijah’s faithfulness that rather than allowing him to walk the valley of the shadow of death, he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind borne along on chariots of fire. During the time of Jesus, it was commonly believed that Elijah would return before the Messiah appeared. Jewish families still set a place for Elijah each year at the Passover table in anticipation of his return. Yet in today’s passage we see Elijah physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted enough to say “I wish I were dead”. And notice especially how God responds to his state of mind: not with condemnation, but with comfort.
Today’s lectionary passage only tells part of the story, so here’s a little background on the events immediately preceding the reading for today: Acting as God’s representative, Elijah has just orchestrated a dramatic and successful showdown with Israel’s state-sponsored prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. He is elated, believing that now surely everyone, including Israel’s rulers, will turn away from false gods to the true one. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Queen Jezebel doubles down and vows to exact retribution, sending Elijah first running for his life and then despairing of it.
God doesn’t attack Elijah for his lack of faith. God doesn’t say “What is wrong with you? How can you react like this after what you’ve just seen me do?” Instead, God acknowledges and accepts that Elijah is in a dark place and takes care of him. God lets Elijah sleep and encourages him to eat and makes sure he is well hydrated. If we continue on with the story beyond where today’s passage ends, we find that God asks Elijah what is going on and then listens nonjudgmentally to what Elijah has to say. “And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Elijah is depressed not because of a personal lack of faith, but because he is overwhelmed by the faithlessness of Israel. Elijah, perhaps more than anyone else living in his time, understands that Israel’s idolatry will lead to her eventual downfall, and it grieves him deeply. Despite his best efforts to correct the course of the ship of state, he will not be able to prevent its sinking. Elijah is dealing with what today we might call “existential depression”. It is because he sees things that others are do not, and understands how things aren’t but ought to be, that he feels the way he does. Far from demonstrating a lack of trust in the power of God, Elijah’s feelings demonstrate that he is exquisitely sensitive to the heart of God. As the story continues, Elijah becomes transcendently aware of the presence of God, not in earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sounds of silence .
God turned toward, not away from Elijah during his dark night of the soul. God didn’t snap his fingers and instantly “cure” Elijah’s depression; rather God offered him God’s own self in the form of God’s presence and comfort, as well as providing Elijah with a human companion, Elisha. Elijah was then able to find the strength to keep on keeping on, to put one foot in front of the other, until the day finally came when God said “Well done, good and faithful servant” and sent chariots of fire to bring him into the ultimate presence of God.
Some things haven’t changed since Elijah’s day. There are still prophets of Baal today, although of course we don’t call them that. There are still many people who would rather worship idols than God today, although of course idols have other names today. But we are not alone and we are not abandoned to our fate. God is still with us, perhaps most especially in the silence. And that’s good news to me.