Blessed are the…Depressed?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

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.

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New Years and Second Winds

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 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. 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.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
JRR Tolkien, in The Fellowship of The Ring

This story about Elijah has always been one of my favorites,  probably because I can identify with his feelings of aloneness and despair over the state of the world as he sees it. To be completely honest, I’ve always been rather prone to bouts of existential depression and angst, and those feelings have been exacerbated over the past year by what I see to be a broken political and economic system, aided and abetted by broken theological systems masquerading as Christianity. So I’ve had trouble finding the motivation to sit down and write, that is at least until I was confronted by today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Office. When I get like this, I probably ought to write more, not less, because when I read, ponder, and attempt to put my thoughts about a Bible passage into words, I invariably find that God is speaking to me. And invariably, what I hear God saying is good news.

In the chapters preceding this one, Elijah had just come down from a major spiritual victory in a showdown with Ahab’s prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Initially so elated by his success in proving that Yahweh was more powerful than Baal that he briefly turns into a Bronze Age version of the Flash, he soon finds that in reality nothing has really changed. Queen Jezebel is still determined to make Baal-worship the official religion of Israel by any means necessary. He feels that there is no use even trying, that he is the last man standing, and that he’s had all that he can take. He prays to die, then collapses in sheer exhaustion. That’s when God shows up, and Elijah finds his second wind.  He journeys for forty days (a highly symbolic number) to Mt. Horeb, known as “the mountain of God” and which is probably the same mountain Moses called Mt. Sinai.  There Elijah has a profound encounter with God, who reveals himself not in dramatic showings of earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sound of silence. Here the Hebrew is usually translated “still small voice” or “gentle whisper” but it could also be translated “sheer silence” In a manner reminiscent of a reality therapy script, God twice asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” Elijah says that although he has worked very hard, he thinks his efforts to educate people about God have been fruitless, and he feels despondent and alone. God tells Elijah that he is not a failure, nor is he alone, and that there are still ways he can make a difference.

Like Elijah, we long for God to reveal himself in dramatic and spectacular ways. That isn’t usually how God works, nor is it even particularly successful.  Jesus, who often had to deal with requests for signs and wonders from those with ulterior motives, told a story about a poor man who died unnoticed and uncared for on the doorstep of a rich man intent only on pursuing his own pleasure. When the rich man died, he found that their positions were reversed in the afterlife. While the poor man reclined in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man suffered in Hades. The rich man wanted to send someone back from the dead to warn his family lest they share his fate, only to be told that ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” That, of course, paralleled the reactions of most of the religious leaders to Jesus, and was probably the main point of the story. People who have their minds made up won’t be convinced to change them by facts, logic, or even miracles. In Elijah’s time, some weren’t convinced by fire coming down out of heaven. In Jesus’s time, some weren’t convinced by Jesus’ resurrection. Why should we expect people to react any differently today?

God still asks, “What are you doing here?” As Gandalf observed, there is much going on in the world that we cannot control. What we can control is our own behavior. We don’t need giant letters in the sky or a booming voice from heaven telling us to be kind, to advocate for justice, or to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. And if we listen, we can still hear God saying, “You are not alone. All is not lost. You can make a difference.”

And that’s good news to me.