Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
1 Kings 19,vv9-18 Psalm 85, vv8-13 Romans 10, vv5-15 Matthew 14, vv22-33
God's way of dealing with depression
Although I don't set out to shock people – well - not often anyway! - a couple of weeks ago I managed to really spook some members of our congregation at Virey. Let me tell you how it happened. Somebody was going on about 'What a friend we have in Jesus' being their favourite. That's OK, I've got favourite hymns as well! But what bothered me were some of the attitudes they were hanging on this hymn, and on people for whom it isn't a favourite. Because I think that for every person who feels uplifted by this hymn there is another person suffering in silence, feeling condemned by it. Anyway I thought a little realism might help everyone, so I told them the story of the person who wrote it.
Joseph Scriven was born in Ireland in 1819. He emigrated to Canada, and in 1855 he wrote this text as a personal poem, to send to his mother, who was ill back home in Ireland. He never intended it to be a hymn. When he later wrote a book of hymns (good hymns, all now forgotten) he didn't even include it. But somehow a newspaper got hold of the words, and the hymn 'What a friend we have in Jesus' was born by accident. Somebody wrote a rousing tune, and before long it was a favourite.
Jo Scriven was a passionate Christian preacher, but he was only human like the rest of us. So when we turn the clock forward, we are told he died in 1886, but few sources give any more detail than that.
What happened to him? Well, apparently he was locked in a deep black depression, and his friends could see his life was in danger. They decided to try to keep a watch on him, but he managed to find his way out of the house. The following day they found him dead - drowned, in a lake.
When I explained this, the response was fascinating. Some lovers of the hymn said I had spoiled it for them – shattered the illusion. But should we hang on to illusions in our Christian living? Others said 'how terrible' – going on to explain how terrible it was that this great Christian had lost his faith. They somehow seemed to imply it was his fault, if only he had hung on tighter , if he hadn't let God down. The unthinkable alternative, that God had let HIM down, well, we didn't go there. But what else could have happened?
Let's leave aside the whole dodgy idea of our illnesses being the consequence of our sins..... because depression IS an illness, or sometimes the result of a psychological injury. It's all very well telling the depressed Christian that Jesus is with them, but sometimes what the depressed person aches for isn't a spiritual meeting with Jesus, but the ordinary touch of a genuinely caring human being. Jesus works in that way as well.
The Christian Church handles these things so badly, and so often people are told Jesus is close to them as if to disguise the fact that meanwhile their fellow Christians are shrinking away, backing off, as if mental illness is infectious, like bubonic plague!
So let's NOT shrink away – this morning, let's think about DEPRESSION.
Depression is a mysterious and misunderstood illness, which is much more widespread than people think. Probably one in four of us suffer it at some time in their lives, though not all become ill enough to seek treatment, so in every congregation there will be people who will have experience of depression in their lives.
Misunderstanding can lead to blundering attempts to help, like telling somebody to pull themselves together - if they could, they would have done so already. Or telling people that it’s just natural to get down when life is difficult - it is natural, but that’s not depression in the medical sense.
In our first reading, from 1 Kings 19, we encounter a mysteriously depressed prophet Elijah. Far from being down because things are going against him, Elijah’s collapse into gloom takes place soon after the famous triumph of his ministry, challenging and defeating single-handed the 450 prophets of Baal. Everything looks like it’s going his way - so why do we find him depressed, hiding himself away in a cave?
We don’t really know the answer - perhaps he’s over-reached himself in his ministry, and his depression is triggered by exhaustion? He’s given out without taking time to re-charge, so his battery has gone flat. That kind of explanation might account for what God does to help him. But it's clear that Elijah has reached that despairing paralysis that we now call depression.
So how DOES God respond to Elijah, and what might that teach us about responding to the needs of the spiritually or psychologically depressed?
At the beginning of chapter 19 Elijah, who has proved himself a man of great courage, is suddenly struck with fear by a threat which wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered him in the slightest. He flees from that threat in a panic, and then the depression hits him. Why? It could be exhaustion - maybe he feels guilty at running away - either way, he just wants to curl up and die.
God needs a conversation with Elijah, but first he blesses Elijah with the sleep he needed, and with food and water to refresh him before sending him on a long plod to Mount Sinai, where God was waiting to talk to him.
When he gets there, God starts by a gentle question which invites Elijah to talk - he asks him ‘what are you doing here’? Elijah’s answer reveals the depth of his depression - he feels utterly isolated, and that the whole world is out to get him.
God hears what Elijah says, but he doesn’t try to argue with it. Instead we have this great demonstration, of wind, then earthquake, then fire - but God isn’t in any of them, God is in the gentle whisper that follows all the commotion.
Unlike our human instinct, God doesn’t try to bounce Elijah out of depression with ever more exciting experiences - we often try that with people, but in the end it doesn’t work. We kid ourselves that some big event or treat will cheer up the depressed person, but it never has a lasting effect, and the treat or event needs to be even bigger the next time in order to have any effect at all. Instead, God re-focuses Elijah’s attention by coming to him with a quiet voice which doesn’t need to make a fuss in order to announce itself. Elijah isn’t alone, because God is with him.
Again the question, ‘What are you doing here’, to which Elijah gives the same answer, that he’s feeling alone, with all the world against him. So something more is needed.
Apparently, faithful Christians aren’t supposed to get depression, aren’t supposed to feel like this, so the illness is complicated by burdens of guilt from their own consciences, or from well-meaning fellow Christians telling them that a true Christian is never alone, because God is with them. Like Elijah, they may well need something more,
But that’s not what God tells Elijah when he still complains that he feels alone: God reassures him that no less than 7,000 people out there remain faithful on the side of God and Elijah. So Elijah is neither alone, nor weird and unique – there are lots more like him, s/o he’s far from alone.
Yet you can be lonely even in a crowd, can’t you? So God puts one more special provision in place for Elijah - he gives him a helper called Elisha.
Elisha is in fact a double gift for Elijah- on one hand he’s a supporter and helper and friend, but he’s more than that, because he’s also Elijah’s apprentice - a trainee prophet.
That simple fact imparts a whole rich layer of meaning. By entrusting Elisha to Elijah to be trained, God is showing that he still has confidence in Elijah, that he’s still a great prophet despite his time of depression – in fact Elijah may be even a greater prophet as a result of this experience!
Why? Because when many of us who get depressed tend to turn away from God and even blame him for our unhappiness, Elijah didn’t turn away from the help that God offered. He faced God honestly and humbly and told him his real feelings, gloomy and ugly as they were. His healing began there.
God had much more work for Elijah to do, and he seems to have done it well. Finally, in the 2nd Book of Kings, Elijah’s work is completed, and he’s carried up into heaven by a Chariot of Fire. Some Christian traditions remember Elijah as a saint, celebrated on 20th July. He is a very human saint - just like most of us, sometimes strong and sometimes pretty fragile. And Elijah reminds each of us that God doesn’t choose only the young and super fit and healthy to do his work, because what needs to shine out is not the person, but rather the power of God in action.
Yours in Him