A bruised reed he will not break

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How does God care for those who not doing well? Today’s post on depression in the Bible brought to you by Elijah and Erin.

(PS You can find more of my “did I just read that in the Bible?!”-type posts over here.)

Before I even start this post, let me be honest. I have never struggled with long-term depression. I have occasionally had a day or two where I’ve felt this grey cloud of hopelessness and listlessness come upon me for no apparent reason, but it never sticks around. So you might say that I have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s ok. I’m not offended if you choose to stop reading here.

But I believe that sometimes God helps us to have a bit of an understanding of a thing without actually experiencing it. I guess that’s called empathy!

I have heard people say before that the prophet Elijah may have struggled with depression*. Obviously we have no way to find out the truth, but I think there are some clues in the Bible.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let scripture speak for itself, so we can see how God cares for and cherishes those who are depressed.

Our story picks up after he has had this incredible demonstration of God’s power through the showdown on Mount Carmel. God has proven his might without a shadow of a doubt to those in attendance. The false prophets have been executed. God has ended a drought of several years in a very dramatic fashion. Frankly, King Ahab is freaked right out. But his queen is majorly ticked with Elijah and plans to have him killed.

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. 

1 Kings 19:3-8
We see here that Elijah is exhausted, frustrated, and maybe even suicidal. Does God give him a kick in the butt and tell him to “suck it up”? Does God give him a lecture, or even gently remind him about the recent miraculous events? Does God quote Scripture verses at him? Does God send someone to pray for him? Nope. God feeds him, and lets him sleep.

Perhaps this part is a lesson to those of us on the outside of depression – maybe our job is that of the angel – to feed and to allow for sleep. To listen without questioning and to lament with them.**

God also acknowledges that Elijah has indeed had a rough time. “The journey is too much for you.” He doesn’t just give Elijah his way and let him die, instead, he gives credence to Elijah’s pain. Often as outsiders, since we don’t understand depression, we want to help those struggling with it by trying to rationalize it or explain the way out of the gloomy, grey flatland. If even God refrains from doing this, we probably should too.

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.”

1 Kings 19:8-10
Apparently Elijah has been rejuvenated physically, but is still depressed, frustrated, and feeling completely alone. This despite the fact that Obadiah told him he had hidden 100 of God’s prophets from the evil queen, that the Israelites joined him in executing the false prophets, and that he himself left a servant behind. But depression is not about facts. Spouting facts at someone with depression isn’t going to help. So God doesn’t. He appears to Elijah in gentleness and allows him to talk again.

Then a voice said 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.”

1 Kings 19:13, 14
Yup, he doesn’t even rephrase his complaint. But that’s ok. God still doesn’t lecture. At this point God gives him a job, a friend, and a promise.

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

1 Kings 19:15-18
So Elijah goes and does these things, including calling Elisha as his protege and anointing the kings who will eventually rid Israel of the Ahab/Jezebel problem. A few chapters later we see him speaking out against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s evil deeds again, and he continues to be a minor character through a few more chapters of Israel’s kings and queens. And in the end of his life, Elijah is one of two characters in the Old Testament who doesn’t die. Instead, God sends a chariot of fire and horses of fire to gather up Elijah. I’ve always wondered at this. Why didn’t God just let him die like everyone else? Why did God consider Elijah so special that he got to go up in a fiery chariot? For heaven’s sake, even Moses, David, and Daniel had to die like regular folks. Weren’t they just as deserving? Perhaps (and this is pure conjecture), this was God’s way of continuing his immense care for Elijah. We don’t know if Elijah had any more episodes of despair, but maybe God was saving him from one that might have arisen from a slow death by old age.

So our loving God is seen to do great things through Elijah. He then cares for him while he is depressed, allowing him time to heal. During this process, he gives him a friend and helper, then sets him back on his feet to do more amazing deeds for the glory of God. This reminds me of one of my new favourite verses:

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3
I hope that as you read through Elijah’s story, you are able to take comfort from the way God cares for him in his darkest time. Depression is such huge topic, and I don’t mean to be trivial or simplistic. If this is something you are dealing with or have dealt with, your story is unique and probably nothing like Elijah’s. But there is one part of that story that is the same between you and Elijah. God cares for you just as much as he cared for Elijah, even on the days, months, or years that you feel completely and utterly abandoned by him. My prayer for you today is that God would repair the bruised reed of your soul, and that he would rekindle the smoldering wick of your heart.
* Elijah has been seen as having depression, but more scholars are moving towards a condition more akin to PTSD. Some tangible horrible event had taken place to break mind, body, and spirit. While depression could still have certainly been present (a “co-morbid” condition), just like depression and anxiety often exist together, Elijah could point to what broke him.

Many people likewise can point to an event that triggered a depressive episode — a death, a birth (postpartum), or bad grades at school. It’s strange for our ears to hear, but it is true that too many beautiful and wonderful things can also trigger depression. The birth of a child is a wonderful thing, but it is still traumatic on the mother’s mind, body and spirit. Winning the lottery has shown that many folks stumble into depression with the sudden influx of cash they do not know what to with.

However my main point here is: often times, depression sets in with no discernible cause. People here experience a particular form of shame and guilt because our society as a whole values “Reason”. When Reason is absent, why the depression? I’ve always said that depression never feels like being “blue”; but rather it feels “grey”… 2-dimensional, lifeless, no feeling, no depth, no texture. Nothing. But when the cause is hidden, there is a cache of emotions that mostly look like guilt and shame. Science has come a long way in determining brain or thyroid dysfunction, but by and large there is still a stigma and pressure to discover the root cause of depression. Sometimes there just isn’t “Reason”. For friends and family members who are trying to help in these particular instances, feeding and listening (As you say already) is crucial. I would go further and say that putting down the bible and asking pray with could also be powerful acts. I know when people have done that for me, I have looked back on those actions as some of the most powerful. The bible was lemon juice on infected wounds, and prayer was hollow. For Christians strong enough to put aside their own expressions of faith and simply “be” with me (or not if I needed space)… well… profound love is discovered in infinite ways, isn’t it? 
(note was written by Erin from Relucant Mysticism)

** Some might say “God showed up for Elijah, but he’s nowhere around here for me”. You and I know this COULD be a lack of faith, but more likely it is sheer disappointment at facing emptiness alone. In these stories, God is absent. It is true for them. When seconds turn into minutes and minutes turn into hours, and something as simple as raising your hands above your head is an accomplishment for an entire day, God is certainly ‘gone’. Christians can honour this pain by embracing the lament. Sometimes modern churches are scared of laments; we don’t sing them, we don’t practice them, we don’t want corporate expressions of grief and pain as part of our regular worship. Along with listening and feeding, embracing the lament is crucial.

This might mean the person in depression lashing out at us, lashing out at God, lashing out… anywhere. Yes, it might hurt us but, unless there’s a specific issue between us and the person, it is NOT about us. If we can receive the lament and anger and inability to function with warm silence and genuine love, we are loving God and others in ways our churches are often afraid to.
(note written by Erin from Relucant Mysticism)