Mental Health, God’s Way (Ros' Blog)
When we did our survey of disabled peoples’ experience of church, some of the respondents were people with mental health difficulties. Sadly, their experience was that churches had little understanding of these conditions and could be somewhat unhelpful in their approach as a result.
Having had family members with poor mental health I know how hard it can be to see a loved one suffer in this way, but also how easy to see “solutions” and become exasperated that the person can’t see it the way you do. Here are some of the comments made in our survey. They reveal how, all too often, people with mental illness feel misunderstood and unsupported:
- “Much damage is done when attitudes (and therefore words) are trite. I have stopped going to church mainly because of the trotting out of Bible verses which are nearly always said out of context.”
- “Accept me as I am, not on condition that I get miraculously healed or pull myself together and am like everyone else.”
- “I feel churches need to be aware and have empathy and real care for those with different disabilities including mental health problems as well as physical ones too.”
I love the way that the Bible doesn’t draw a veil over the difficulties experienced by the great servants of God, but allows us to see them with all their human frailties and struggles. Elijah is a good case in point. He is so zealous for the name and honour of the Lord that he sets up a contest against the prophets of Baal. Interestingly, we don’t actually read of God instructing him to do this, but nonetheless God honours his zeal and answers by fire.
The priests of Baal are defeated and destroyed. Jezebel’s wrath is aroused, and Elijah knows what she is capable of. He still has fresh in his memory the recollection of God sending him to confront her when she had Naboth killed and stole his family’s vineyard. So when she vows to make Elijah like one of the priests of Baal, his reaction is one of fear. He takes to his heels and flees for his life.
Why would a man who has just seen God show Himself invincible before the whole nation be afraid of a mere human? It seems that Elijah has expended himself so fervently in the cause of God that he has reached a point of burn-out.
The thing I find interesting about Elijah’s story is how God responds to his anxiety and severe depression. The day after his mighty victory Elijah is found asking to die: ““It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And, like so many of us at times of distress or depression, he goes to sleep to shut it all out.
What would I have done at that point? I have a whole catalogue of Bible verses I might have spouted, designed to remind him who he was in God and motivate him to carry on. Not so God. He sends an angel who gently wakes him and feeds him, making no demands on him but simply and quietly ministering to him. The angel leaves him to sleep some more, and then wakes him to eat and drink again. God knows that Elijah’s immediate need is not for motivation, a pep talk or scolding for succumbing to fear, but simply nourishment and rest.
For almost the next six weeks, Elijah is striding away from community and into isolation. God doesn’t intercept him and say, as I might have done, “It’s no good moping alone. You need to get back into fellowship with people, not sit by yourself and ruminate on your negative thoughts.” Luckily for Elijah, it’s God, not me, who is dealing with him. God understands his need to get away and be on his own.
Finally, God knows Elijah is ready to speak with Him. Could God have begun this conversation with Elijah immediately when he first fled from Jezebel? Probably. But Elijah needs time to make the inward journey, and to face what is inside himself. God asks him what he is doing here, and all Elijah can do is point to the past and say, “I have been...” Preoccupied by his history, he cannot envisage a future for himself.
God allows the storm to rage around Elijah, a rock-breaking tornado, an earthquake and an intense fire, and finally, as if in contrast, God does not grab Elijah, shake him warmly by the throat and tell him to pull himself together, but instead speaks gently to him in a barely audible whisper. He asks the same question again, “What are you doing here?” We might think that after such a display of power and such a gentle sign of God’s love, Elijah might have recovered a hope for the future but no, he is still locked in his past, and once again responds, “I have been...”
“For goodness sake, man!” I want to cry. “Are you still dwelling on all that stuff in the past?” Thankfully this is not God’s reaction. Instead, He quietly gives him a specific, manageable task – to anoint a king and a prophet – and backs this up with a promise: Elijah will discover that he is not alone and abandoned as he feared. Somehow, he finds that he now has the strength to go back and face the commission he has been given – and as we know, eventually has a triumphant welcome into heaven, and becomes one of the “greats” of God’s kingdom who meets with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. God’s strategy for dealing with anxiety and depression works far better than ours, it seems.
Imagine if churches could follow this model of gently allowing people to retreat and rest, meeting their needs, being present with them in the storm, listening non-judgementally to their responses, speaking gentle words of quiet affirmation and encouragement, and finally helping them to get back on their feet and into serving God and his people by small, incremental steps. Churches would become a safe haven, not an arena where people feel judged and censured. May we learn from God’s methods and give hope to those among us who struggle in their mental health.