We are in a time of great change and turmoil. We hear constantly of wars, cost of living crises, climate change. Rapid government change and unstable political landscapes throughout the world can make us feel disturbed and anxious.
All this is on top of the ordinary difficulties of life – the normal day to day stresses of work, family relationships, illness, bereavements. How are we to maintain good mental health in the midst of all this? And how can the Bible help us? In this short article I will look at an episode from the life of Elijah which is recorded in 1 Kings 19 and consider how it can help us when we are in danger of feeling overwhelmed.
Elijah has been having quite a time of it. Famine in Samaria has been so severe that there is nothing to feed the animals. Not only that, Jezebel, the king’s wife has been busy executing prophets, and Elijah is on the wanted list. Nevertheless, with great courage, he has confronted king Ahab and accused him of abandoning the Lord’s commands and following the Baals. The demonstration of God’s power to bring rain and thus end the famine has convinced the people to follow Yahweh. Now Elijah is running for his life. Jezebel has put out a warrant for his arrest and sworn to kill him, He runs, for he is terrified. From exultation at the demonstration of God’s power, he goes to abject terror and exhaustion.
Leaving his servant in Beersheba, he goes into the wilderness. There he sits down under a broom bush, exhausted. “I have had enough, Lord,” he says. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” So he lies down and falls asleep, hoping to die. But God has different plans – it is not yet Elijah’s time to die. An angel comes and food is provided. Elijah is not allowed to stay in his torpor of self-pity. “Get up and eat,” says the angel. He does so and then goes to sleep again. More food is provided. Fortified, he is able to walk a very long way to safety, and eventually he is able to rest again.
What is Elijah’s mental state in the midst of all this turmoil?
When he stops running and sits down under the broom bush, he is terrified and exhausted. He feels that he is a failure, and expresses a wish to die. He no longer values his own life. He seems to have given up. All this has led many writers on this passage to declare that Elijah is depressed. We should, however, be careful about diagnosing an illness on the basis of such scant evidence. There simply isn’t enough to go on.
If we can’t say that Elijah is depressed, can we at least say that he is suffering from poor mental health?
From our modern day perspective, this might be a natural conclusion to draw – but let’s stop and think for a while. Do we really need to pathologise Elijah’s response? Given the strain he is under, it is natural that he should feel overwhelmed, terrified and exhausted. Given that his obedience has only got him into trouble, it is reasonable that he should feel disillusioned and fed up. Some people, when the going gets tough, turn on others and do their best to hurt them. This is exactly what Jezebel does, and it brings nothing but suffering to all concerned. Others, like Elijah, turn in on themselves – despite just having had a great high point in his ministry, he decides that he is a failure, and that his life is not worth living. But note – although he expresses a wish to die, he is not suicidal. He simply wants to be taken out of a terrible situation. He is a human being and it has all just been too much. He has run out of steam.
Elijah’s reaction to overwhelming circumstances need not be attributed to poor mental health, but can be seen as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. On the surface, it looks like he has given up, and certainly, if he had remained in this state of mind for too long, it is likely he would have developed what we would nowadays call a depression. We know that God provided for his needs and he was able, eventually, to get to safety. But it is also important to note that in the face of intolerable circumstances, Elijah himself takes certain vital steps which will help see him through.
First of all, he takes the very practical step of removing himself from danger. He uses his common sense and gets away from the person who wants to do him harm. Second, he prays. He tells God exactly what is happening and how he feels about it. He lets God know that he is angry, frustrated and resentful and that he feels he is a failure. Like the Psalmists, he is not afraid to tell God exactly what he thinks. Besides talking to God, however, he also listens. Later, we see him again telling God what is going on and also waiting to hear from God who speaks to him when he, Elijah, is silent. Third, he accepts the help that God gives him. The angel makes sure he has what he needs. Elijah himself could refuse to take it, but it is heartening to see that, after his initial petulance and self-pity, he has calmed down and is willing to accept the help that is available. Later, too he will be given the support of Elisha, who will take over from him when the time is right, and not before.
Despite his great gifts and calling, Elijah was a human being with normal human responses to overwhelming circumstances. At one point, everything seemed so difficult that he grumbled and even expressed a wish to die. God provided for his needs, but Elijah also took responsibility for himself. Like the prophet we too can feel overwhelmed, frightened and exhausted. In the midst of it we can be sure that God will provide for our needs. But as Elijah’s story demonstrates, there are also things that we can do to that will help us to be resilient when things become overwhelming. It may not always be possible for us to remove ourselves from potential harm as he did, but we can take steps to reduce our vulnerability. In our day, too much news, too much information, too much busyness and over work, too much rush and noise can be harmful to our mental wellbeing and we can take steps to avoid being overwhelmed and over-burdened by simply switching off the television and refusing to be pulled into the constant supply of news on social media. We can make sure that we rest adequately and slow down our pace of life. Like Elijah, we can pray. We can tell God how we are feeling (with brutal honesty) and complain and grumble to him. And we can learn from the prophet that prayer is not just about us talking but about learning to listen for God’s voice in the silence. And lastly, we can accept the help and support that God provides for us without grumbling, whatever form that may take.
The Bible is not a self-help manual, and its writers did not think in terms of mental health and ill-health as we do today. But it is full of wisdom and insights which can help us maintain good mental health in our day to day lives and also in times of uncertainty and stress. There is much that we can learn from stories such as Elijah’s. Praise God for the wisdom of His Word.
This article was originally published in the February/March 2023 edition of the United Free Church of Scotland’s magazine, Stedfast – https://www.ufcos.org.uk/news/stedfast/.