As part of a talk in Blackburn I was briefly interviewed about depression. before an analysis of someone with depression. If you are keen to know how to manage depression or to help someone with depression this is one of the best case studies I have seen. Archdeacon Mark Ireland shows us how an ancient Israelite’s suffering still teaches us today about depression. For the story check out 1 Kings 19.1-18.
This was a talk we wrote and he gave at St Barnabas and St Andrews Churches in Blackburn. It also came with a handout, the Bluffers’ guide to depression. Depression guide
I would like to introduce this morning to my friend Aneurin, who has helped me write my sermon for today. Nye is a close friend of the family, his dad comes from Darwen and was a student with me in St. Andrews, is now a doctor working in East Africa. I first remember Nye as a baby crawling around the family home in Kagando, a remote hospital in Uganda… Nye is sporty, keen on rugby and football (though he supports the wrong team!), is really good at chess, is bright and has just graduated from university. *(Noggy here. That last part was showing that depression is not my primary identity marker. There are other aspects of me which are richer in terms of identity, just like everyone else).*
Hello Nye, your dad went to secondary school in Blackburn but you went to school at the Rift Valley Academy in Kenya. How different was that?……………….
I am assuming very different, although I never went to school in Blackburn! We spent almost all the spare time we had outside because the weather was a lot nicer. Rift Valley Academy was a school for missionary kids, which meant that most of the teachers were American. So I have a much worse accent.
What do you most miss about Kenya?
Most of all I miss my friends. Culturally I really miss the communal way of life and the kindness of strangers. The wildlife there was great too.
Nye is also someone who is learning to live with quite severe depression. Depression isn’t an issue we talk about very much in church, and yet many of us will either have experienced it or be walking alongside someone who has depression.
So Nye what is depression?
Depression technically speaking is a psycho-somatic illness caused by a combination of environmental, spiritual, and biological factors. But in a more practical sense it is a terrible illness which makes you feel miserable in every sense possible. It effects every part of you, so messes up your body and your mind.
How common are depression and other forms of mental illness?
Exact figures are difficult to come by because no one wants to talk about it, low estimates say that 4% of the world is suffering with depression at any given point. In the UK about one in six people struggle with mental health each week. Depression is one of the more common mental health issues and is the leading cause of disability in the world today.
What does it actually feel like to have depression?
First of all it is very difficult to articulate and talk about. But It is kind of like having your shadow fight against everything you want to do. If you want to be happy it makes you sad, if you want to run it makes you feel tired, if you want to feel loved it makes you feel isolated. It is like my body and soul have declared war on each other.
Many great Christian leaders down the years have suffered from depression, including Martin Luther and John Wesley. And there are great leaders in the Bible who struggle with depression too, for example King Saul, King David, who wrote some of the gut-wrenching psalms of lament like Psalm 88, the prophet Jeremiah, who pours out his complaint to God in Jeremiah 20, and the prophet Jonah. But the Bible passage Nye has helped me choose for today is from 1 Kings 19.1-18.
Nye, just set the scene for us for a moment before we read the passage. What has just happened in the previous chapter, and why do you think this is such a good story for us to listen to?
In the previous chapter there has been a dramatic standoff between Elijah and the heathen prophets about whose god was real. It ended with God using flames to show his power and 450 false prophets being executed. Despite the amazing conclusion, Elijah had a really tough job. He was constantly isolated and despised for doing the will of God. He had a rubbish time, which we will see in a minute included regular death threats.
This is the context of this story, which makes God’s response to Elijah all the more amazing. No matter how difficult or miserable the situation, God will never desert us and we always have hope for the future.
BIBLE READING: 1 KINGS 19.1-18
What are the clues that Elijah has depression?
- He’s been incredibly brave and powerfully used by God, but now he is afraid and runs away
- He feels unable to cope, ‘I’ve had enough, Lord.’
- He cuts himself off from people and prays that he might die
- His view of reality is distorted, (he thinks he is all alone and everyone is against him, v10 ‘I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too’) which makes it hard for him to make good choices
What does this passage teach us about depression?
- Elijah hates life and wants to die, but sees that there is a higher calling – he is on earth to do God’s will and not his own. His life has a purpose in the purposes of God. As followers of Jesus we are called to pray for God’s kingdom and God’s will to be done in the Lord’s prayer, as Jesus himself did in Gethsemane when he prayed, ‘Not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22.42). We live in a culture that values self-fulfilment, but my comfort and happiness is not the most important thing in the world.
- Elijah is one of the Bible’s heroes, but he struggled. It’s ok to struggle, and it’s ok to vent your feelings towards God. Elijah does that in prayer, and God understands and answers.
- God may give us a tough calling (confronting the prophets of Baal must have been pretty tough), but he did not desert Elijah, and he has not deserted us. He always sustains us even when we can’t feel it or don’t want it.
What can we learn from how God handles Elijah?
God ministers to Elijah in a holistic, joined up way:
- Physically, he addresses his exhaustion – having run to Jezreel (18.46) and away from Jezreel (19.3) – and his lack of sleep (which is a classic symptom of depression, when you are physically exhausted but can’t sleep) with appetising fresh food, refreshing drink, and plenty of rest and sleep
- Emotionally, he takes Elijah on an extended break away from a stressful situation, 40 days and nights – vv 8-9; he listens to Elijah and lets him repeat himself, vv10, 14; he shows Elijah that he is not all alone, he shows him that he has a team (Hazael, Jehu and Elisha, vv15-17), and that he is not weird – there are 7,000 people like him.
- Spiritually, he takes Elijah back to his spiritual roots, Mt Horeb, and speaks to him in a gentle whisper or ‘still small voice’ (Nye has taught me that being with nature and avoiding loud noises both help when you have depression), and he reaffirms his call as a prophet: Elijah is not a failure, God still trusts him, and still has important work for him to do. But he’s not going to let him do it alone…
So much for the story of Elijah, but Elijah lived well before the time of Jesus.
What difference does the life, death and resurrection of Jesus make to the issue of coping with depression?
- God knows what human life is like from the inside. Jesus has experienced the extremities of suffering, physical (brutal torture), emotional (abandonment and betrayal, being disowned and rejected) and spiritual (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
- Jesus has been tempted in every way as we are (tempted to throw himself off the temple, to bottle out of the crucifixion), but without sin (Hebrews 4.15), and he is praying for us now (Hebrews 7.25).
- God can teach us through our sufferings. Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered, becoming the source of eternal salvation for us – Hebrews 5.8.
- We know that suffering is temporary. Jesus has conquered death, and has opened the gate of life. Our suffering will end, it will not go on for ever.
- Coping with depression could be one of the ways in which we may be called into the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3.10) as we partner with him in his work of healing a broken world.
APPLICATION: INTERVIEW NYE
Introduce handout (Depression guide) – The Bluffers’ guide to depression.
So Nye, if I’m someone suffering with depression what should I do?
Depression is different for everyone, but there are certain things which everyone should try and do to fight back. First of all get help, from friends and family, but also from professional counselors and GP’s. Secondly, do exercise regularly. Going on a walk a day makes a big difference. And always pray. It may not feel like God has deserted us, but He hasn’t.
What should I do if I want to help someone with depression?
First thing to do is to gently and humbly ask questions, everyone has particular needs. If we do talk to you about be honoured, it is really tough. Next try and help us by taking us to the doctor and getting us to see counselors. Also be prepared to get gritty. We might need help with the dishes, or cleaning the house. Not fun things. Always be praying.
Noggy again. I was really glad that we got to talk about this in church. Regardless of the environment, unless people are openly discussing and talking about depression it will not go well. Because we second guess ourselves and sometimes struggle to see things accurately we need depression to be a conversation everyone is having. Staying silent about depression will cause damage. We either talk about it or we make it worse.
Don’t forget to check out more of Mark’s stuff on evangelism/discipleship/ other fun things at markcireland.com