When St. Augustine lost his best friend he writes what, up until that time, was the most personally revealing confession of pain and sorrow yet to be recorded in history. Scholars have noted that neither the Greeks nor Egyptians, the Romans or the Persians had ever thought or dared to pen a piece so introspectively graphic and emotional. In the past such emotions were relegated to the hiddenness of poetry. But Augustine brought them into the open. The testimony is found in his Confessions, Book IV and I quote just a small part here:
“Grief darkened my heart. Everything on which I set my gaze was death. My home town became a torture to me; my father’s house a strange world of unhappiness; all that I had shared with him [Augutine’s friend] was without him transformed into a cruel torment. My eyes looked for him everywhere, and he was not there. I hated everything because it did not have him, nor could they now tell me, ‘look, he’s on the way’, as used to be the case when he was alive and absent from me. I had become to myself a vast problem, and I questioned my soul, ‘why are you sad and why are you very distressed?’ But my soul did not know what reply to give…only tears were sweet to me, and in my soul’s delights weeping had replaced my friend.”
Augustine’s words, though separated by centuries and cultures, still ring true. Depression, or “stubborn darkness” as Edward Welch calls it can effect us all and for a variety or reasons, not always precipitated by some singular tragedy.
Last year I got a phone call at 2am. There’s never any good news after midnight. It was from someone I knew who came intermittently to church but never seemed able to break into the community. I knew he had struggles with depression, crowds and self-esteem. I also knew he had a series of really bad tragedies in the past few years that had taken their toll. His faith was admittedly weak in that he sometimes didn’t know that believed at all. I reminded him that if mustard seeds can move mountains than faith smaller than the smallest grain of sand is more than enough. Faith can coexist with doubt, but such can make for a rough spiritual experience. I reminded him of the ever-sharp Flannery O’Connor who said, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” But on this night that came to a head. He told me that he did not know what he what he believed, or had much confidence in what he previously thought he knew and now was upset because he didn’t know what to do with all this confusion. His struggle with depression only grew worse by these thoughts and at 2 am he was telling me he was not suicidal, but was afraid he was heading that way.
After I listened to him a bit I asked him what it would be like if he could talk to God and God could talk back? Would make things easier or better? He said, “yes!” and that, “what is so damning about is that I’m crying out to God all the time and God seems so silent! I pray but there never is any answer. If God does love me then why won’t he answer?” I sat quiet for a moment then I asked him if he had ever heard of someone in the bible who probably felt similar to how he did. “Have you ever heard of the suicide prophet?
“Suicide prophet?” He asked surprised, “Who is that?” “Only one of the greatest prophets in the Bible, Elijah”, I said, “and he too reached a place in his life where he was emotionally spent. We can all get there. And that’s doesn’t mean God forgets us, as this story shows.” So I took him to I Kings 19 where Elijah learns that Jezebel the evil queen wants him dead and hearing such news, terrified, he flees. Verses 4-8 explain the rest:
But he himself [Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers. And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
Perhaps you find yourself or a loved one under their own broom tree? Perhaps you’ve prayed, “It is enough now O Lord.”
Genuine depression cannot just be prayed or adviced away. But I would like to make a few observations from this passage that may offer some hope.
First, we are all beings with limits. When we are sad or depressed, our capacity for what we can handle becomes even less. While depressed people may want to spend all day in bed, and it is better to make small goals and do something, it is OK to take some time to recuperate. Elijah’s frustration at his ministry along with this new death threat reveal a rising anxiety and frustration that was not arrested in time and now has boiled over. Pride and reputation can get in the way of us listening to our own bodies for signs that we need a break.
But—most of us can’t just stop working. Most of us can’t just take a week or two off. So what are we to do?
I’m not a professional counselor so I don’t want to offer clinical help. But as a pastor I’d like to say, see yourself as Elijah. Read his words as your words. Read God’s words to him as God’s words to you. That is, after all, how we should read Scripture since it is living and active. By seeing yourself as Elijah, and therefore equally addressed by God, you’ll perhaps find that the God who seems silent is sending his angels for you. Not to take you home, but to strengthen you for the work ahead. Even Elijah needed some angelic grace and bodily rest. And you do too. God loves you. That is the point of this passage. Simply because we reach a point where we feel God has abandoned us doesn’t indicate he has. Elijah was at that place too, but it wasn’t in indicator of bad faith or an absent God, just a tired soul. We have to sometimes strain hard to hear words deeper than our hearts. Words not from inside but outside. Words from God, not our own self-spun narratives.
Secondly, we know have something Elijah didn’t—Jesus’ invitation to come as weary ones and find rest. For years that passage seemed so wonderful and impractical to me at the same time. How can we find rest in Jesus when my attempts to do so always seem to fail? Who has the energy to “come and get” rest?
The “rest” that Jesus offers is not just a bodily rest but a yoke-sharing rest. Like a person trying to pull a cart alone but who is subsequently joined by an oxen, Jesus says, “come and work by my side, take my yoke, I’ll do most of the heavy lifting and you’ll learn from me.” What is this rest in Jesus then? It is the simple realization that you can’t screw things up in such a way that God won’t take care of you. Jesus’ yoke is the Gospel demonstrated in the little things of life that we see as big things. Jesus’ yoke is the invitation to contextualize all our “what ifs” and “yeah buts” and “but thens!” with “So what, I have Jesus and he’ll make it right.” It is not a yoke that promises no suffering (how then could we learn from it) but it promises something far greater—that the threat of suffering is to be emasculated in light of the Gospel. The Gospel for you, Jesus’s wounds, for you, Jesus’ body and blood, for you, Jesus’ yoke, for you.
If you look at a yoke attached to a cart from top down, it forms the image of a cross. This is perhaps what Jesus means when we are to “take up our crosses and follow him”. We do not take them up alone. On the other side of the cross beam is the Good Shepherd who invites you to cast your fears and live by his promises not your premonitions.
Elijah had had enough. Tired and forlorn he asked for suicide-by-God. God’s answer was angelic rest. If the suicide prophet was assisted by God you will be too, for alfter all this is God’s Word, for you. Even more so this is promised in Jesus’ invitation. So, we suffer, we labor, we strain. But not in vain. There is one who died for us, so that you and I may live. Trust in that.
NOTE: if you or a loved one is suffering from depression please seek out a professional who can assist you. Also, if you are able, talk to your pastor for spiritual guidance. For those interested, these are some resources I recommend that might be helpful to you,
Depression: Looking Up From Stubborn Darkness by Edward T. Welch. New Growth Press. 2011. This book is a wonderful book for those in the midst of suffering depression who seek a Christian “companion” to help process the disease and encourage you. Works well with counseling.
The Gospel According to Job: An Honest Look at Pain and Doubt from the Life of One Who Lost Everything. By Mike Mason. Crossway. 1994. This book can be used as a book or devotional (my recommendation) as each chapter is about two pages long. The work takes your through the entire book of Job with a Christocentric focus. While not exclusively a book about depression, it covers all the themes encountered in the Book of Job and remains in my estimation, still one of the better commentaries even if it is not formally so.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. By William Styron. Vintage Press. 1992. People with depression have a difficult time explaining what it is like to non-depressives. This little book (84 pages), while not Christian, explores the “madness” of depression through the personal experience of William Styron who suffered and was hospitalized. This Marine Corps, Duke graduate, Pulitzer Prize winning author gives a rare insight in poignant words.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.