I have been learning quite a bit about living with depression over the last month from a close family friend, Aneurin Howorth, who has been staying with us. Aneurin (or Nye for short) has been doing a wonderful job as a volunteer assistant helping me with my work for the last four weeks. Nye’s dad comes from Darwen, was a student with me in St. Andrews, and 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 with an MA in philosophy from St. Andrews University.
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 I have taken the opportunity to get Nye to help me think about the story of the prophet Elijah this week, from the point of view of someone who has experienced depression, and to help me preach about this subject in two churches in Blackburn yesterday.
But before we get to Elijah, let me introduce you to Nye and ask him some questions…
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?
Nye: 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?
Nye: 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.
So Nye what is depression?
Nye: 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?
Nye: 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 it is thought that 20% of people struggle with mental health at some point across a year. 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?
Nye: 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 me.
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 we have chosen to look at is from 1 Kings 19.1-18.
Nye, just set the scene for us. What has just happened in the previous chapter, and why do you think this is such a relevant story?
Nye: 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 very tough job, 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.
Nye has produced a very helpful handout entitled, ‘A Bluffer’s Guide to Depression’, which can be downloaded Depression guide. I want to finish by asking Nye to headline a couple of points from his handout.
So Nye, if I’m someone suffering with depression what should I do?
Nye: 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 counsellors 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?
Nye: First thing to do is to gently and humbly ask questions. Everyone has particular needs. Next try and help us by taking us to the doctor and getting us to see counsellors. Also be prepared to get gritty. We might need help with the dishes, or cleaning the house. Not fun things. Always be praying.
Finally, if you would like to think or read about this subject further, Nye writes an incredibly helpful and honest blog, which can be found at www.noggybloggy.com
Thank you so much Nye for helping me to think and reflect around this sensitive subject – and for being a really good friend and a great volunteer assistant in the office! Gill and I will miss you and our prayers are with you as you start a year’s Discipleship Programme with New Wine, based at a church in Stalybridge.