Down but Not Out

The Straits Times reported this week that “Singaporeans have world’s longest life expectancy at 84.8 years.” Unfortunately, this good news was tempered with data that indicates that we will also spend more of those years in poor health (10.6 years on average).

What stood out for me in this report was the fact that mental health was the second largest cause of poor health, especially for the elderly. This caught my attention because of an earlier report from last year about the number of suicides amongst the elderly hitting a record high.

We do not often address issues of mental health in our society. More often than not, it is ignored or swept under a rug, possibly because of the shame it brings. Yet this is a very real problem, and we in the church ought to be able to discuss and help those who suffer in this way.

In particular this week’s passage from 1 Kings 19:1-18 addresses what appears to be Elijah in depression, one of the most common mental health problems we face. Curiously it is an episode that follows what must have been one of the greatest triumphs in Scripture when God confronted the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 and followed it by lifting the crippling drought over the land of Israel. Despite these successes, Elijah was left in a state of despair as he cries out to God, “I have had enough, Lord, Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4b-5) The desire to end it all is surely a sign of depression.

In many ways, the prescription God gave Elijah to eat and rest well are the very things people who are struggling with depression need. But more importantly, he provided the ultimate answer in three ways.

First, God is resourceful amid the failures and (apparent) losses Elijah faced. Twice Elijah said, “I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10, 14) but God assured him that he was not alone and that he was raising up other leaders to follow him. More crucially, there were 7,000 others whose “knees… have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18) No matter the circumstance, even if our individual situation may seem bleak, we know that God has a bigger plan and that He can provide in ways we cannot even imagine.

One of the key resources God has for us is his body, the community of the Church. There are brothers and sisters in Christ that we can turn to in our time of need. We are not alone, and we do not have to face our trials and troubles by ourselves. We are called instead to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6:2)

Secondly, God is faithful to do what He promises to do. In many ways, we can all probably identify with Elijah. He witnessed a great triumph up on Mt Carmel. He expected the tide to have turned, and the people, but especially Ahab and Jezebel to repent and return to God. Instead, Jezebel doubled down. She not only did not repent, but she also threatened Elijah’s very life! The disillusionment Elijah felt is understandable. It would seem like his best efforts had ultimately ended in failure. Apparently, nothing had changed.

Elijah had to be confronted with God’s awesome presence and to hear His voice afresh. But not in the expected ways. God did not speak to him from the mighty wind, the violent earthquake or the raging fire. Instead, Elijah encountered God in the sound of a low whisper. And God’s voice was the voice of assurance that He will complete what He had begun. It remains for us to be willing to seek out God’s ways in unexpected places and allow Him to bring His assurance to us. The apostle Paul says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

Finally, God patiently and mercifully deals with His servants. God cared for Elijah despite his faithlessness. He met the prophet at his point of need. He gently cared, restored and encouraged him when he was at his lowest.

If we like Elijah are facing deep discouragement. We only have to look at the one who suffered in the garden called Gethsemane. He too was discouraged even as he was on the cusp of fulfilling His mission. Scripture tells us that he suffered such stress that his blood came out through his sweat glands, which is a known medical condition called hematidrosis. That we have a Saviour who had suffered as we have and ultimately won the ultimate triumph over sin and death, the real enemies of our souls.

And that he gently invites us saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)