One of the most commonly stated reasons people with mental health issues struggle with church is the relentlessly upbeat tone from the pulpit and the song sheet. God has triumphed over sin and death and so will you! Praise the Lord! When you are already feeling like an abject failure, being reminded of the absence of joy in your salvation can take you into deeper darkness.
When did you last deliver or hear a sermon on Lamentations or Job? Have you lingered at the end of Jonah lately, or gone past the beginning of Acts where it's all new and exciting to the bit where they start being martyred and fighting with each other? King David wrestled with doubt and despair; Hannah, the mother of the great priest Samuel was utterly distraught by the long years of infertility (1 Samuel 1:7–10); and the apostle Paul at times 'despaired of life itself' (2 Corinthians 1:8). If we are not addressing the full range of human experience in our preaching and our sung worship, it is not because the Bible doesn't give us material to work with.
Here are three passages which weave together the twin realities of agonising suffering and the goodness, mercy and love of Emmanuel, God with us.
Even the best of us: 1 Kings 19
The story of Elijah is a powerful affirmation that God sees, uses and cares for us, even when we are at our lowest and most broken. The biblical picture of humanity has not been photoshopped and things get pretty blurry, chaotic and dark at this juncture, even as the glory of God flashes, flames from heaven illuminate the sky and false gods come crashing down.
Elijah lived in the northern kingdom of Israel under King Ahab who, with his wife Jezebel, led the people into idolatry. Elijah is one of the greatest prophets and miracle workers in the Old Testament – he stopped the rain for three years, raised a widow's son to life and parted the Jordan.
In 1 Kings 19 Elijah is fresh from a literal and metaphorical mountain-top experience on Mount Carmel – a stand-off with 450 prophets of Baal ending in a mass acknowledgement of the superiority of the God of Israel, fire from heaven, and a bloody massacre. He runs from the scene, faster than a horse, and then collapses; spent and miserable. This giant of the faith is afraid (19:3), suicidal (19:4) and exhausted (19:5). Depression, anxiety and mental anguish are not signs you are a bad Christian.
Christians can be the worst at knowing how to help and what to say in the presence of a depressed person. Do they need to repent of sin? Perhaps God will heal them miraculously after a heartfelt prayer or two? The help God gives Elijah here is simple: food and water (19:6 -8), his presence and calling (19:11), and someone to keep him company and share his workload (19:15-21).
Elijah's effectiveness for God doesn't end under the lonely broom bush. There is more to be done and God plans to use Elijah to do it. People with shoddy mental health can wonder if they have anything to offer. They have and they need to hear that loud and clear from the pulpit. Preaching on this passage is one of the ways you can get the message across.
Worshipping from the bottom of the pit: Psalms 42 and 43
Two questions: Can we worship when we are depressed, angry, in pain, despairing? And if we can, what does that look like? How do we do it? Psalm 42 and 43 give a resounding yes in answer to the first question, and show that with suffering comes the potential for deeper, more intimate worship.
Here we have a man who feels the absence of God painfully in his experience of suffering. Rather than accept the reality of the void, he throws himself into the pursuit of God's presence: 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?' (42:2). If we are able to understand our need as being primarily for God (as opposed to alcohol, human acceptance, more money, or the other things we can use as temporary comfort) then our suffering has the potential to deepen our relationship with him.
Second question: How do we worship in sadness? Let's look at the characteristics of the psalmist's worship in these two psalms. What stands out most vividly is his honesty. The author of these psalms is an example of breath-taking honesty. He is at rock bottom, tearful, downcast, disturbed, feeling forgotten and oppressed and even in physical pain. All these things he brings into his song. God can take it. We might sometimes feel we need to put on a brave face to God. Many of us are taught to begin our prayers with a thank you. That might be good practice, but it can lead to pretence. It is acceptable to be real, and actually it is a bit absurd not to be, given that God knows the state of our hearts better than we do. If we start from where we really are, the process of communing with God may well move us to somewhere different, but for that to happen we must be relating truthfully with him from the outset.
The psalmist also worships reverently. He never forgets who God is, and his awe and respect for God infuse the psalms. He calls him 'the living God,' 'the mighty one', 'the God of my life', 'God my rock', 'God my stronghold.' When we worship in sadness we mustn't let our sadness obscure the reality of God's greatness and majesty.
And he worships hopefully. He remembers the goodness of God in the past. Psalm 42:4 says'These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One'. In 42:8 he acknowledges the comfort of God in the present: 'By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me' and shored up by these thoughts, he has confidence to ask for God in 43:3 to 'send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me, let them bring me to your holy mountain'. I know that without doubt all of us will have evidence in our lives of God's faithfulness and love and presence. It is a good practice to bring these to mind regularly, and to let them give us confidence to ask him to help us through times of trouble.
Lastly, he worships with discipline. He takes himself firmly in hand, and commands himself to 'put your hope in God', (43:5) to continue to praise him whatever the reality he faces, and however much the evidence seems to point to God's abandonment. There are times when we will have to worship out of obedience rather than an overflow of joy and love. God remains the same, and he is just as worthy of our adoration and worship when we are sad as when we are joyful.
The long view: Revelation 21:1-5
One of the most biting satires ever written was the 17th-century French philosopher Voltaire's novel Candide, in which the eponymous hero continues to declare 'all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds' in the face of extreme and mounting evidence to the contrary. False hope is no hope at all. Drowning people have no use for platitudes – they need something to hold onto that will stop them sinking beneath the water. The desire to comfort is commendable, but make sure the comfort you offer has substance. Some will never in this life be well, dogged to their death by debilitating depression, perhaps at their own hand. Some relationships won't be restored. Some grief will never fade. All might not be for the best and suggesting it will be is unhelpful at the least and has the potential to undermine faith in a good God.
This is not to say there is no comfort to offer. The Bible is as much as anything a story of comfort: the story of a God who sees and hears and rescues. God is with us in deep waters and fiery furnaces (Isaiah 42:3). He gives us sustenance in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:5). He knows what it is to be abandoned, betrayed and in physical and emotional agony (Matthew 27:46). His Spirit brings incomprehensible peace (Philippians 4:7).
And then there is the Great Hope, the final redemption, the eternal joy and wholeness and glory of heaven. This is what makes the story make sense. This is why we press on, one foot after another, day after day as best we can.
Most people today won't have read much apocalyptic literature. We don't have an intuitive feel for how it works and so it can be confusing or alienating. The book of Revelation is a riot of colours, images and pronouncements that scholars and lay-readers alike have struggled to interpret over the centuries, but we are poorer without it and it deserves its place in our canon.
Writing to early followers of Christ undergoing unimaginable suffering for their faith, John's vision of heaven is a reminder of what the world will be like under the complete reign of its king, when 'the old order of things has passed away' (Revelation 21:4). As Paul wrote, 'For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known' (1 Corinthians 13:12). The reality of God's kingdom is for today; his presence is a current reality. But there is more to come, so much more. Hold up this hope from your pulpit. Preach on heaven. Call your hearers to engage their imaginations and their hearts in what God has 'prepared for those who love him' (1 Corinthians 2:9). There will be an end of all suffering – we just need to hold on a little longer.
Jo Swinney was the founding editor of Preach. She is now Director of Church Communications for CPO and a freelance writer, editor and speaker. Her first book, 'Through the Dark Woods' (Monarch, 2006) is a personal account of her struggles with depression. She blogs at www.joswinney.com.
This article first appeared in the October edition of Preach magazine, which focuses on mental health, and is reproduced with permission. World Mental Health Day 2018 is on October 10.