“Please leave me alone. I just want to lie down and die.” If I visited someone in the hospital who said these words, I would think they are suffering from major depression or trauma or both. Like many people who are in need of care, healing and love, Elijah rejects help. He would rather go ahead and die than receive care. Why do people do that? Is it stubbornness? Is it excess pride that does not want pity? Or is it a soul so devoid of hope, that help and healing seem like a fantasy? Depression can have a freezing effect on the will and the heart. From the outside, we might tell someone suffering from depression that they have everything to live for and a long future ahead. But from the inside it feels like iron shackles that will forever chafe and bind the soul. Better to just sleep and wait for the inevitable end.
Depression is a profound mystery to me. I see people who have endured so many setbacks that I think they should be depressed, but they remain resilient and even cheerful. Other people seem to crumble into a heap at the slightest challenge and give up. Then one day for no apparent reason they emerge and move forward again. Before we say Elijah needs Prozac and a round of cognitive-behavioral therapy, let’s look deeper into the religious dimensions of depression from scriptures. It strikes me that many biblical leaders said nearly the same thing. Moses the great lawgiver, and Jonah, famous for surviving in the belly of a whale, also share in common, with Elijah, a spiritual low point where they told God that would rather die.
In the book of Numbers, Moses becomes so frustrated with the bickering and complaining while wandering out in the wilderness, which he says to God: (I want to read this word for word because it is so incredible!)
Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child”, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery. Numbers 11:1-10
(This is the first documented case of clergy burnout.) The burden of leading a community through trying circumstances and shouldering their anxieties weighed him down to the point where he didn’t care if he lived or died. Moses finds relief when his father-in-law Jethro comes along and quietly points out the Moses takes on too much and he should organize other people to be judges so he doesn’t have to do all the work. (So that makes him the first biblical management consultant.) This is speculative or imaginative theology, for it seems to me that the heart of Moses’ dire state of mind is his belief that only he can solve the community’s problems, he has to be in control and everything is on his shoulders. In the struggles of the wilderness, he is doing the best he can, and how dare anyone complain. There can be a self-aggrandizement in helping others, and when there is neither results nor appreciation, death seems easier than admitting we are not in control, and we need to change or ask for help. Moses did his most important work of setting up laws for the community to live by, after Jethro’s advice to empower others and focus on his own work.
The prophet Jonah also wanted to die. Oddly enough, he was not depressed or ready to give up in the belly of the whale. Jonah is depressed because the Assyrians, who were the enemies of Israel, listened to him and repented. He was hoping God would smite the Assyrians, and the fact that they listened to a prophet of Israel, more than the Israelites listened to prophets, was especially galling to his world view. Better to die than change his opinion. After Assyria repents, Jonah rages at God for being merciful:
‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ Jonah 4:2-3
If we define ourselves in opposition to others, what happens when they are no longer the enemy and the resistance disappears? God’s grace and mercy for those whom we rage against is so galling. The collapse of oppositional energy and meaning that comes from being against someone else is depressing, almost like a death of the self. Only redefinition in who we really are can save us. Or we could just go the well worn path of finding new enemies, moving from Communism, to abortion, to defending traditional marriage between and man and woman, to Muslims.
Now we come to the fascinating saga of Elijah. Like Moses, the liberator who is grounded in the wilderness, and Jonah, the most successful prophet ever, just to the wrong side in his mind; Elijah seems to be at the height of his success in Kings 18. Elijah lived in a time a great religious conflict. Israel’s King, Ahab, married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel, who worshiped Baal rather than Yahweh. In deference to his wife, Ahab is changing the national religion and erecting monuments to Baal. The followers of Baal had some very cruel religious practices that would challenge our beliefs in the freedom of religion and the need for pluralism. Before Ahab built his Temple, he sacrificed children to Baal and buried their bodies in the foundation as a plea for good favor. We too may wonder what to do with murderous religion in our own day.
Elijah arranges a contest with the prophets of Baal. He proposes placing sacrifices on a mountain to their respective gods. Baal’s prophets will then pray to their god to burn up their sacrifices, and Elijah will pray to his God, and may the best religion win. When the fires of Yahweh come down from heaven, perhaps in a lightning strike, and Elijah wins this religious power struggle, he seizes the day and has 400 prophets of Baal put to death. Rather than settling the issue, this enrages Jezebel who sends reinforcements to come and kill Elijah, and he flees into the wilderness to save himself. Rather than settling the question of national religion and orthodoxy once and for all, he has now set off a continuing cycle of religious violence, with himself as the primary target.
Elijah sits under a solitary broom tree, a wilderness shrub that would offer little shade or comfort, and asks God to die, “It is enough, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Imagine thinking that God is on your side, and you have won your battle, then having the tide suddenly turn on you and your life is under threat. Elijah had seen the fires of God come down and honor his sacrifice, and he thought he had dealt the decisive blow to the enemy, only to find he had created more complicated problems through his bloodshed.
What can we make of these stories of prophets, themselves struck with anxiety and welcoming their own death in their trials? There are no simple generalizations, no clear cures for our own times of depression, such as positive thoughts or inspirational quotes that might fit on a refrigerator magnet. In my attempt to find of common thread to their depression and death wish, I see three men who have come to their final frontier, the limits of their own control of the world around them. They are profound leaders, seeking to walk in the ways of God, and yet they misunderstand events around them, mislabel others as their enemies; misapprehend their own power and abilities to force the change they want on the world. They are partially correct that death is the next step. But it is not their physical death that is required. It is the death of pride and prejudice. It is the fatality of labeling and controlling others. It is the causality of trying to bend God to our own way. Spiritual growth often means we have to die to some things in order to truly live.
To claim the power of resurrection is to trust that we can survive this spiritual death and live again. Elijah survives because angels come and feed him bread and give him rest so he can heal. Here we are again-for the third week in a row-the lectionary has fed us bread. 5000 were fed by Jesus with a small boy’s five loaves, Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life, and now we read of angel’s bread, baked on a rock by the blazing sun in the wilderness.
And here is the new command to the prophet: “Get up and eat.” That’s all for now. You don’t have to take on the whole world or even take on your whole self. Just get up and eat. God had more plans for Elijah, and more plans you, I expect. The bread will come, God will sustain, and we will live anew.