Sitting in the Dark on Top of a Mountain: Elijah, God and Mental Health

icon_elijah_02_in_a_cave1You can’t make a diagnosis over thousands of years; it’s impossible to get into the head of someone who lived long ago, separated by centuries and cultures. But even so, I can’t help but read 1 Kings 19 without worrying about Elijah’s mental health.

The story takes place not long after the prophet’s greatest victory, his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s seen his enemies driven before him, he’s seen fire fall from heaven. You’d expect him to be on top of the world and ready to take on all comers. And yet precisely at this moment of victory, Elijah runs from it, he runs until he finds himself under a bush wishing he could just die.

I bet none of his friends saw this coming. I bet people looked at him with awe, or with horror, or with hope. I bet they saw a kick-ass prophet of the Lord who was going to bring a whole corrupt establishment crashing down. No-one heard saw the maelstrom of emotion and pain and anxiety that stormed within him, a voice constantly whispering about his own inadequacies, the hopelessness of his situation, the futility of taking yet another breath.

This is midrash, of course. I don’t know if this is how Elijah really felt.But I do know what it’s like to want nothing more than to lie down and sleep because anything else is too painful; I know what it’s like to walk through a fog, cut off from healthy emotions and the evidence of my own eyes; I know what it’s like to want to live in the lifeboat because I’m scared of the shipwreck, even though the shipwreck never comes.

It feels like I can see some of this in Elijah’s story, how he almost sleepwalks towards his destination because he doesn’t know where else to go, how he’s clinging on to a sliver of hope with bleeding fingernails.

He’s heading to Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai as it’s better known. He’s heading there because that’s where Moses encountered God face-to-face, that’s where Israel received the Law and became a people of promise. He’s clawing his way back to where he thinks he’ll feel safe; he’s trying to re-enact a story because after all it worked before.

In some ways this may not seem to be the best plan. God didn’t live on the mountain; he gave the Law and then lived in a tent as he wandered the wilderness with his people. Horeb remained in that same wilderness after Israel became a nation, and so it feels like the abandoned ruins of the past, a final stab at a crumbling place of safety, or as safe as anywhere feels when you really just want to curl up and die.

But God is gracious, and so he returns to his old hangout. And there on the mountain strange things happen – a powerful wind tears through the rocks, a violent earthquake shakes Horeb to its roots, fire from heaven falls just like it did on Carmel. All these things Elijah sees – the violence, the terror, the false hope, the despair. God wasn’t in any of these, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that God is somewhere. Sometimes that’s hard to believe when hope is gone and fear is a permanent knot in your stomach. I don’t think Elijah doubted God’s existence – I suspect he may have doubted God’s compassion. Ironically, that seems to be the moment God shows up.

Everything stops; the immensity of God somehow pours itself into a space just next to Elijah and the world falls silent, a tangible, physical silence that wraps a place in peace. And this gives Elijah enough strength and healing to go on, and it’s possible that the stress and anxiety and depression stayed with him for the rest of his life, but God gets him to the next day. And the next. And the next.

God still does this – I saw it, for a few moments at least, looking out at Alcatraz. Sometimes a moment like that is the only thing that can get through, but at other times – I’m willing to say the majority of times – God gives that whisper through his church. Because presence – even a presence that’s smart enough to stay silent and just make a cup of tea – can be a miracle in itself.

Look around your congregation. At least one person there is facing mental health issues, and many more will be affected by them. They’ve heard it all before – “Pull yourself together”, “You feel like this because your faith is weak”, “I can’t see anything wrong with you”, “Cheer up!” – and while everyone’s circumstances are different, just knowing someone gives a damn can make a monumental difference.

Giving a damn means not judging, not criticising, not shaming, not pretending. Giving a damn means acknowledging that life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and that stress or anxiety or depression are illnesses, not a mark of a faith lying shattered on the floor. Heck, it probably takes greater faith to hold on to God in the depths of depression than it does when everything’s hunky-dory. Maybe that’s why God honours Elijah’s detour to Horeb rather than condemn him for it; the prophet runs away and wants to die in a gutter but God still shows up, God is still on his side.

There will be people in our pews whose secret journey into our sanctuaries has been just as fraught as Elijah’s walk to the holy mountain. And that’s when we have to turn down the noise and let the whispers of God drown out our biases, our preconceptions, our judgements, our inability to see the pain in front of us.

See, it’s not just those who can’t face waking up in the morning who need to hear the still small voice of God. It’s not just those who are scared all the time, not just those who can’t shut up the stressed-out babel in their minds; it’s all of us, because any one of us could soon find ourselves in the same situation. Anyone of us could find ourselves sitting on a mountain, so let’s work to make it easier for people to hear God’s voice over the earthquake; let’s work to make sure people have the help they need to climb the mountain so they don’t sit up there feeling alone.

The Still Small Voice: Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19)

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s another moment when going back to where God has acted in the past is significant.

Elijah was one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Going toe-to-toe with the corrupt King Ahab and his frankly psychotic wife Jezabel, Elijah faces off against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s outnumbered 850 to 1, but God is with him and so Elijah is triumphant and the prophets of Baal end up dead.

And yet after that impressive victory, that awesome display of God’s power, 1 Kings 19 tells the story of a man who sounds scared and depressed and on the run. Rather than capitalise on the defeat of Baal’s prophets, Elijah’s fears and Jezabel’s death threats get the best of him, and he finds himself making his way to Mount Horeb.

Now, this is a tactical move on his part – he’s looking for God and he’s heading to a place where God made himself known in the key moment of Israel’s history. Because Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where God first made his covenant with Israel, giving the 10 Commandments to Moses. By meeting him on Mount Horeb, God’s reminding Elijah of a whole history of protection, presence, love and relationship.

However, Elijah is apparently the only person recorded as going back to Horeb/Sinai, which suggests this isn’t quite the right plan… You get ths impression from God’s question after Elijah arrives at the mountain: “What are you doing here?” God asks, and Elijah pours out his woes: “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”

And then God does something unusual.

He sends a powerful wind that starts to tear the mountain apart. But the wind isn’t God.

Then he sends an earthquake that shakes the very ground under Elijah’s feet. But the earthquake isn’t God.

Then he sends fire, like he sent on Mount Carmel at the time of Elijah’s greatest victory. But the fire isn’t God.

And then…

Then there’s something far smaller. Some translations call it “a still, small voice”. Some call it “a gentle whisper”. But if you dig into it, it’s something even quieter – the New Revised Standard Version says it was “the sound of sheer silence”.

It’s not God having a whole conversation with Elijah. The image I have of it is one of presence – God being there, almost to the point of hugging Elijah, crying with him, stopping the noise so that God can be with one of his children. It’s a tender moment in the middle of all the displays of power and violence of the last few days. It’s a moment for Elijah to experience God’s peace.

And then God speaks again – “What are you doing here?” And Elijah says “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”

It’s the same conversation. What’s changed?

It’s still a nightmare situation. Jezebel is still trying to kill Elijah. But what’s changed is that Elijah is now more aware of God as someone who wants a relationship with his people. On the mountain where God effectively married Israel, Elijah is reminded that God cares for individuals, and speaks to them in a still small voice.

And that’s still true today. We don’t have a holy mountain to run to; we have something better. In John 14, Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

“Peace” is an important word in Jewish thought. It’s better known as “Shalom”, and although we translate that as peace, it’s about more just superficial peace and quiet, deeper than a lack of conflict. As the writer Cornelius Plantinga puts it:

“The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfilment and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight… Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

This is what Jesus promises his disciples; this is a glimpse of what Elijah experienced on Mount Horeb – peace that comes from God’s relationship with each one of us and that gives us a glimpse of how God intends the world to be.

And that’s an active work on God’s part. In John 14 Jesus promises the disciples “the Advocate” – in Greek that particular name for the Holy Spirit is ‘paraclete’, which means “One who comes alongside to help.” A God who loves us, cares for us, and is alongside us when we’re scared and when life’s falling apart.

I remember a time when I experienced this quite powerfully. A few years ago, my father died. At one point during his long illness, I was on holiday in San Francisco. On our last night we went down to Pier 39. It’s a popular tourist spot, all carousels and smelly sealions, and we’d travelled there a couple of times on the famous trolley buses. It’s a nice spot and on that last night I found myself on my own at the end of the pier. Behind me were the sounds of shops and sideshows; before me was San Francisco Bay, dark, waves lapping, the lights of boats slowly drifting, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking on and off and on and off… And time slowed to a crawl and I was at peace and didn’t want to leave and I just stared out at the Bay with a sense of the presence of God. God was with me in that bad year. There were many times after that I failed to recognise that, because fear and anger and grief can stop us seeing what’s right in front of us, but God was with me. A still small voice.

The sound of sheer silence.