Familiar Strangers: Comfort In Depression
It turns out that when Elijah battled depression, God sent someone to just be with him. To comfort him.
Isn’t it funny how God will send people into your life at the perfect time, even if it is just for a few moments, even seconds? We have all been there: a rough day at work, the kids have been screaming at the top of their lungs, you’re being pulled in 17 different directions like Gumby, stretched so thin that any further might make your arm pop off. It’s the day when you say to yourself (or maybe yell), “Things can’t possibly get any worse!” And then, responding to the challenge, they do.
By that time, you’ve become so apathetic, so tired, and so nauseated with the day that you don’t even care that putting your hands up in surrender means that everything you have been holding in your arms is going to crash to the ground. Cups hit the ground, juice splatters the wall, and the cat goes screeching into the other room.
But then that one person just happens to show up, send you a text or a call. The perfect person. Sometimes, you may not even know them, yet they seem so familiar. You didn’t ask them to show up. Of course, no one else even knows the magnitude of what you are going through. It’s by total happenstance that the only possible thing that could give you joy in this moment is staring back at you at the perfect time. And it gives you just enough strength to press on another day, only to face the same demons again in this monotonous routine. Sound familiar?
Depression is very real, often tangible. I don’t talk about it much. I don’t think many who have it do, but it certainly affects me (and many other pastors I might add). If you’re like us, you try to put on brave faces for your congregations, your friends, and your families, but inside it often feels like you are a little kid sitting in the corner, trembling with the blanket pulled up over your nose as the shadows dance all around you, threatening to loom closer and closer. Exhausted from trying to constantly outrun it, I often feel like it consumes me.
Over the last few months, I have had a number of different occasions where I was attempting to outrun depression. For me, when I feel a depressive episode coming on, one of my first “go-to’s” to combat it is to jump on my bike, throw in my ear buds with a podcast (40 Minutes in the Old Testament, or Banned Books), and get the blood pumping. While I was out on the trail the other day, an older gentleman stopped to stretch with me. He began asking me where I was from, how long I have been riding, and what I do for a living. He began to encourage me and urged me to “keep riding.” He even gave me a swig from his water bottle, as I had forgotten mine. He rode off without even telling me his name.
He didn’t know (or maybe he did), but I needed him at that moment.
But, what about when you can’t outrun your anxiety and depression? When you’re cornered and you have no option but to slowly sink to the floor as the walls crumble around you? Not too long ago, events at church escalated and I had to call the police to mitigate a family feud, something that is not uncommon for us in Detroit. One day, five boys were heckling other women and children on our church campus which caused all kinds of grief. After attempting to calm the situation myself, being cussed out, and talking with my ministry teammates, the ringleader came into the church and made a direct threat. Anxiety soaring, I called the police, upon which the boys immediately fled the church.
My mentor offered some comforting words, which helped to calm me down, but my heart was still racing and a zillion negative thoughts still shrouded me. Did I do enough? What more could I have done? Am I even suited to be a pastor? Is God pleased with me? This is what depression does. It often causes you to question the truths about God’s grace, love, and forgiveness for you.
It’s exactly in these moments when God comes through. When Thomas was sad, grieving, and dare I say, depressed because of his Lord’s death, Jesus appeared and provided himself for Thomas (John 20:24-29). God never fails to provide for us. He knows exactly what we need and precisely when we need it.
On that night, depression seeming victorious, God sent in his special agent: a thirteen-year-old girl, who I had the pleasure of sponsoring when she was baptized seven years ago. I gave her a gift on that wonderful day; a stuffed Curious George with a book containing my favorite little monkey stories from my childhood.
As that night wore down, she came up to me and said, “Pastor, will you read to me like you used to?” How do you say ‘no’ to that request? I began to read and almost instantly my anxiety dropped as joy filled my soul to the brim. The comfort of a child is special.
She didn’t know (or maybe she did), but I needed her at that moment.
There is a story in Scripture that might be a little underrated when it comes to God’s comfort for us. It’s the story of Elijah fleeing from the terrible Jezebel (1 Kgs 19:1-8). After defeating the prophets of Baal in one of the most epic mic-drops in the entire Old Testament, Elijah is on the run and ends up under a broom tree. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” Elijah cries. We can interpret that Elijah was asking a lot of the same questions that we ask in our depressive episodes. Why God? Are you sure? I am not worthy. I just can’t do it anymore. Will you please take my life?
Drowning in anxiety, Elijah falls asleep, something that we do a lot when we are feeling depressed and frightened. But then an angel appears to him, offering him food and drink. This happens a second time, which gives Elijah the strength to go for forty days to Horeb.
It turns out that when Elijah battled depression, God sent someone to just be with him. To comfort him. Which is exactly what I need every single week, whether it be the conversation with a mystery man or the love of a child. Not to fix the issue, but to simply bring comfort and rest. And that’s okay.
I know there are many of us people that often feel crushed by anxiety, depression, and a general feeling of “I am not good enough.” Take heart. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18). David says this in one of his many Psalms that he writes while on the run, experiencing heartache, frustration, and loneliness. You are not alone.
And sometimes it’s okay to just sit in the valley of the shadow of death. God never fails to provide for you. You are sitting with me, with other pastors, with Elijah, with David, with Thomas, and many other familiar strangers. We may not know them personally, but we look to our right and we look to our left, making direct contact with people who are loved and cherished by God. Maybe they need to be comforted, maybe they are the comforters or the special agents. But they are God’s people, nonetheless.
As we continue to look around, we also see Jesus, the ultimate comforter, the Lord of the Sabbath. He is with you. Our Lord Jesus who though he is seated at the right and of the Father, is sitting with you, too. As we sit with him, he reminds us that he has conquered our sin, our depression, and our doubts by his death, and he has given us hope in his resurrection. That all of this will be over soon. That in our last hour, he will give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to himself in heaven (SC, Lord’s Prayer, Seventh Petition).
Until then, wait in the promise that Jesus is with you. He is advocating for you, sympathizing with you, interceding for you, and strengthening you.