Fire Consuming Water: Mental Health Struggles Among God’s Faithful in the Bible

I’m in a strange season of life because I’m trying to figure out what I think about the Bible. And as I was beginning to ponder how I was going to write this essay, a palpable truth struck me.

The Bible is both inherently ancient and applicably modern. It’s unavoidably diverse and yet surprising whole. It’s at once both distant and strange while approachable and present.

I don’t know if it was written that way, but it ended up being that way. Or maybe it’s not the Bible itself, but the stories it tells, the people it features, the ones that God put in a place to be an example, whether good or bad, for us here in the future, 2,000-plus years after its central event.

It’s with this new appreciation that I explore something very special and personal to me: mental health and its place in the Bible. It’s there. The words “depression” and “anxiety” are either completely absent or incredibly rare, and there’s nothing explicitly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, though those disorders certainly exist in biblical times.

But despite the absence of certain terminology, I strongly believe that the Bible shows us we are not alone in our struggles of the mind, and that because of that, we are not alone.

Running for Your Life

Elijah had just won a major victory for God.

There was a severe famine in Samaria, which is now central Palestine. Jesus cited Samaria in his final words to the disciples, telling them to share the good news in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria (Matthew 28:19). Elijah was sent to show the power of God to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab had a death warrant out for Elijah — in 1 Kings 18, where this story starts, the king refers to the prophet as the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17). 

Elijah says, in my paraphrase, “Hey Ahab, you’ve caused all the trouble because you stopped following God. I’m gonna show you. Get everybody in the land, including the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to go to Mount Carmel.”

At Mount Carmel, Elijah speaks to the people, telling them they need to choose between God and Baal. To prove God is supreme, Elijah and the prophets of Baal each take a bull and set it ready for sacrifice. Elijah instructed the prophets to call down fire to consume the animal.

From morning to noon, the text says, and past that, the prophets called for Baal to come down. Verse 26 says they “limped around the altar that they had made.” I guess they either wore themselves out or it was some kind of special dance. Baal was not impressed or had something else going on, as Elijah mocked them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is music, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Sarcasm from a man of God! I love it.

No fire came.

Elijah rebuilt the altar that had been town down, did some special stuff and called on God. Fire came down from heaven, consumed the offering and the wood, stones and dust around it and water poured in a surrounding trench. Fire consumed water. That’s not normal.

All the people of Israel, the text says, seeing this, fell on their faces and worshiped God. Elijah called for the people to stop the prophets of Baal, numbered at 450. The latter half of v. 40 says, “And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

All this happened, at least in the text of 1 Kings, after Elijah raised a kid from the dead in chapter 17, by the way.

After this intense display by God, the boldness to kill all these prophets himself, Elijah is confronted with some bad news. Ticked off by the death of her prophets, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2).

No big, right? He had just raised someone from the dead and killed a ton of people after seeing God rain down fire from the sky that consumed water. But a death threat isn’t something most people take lightly.

“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4).

I don’t know how much time there was between these two events, between the killing of the prophets and the asking God to kill him. But Elijah became suicidal. He didn’t want to live anymore. Whether it was depression or stress or anxiety or fear, Elijah wanted to die.

And it doesn’t really make sense on the surface, right? From the far-removed standpoint we hold as readers of the text, Elijah has plenty of reason to not be afraid in light of Jezebel’s threat. He’s seen God do amazing things, many of them through his own hands. Why would Elijah be afraid and suicidal?

I’m not 100 percent sure. But he was.

Tears for Food

David, king of Israel, forerunner of the Christ, “man after God’s own heart,” spilled a lot of his guts throughout the psalms. 

He writes about his response to his adultery with Bathsheba, the blessings of being one of God’s people, the greatness of God’s words and so much more. But his mental state is also a common thread. 

Psalm 38 is a good example — “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v. 6-8). 

I don’t know how else you describe “tumult of the heart” but some kind of serious depression or grief. David indicates early in the psalm, v. 3, that his life seems to have disappeared from him “because of my sin.”

But I want to focus on a psalm that’s not by David, but instead is written by one of the sons of Korah, who wrote many of the psalms. 

“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5). 

The two verbs in v. 5 are wattehemî and tištōwhahî. Respectively, they mean “to murmur, growl, roar, be boisterous” and “to bow, be bowed down, crouch” in their root forms. The soul here for the author is both discontent and sorrowful. Both verbs are inherently active, visible expressions used to describe the soul. If this isn’t depression, I don’t know what is. 

The author continues by saying that God has forgotten him and he goes on mourning “because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9). He stays cast down.

In Psalm 55, with enemies at his door, David cries out, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (v. 4-5). 

The examples go on and on.

Sweat Like Blood

To me, perhaps the most notable example of mental health, or lack thereof, in the Bible is our Savior’s.

Three of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke — describe the Messiah’s mental state prior to his arrest, prior to his death. Jesus, asking God to take away this burden, is, in the varying accounts, “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “in agony” (Luke 22:44) and “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In the latter account, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 34). 

I’m going to key in on the Luke account, because it includes a detail that I love. The Greek agonia is described by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “of severe mental struggles and emotions”.

All of the adjectives and adverbs that the gospel writers used are pretty indicative of mental struggles. But it’s Luke, the physician, and his description of Jesus’ physical state that caught my eye when I read this passage.

“And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v. 44).

There’s a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, so rare that “only a few handfuls of hematidrosis cases were confirmed in medical studies in the 20th century.” WebMD’s article continues:

“Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers hematidrosis, in part because it’s so rare. They think it could be related to your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

Tiny blood vessels in the skin break open. The blood inside them may get squeezed out through sweat glands, or there might be unusual little pockets within the structure of your skin. These could collect the blood and let it leak into follicles (where the hair grows) or on to the skin’s surface.”

How is it caused? Most reports indicate it has to do with severe stress. Pair Jesus’ mental state, according to the gospel writers, with the blood sweat — of course it’s referenced by Luke the doctor — and you have a pretty severe case of mental illness, at least shown here.

Jesus showcasing severe mental discomfort and stress should be comforting to us. After all, as the writer of Hebrews argues, that’s one of the reasons we can trust Him.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Theologians have debated over whether or not Jesus was actually anxious. After all, He was the one who said there was no need to be anxious, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Was He disobeying His own instruction?

That’s a theological debate for another day, but here’s my answer: I doubt it. At the very least, He was experiencing what mankind experienced so He could sympathize with our weaknesses. He was being human.

We’re Not Alone

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, accounting for around 46.6 million people, experience mental illness of some shape every year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a sever mental illness “that substantially interferes with or limits one of more major life activities” every year.

And that’s just what’s discovered, and that’s just America, and that’s just adults.

One of the many beauties of the Bible is that it tells a very human story. It’s not a book that lifts itself beyond our humanity and our circumstances, our realities and our weaknesses. It quashes the myth that, to be Christians, we must be mentally well every minute of every day. It kills the idea that good Christians are free from mental illness.

After all, look at the people spotlighted. They were men who knew well the greatness of God, the love of God, the amazing things He had done, what He as capable of, men God worked through to do miracles. Yet they still struggled. Elijah was suicidal. David was depressed. Jesus was anxious. The Bible tells us that we’re not alone, that three of the most faithful men in history struggled with mental health issues. 

It was like fire consuming water. 

Let’s return to 1 Kings 18 for a minute. Elijah was building his altar for the sacrifice. Verse 32 records that he made a trench around the altar, “about as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” A “seah” is seven quarts or 7.3 liters. So imagine the volume of seven-and-a-half two-liter bottles of soda, plus a little more. That’s how much water the trench could hold.

If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, try drinking a two liter of water quickly.

Elijah instructs the crowd to fill four jars of water and pour it on the offering and the wood on the altar. They did it, and then repeated the exercise twice. After the third time, v. 35 says, “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.” 

You would think that faith in God would quench every worry and fear that would lead to suicidal thoughts, depression and sweat drops made of blood.

But no. In some moments, the fire is too strong to be quenched, and the water is lapped up. 

We should not be ashamed if we ever feel that way. It’s not the end.

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