This week, I’ve been preparing a message on 1 Kings 19. In the passage, we find our hero, Elijah, in a bad place.
Elijah had just defeated the prophets of Baal. It was a huge victory. In the aftermath, Ahab ran off and complained to Jezebel that Elijah had ruined everything. What a crybaby! Hearing the news, Jezebel was extremely pissed because those dead prophets had told her everything she wanted to hear. In other words, Elijah was bad for business.
In response, Jezebel called for Elijah’s life.
Verse 3 tells us that “Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life.” He had just come off a tremendous victory and was feeling alone and afraid. This prophet who had just reigned victorious was feeling the pressure of the threats of Jezebel.
In fact, he was so overwhelmed that, in verse 4, “he longed for his own death: ‘It’s more than enough, LORD! Take my life…”
This is a man who is at the end of his rope. He feels as though he is out of options and simply wants his life to end.
As I read this story, I found myself wondering how the Church treats those who are at the end of their ropes…
Do we create safe spaces where people can be open, honest, and real about their struggles, their feelings, their loneliness, their depression, their anger, etc?
Do we sit and listen to the hurting and broken or are we quick to offer some “biblical” advice?
Do we offer care, concern, and love for the least, the last, the lost, the hurting, the broken, the person at the end of his/her rope?
Are we attempting to “do no harm”?
I sort of wonder what would have been the reaction if some “spiritually mature” person had been there to tell Elijah that “God has a plan. God will never give you more than you can handle”? I wonder how Elijah would have responded?
When we’re at the end of our ropes, when we’re feeling the weight and pressure of all the crap that life can throw our way, hearing Christian clichés rarely helps the way those who offer them believe they will.
Shortly after college, I moved to start a new job in an unfamiliar town. I knew absolutely no one. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment surrounded by an oddly high number of anti-social neighbors. I had left a community where I was surrounded by friends and family and entered a new place where I felt totally alone. Many nights, I would lay on the floor of the apartment, gazing at the ceiling, asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Add to the loneliness a dose of poor self-image. I was not caring for myself physically. I was eating poorly. I was probably drinking a bit too much (as a way to mask the loneliness). And, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like the view. I was miserable.
The church I worked at was great. But, I was trying to “find my way”…and I was struggling.
I attempted to find some community within a network of youth ministers. I felt fairly safe in being open and honest about my struggles. When I talked about my poor self-image, one of the network members said, “Well, the Bible tells us that ‘no man ever hates his own flesh’. So, you just need to name it and claim it and those feelings will go away. Just put your faith and trust in God. You can’t love Jesus and hate yourself.”
I found myself thinking, “Thanks for the Scripture lesson, asshole!” In the moment, I was unhappy with myself. And, the cherry-picked Scripture wasn’t helpful.
If we try hard enough, we can find a Bible verse to “fix” any problem we have. But, I’m not convinced that’s how it is supposed to work. When we’re struggling and barely hanging on, someone quoting and poorly interpreting a passage of Scripture to inform you that your feelings are invalid just does not help.
You see, I didn’t need to be reminded that Ephesians 5:29, while actually addressing how a husband should treat his spouse, can be interpreted to imply that my poor self-image and feelings were inappropriate and demonstrated a lack of faith. Sure, he was trying to help, I think. But, it just wasn’t helpful.
I believe we have to be mindful about how our words and actions can actually do more harm than good. The Christian clichés that we so readily lean on are not always helpful. We cling to them because we are uncomfortable with depression, pain and suffering. We share them because we often don’t know what else to say. We share terrible theology because we think it might help a person turn the corner.
But, in reality, we are simply reducing a persons experience and basically telling them to “get over it.”
It would have been more helpful if that network member would have said, “Hey, it sounds like you are having a rough transition. Here’s the name and number of an excellent counselor.” It would have been more helpful if he would have said, “Hey, it sounds like you aren’t happy with your physical state. Let’s meet at the gym tomorrow.”
So, the next time you encounter a friend, family member, or random stranger that happens to open up to you, ask yourself before you share, “Is what I am about to saying helpful or hurtful?” Then, proceed with caution.