Spiritual PTSD

Why did Elijah flee? It’s a question I’ve heard asked quite often in sermons, typically with some laughter. Elijah just faced down all the prophets of Baal, saw God work a mighty miracle, and finally got the people of Israel’s attention. Then he runs for the hills when a woman threatens him. Really? What an appalling lack of faith, right?

A few weeks ago, my sister asked, “Do you think people can have spiritual PTSD?” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “is a serious potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed” a traumatic event such as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.” That could very well be something Elijah was dealing with in this story.

click to read article, "Spiritual PTSD" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Image credit: “Elijah In The Desert” (1818) by Washington Allston

Elijah’s Traumatic Day

The first time Elijah steps on the Biblical scene, he tells one of the scariest kings to ever rule Israel, “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1, KJV). We know nothing of his background save that he was a Tishbite from Gilead. What we do know is that God promptly sent him into hiding first by himself and then with a widow’s family (1 Kings 17:2-24).

I don’t know why God hid Elijah. Perhaps God wanted him to learn patience and trust. Or maybe He wanted to keep Elijah safe. Whatever the reason, there’s no indication Elijah was hesitant to come out of hiding when the Lord said, “Go” several years later. First Elijah presents himself to King Ahab, then he calls the famous meeting at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:1-20).

We often read this story and focus on God’s awesome work in demonstrating that He alone is God. Today, let’s try to see it from Elijah’s perspective. He came out of hiding to talk with a king who wants him dead. He called 850 priests and prophets of a hostile religion to a meeting and spent a full day taunting them in public. The scripture records “they cried aloud, and cut themselves in their way with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them” (1 Kings 18:28, WEB). That couldn’t have been much fun be around. And with so many there, I doubt every evil priest stayed right by the alter. I imagine they also tried to stir up the people and spent time threatening and taunting Elijah as well.

Elijah and the Priests of Baal by Lucas Cranach the Younger, ca. 1545

Image credit: “Elijah and the Priests of Baal” (cs. 1545) by Lucas Cranach the Younger

That went on all morning. In the afternoon, Elijah single handedly prepared a stone altar, butchered a bull, and set it up for an offering to God. I imagine he was physically exhausted by the time he stepped back and ordered the people to pour water over the altar three times (1 Kings 18:21-38). Then he prayed. God responded in spectacular fashion, burning up the water, stones, and dust as well as the sacrifice and wood. The people “fell on their faces” and said “Yahweh, he is God!” But Elijah’s job wasn’t done yet. He said, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Don’t let one of them escape!” They seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there” (1 Kings 18:39-40, WEB).

Elijah killed at least 450 people that evening (probably with some help), perhaps 850 if “the prophets of the groves” from verse 19 were included with the prophets of Baal. And that still wasn’t the end of his day. He went up to the top of Carmel and prayed earnestly for rain. Once he saw a little cloud forming “he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel” (1 Kings 18:46, KJV). That’s at least 15 miles and he’s running faster than a chariot.

There’s little indication what Elijah’s mental state was at this point. Was he exhausted but still patiently trusting God would work things out? Was he excitedly hopeful Ahab would turn back to God? We don’t know. We just know that when Jezebel promised to kill him within 24 hours “he ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:1-3, WEB). He runs about 100 miles from Jezreel to Bersheba, then goes another day’s journey in the wilderness and prays for death. At this point, Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh suspects Elijah could be “diagnosed as suicidal” and depressed. I’m not a psychologist any more than he is, but I’d say PTSD would be an equally valid diagnosis.

God’s Course of Treatment

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is how God responds to Elijah’s fear. He doesn’t get angry or tell his traumatized, depressed follower to suck it up. He sends an angel to offer encouragement, food, and strength so Elijah could get to Mount Horeb. There, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:19:9, WEB).

He said, “I have been very jealous for Yahweh, the God of Armies; for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10, WEB)

I’m not sure why God responded with “a great and strong wind [that] rent the mountains,” then an earthquake, then a fire. The scriptures say “the Lord was not in” these things. Perhaps Elijah refused to come out of his cave when God called the first time. Maybe he needed to see a display of God’s power as an encouragement or reminder. Whatever the case, he responds this time when the Lord calls in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13, KJV). The LEB translates this “the sound of a gentle whisper.”

click to read article, "Spiritual PTSD" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Image credit: “Elijah In The Desert” (1818) by Washington Allston

The Lord asks again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah says the same words, probably the only ones he could come up with after all that. The Lord responds in three parts: He gives Elijah a mission to go and anoint two kings, he tells him to anoint Elisha as his replacement, and He reveals there are 7,000 faithful people still in Israel (1 Kings 19:14-18). Food, something to do, a helper, and reassurance that he’s not alone. That’s what Elijah needed, and that’s what God gave him.

When my sister brought up the idea of spiritual PTSD she wasn’t just talking about people in the Bible who God brought through traumatic situations. She was also asking about a kind of spiritual parallel. Can someone experience such a traumatic event in their spiritual walk that it gives them a sort of spiritual “PTSD” that affects how they interact with God, churches, and fellow Christians?

I think it can. But that’s the great thing about God. Nothing limits Him. He can help us just as effectively as He helped Elijah, whatever the source of our trauma. Because we can look at examples like Elijah’s, we know God follows through on promises like, “‘I will in no way leave you, neither will I in any way forsake you.’ So that with good courage we say, ‘The Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?'” (Heb. 13:5-6, WEB).

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