When God is not Speaking – Esther and Mental Health (@changingworship)

Esther is an unusual book. To find it in the scriptures for two major world religions you would expect a few more significant characters. Throughout the whole book there is one key person who seems to be missing. God.

depression-242024_640Nearly a decade ago a close friend of mine was living with severe depression. We’re very close and he had been instrumental in my coming to faith out of atheism. He had been a Christian for his whole life and felt God’s presence woven through his life experiences. Then depression took over his life for over a decade and… God was gone. God was not speaking. God was not present. This was not the intellectual abandonment of faith in a God in whom he no longer believed. This was a sense of being abandoned by the God who loves the world. The Apostle Paul sees the world “through a glass darkly”, and mental health difficulties may be the darkest glass a person can experience. In the words of my friend, “depression brought with it a sense of the absence of God that was disproportionate to any sense of His presence before”. God has left the building.

There are many expectations that Christians have of what it means to have a relationship with God. I remember a conversation with a Christian a couple of weeks after I began to believe who informed me that the only reason he couldn’t walk on water was because he “didn’t have enough faith”. As a fledgling Christian I was once told that “you’re not a proper Christian unless you speak in tongues” [Yeah, I know, you don’t need to say it]. Sometimes the blame game results in the pilgrims walking with you on your journey telling those struggling that it is their fault they can’t place a foot on the path. Here my friend found he was made to take responsibility for his own lack of supernatural healing. “Come on, you must have more faith. If you had more faith you wouldn’t be a ‘depressive’.” Most difficult to hear was the proclamation that “if you’re not hearing from God regularly, you need to repent” preached from the pulpit. Of course, all of these experiences simply led to his mood and self esteem deteriorating even further.

As a group of friends we all went to Spring Harvest together nearly a decade ago. We spent a profound week with the book of Esther as our friend explained his common experience with these scriptures: God was absent. Clarity began to seep into his glass. Depression didn’t leave but understanding crept in. There was an absence of God.

As the church encounters, engages with and welcomes people with mental health difficulties, it raises many theological questions. How do we discuss the nature of a God who speaks to us with someone who hears disturbing and intrusive voices? How do we talk about God’s presence to someone struggling with the isolation of depression? How do we form a church that doesn’t place the burden of guilt upon the person who is suffering when God is not there? How can we be bringers of that Gospel truth: hope in the midst of hopelessness and light in the darkness?

About Robb

Robb is a priest and a vicar in the Church of England. His academic interest is in liturgy, alt:worship and the emerging church and is particularly keen on exploring the sacramantal within worship. He lives in Yorkshire and has a passion for heavy metal, playing in a pub band and riding a Harley.