Just a few days ago, a renowned southern California pastor of a mega-church killed himself. His name was Andrew Stoecklein. He had been battling with depression for months and was struck with anxiety brought on by the death of his father, health issues, and someone stalking him. This man was going through the ringer. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful situation to go through (I’ve only skimmed the surface. A more complete story can be found by entering his name into Google). After hearing of this situation, the first thing my wife and I did was pray. We prayed that his soul was safely at the side of Christ, and that his family would be given supernatural strength and peace. Then, we watched his last sermon. He preached it days before his death.
The context for his sermon was his personal battle with depression and anxiety. After an involuntary sabbatical due to his increasing panic attacks, he was returned to the pulpit and began a four-part series called “Hot Mess” which sought to deal with people’s “messes”. His goal was to use the Bible to inform people how to get through their various trails. For him, it was depression and anxiety. For others it could be finances, health, school, or relationships.
The reason I am writing this post is because I noticed something alarming in the presentation of how the Bible can help us with our problems. I do not want to degrade this man’s ministry or question his ability to preach. From what I can tell, he seemed like a lovely, God-fearing man with a precious family. My concern is not with him at all and my prayers are that he is enjoying rest from his burdens, even now. The thing I would like to address is the underlying foundation behind the method of reading Scripture that was presented.
This sermon was based on the text of 1 Kings 19. This is a powerful story about God’s might and power and His drawing near to His children. Pastor Andrew made some good points about the beauty of God’s willingness to come to us, rather than waiting for us to come to Him. It was a wonderful reminder. However, the bulk of his sermon was centered on using 1 Kings 19 to show how God has prescribed a method for alleviating anxiety and depression. He used the story of Elijah to show how we need to come to the end of our rope before we reach out to God. Then, we must retreat into rest. After that, we ought to take care of our physical bodies by sleeping and eating (he showed how an angel brought Elijah food while he was sleeping). The title of his sermon was “To the Back of the Cave” which was based on advice his therapist gave him and Elijah’s running to a cave in 1 Kings. He also mentioned the need to worship God by giving Him all the things we struggle with. We need to worship Him to remove those things from our lives, and providentially, the way we worship is by doing just that.
Now, I do not have a problem with anything I just wrote above. However, I am very concerned that there are preachers out there who read a passage like 1 Kings 19 and think these things are the point of the passage. Whether or not we can glean these truths from this passage is one question. I think it sheds light on that question to realize that all of the things this man was struggling with and the things he had been learning in this struggle (from elders, depression websites, counselors, and doctors) happened to “be” in this text. But, assuming these things are in the text (which is not something I could see possible), it is still a misinterpretation to say they are the point. That’s a huge assumption, but even granting it, I think there is still a very serious problem.
The problem is this – 1 Kings 19 is a display of God’s might in the midst of man’s weakness. Firstly, it is an elevated description of man’s weakness. Elijah is not weak because his finances are not perfect, or because he has a health condition. Elijah is exhausted because people are trying to kill him for preaching the truth about God. This is the first point. Many of the passages in which God helps His people is given in the context of His people suffering for His sake. This is a fundamental point. This situation is very different from the person who essentially lives for themselves but comes to church on occasion because they are worried about making payments on products 98% of the world’s population are too poor to even imagine having. It is even different from the person who is worried about their health condition. The Biblical help from God in anxious circumstances is usually within the context of someone suffering something they ordinarily would not be experiencing, if it were not for their faith in God. This is the context of essentially the entire New Testament which is mostly letters written to persecuted Christians in the pagan Roman empire. This is not to say that God does not help us when we need to get a better grade on a math test. He does and He will. But that is almost never the point of the Bible. The point is always much larger.
The second problem is more significant – when we look at a passage like 1 Kings 19 and we see a prescription for improving our circumstances, it is like using gauze as a comfortable pillow as we are bleeding to death. This way of reading ignores the true help. 1 Kings 19 is not about us. It is about God. When we grasp the majesty and power of our God, we are led to worship. Not worship where we simply unload unwanted things on Christ (though this is a form of worship). We are led to worship by journeying 40 days and 40 nights on foot, even though we are exhausted and people try to kill us, because we have tasted the glory of God (this is exactly what happened to Elijah). This passage is not about removing pain as we sit in the pews. It is about giving us strength to endure the pain as we are passionately fixated on Christ.
Much more could be said, but in the interest of brevity, I close with this. I do not know what would have happened if Pastor Andrew saw this text in the way it originally was written. I certainly do not think his battle with depression and eventual suicide was the fault of any inability on his part, whether it is Bible reading or anything else. What makes my heart ache is the thought that the Bible contained something in it that would have given his aching heart strength, but it was shadowed by a desire to find in the Bible something to just take the pain away. In the end, the pain remained and it was too much for him to bear. Our God bore more pain than anyone, including Pastor Andrew, has ever experienced, not so that we might be pain free, but so that we might find the ability to rejoice in our suffering.