Mental Health in a Time of Coronavirus

So, we are still in this Coronavirus crisis. Even though I work at home, not being able to do things I used to do outside the home has given me opportunity in other ways. This post was a rush job. I have been wanting to start a podcast, and I am using this opportunity to get that ready. I think it will be called The God Wrestler. The first series in it will be about faith in a time of Coronavirus.

There’s my silver lining. But even so, I will admit all these Coronavirus restrictions are a pain in the butt. I’m naturally introverted, so I don’t get out much anyway. But I always liked knowing I could go out if I wanted to. And sometimes, I want to. And since I have made mental illness and depression a focus in my writings, I wanted to say something about how the Coronavirus shutdown can affect people psychologically, and what you can do about it. In addition to all the disruption to the economy and normal way of life for most people, Coronavirus is causing an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression. Some of the reasons cited are.

Isolation.

This is the greatest risk factor for depression and anxiety. Even those of us who are not quarantined can’t get out as much. Most public gatherings are cancelled. Where I live, they haven’t enforced lockdowns where I live yet, but schools are closed. Some businesses have closed voluntarily, and some are limiting themselves to drive-through and delivery. Social distancing also limits our interactions. My parents live in Hawaii. The people there are warm and friendly. You greet friends or family with a hug and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek. They’ve had to retrain themselves for social distancing. My wife and I visited my father-in-law and spoke to him through glass. Not that we think we have it, but just in case one of us picked it up somewhere.

Disruption of routine.

I work from home, so this doesn’t affect me as much as many people. But if you are used to going to work or school every day, and that is taken away—even temporarily—it is disorienting. Since I work from home, it hasn’t hit me that way. They’re recommending teleworking, and all my work is teleworking. But I once had a teaching job. I was overworked and underpaid, but the daily schedule helped provide structure to my time. There were familiar faces I saw and spoke to. I didn’t know that was a comfort until I lost it.

Loss of money or business.

So many businesses are closed or operating at reduced capacity. That means a lot of people are laid off and not earning a paycheck. Or profits. The stock market is down, way down. Losing money is stressful. Sorry for stating the obvious.

Uncertainty.

We don’t know how long it will last. It will get under control at some point. But right now, there is no cure, no vaccine, and no one can tell us when there will be any. Each morning, more people are on lockdown or quarantine. Each morning, a new list of businesses and public services are closed. When will the tide turn and things begin to get back to normal? No one knows, and that is stressful.

And, oh yeah, there is the looming spectre of a deadly, contagious disease that has already infected tens of thousands of people in the US alone, hundreds of thousands all over the world, and the numbers keep going up.

Well, never fear. Your intrepid mental health blogger is here. Okay, I can’t do anything about your job or the stock market or the disease itself. Sorry. I tried praying it away like the preachers I used to watch on TV, but God hasn’t been forthcoming in that manner. Which is why I say the preachers I used to watch. To help with issues of depression, stress and anxiety, here are some tips I gathered from the experts.

Maintain social connections.

You may not be able to visit people as often, but you can still call them or interact on social media. Many experts say social media and technology have contributed to the rise in depression, anxiety, and polarization in our society. I should do a post on that. But this time right now is where technology really can help us maintain connections, so we don’t feel isolated. I’ve used social media the last few years to keep up with family spread out all over the state. You can continue to do that. Get on the phone with them. Smart phones make video phone calls possible with Facetime, Skype, and similar apps. I don’t use that much myself, but it helps when you’re alone to see a friendly and familiar face. You can stay connected and still keep up your social distancing.

Don’t just text. Call them.

This falls under maintaining social connections, of course. I saw this online from someone calling themselves Dartagnan. “I talked to an old friend today on the phone today for about an hour. No texting bullshit, just a real conversation. Best time I’ve spent all week.”

Maintain self-care.

That includes exercise, a proper amount of sleep, nutrition, and proper hygiene. I guess we’re all thinking more about hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All the hand washing and sanitizing. Studies have shown that when people stop self-care, it’s both a sign of and a contributor to depression.

Stay informed, but don’t overdo it.

I watch the news in the morning to see the latest progress of the disease. After about half an hour to an hour, I’ve gotten everything I can from them, so I turn it off. It’s important to know what’s happening and what new restrictions are in place. But dwelling on it will not make you better informed. It will more likely just make you anxious. And get your information from good news sources, not social media. Rumors can spread faster than COVID-19, and nothing on SM is fact-checked.

Do something creative.

Have you been wanting to write a book? Or learn a musical instrument? Or another language? Or start some hobby? And you are stuck at home and can’t go anywhere? Hello, here’s an opportunity. I’ve been writing even more since the crisis started. Starting the podcast I told you about is me taking advantage of the extra time I have on my hands.

Prayer, meditation, and mindfulness.

Prayer is connecting or communicating with the divine or your higher power, whatever that means to you. Meditation is focusing on one thing to calm your mind. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening around you and inside you, mentally and emotionally. All three have been scientifically proven to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.

Help your neighbors if you’re not sick.

Times like these, we really need people to remember to love their neighbors as themselves. One person in Boston left $1000 tip, because they knew it was the waitress’s last night before she was laid off. My relative offered to do grocery shopping for her elderly neighbors, because she knows going to public places is a much greater risk for them than her.

Set a schedule.

I’ll admit I’ve never been good at that. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get up at the same time every morning or go to be the same time every night. I get started writing, and I can just keep going for hours. That is actually good for my mental health. But not so good in other ways, like exercising or maintaining a schedule. But it is one of astronaut Scott Kelly’s recommendations.

Don’t give in to prejudice.

Since the Coronavirus arrived here, there has been an increase in racist incidents towards Chinese and Asian-Americans. That needs to stop. Don’t blame your neighbor for this because of their country of origin, especially when the vast majority of them were here before the Coronavirus.

Remember why you’re going to all this trouble.

Maybe you’re sick of social distancing and staying home except for when you need to get food or medicine. Maybe you don’t care whether you are putting yourself at risk. Maybe you are young and healthy and think if you get it, you probably won’t die. Statistically, you’d be right. But if you don’t practice things like social distancing, you could spread it to someone not so young and healthy. Starting at age sixty, chances of death go up significantly. Would you want anyone spreading it to your parents or grandparents? Or to your brother or sister who is undergoing cancer treatments? Then don’t take a chance on spreading it to someone else.

If you think you need help, here are a few resources you can connect with by phone or online.

Counseling services: https://www.betterhelp.com/

Suicide Hotline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or 1-800-273-8255.

Grace and peace to you.


While you are at home more, you might want something read or podcasts to listen to. I let you know at the beginning of this post I’m working on a podcast. I will share details with you. And I have a book out about my experiences with depression and finding faith in the midst of it. You can get it on Amazon, either in ebook or paperback. If depression is a concern for you or someone you love, I encourage you to check it out. And on this page, I recommend books from other authors that I found very helpful.

References

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-resilience/202003/the-new-mental-health-research-coronavirus

https://www.today.com/health/how-survive-coronavirus-anxiety-8-tips-mental-health-experts-t175092

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/10/who-gives-advice-on-handling-mental-health-toll-caused-by-coronavirus.html

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/3/21/1929880/-Astronaut-Scott-Kelly-s-tips-on-how-to-handle-isolation-are-priceless

Character Study: David, Abigail, and Nabal Conclusion

In my last post, I began a character study on David, Nabal, and Abigail. The story is found in 1 Samuel 25. If you want a quick review, check out this puppet version.

What’s happened so far is David has been protecting Nabal’s estate and flocks from outlaws.  He asked for some food for him and his men. His request was perfectly within reason for that time, even if he had not been protecting Nabal’s estate. Nabal not only refuses David’s request. He insults David so egregiously that honor demands he take revenge. He tells his men to kill every male of his household. But Nabal’s wife Abigail is on her way to meet him. Let’s see how she handles this.

Abigail to the Rescue

When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant.

1Sa 25:23-24 NRS

Your servant, spoken twice. This was not necessarily literal. It was a common expression of humility to someone from whom you were about to ask a favor. Or, as in this case, forgiveness. David used the same language when he first made his request to Nabal (v. 8).

 “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.

1Sa 25:25 NRS

For as his name is, so is he. She’s basically saying, “Don’t listen to my idiot husband. He’s a fool, just like his name says. How could you take anything the fool says seriously?”

Escalante's Prudent Abigail
Prudent Abigail By Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8860089

My Lord and the LORD

 “Now then, my lord, as the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal.

1Sa 25:26 NRS

My lord, Heb adoni, refers to David. The LORD, whenever this appears in all capital letters, it refers to the divine name for God, sometimes represented with the letters YHWH.

Since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt, now that was smooth. She is talking to David as if he has already granted her request not to take vengeance with his own hand. Also, this subtly reminds him God is watching him now.

 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord.

1Sa 25:27 NRS

This present, see vv. 18-20.

 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live.

1Sa 25:28 NRS

The LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, a promise that Nathan repeats to David, in more detail, after he has taken the throne (2 Sa 7:11-16). Abigail is not referred to as a prophet, but she is doing a pretty good job here.

Because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD. What could be a higher compliment to a pious warrior like David? The LORD sees what you have done. You have fought for righteousness and against the enemies of the LORD. That includes the fighting he did to protect people like her and Nabal’s servants from those out to harm them. Even if her idiot husband doesn’t see it, she does. And more importantly, God does.

Appealing to His Better Angels

Evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the reference to a sure house certainly did. I think this was typical language petitioners would use toward a king. If so, she is subtly reminding him of the destiny God has for him. He should consider his actions in light of God’s promises to him.

 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the LORD your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling.

1Sa 25:29 NRS

If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, Saul, for example. This was also typical of blessings for a king. God (or “the gods” in other cultures) will keep you from harm and cut down your enemies.

You are under the care of the LORD your God. Therefore, anyone who would be your enemy is already defeated. In other words, David, you know better than to take vengeance into your own hands when the LORD has already promised the throne to you. Don’t incur bloodguilt on someone who is already as good as dead.

According to All the Good the LORD Has Promised

When the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the LORD has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”

1Sa 25:30-31

Her whole plea is couched in getting David to look at this decision in light of God’s promises to him. Remember, David, What you do today will stay on your conscience for the rest of your life. Think about the day when God has appointed you prince over Israel. You know the day is coming when the LORD has done…all the good he has spoken concerning you. Do you want to remember this as a day when you brought bloodguilt on yourself? Or do you want to remember this as the day you were the bigger man, because you trusted in God’s promises to you?

This is another reason I don’t believe this was David’s normal way of operating. If he was already known for killing every male when people refused to give what he asked, her appeal to his conscience would have been meaningless. What good could it possibly do to talk of avoiding bloodguilt if he already had bloodguilt?

My Lord, Remember Me

Your final words are the most important. They are what people most often remember. She says, Remember me when the LORD has dealt well with you. Normally, it does not go over well to ask a favor when you seek forgiveness. But it’s smart the way she does it. At the same time she asks him for kindness, she reminds him that God would one day fulfill God’s promises to him. When God has made you king of Israel, I ask you to remember me. What did the thief say to Jesus? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luk 23:42 NRS). It’s almost word-for-word what Abigail said to David 1,000 years before.

Later, David’s son Solomon would write, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Pro 15:1 NRS). I wonder if he was thinking about this incident at the time. Nabal stirred up anger with his harsh words. Abigail turned it away. Abigail sounds like she has had a lot of practice turning away wrath with soft answers. No wonder considering who she’s married to. And just as Nabal knew what insults would hurt David, Abigail knew what to say to David to bring him back to his senses. She is a good teacher for this, so let’s see what we can learn from her.

How to Apologize to Men Ready to Kill

For anyone who has to turn away wrath, Abigail has given a great model. She was humble and apologetic throughout. In ancient Israel, to ask someone for forgiveness, you must apologize and also acknowledge that you (or someone associated with you) were wrong. It was common for people in these situations to refer to the offended party as “my lord,” and themselves as “your servant.” It was often not literally true, but it was a powerful way to humble yourself to them. Abigail refers to David as “my lord” and herself as “your servant” throughout her petition to David. In this case, she may have been thinking literally, because she believes he will be king one day.

She came bearing gifts. A “peace offering” for them did not always guarantee the person would accept an apology, but it was a way to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak. She brings the food David asked for initially. Without this, I don’t think any apology would have been strong enough to stop David.

She separated herself from her husband. She tells David, “I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent” (v. 25). The implication is if she had been there, she would have given them what they asked. She called her husband a fool for the way he acted, which in this case was appropriate. This not only separates her from her husband’s insults, it also blunts the impact of his words. What is an insult from a fool? It is empty and meaningless.

She spoke to him as if he had already granted her request, without being pushy or presumptuous. The worst mistake people often make when they apologize is to presume they have forgiven you before they actually forgive you. It works in her case, however, because the way she does it is not presumptuous. “Now then, my lord, as the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal” (v. 26). She slips it into the middle of her apology, making it subtle, almost subliminal even. She appeals to his piety, …as the LORD lives…since the LORD has restrained you…. And she follows it with a curse on David’s enemies, even including her husband. This reminds him God is not only watching him. God is watching Nabal as well. God knows the wrong he did to you, so trust God to execute justice on him and all your enemies.

She appreciated what he had done up until now. “The LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD” (v. 28). What did she mean? It could be referring back to when he led the armies of Israel into battle. I believe it also included the fighting he did to protect her husband’s estate from outlaws. In the minds of the people in that time, a good and just king protected the weak from the lawless. At any rate, the greatest compliment David could hear was that the work he did pleased the LORD, and Abigail gives him that pat on the back.

She let him know she believed in his destiny as much as he did. God had promised to make David king of Israel. Regardless of his present circumstances, this was his destiny. Nabal’s insults attacked that very promise that must have been sustaining David through these years of looking over his shoulder. David’s anger made him lose sight of the destiny he was working towards. Abigail reminded him, several times in this petition, God’s promises are true. The insults of a fool cannot negate them. She painted the picture of his destiny in such vivid language it drove the wrath out of him.

She appealed to his conscience. Conscience actually is a powerful motivator to those who have one. If you read chapter 24 of 1 Samuel, you know David’s conscience could make him absolutely miserable. I don’t know if Abigail knew about this event, but she brought up his conscience at the end. She told David on the day when he becomes king, “my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself” (v. 31). When you take the throne, won’t that day be much happier if you don’t have any grief or pangs of conscience?

She urged him to consider his actions in light of God’s promises. Everything she said to him was in the context of the time “when the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel.” David, you know what God has promised you. You know God will fulfill all the good he has spoken concerning you (v. 30). God has been watching you and seen the good you have done (v. 28). God has also been watching my fool of a husband (vv. 25-26, 29). Don’t you think you can trust God to execute justice on your behalf? And may the LORD do so to all the enemies of you, my lord.

A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath

Were these words effective on David? You’d better believe it. He told her what he had planned, but because of her, the plan has changed. He accepted her gift and called off the raid he ordered (vv. 32-35). His men probably were not happy about that, but they obeyed. Listen to what he tells her.

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!” For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.”

1Sa 25:32-34 NRS

He sees her as a messenger from the LORD, the God of Israel. He tells her she can go back to her house in peace, because “I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition” (v. 35).

I think there is enough evidence here to prove Nabal’s wealth and success had nothing to do with him and everything to do with his clever and beautiful wife. She showed she was capable of rebuilding the bridges he burned. Her words were wise, not only for David but for us. We all need a voice like hers when we lose our temper to bring us back to our senses.

A Fool’s Reward

Her words were prophetic as well. God made David prince of Israel and established a sure house for him. God fulfilled all the good God had promised concerning David, just as she said God would. As for her husband, her words about him also came true. He looked like he was sitting pretty, getting drunk on fine wine and feasting like a king, all without paying David for services rendered (v. 36). But the next morning, Abigail told him what she had done. Here is what happened.

In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died.

1Sa 25:37-38 NRS

It sounds like he had a heart attack. His arteries were probably already clogged up with all the rich food and wine he had consumed. However, that usually kills quickly, not ten days later. Was he in a coma? There is one other instance in the Bible I know of, Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11). I’m not qualified to make a medical diagnosis. But according to the American Heart Association’s website, it is possible but extremely unlikely for a person to be literally scared to death. Even when it happens, there needs to be an underlying condition that makes a person’s heart weak enough to be susceptible to it.

Abigail told Nabal about her encounter with David. She probably stressed how he and every male that belonged to him would be dead right now if it weren’t for her. She might have even told him next time he angers a powerful man like David, she will not save him. She will just let him reap what he sowed. Whatever she said, it appears to have been enough to scare him to death, if that’s possible.

David and Abigail “Mourn”

David, I’m sure, will respond with appropriate and pious respect for the dead. I’m kidding, of course.

When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the LORD who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the LORD has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.”

1Sa 25:39a NRS

Well, I can’t blame him too much for that. He had withheld himself from exacting revenge by his own hand, because Abigail urged him to trust the LORD. He trusted, and the LORD both avenged him and kept him from evil. David never received any blessing without thanking the LORD. It probably also served as an object lesson in how to deal with Saul. Saul stood between him and the throne and sought his life, but the LORD would take care of it when the time was right.

And now, Abigail is single, and David made a promise to remember her (v. 31).

Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife. When David’s servants came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife.”

1Sa 25:39b-40

Is that too soon? Abigail is a newly grieving widow. Common decorum says she should wait an appropriate amount of time before she can accept David’s proposal. Surely, she is going to send a message back to David that though she would love to marry him, it is too soon. She respectfully asks if he would be so kind to give her time to finish her period of mourning first. You know I’m kidding, right?

Sympathy for the Fool?

She rose and bowed down, with her face to the ground, and said, “Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.”

1Sa 25:41

Talk about a colloquialism. Not only does she follow the custom of saying she is David’s servant. She also says she will wash the feet of David’s servants. A pretty convoluted way of saying, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”

Perhaps we could say in our own colloquialism, “David’s wish is my command.”

Abigail got up hurriedly and rode away on a donkey; her five maids attended her. She went after the messengers of David and became his wife.

1Sa 25:42 NRS

Got that one wrong too. I don’t begrudge them their happiness, but I keep thinking they should feel just a little bad for Nabal. Yes, he was a fool, mean and surly, so ill-natured that no one could speak to him. He could not have been easy for Abigail to live with all those years. It was probably an arranged marriage, so she had no choice. And David’s only dealings with him were not pleasant (to say the least). But still, you shouldn’t celebrate when someone dies, should you?

Okay, I’m not exactly shedding tears for him either. Maybe I’m thinking I should have more sympathy for him. It’s hard to feel bad for him, even though I think I should. After all, when his parents named him “Fool,” how could you expect him to turn out to be anything but?

Happily Ever After … Sort of

In spite of that, both of them have reason to be excited. She gets to marry the future king of Israel (not to mention a man who can be reasoned with, for a change), and he gets to marry a clever and beautiful woman who will enhance his reputation in that territory. After their encounter, how could he not be in love with her? It looks like it could be the beginning of a great love story. Unfortunately, royalty and romance don’t go together in the ancient world. Like most kings, he will have more than one wife. In fact, it begins in the very next verse.

David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives.

1Sa 25:43 NRS

David and Abigail probably had a great honeymoon before he married Ahinoam of Jezreel. In Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, one thing I think she got right is despite David having multiple wives, Abigail remained a favored wife and one of his most trusted advisors until she died. Perhaps she was even a maternal figure for him, sort of like Camilla to Prince Charles. It’s not quite “happily ever after” as we think of it. But if you were a king, or married to a king, it was the most you could hope for.

There is one more matter to complicate this story. David was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal. In David’s absence, Saul has given her to another man (v. 44). Right now, David is probably not thinking about that. But when David takes the throne, what to do about Michal will be an issue he can’t ignore. Just a little bit of foreshadowing to end the chapter.

Conclusion

As a writer, I am really impressed with how richly human these characters are. David and Abigail are exceptionally gifted in different ways, David as a warrior and leader, Abigail as a negotiator and businesswoman. Not to mention, she doesn’t get enough credit for her prophetic gifts. It’s easy to see how their abilities will complement each other. She will make David a wiser and more just king. Yet both of them show they can be frustrated. David had been running from Saul for years. When Nabal compared him to a fugitive slave, all his frustration boiled over.

As for Abigail, I think all those years of cleaning up Nabal’s messes came to a head. We’re not told exactly what she said to Nabal, but it scared him enough that it was the last thing he heard. Maybe a weak heart, combined with clogged arteries from his feasting and drinking, made it possible for her words to upset him so much it killed him. And maybe she knew it could happen, but no one can prove it.

I don’t want to condone even a possible murder. If this was her acting out years of frustration, and it led to an accidental death, I don’t blame her. But if she knew her words would kill him, I find that a little chilling. Truth is, though, most people cheer when the villain dies.

Nabal was not only a fool. He was the worst kind of villain to ancient Israelites. A rich man who gained all his wealth from the efforts of others (Abigail, his shepherds and servants, David, and probably more), yet acted as if he had earned it all. A man of obscene wealth who kept it all for himself. A man who could feast like a king, let others around him go hungry, and sleep like a baby. A man who acted as if basic hospitality would drive him to poverty when he really had more than enough for everyone. To be fair, his parents named him “Fool.” We should think about what it must have been like growing up with everyone calling him “Fool.”

Not the Godfather

Godfather meme: "You got some nice sheep and goats. Would be a shame if something happened to them."
This is not David.

Hopefully, I have made the case that the way we see David in this episode is not how he normally operated. Did you think David and his 600 men were the only outlaws riding around? They weren’t. If they were, I would believe the theory of David running a protection racket was most likely true. But since there were other gangs of outlaws, it served David and his men better in the long run to protect people from bandits than to act like bandits themselves. Did you think when he told Nabal nothing was missing from his flocks while he and his men were around, he meant, “You owe us because we didn’t take anything”? No, he meant nothing was missing because they protected Nabal’s property from bandits.

I can only conclude this idea of him operating a protection racket came from not understanding the historical background David and these other characters lived in.

This is what happens when you read the Bible out of your own experience rather than its original context. Context includes historical and cultural background. It includes translating from the original languages. Our own context may suggest David was running a protection racket. The original context says he was more like an informal police force protecting landowners and ordinary folk from theft and harm. David and Abigail were already interesting characters. Getting to know them in the text and the context has made them ten times as interesting to me as before.

Kill Any That What on the Wall? A Character Study of David, Nabal, and Abigail

One way I like to combine my love of Bible study and writing is with character studies of fascinating Biblical figures. David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. One particular story from 1 Samuel 25 tells us a lot about him and a woman who eventually became his wife. I am reposting it because it seems like a good time to bring it back. This is the first of a two-part series.


When you hear David and _______, what do you fill in the blank with? Or rather, who do you fill in the blank with? Probably David and Goliath, perhaps David’s most glorious moment. Maybe you think David and Bathsheba, definitely not David’s most glorious moment. Have you heard of David and Nabal?

The story of David’s dealings with Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is one of the most controversial episodes from David’s time before he became king. Many commentators read it this way: David asks a rich man named Nabal for some food for his men, so they can have a feast. When Nabal refuses and insults him, David totally overreacts and almost commits a mass murder. He tells his men to kill every male of Nabal’s household. Only the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, prevents him from slaughtering many innocents.

This is true for the most part. However, many people read this as David’s M.O. He would first ask for what he needed. If they gave it to him, no harm would follow. If they did not give it to him willingly, he and his men would ride roughshod over everyone, kill all the males, and take everything they could carry. Among those who present that view are Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close adviser.

In The Secret Chord, while David is on the run from Saul, he gathers together a band of men, in part for his protection, and in part because leading warriors is something he’s good at. If you have an army, one of the most urgent and constant questions is how are you going to feed them? According to Brooks, he does to everyone what he does to Nabal: He asks and waits. If they give him the food he needs, he leaves them in peace. If not, he kills all the males of the household. The reason is more than just revenge. He wants to send a message to all he will encounter, “Give us what we want, or there will be no mercy.”

Was this David’s M.O.?

This was an old tactic among armies in the ancient world. Wholesale slaughter of one city creates terror in the surrounding areas. The next city might not even resist if they know how dire the consequences will be. And even if they do, a terrified enemy is much easier to defeat. His men, David tells Nathan, are his first responsibility. He will do “whatever is necessary” to feed them and care for them.

In many ways, Brooks did a wonderful job of fleshing out David’s story. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not this is how David normally operated, I have a different take on it. This is the only text where we see David behave this way, so let’s take a look at it.

Nabal the “Fool”

There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.

(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)

Nabal means “fool” in Hebrew (v. 25). You have to wonder what kind of parents would name their son “Fool.” It also says he was a Calebite. It’s hard to know whether this was a significant detail or not. Every culture has its racial and ethnic stereotypes. Were they known for being surly and mean? (Cf. 30:14; Jos 14:13; 15:13). Whether or not he is typical of Calebites, we will see in this story he lives up to the name his parents had given him.

David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.

1 Sam 25:4

This is an important detail. Shearing the sheep for sheepherders and goatherders was like the harvest for farmers. This is when they get paid for the work they’ve done. They have plenty, they will usually celebrate with a feast, so this is when they are normally most generous. But, as we’ve been told, Nabal was surly and mean.

A Peaceful Delegation

So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.

“Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.'”

1 Sam 25:5-8

Look at verse seven for a minute: …we did [your shepherds] no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Why do people think this is referring to some mafia-style protection racket? I suppose if you have Godfather movies on the brain, this might sound like a veiled threat. But the rest of the chapter makes it clear: They missed nothing, does not mean “We didn’t take anything, so you owe us.” It means David and his men protected them from bandits, who would have taken anything they wanted by force.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice a few things:

  1. David did not approach Nabal with all 600 of his men brandishing swords, which would clearly have been a request “they could not refuse.” He sent a delegation of ten. That doesn’t sound like he’s looking for wholesale slaughter.
  2. His greeting and request could not have been more polite, not like common bandits would ask.
  3. He asks at a time when Nabal has plenty, so it will not place any hardship on him.
  4. He reminded Nabal of the protection he had given his men and flocks before this. Since Nabal has reaped the benefits of David’s protection, was it unreasonable to ask him for help when he needed something?
  5. The bandits who roamed the land, looking for easy plunder, would not have been so polite. They were the reason why Nabal’s sheep and goat herders appreciated David’s protection.
  6. He asked on a feast day, when it was tradition to share your bounty with those in need.

On a Feast Day

Why does David mention they have come on a feast day? In Hebrew, the phrase is yom tob, literally, “a good day.” However, the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB) says yom tob sometimes refers to a “festal day,” or a feast (cf. Est 8:17; 9:19, 22; Zec 8:19).

Here’s an example from the Book of Nehemiah. On the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the priest, Ezra, reads the entire copy of the Torah to the people, and they have interpreters to help people understand. The people weep, probably because they know they have disobeyed it. But Ezra is quick to tell this festival is not about putting a guilt trip on them. It’s a time to celebrate and thank God for all the ways God has blessed us.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Neh 8:10

A festal day, a day that is holy to our LORD, is a day for celebration. It’s a day to enjoy your bounty and share it with those for whom nothing is prepared. The Law of Moses even told them to collect a tithe for that purpose.

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

Deu 14:28-29

And again in Deuteronomy,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:

Deu 26:12-13 NRS

Part of the purpose of the tithes was to make sure everyone would have something to eat on the religious holidays, or as is said in our passage, a feast day. Those who had an abundance were supposed to share with the poor and needy on the feast days. David and his men were needy. Try feeding 600 men, plus their wives and children, in the middle of a wilderness if you don’t believe me.

This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate the Pesach”.

(Haggadah)

I know this comes from a time long after David. But like most traditions in the Haggadah, they were well known among the Jews and Israelites long before they were written down. I’m not saying this was part of the Passover Seder in David’s time, but the spirit of it was in their culture. You see it in the tithes they collected for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows. They should never go hungry but especially on a festal day. David’s request for some food, so he and his men could celebrate a feast, just like Nabal (who was enjoying a feast fit for a king, v. 36), was consistent with the spirit of the Law of Moses regarding feasts. That’s why he makes a point of saying it’s a feast day.

The Fool Responds

So David’s men make the request and wait. In vv. 10-11, we get Nabal’s response.

But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)

Nabal says, “Who is David?” as if he were a nobody. He likens David to a fugitive slave – because he ran from Saul. He compared David to an outlaw, the very kind of people David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and herders from.

He said David and his men “Come from I do not know where.” He called them aliens. They really weren’t, but calling them this made him even more culpable. What does the law in Deuteronomy 26:13 say again? “Then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to…the resident aliens.’” If they are resident aliens, as he said, the Torah specifically requires him to share his abundance with David and his men, even if they had not protected him all year.

For a guy who claims not to know David, he seems to know exactly what insults will wound him the most.

Of course, David is furious. He orders 400 of his men to come with him while 200 stay with the baggage. Why? They need to protect their own stuff from bandits (see ch. 30).

Quick, Tell Abigail

The 400 who came with David were out for blood. Fortunately for Nabal’s household, one servant told Abigail.

But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.

(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)

One of Nabal’s herders says he had felt safe because of David’s protection. Back in verse seven, David’s envoys told Nabal, “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel.” Was this as a description of David’s mafia-style “protection” business? “You got some nice sheep and goats here. Would be a shame if something happened to them.”

I might be open to that kind of interpretation if it weren’t for two factors:

  1. David and his merry band of outlaws were not the only armed nomads in the area. If they had been, that interpretation would be likely. However, the land of Israel was notorious for bandits. It was a great territory to operate if you were a criminal. Because of the many caves, you and your gang could hide from the authorities, if they ever happened to show up (which many times they did not).
  2. The eyewitness report of the young man who tended Nabal’s flocks. He said they were very good to us…we suffered no harm…we never missed anything…as long as they were with us. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, so no bandits could slip past them and steal from us. Does that sound even close to what you would say about mafia henchmen coming to collect their “rent”?

Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.

Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

1Sa 25:17

See? You were gonna skip that, weren’t you? How did he know evil has been decided against our master and against all his house? Because that’s how David operated.

No, that’s how bandits operated. How did he know David was planning evil against them? Because he saw his master take good from David and reward him with evil (v. 21). He knew David and his men were skilled warriors. He heard the insults Nabal hurled at him, and yes, David had his pride. He could not let such insults go unpunished. Any fool would have known that. That is, any fool except Nabal, a man so ill-natured that no one can speak to him. I bet the young man tried, but it was like trying to reason with a brick wall.

I imagine he had a lot of experiences like this: His master acting like an ass, and no one could tell him to shut up. He had learned where to go when his master was mean and surly. We’ve already been told Abigail, unlike her husband, was smart (v. 3). She knew what to do. Whenever you see a fool like him somehow rich, it has to be one of two reasons: 1) he inherited it; or 2) he has a clever wife who covers for his idiocy.

She gathered together enough for a feast for David and his men, loaded it on donkeys, and sent them ahead of her. She did not tell her husband, of course (vv. 18-19). Duh! We already know she’s no idiot.

Evil Is Coming

Next, we find out exactly what evil David has planned against Nabal and all his house.

Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

1Sa 25:21-22

Most modern translations clean up the language. However, if we go back to a time before such sensibilities about cursing in a holy book, this is how the King James Version renders that last verse.

So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

1Sa 25:22 KJV
Who's Next Album Cover
Better not let David catch you, boys.

In other words, any male—man or child—who is old enough to stand up to urinate, is good as dead. And now we are back to the question, was this David’s normal way of supporting himself and his men while he was on the run from Saul? So far we’ve seen not only David but Nabal’s own servant say he had been protecting Nabal’s men and flocks, so no. This was not his M.O. The next questions I think need to be answered are,

  1. What was he doing instead?
  2. Why did he change his mind here?

What Was He Doing Instead?

This is my take. I haven’t seen anyone else say this. But if David was not taking what he wanted by brute force, how did he support himself and his men? I think the answer is in what he had done for Nabal up until this point. He protected honest farmers, herders, and villagers from outlaws, and in return they gave him and his men the food they needed. Ever heard of Barzillai? Probably not. We don’t meet him until the second book of Samuel, but his history with David went back to these same days before he became king.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.

(2Sa 19:32 NRS)

He had provided the king with food. David protected Barzillai, and Barzillai fed David. I don’t think he was the only one. There were humane reasons for it, and practical reasons on both sides. Men like Barzillai needed protection from bandits, who will kill anyone who stands in their way and take everything. David and his men needed food, so you gave them what they needed, and they would protect you from the bandits. If you hired guards, you would have to feed and pay them anyway, so this was not unreasonable.

For David, it helped him keep practicing his leadership and military skills. It also built support for him among the people. Saul either could not or would not protect them from outlaws. David did, and they would remember that when he became king.

In his King Arthur trilogy, Bernard Cornwell wrote the story of Arthur from the perspective of Arthur’s friend, Derfel. In the first volume, The Winter King, one of my favorite scenes is where Arthur explains to Derfel why they can’t just rush into villages and slaughter and plunder anytime they have a disagreement with the people.

It’s easy for us, he tells Derfel, to come in and take whatever we want and kill whoever we want. We have swords, shields, armor, and horses. They don’t. We are trained to fight. They aren’t. But there’s an unspoken agreement between us. We fight to protect them, because they can’t fight for themselves. In return, they grow the food that feeds us, produce the clothing we wear, and forge the armor and weapons we use to fight. As long as they know we are on their side, we don’t have to take what we need. They’ll either give it or sell it to us.

I think that is the kind of ethic David was trying to live by, and that he was trying to teach his men to live by. Which brings us to the second question.

Why Did He Change?

This is not an apology for David. I am not interested in defending the indefensible. I am, however, interested in understanding his state of mind at the moment. Writers need to understand their characters’ motivations, whether they agree with them or not. In David’s case, I think he felt pressure in a number of ways to behave like a bandit and outlaw. He resisted successfully for a while, but this was the moment when many factors came together at once and pushed him over the edge. Those factors were:

  • The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
  • It was a rough world.
  • A “Biblical” concept of justice
  • His men wanted him to do this
  • Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
  • Insults that touched his own insecurities

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

1Sa 25:1

Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.

After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.

That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.

It Was a Rough World

We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.

He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.

“Biblical” Justice

David’s reasoning was, “We protected all that belongs to him. Now, we will kill all that belongs to him.” We wouldn’t call that justice, to kill the innocent of an entire household because one man returned evil for good. But there are parts of the Bible that show for people of that time, that kind of logic partially defined justice for the Israelites. For example, here’s an early pronouncement against men who abuse widows and orphans.

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

(Exo 22:22-24 NRS)

If you abuse any widow or orphan, I will kill you. Then your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. It is the same kind of logic David used to justify what he was about to do. Over time, that attitude would change. In the later prophets, like Jeremiah, you see the people, and God, coming around to an idea that people should pay for their own sins, not for their masters’ or their parents’. To Israelites of that time, however, there was justice in what David was planning.

His Men Wanted It

This is another example of what a rough world it was. He was leading rough men. They respected him, but his hold on them was tenuous (1 Sa 30:1-6). I’m sure they were watching to see if David was strong enough to do what was “necessary” when someone tried to take advantage of David’s decency.

When David announced his plan, did any of his men say, “Wait a minute, David. Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? Of course we’re gonna kill Nabal, but come on now. We know the young men who watched his flocks. They’re good people”? No. I bet they were excited, like, “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Every man, strap on his sword!” At a time when David needed a voice of reason, there were none.

Rising Frustration That Came to a Head

David was supposed to be king. God sent Samuel years ago to anoint him. Why was he still having to hide out in the wilderness? In most nations, when one man believed the gods have made him king, he claimed it by killing the current occupant of the throne. David could not do that, and he could not send someone else to do it. His conscience would not allow him to lift his hand against the LORD’s anointed (1 Sa 24:5-6). Yes, the LORD had rejected Saul as king. That was why Samuel anointed David to take his place. But as far as David was concerned, once God anointed someone, that anointing never left. Even though Saul was trying to kill him, David could not defend himself like he would against any other enemy. So basically, he was waiting for Saul to die by God’s hand. Today, we would call it natural causes.

Now Samuel was dead. Maybe some questions he had been carrying in his heart became more urgent. If God has anointed me king of Israel, why must I live like a fugitive? Why would God anoint me before I could take the throne? Maybe Saul found out. Of course. That is the reason why Saul thinks I want to kill him. And why he will never believe I mean him no harm. There is nothing I can do to change that, so why did God put me in this position? How long will I have to wait before God fulfills his promise to me?

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

(Psa 13:1-2 NRS)

Pressure was building inside him, and it only took one fool to say the wrong things to make that volcano blow.

Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities

I mentioned before that Nabal knew exactly what insults would wound David the deepest. He compared David to a fugitive slave, because he was hiding from his master, Saul. That wasn’t true, of course. Even though God had made him a rival to Saul’s throne, he always tried to do right by Saul. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Saul, even when God gave him into his hands (ch. 24). But this could be interpreted in a bad way. He was living like a fugitive and an outlaw, despite his best intentions. It was a sore point for David, a scab no wise person would pick at. But what do you expect from a man whose name means “Fool”?

Nabal said, “Who is David?”

David thought, “Who am I? I’m the one who’s been protecting everything that belongs to you, your young men, and your flocks.”

Nabal said, “Who is the son of Jesse?”

David thought, “Oh, so he insulted my father too?”

Nabal said, “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

David thought, “The reason you have this abundance of bread and water and meat is because my men and I have been protecting you. Without us, bandits would have taken all of it. And after all that, you talk as if I don’t even have a right to be here in the whole territory of Maon? I was anointed king of Israel. This whole nation is mine. I’ll show you who has a right to be here, and who doesn’t!”


This was a crossroads for David. If he had gone through with his plan, I don’t think it would have stopped with Nabal. I think it would have changed his character forever. The irony would have been he would have become exactly what Nabal accused him of. But remember, Abigail was already working behind the scenes to clean up her idiot husband’s mess—again (I guarantee this was not the first time she had had to do just that). What she did to assuage David’s anger was positively brilliant. I will pick up with that in the second part of this character study.

Writing Advice from an Award-Winning Author

badge, 2019 Writer's Digest 1st Place Winner, Self-Published Ebook Awards
Thank you, Writer’s Digest. #WDwinner

And no, I don’t feel guilty about bragging, because it took (not telling how many) years for me to be able to say that. Winning an award from Writer’s Digest is a dream come true, and I plan to milk it for all it’s worth. When you are trying to make writing your career, you should take advantage of anything that makes you stand out from your competition. So I guess, that’s my first piece of advice. Now here is some other things I’ve learned through the process.


Writing is both an art and a craft. As a craft, there are rules to good writing style. The art sometimes calls you to break the rules, but know the rules before you break them. That’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Learning how to write well will ruin reading for you (at least temporarily), and frustrate the snot out of you when you see bestselling authors breaking the rules. Learn anyway. An amateur breaks the rules because they don’t know them. Professionals know the rules. So when they break them, they have determined they are gaining something more than they lose by breaking the rules.

Chances are, you want to write because you fell in love with your own writing. At some point, you will reread it and realize (if you haven’t already) it is not nearly as brilliant or original as you first thought. That’s okay. We all have to go through that before we uncover our true brilliance and originality.

Find a critique group. My upcoming novel would never have been publishable without it. The first draft was riddled with signs of amateurism: weak verbs, unrealistic action and dialog, unnecessary words, a prologue, too much exposition, head hopping, too many exclamation marks, and telling when I should have been showing. The folks in my critique group not only pointed out these errors (some of which I didn’t even realize were errors). They also demonstrated ways to fix them.

Your writer’s voice = your passion + good writing style. No one can teach you passion, but they can teach writing style. I had plenty of passion, but my writing style was not where it needed to be. I read Writer’s Digest magazine. I took fiction writing courses to learn the craft. So at first, don’t worry about your writer’s voice. Learn how to use the rules of style, a.k.a., the craft first. When you combine that with your passion, then you will find your voice.

Even the greatest writers were amateurs once. It’s hard for me to imagine Flannery O’Connor or Ron Rash were ever amateur writers. But we all start out with more desire and passion than skill. The best example I ever saw was from my first critique group. The others in the group were more advanced than I was in using the elements of style, and their work was much more enjoyable to read than mine as a result. One man in particular, Ricky, gave great examples of “show don’t tell,” realistic action and dialog, and I fell in love with the characters, which is always what you want from your readers. More than anyone in the group, he had a style I wanted to emulate.

We always emailed our chapters ahead of the critique session. One week, he accidentally sent a chapter from his first draft. Let’s just say it was as amateurish as anything I brought to the group. The dialog and action were not realistic. I couldn’t connect with the characters at all. To see how much he had improved since then was the greatest encouragement I could have received. If he was this bad at the beginning, and he could improve like this, so could I. The reason he got so much better was he learned the elements of style and how to apply them. That made all the difference for him, and for me as well.

Never stop learning. That’s the most important rule for great writing and a great life. I don’t think I’m a great writer. I think I am a good writer, but I can become a great writer as long as I keep learning and practicing. And I hope I always think that way.

So now, my writer compatriots, you beginners have some things to learn, just like I did, just like Ricky did, and just like your favorite author did. So lose those rookie mistakes. I don’t care how much you love them. As Hemingway said, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Here’s another article for further help. Top Signs of Amateur Writing.

Speaking of Hemingway, here’s a bonus lesson from him. As he was getting started as a writer, he traveled with a foot locker. Inside that foot locker was his entire collection of unsubmitted manuscripts. On one flight, the foot locker got lost. How do you think he felt? If I lost all my manuscripts, I would be devastated. But later he said it was the best thing that could have happened to him. With all of his amateur writing gone, he became a professional from that moment on.

If you want to reach your potential as a writer, keep learning the craft, keep practicing, submit your manuscripts to critiques from people you trust, revise, and repeat. One day, you might write that heartbreaking work of staggering genius you know is inside you.

Book Excerpt and Fifth Principle for Recovery: The Voice … That No One Wants to Hear


Image of a double rainbow
Nature is good therapy.

My fifth principle of recovery says, “Never trust a chemically imbalanced brain, even if it is your own.” The post below is an excerpt from my award-winning book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. It was originally posted to a blog called “Fawns of Naphtali.” Strange name, I know. It became a chapter in my book, and it explains how my experience with antidepressant (AD) medication taught me clinical depression has a voice. You must learn to identify and neutralize it if you want to recover and live a happy and fulfilling life. Here is how I did it.

Medication and the Voice in My Brain

Taking medication for depression is still controversial for some people of faith. When a psychiatrist first recommended it for me, I had some reservations. However, he had just told me I tested high for depression in every possible way, so I took his advice. There is no doubt it has helped me. Sometimes I have wondered if it’s really working, especially at times when I have been sad, moody, anxious, just fill in the blank with any negative emotion.

I can still say, though, that medication does make a difference for me. I don’t care what Tom Cruise said. I know because a couple of times, I have changed medications. When you change from one anti-depressant (AD) med to another, you first have to wean yourself off of your current med. That usually takes 2–4 weeks. Then you can start taking the new. It can take up to two weeks for the new medication to start taking effect. During that transition, those depressed thoughts you had forgotten about can come back.

The first time, I had suicidal thoughts. I can’t say it was the first time, but it was more frequent and intense than ever. Is the new med not working? 

My doctor said it was a low dose and suggested trying a “medium”dose. Within a few days, the suicidal thoughts stopped. That medium dose worked for me. But without that doctor helping me, I might have thought it was the wrong medication.

The second time was more recent. Bad thoughts came but in a different way. Instead of feeling depressed in the way we usually think of (deep and persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, etc.), it came in a way I had forgotten: Anger. I was angry much of the day. Angry at family and friends over past slights that my balanced brain had forgiven long ago. Angry at the world for the state it’s in and the downward spiral we seem to be in. Unreasonably angry. But when the new medicine kicked in, I was back to being happy. And I am proud to say I did not take my anger out on anyone, even the ones I felt angry towards.

Now some of that anger might not have been unreasonable, especially about the sorry state of the world. So then, why did I not act out my anger or my suicidal thoughts during those times? Before I started transitioning medications, I made a crucial decision. Until I know if the new med is good for me and until I get my brain normalized again with either the new or return to the old, I WILL NOT BELIEVE THAT VOICE IN MY HEAD.

My Beautiful Mind

I got the idea from the movie A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe plays Nobel Prize winning Mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., who was found to be paranoid schizophrenic. He had more than just a voice in his head. He had full on hallucinations of three people telling him all these conspiracies around him. When he was diagnosed and got medication, the hallucinations disappeared. However, he was having difficulty with the side effects. 

He decided to go off the medication. But those imaginary people will come back.

Yes, but this time he will know they are not real, and he will absolutely refuse to believe them. It was not easy. Those hallucinations had a life of their own. They tried really hard to convince him to listen to them. But he remained resolute. You are not real. I won’t listen to you. I won’t believe anything you say.

Because of past experience with Depression, I knew I needed to reject, ignore, and otherwise neutralize those thoughts TEMPORARILY. Let’s review what happened in these two instances.

  1. I stopped taking AD medication.
  2. The Voice in my head that fuels my Depression went from being a surly kitten to a roaring tiger.
  3. When the new AD medication kicked in, the Voice calmed down and the bad thoughts sunk back to a normal level.

What is going on? In earlier posts, I’ve talked about the chemical imbalances that exist in a clinically depressed brain. It is a medical condition where your brain can’t produce normal levels of “happy chemicals,” and so the “stress chemicals” overwhelm it. Medication helps your brain produce more happy chemicals, so it gets balanced. When your brain chemistry is balanced, your emotional state can get back to normal — in a good way.

That last experience changing meds really drove that home for me. The Voice in my head didn’t bother me when I was on meds. But when I was in that transition phase, the Voice came back with a vengeance. Now that I’m on meds again, the Voice is gone. And that’s when it hit me like a revelation of Biblical proportions. THAT VOICE IN MY HEAD IS THE PRODUCT OF A CHEMICALLY IMBALANCED BRAIN.

If you have that Voice too, let that last sentence sink in. That Voice in your head that tells you, “I’m no good. I’ll never get anything right. I’m a burden to everyone who loves me,” or even worse, “No one loves me.” Or if you pray or try to live by faith, the Voice will tell you, “There is no God. God hates me. God has given up on me, and I don’t blame Him. I’m like the tree that bore no fruit, so God has cut me off. I’m cursed.” Or maybe you have that angry voice, like I just experienced. And you believe it, don’t you? IT’S THE PRODUCT OF A CHEMICALLY IMBALANCED BRAIN.

And the problem isn’t so much the voice itself, but that we believe it so readily. At some point, in thinking about this, I was amazed at how anything we hear inside our head, we just believe it. We don’t question it, we don’t evaluate it, we just accept whatever it says, even when it has no basis in reality.

“Everyone hates you.” Oh really? 7.5 billion people in the world, and every single one of them hates you? Oh you just meant everyone in your school or in your town. But still, how many people is that, a few hundred? A few thousand? A few hundred thousand if it’s a major city? How could every one of them hate you? Simple logic should tell you that’s not even possible. But you believe it. Because it comes from your head, so it must be true, right? Wrong!

Are you telling me my head is lying to me? That’s exactly what I’m telling you. THAT VOICE IN YOUR HEAD IS THE PRODUCT OF A CHEMICALLY IMBALANCED BRAIN.

Or if it’s that angry voice, it might be saying, “They’re disrespecting me. They think I’m an idiot. They never listen to me. They’re idiots. They don’t care about me, so screw ’em all.” (Again, that’s as politely as I can say it). And again, IT’S THE PRODUCT OF A CHEMICALLY IMBALANCED BRAIN.

And bottom line, don’t believe a chemically imbalanced brain, even if it’s your own. You’re just as likely to get the truth from a Magic 8-Ball. Yes, it might tell the truth occasionally, but you’d better ask some questions before you accept that it’s right this time.

I suppose this begs the question, If you can’t believe your own mind, what can you believe? How do you know what the truth is? There is no simple answer to that, and anyone who tells you there is is setting you up for failure. But now I have posted on all five of my principles for recovery. Here they are to review.

  1. God is for your recovery and healing, not against it (Isa 53:3–5).
  2. God will not kick you when you’re down (Isa 42:2–3).
  3. Some churches and spiritual leaders are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.
  4. With the right help — spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and perhaps medically — you can live a happy and fulfilling life. 
  5. Never believe a chemically imbalanced brain, even if it is your own.

That is all the truth you need for today.

Grace and peace to you.


Originally published at http://fawnsofnaphtali.wordpress.com on October 29, 2016.

rough looking kitty meme, "When you had a rough day but are trying to stay positive"

My Fourth Principle for Recovery: Getting the Right Help, Part 2

In my last post, I introduced my fourth principle for recovery: With the right help, you can live a happy and fulfilling life. For most depressed people, getting the right help begins with testing. I talked about standard testing for depression in the last post. If your depression is bad enough, you may need testing for more specific types. At my mother and sister’s suggestion, I got tested for clinical depression. At the time, I don’t think the standard tests I’ve read about would have caught it in my case, so I’m glad I took their advice.

Getting Tested for Clinical Depression Was Different

If you are considering getting tested for clinical depression, I can tell you a few things you probably won’t find online. I won’t give away too much. Part of the effectiveness of the testing comes from going in fresh. But in many ways it was not what I expected.

It Was Not Talk Therapy or Psycho-Therapy

It did not involve talking about my emotions or childhood. It did not involve my history, or how I’ve been feeling the last few weeks, or trying to determine if there’s a particular reason for depression, or if it is just always there regardless of any reason. Someone observing would not have thought it had anything to do with depression. The psychologist (I say psychologist, but I don’t know exactly what his title was) gave me various tasks to do and questions to answer. After each task, he asked why I did it that way or why I concluded what I did.

The only thing I recognized as “psychiatric” was the Rorschach inkblot test. You’ve probably seen it on TV. They show an inkblot, and you tell them what it looks like. On TV, they usually say a bat or a rabbit or something simple. My answers were much more elaborate. In fact afterwards, I asked if I could get copies of them, because I thought I saw scenes that could be used in a fantasy or sci-fi story. Turns out they are copyrighted, a trade secret, or something like that. In other words, they’re not available to the public.

It Takes More Time

With the standard question-and-answer tests I’ve seen, I can’t imagine them taking long. That kind of testing was made for something more general. It is one step in a process for your doctor to determine if you need treatment for depression or something else. The test I took was to look specifically for clinical depression. It took around two or maybe three hours. The time it takes for each person varies, because there is no time limit for the tasks. So if you took the kind of test you see online, and it only took a few minutes, that was not a test for clinical depression. There is a difference between situational depression, which usually does not take long to identify, and clinical depression.

Trust the Process

Like I said, you might not see what the questions and tasks you’re given have to do with depression. Clinical depression is not about how you feel or how you’ve been feeling the last two weeks or more. It is a condition of the brain. One thing about your brain. It is always with you no matter where you go, what you do, what’s happening to you, or who you’re with. Your brain is unique. But if you have clinical depression, it is there in your brain. And just like your brain, it is always with you, no matter how you feel. Even if you don’t feel depressed at this time in your life, you still could have clinical depression.

After the process was over, I realized the tasks and questions the psychologist gave were designed to give him a window into how my brain works. That is the only way to detect clinical depression. Somehow, the psychologist has to see your brain at work, how it processes information, and how it responds to various challenges and stimuli. That’s why he asked me to explain my thought processes each step of the way. Each answer gave him a little more data about how my brain worked.

Disorientation

When it was over, I set a follow-up appointment to get the results. The psychologist said I could bring someone in with me if I wanted. My sister was happy to do it. She should have been, since she roped me into it in the first place. So she was there when the psychologist gave me the news: “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

The world stood still. It was so shocking I didn’t know how to respond. If he had said anything else, like I tested moderate to severe in every possible way, or I tested high in half the ways, I would not have been surprised. But high in every possible way? How was that possible? I only felt mildly depressed. How could I have tested high in every possible way? That would not have been the case with one of those standard online tests. I’m not denigrating them. I’m just saying diagnosing clinical depression as opposed to situational depression is much more involved than that.

As I adjusted to the shock, the next thing I felt was shame. Because I am a Christian.

What Will This Do to My Testimony?

I had struggled mightily with depression in the past. But I always thought it was in specific episodes. I was depressed in college. I was depressed during and after my first year of Divinity School. I was depressed when I turned thirty, and I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be in life. And each time, I said, Jesus delivered me from it.

If you are a Christian, you might have picked up the message that you should be able to overcome depression by faith alone, because Christ is all sufficient. He is all you need for peace of mind. You’ve heard others give that testimony. You wanted it to be your testimony.

Do you see the joy on my face? It’s because of Jesus.

Since I found Jesus, I don’t get the blues.

I can’t be depressed, because the joy of the Lord is my strength.

Too blessed to be depressed.

rough looking kitty meme, "When you had a rough day but are trying to stay positive"

For me, all of that went away with my diagnosis. I wanted that testimony to show people what a difference Jesus made in my life. But I also learned long ago that in my relationship with God, honesty is much more important than having “the right testimony.” Honestly, as much as I wanted it, that was never my testimony. But there was still a part of me that thought it should be my testimony.

Here’s what you need to understand. Christ is all-sufficient when it comes to salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. When we get to heaven, we probably will never be depressed again. But when it comes to life on earth, we will sometimes need help from people, whether it’s warm bodies to carry things when you move, doctors and nurses to bring you back to health from sickness or injury, or mental health professionals to help you diagnose and treat mental illness. Christ is not at all offended if you need help from a professional, whether your illness is physical or mental.

Getting Reoriented

The psychologist explained clinical depression is a condition of the brain. It means my brain does not produce enough natural antidepressants, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. It’s a natural condition and nothing to be ashamed of. A diabetic has a pancreas that can’t produce insulin. There is no shame in that. It says nothing about that person’s faith or lack thereof. If my brain doesn’t produce normal levels of “happy chemicals” (as I call them), I shouldn’t be ashamed of that either. It can happen to anyone, regardless of what kind of faith they have.

Just like there is treatment for diabetes, there is treatment for clinical depression. That usually starts with antidepressant (AD) medication and counseling. Counseling, I had no problem with. But I had some resistance to medication.

***DISCLAIMER: In the medical field, the effectiveness of AD medication is being seriously questioned. Just keep in mind, any psychotropic drug affects each person differently. My experience might be the same as yours, and it might be totally different. You should never take one without a recommendation from a doctor or mental health professional. And you need to pay attention to how it affects your thoughts and emotions, especially in the first few days or weeks. Before you start taking AD medication, be sure you know what to do if your condition doesn’t improve or gets worse.***

With that disclaimer, I’ll tell you why I took it, and why I’m glad I did.

Medication

Most doctors seem more reluctant to prescribe AD medication today than when I was diagnosed. Part of the reason is recent studies have indicated it is no more effective than a placebo for anything other than severe depression.

Okay, but remember, I had just tested high for depression in every possible way. The diagnosis of clinical depression meant I had been living with depression my whole life and did not even know it. If that is not severe depression, what is? If my diagnosis had not been so extreme, I would not have even considered it. I would more likely have accepted counseling and tried doubling down on faith confessions, positive thinking, motivational messages, and meditating on scripture. I’m not saying those things were not effective for me. They kept me going in some of my worst and darkest moments. But I had been doing all that for almost two decades, and I still tested high in every possible way. That realization took down most of my resistance.

There was also the comparison with the diabetic. He/she needs to take insulin, because their body can’t produce it. If my brain doesn’t make normal levels of “happy chemicals,” taking medication for that is no different.

She Is So Much Nicer Now

This was also where having my sister there was helpful. She knew some things I didn’t. For example, she knew of a relative who had recently started AD medication. “She is so much nicer now,” I said. Oh, and another who was moody and had a volatile temper. “That was depression?” I had never made that connection before with him or myself.

In the past, I had chalked up my own moodiness to “artistic temperament.” But it had never occurred to me that was a sign of depression. This is one way you can be depressed and not know it. You know some of the signs, but not all of them. Like here, I knew I was moody and temperamental, but I didn’t connect that with depression. And seeing how much nicer that one relative was with medication, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for me.

Perfectly Timed for College

The psychologist also told me clinical depression usually gets its worst between late-teens and early-twenties. Bang! That was totally true for me. At first, that was connected to a crisis of faith. But even after that crisis was resolved, I still had this malaise I couldn’t shake. It was so hard for me to get motivated for anything back then. I thought it was the work of the devil. Finally, I realized, it was the work of my chemically imbalanced brain.

Furthermore, whenever I had a crisis of faith, depression always accompanied it. So how do you know if this is the situational depression of a dark night of the soul, or clinical depression felt more intensely because you’re wondering, “What the hell is God doing to me?” You don’t without getting tested.

What about “Artistic Temperament”?

I wanted to be a writer. Let’s face it. Some of the greatest writers and artists in history were very moody and temperamental. I can’t diagnose them, but it’s likely most of them had clinical depression or similar mental illness. But is that where their genius came from? Was depression the muse that inspired their work that we still celebrate today? What if they could have taken AD medication so as not to be tormented with those dark thoughts and emotions anymore? Would that have made them less creative?

Many times, depression compelled me to write something. It was therapy before I began therapy. If I lose that, will I lose some of my creativity or my urge to write? Can I really be an artist without the temperament?

The psychologist’s answer was, in effect, yes, I could. Since I started AD medication, I’ve been able to go back to some of those dark places when I needed to without being caught up in the darkness myself. I can write about the insanity I experienced without re-experiencing it. And I still feel the urge to write, even when I don’t feel depressed. In fact, the most depressing thing for me is to go a few days without writing. That’s when I really get moody and temperamental. So if you are a creative or artistic type, I can tell you taking AD medication has not dampened my creativity one bit. In fact, now I have so many ideas, there aren’t enough hours in a day for me to write them all.

One More Tip No One Told Me

So I had the results of the test. I had the beginnings of a plan for recovery. I accepted the diagnosis and agreed to medication. The psychologist recommended a pastoral counselor for me, because I knew I would need help with some of the theological issues I still had. I left with a copy of the report, and my sister and I sat down in a coffee shop to talk more about the implications of all this.

One thing I remember from the conversation was the relationship between depression and anxiety. In addition to depression, I seemed to be more anxious than people around me. My sister said that depression and anxiety were located close to each other in the brain. If you have issues with one, it’s common to have issues with the other. That reminds me of Chris Cornell. He took Ativan for anxiety, but in some of his interviews he also talked about depression. The good news is if you treat one effectively, it often helps the other. That has been true of me, and I wish it had been true for Cornell.

Overall, after adjusting to the shock, it was one of the most enlightening days of my life. My recovery began that day. But there was one thing I wish someone had told me. Don’t read the results of your test. Normally, I’m the type of person who would say, “If you have the test, read it. The more information you have about your condition, the better.” This is an exception. That report was the most depressing thing about myself I have ever read.

You don’t need to read it to know what you need to. Ask the psychologist who tested you about the results, what they mean, and what kind of treatment you need. Don’t throw it away. Keep a copy of it in case you need to make a disability claim. But don’t read it unless for some reason you absolutely have to.

Life after AD Medication

Back in college, I had this voice in my head that was so negative and so condemning, it felt like it came straight out of the pit of Hell. I could cast it out in Jesus’ name. Temporarily. But anytime I failed, or my prayers weren’t answered, the voice returned. And in some ways, I felt I deserved it, because I still didn’t have enough faith (whatever that means). In the Word of Faith, they tell you that voice is a demon or the Devil. And then, it changed from the Devil to Jesus, beating me up for not having “enough faith” to get what I prayed for.

Fortunately, I did learn not to associate that voice with either one of them. I had an incredible Epiphany that drove it away for a couple of years. But eventually, it came back. After a few days on medication, that voice went away for me. I don’t know if there really are such things as demons or Satan, but I do know this. If a pill can make it go away, it’s not a demon. For that matter, it’s not Jesus either. It’s a mental illness.

Here’s another thing that happened. I used to think I had ups and downs like everyone else. I could be happy or sad, stressed or at peace, friendly or misanthropic. But even when I was happy, there was this underlying sadness I couldn’t get rid of. I never felt like I belonged anywhere, even among friends. I thought it was normal, because that was how my brain worked. When I started AD medication, those feelings finally went away. From that, I learned that however your brain works, you will think it’s normal because everything about your experience is processed through your brain. If your brain is naturally tilted toward depression, it will color all your experience with that brush. That was why I didn’t recognize it as depression except when it got really bad.

Takeaways

That leads into my fifth principle for recovery: Never believe a chemically imbalanced brain, even if it is your own. I will dive into that in my next post. Until then, here are your takeaways.

  1. Situational depression is much easier to recognize than clinical depression. Situational depression is about how you feel. Clinical depression is a medical condition.
  2. Because they are different, the testing for each is different.
  3. Testing for depression is only one part of a process to determine if you need treatment for depression or something else.
  4. If your family and friends think you are sad or depressed even when you don’t, you should seriously consider testing for clinical depression.
  5. Sadness and lack of motivation are not the only signs of depression. Anger, moodiness, and a quick, extreme temper are also signs.
  6. Like any medical condition, clinical depression has nothing to do with faith or the lack thereof. Don’t believe anyone who tells you faith should be all you need to treat it.
  7. AD medication is normally for severe or clinical depression. Research has not confirmed effectiveness for less severe kinds of depression.
  8. If you have severe depression, it’s no sin to try AD medication.
  9. Like other psychotropic drugs, AD medications affect everyone differently. Before you take it, make sure you know what to do if your depression gets worse after taking it.
  10. You do not have to read the results of your test. Just follow the advice of the one who tested you, and you’ll be on your way to recovery.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. I’ve talked about how my sister and mother encouraged me to get tested. You might be wondering about my father. He recently confessed to me that he thought I had problems with depression too, but he did not know how to talk to me about it. So it’s official. Everyone in my family knew I was depressed before I did (see Takeaway #4). But that in a nutshell is why I’m writing these posts and why I wrote my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. I’m sharing what my clinical depression looked like as best I can, in the hopes that A) someone undiagnosed will see themselves in it and be prompted to get help, or B) someone who cares for a depressed person can use it to help share their concerns.

References

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-tests#1

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/default.htm

Alternatives to Anti-Depressant Medication

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alternative-therapies-depression#1

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/natural-cures-for-depression_n_7502392

My Fourth Principle for Recovery: Getting the Right Help

My fourth principle for recovery from depression says, “With the right help, you can live a happy and fulfilling life.

Getting the right help first requires proper diagnosis. If you think you are depressed, your doctor can help with screening to see if you need therapy.

***Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or licensed therapist. Any advice I’m offering is based on research and personal experience. Unlike WebMD articles, it has not been vetted by professionals.***

I think the way I can be most helpful is not as a professional but as a bridge between the professional and layperson. I am a layperson myself but with personal experience of clinical depression and treatment for it. If you think my experience might inform you, keep reading.

Should I Get Tested?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a list of symptoms of major depression. You could look at that, but these two questions might make it simpler:

  1. During the past month, have you been bothered by feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?
  2. During the past month, have you been bothered by loss of interest or pleasure in doing things?

If you answer “yes” or “some” to one or both of these, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about being tested for depression. Information about how they test is available online. However, I don’t think you should look into testing beforehand more than this. If your doctor wants to ask more questions, I think it’s best not to prepare for it ahead of time. Just answer the questions honestly and leave the diagnosis to the professionals.

Is It Depression or Something Else?

First, however, your doctor will probably want to eliminate any physical causes of your symptoms. There are a number of conditions with symptoms similar to depression, including

  • Hypo- or hyper-active thyroid. If your thyroid gland is too active not active enough
  • Nutritional deficiencies, especially vitamin-D or calcium
  • Certain types of cancer or tumors
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Anemia
  • Cushing’s disease (a disorder of the adrenal gland)
  • Head trauma
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Stroke
  • Syphilis
  • Certain medications, e.g., corticosteroids
  • Withdrawal from certain medications (for example, steroids, amphetamines, OTC appetite suppressants, or anti-depressant medications)

Some of these you probably already know if they apply to you. Others you will probably have to be tested for. Consult your doctor about which tests are appropriate for you. The most common physical causes of depression have to do with the brain and nervous system, thyroid and endocrine system, or sometimes a nutritional deficiency such as Vitamin-D or calcium.

And here’s a couple of tidbits I learned from personal experience. Many types of depression are related to a serotonin deficiency. So is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. So if you have IBS, chances are you will be depressed too. Also, if you recently had heart surgery, many post-op patients experience depression.

Depression Testing

If your depression is not related to any physical causes like the ones listed above, the doctor should screen you for depression. This will involve answering some questions that may make you uncomfortable. But as usual, you should answer your doctor honestly if you want an accurate diagnosis. Doctor-patient confidentiality is there for a reason.

There are several testing options your doctor can choose from. I’m not going to explain them because, unlike when you were in school, I think it’s best to go into these tests without “preparing” for them. Your doctor needs honest answers, not the ones you scripted beforehand. If further treatment is needed, he/she can advise you on the next steps.

Self/Online Testing

There are tests available online, including one called “3 Minute Depression Test.” Tests like these are convenient, private (unless you’re being hacked), and often free. That can be a good place to start. However, that is hardly enough for a diagnosis of major depression or any of the possible physical causes. Getting the right help will involve seeing a doctor at some point. And after that, you’ll probably need to see a therapist or counselor for a while. I don’t see how any self test can tell you if you need it. But if the results prompt you to talk to your doctor, then it’s served a purpose.


I think this sums up the standard advice on getting tested. However, this kind of screening is about situational depression, not clinical depression. We need to think of that as something separate from standard screening for depression.

Testing for Clinical Depression

The questions in most screenings are about how you have been feeling recently. Getting tested for clinical depression is different. When I got tested, the therapist did not ask anything about how I was feeling. The test involved going through different tasks and explaining why I did it this way. So it is about how your brain responds to different puzzles and challenges. This makes sense, because clinical depression is not about how you are feeling at the moment or in the past few weeks. It is about how your brain works. This is why clinical depression is harder to detect than situational depression. It requires a trained professional test for it.

When I was diagnosed, I only felt mildly depressed. It seemed odd to me that my mother and sister were pushing me to get tested. There were times in my life when I had much worse depression, so why are they bringing it up now? I would have said at the time that I was mildly depressed. And why not? I was in my early thirties, unemployed, and never had a girlfriend. Who wouldn’t be at least a little depressed? I didn’t think depression was something that needed to be addressed before finding a job. But my sister said to me, “I have always experienced you as being depressed.”

That got my attention. She has known me for a long time. She knew things about me no one else did. The same is true of my mom. If they are seeing something, maybe I should at least look into it. Since I was unemployed, my mom agreed to pay for it. The testing took about two or three hours, which is another reason why I don’t think a three minute test is enough for diagnosis. I’m not saying don’t use that tool if you suspect you are depressed. Just remember it is only one step in the process of being diagnosed.

Wouldn’t You Know If You Are Depressed?

Not necessarily. Remember I said I only felt mildly depressed when I got tested? Here is how the therapist summed up the results. “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

What? High in every way? How is that possible?

I only felt mildly depressed. On a scale of one to ten, I was at a two, maybe three. And still, I tested high in every possible way. This was probably the greatest shock of my life. And it’s how I learned the difference between situational depression and clinical depression. The therapist explained to me that the brain naturally produces antidepressant chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When it doesn’t get enough of these chemicals, you have clinical depression. While situational depression is about how you feel over a period of a few weeks or sometimes months, clinical depression is a condition of the brain. No matter how you feel—happy, sad, hopeless, confident, angry, peaceful—it is always with you.

While you may think you have highs and lows like everyone else, your lows are lower because of your brain chemistry. While situational depression is usually triggered by something that got you down, with clinical depression, you can be depressed even when you know you have no reason to be. Again, that is because of your brain chemistry. It’s not your fault, and it is treatable.

It’s important to note not everyone who is depressed is clinically depressed. While some experts question a definition of depression that is based on brain chemistry, I still believe it was a major factor in my case. It was hard to take in at first. But once I accepted it, the path to recovery became much clearer.

Next Post: Getting Treatment

So I had my diagnosis, clinical depression. The next step was to get treatment. That usually means medication and counseling. I’ll talk about that in more detail in the next post.

To sum up so far,

  1. Getting help for depression will most likely involve your doctor and a counselor. Understand they each have different roles to play.
  2. Your doctor can test for various physical illnesses that could be behind your depression symptoms. Treating anything that comes up from that might clear up your depression.
  3. Your doctor can screen you for depression and tell you if the tests indicate a need for further treatment. He/she cannot give professional counseling but may be able to recommend a counselor to you.
  4. Only a trained mental health professional can test specifically for clinical depression. If your doctor (or mother or sister) recommends testing for it, take his/her advice, even if you don’t think depression is that serious a problem for you at the moment.
  5. A mental health professional cannot test for physical illnesses. That’s something for your doctor.
  6. Your doctor might recommend counseling. However, you don’t need a doctor’s order to get counseling. If you feel like you need it, you are probably right.
  7. Even if you don’t feel like you need counseling or testing, but people close to you who have your best interests at heart think you do, consider that they may be right. I didn’t get tested for clinical depression because I felt like I needed it. I got tested because my mother and sister thought I needed it.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. I haven’t tried online counseling. But if you’re interested, this link will take you to a site that lists and ranks some of the most popular sites.

References

E-Counseling.com. “Top Online Therapy Services—February 2020.” https://www.e-counseling.com/tlp/online-therapy/?imt=1

WebMD. “Tests Used to Diagnose Depression.” https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-tests#1

My Third Principle for Recovery, Part 2

My third principle for recovery says some kinds of faith are good for recovery and some are bad. In my previous post, I talked about the Word of Faith and why it was bad for my recovery. Here is an example of what I mean.

It Was (Not) All Up to Me

When I was young I had an uncle with a terminal illness. Of course, I prayed for him. But when I got into the Word of Faith, it changed how I prayed, because they taught, “Believe and receive your healing.” Okay, it’s not my healing in this case, but it’s my uncle’s healing. But they had me thinking if my faith is strong enough, or if his faith is strong enough, he can be healed. Even though doctors say, “There is no cure,” I am following the lead of my televangelist preachers who say, “Oh yes, there’s a cure, faith in Jesus Christ.”

I tried telling him, and he didn’t buy into it. I tried telling other family members. They didn’t buy into it. I was the only one who bought into it. So if it was going to happen, it had to happen through my faith.

And so I prayed. I prayed sometimes for hours on end. I fasted and prayed to make it happen at times, and that really freaked my family out. “Wait a minute! You’re going to not eat?” for however long I was going to do it. They really thought I’d gone off the deep end there. And they were a lot closer to the truth than I was at the time, I have to admit now. Not that there’s anything wrong with fasting, but me thinking I could break the power of Satan over my uncle with it? Guess where I learned that. No, it didn’t work.

And so, eventually, when he died, my family—even though they were sad—accepted it as the natural outcome of his disease. Because I thought my faith was supposed to change it, this was a victory of Satan over me. More specifically, it was a victory of Satan over my faith. That was a lot of pressure to live under. Understand, this is all speaking from the perspective of my Word of Faith background. This is the harm that can come from this particular understanding of faith.

Word of Faith vs. Real Faith

If Christian faith is important to you, as it was and still is to me, it’s important to have a sound biblical definition of faith. Those who preach the Word of Faith message claim faith is something you use to receive what you want from God. Whatever you pray for, believe you receive, and you will have it. Mark 11:22-24. And when it comes to sickness and poverty, this is the work of the devil. The devil comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10. Abundant life isn’t sickness and poverty. Abundant life is health and wealth. So you can overcome any sickness and financial struggle with nothing but faith. When I bought into this, I didn’t even know I was living with clinical depression. So when it didn’t work, the depression and feeling of betrayal was probably worse than most because of it.

What saved me was something I first heard from my religion professor in college. She taught that a true biblical understanding of faith is not about trying to convince yourself to believe something you just know is not true. It’s not about believing all the right doctrines. If they respond to normal questions anyone with a brain might ask with, “Just believe,” or “Just take it on faith,” or “That’s faith. You shouldn’t ask questions about that,” or anything like that, that’s a bad faith for recovery.

And faith certainly is not about thinking you can make God do what you want if you believe. The primary understanding of faith throughout most of the Bible is a trusting relationship with God.

Faith Is Trust and Relationship

Those two words are really important, trust and relationship. It’s something you build, over time. One analogy I could make is, when my wife and I were seeing each other, I was the first one to say I love you. It took her some time to say it back to me. And I understood that, because of past experiences, it was difficult for her to trust, not just me, but any man that she would be in a relationship with at the time. It was going to take time in our relationship to build the trust where she could say it.

The same was true when I wanted to propose marriage to her. I brought up the subject, and it’s a good thing I did before buying a ring and presenting it to her, because at the time she just wasn’t ready. It was going to take time in relationship together for her to get her trust to where, if I asked her to marry me, she would be able to say yes. And that really is what faith is like. You are building a relationship with God. You may have difficulty, at first, trusting. And along the way, you are going to experience some doubts. I suppose, maybe you can over time have so much trust that you have no more doubts. Theoretically, I guess it’s possible, even though I haven’t got there myself.

But what is more important in a relationship, having no doubts, or being able to talk about those doubts honestly? You can talk about it with God. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned honesty is much more important to a healthy relationship with God than belief. You can be honest with God. I would also seek out someone who you can talk to about doubts and issues that come up. They’ve probably had the same questions and issues come up on their journey. The most helpful people are usually those who have “been there,” so look for a mentor, someone with genuineness in their relationship with God.

Believe, and You Will Receive (Maybe)

Another thing to notice is if they talk about faith as if you should be able to control everything in your life, that’s a bad faith for recovery. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a certain prayer they’ve made famous, and others have latched on to. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When I tried to help my uncle “believe and receive” his “promise of healing,” I nearly robbed him of the peace of mind that came from him being reconciled to God and being at peace with himself. Thank God there was a minister in his life who was able to counsel him with wisdom. Because he had the wisdom to know what we could control, and what we could not, my uncle knew serenity in his last days.

He prayed things like, “Lord, we lift up _______ before you and ask that you heal him. However, if it is not within your will to heal his physical illness, then heal him in other ways. Surround him with your presence and comfort him. Grant him the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Give him assurance that you love him. And if this is the sickness unto death, receive him into your eternal kingdom.”

There is a lot of wisdom in the way he prayed. It was the perfect balance of what we can control and what we can’t. He asked God to heal him of his physical illness but did not make any claim that God was somehow obligated to do it because of this or that Bible verse. And I should point out before he used the phrase “sickness unto death,” he had already had conversations about the possibility of death and what it meant to my uncle.

Almost everyone, when they near the end of life, needs more than physical healing. They need to be made whole in their mind, in their soul, in coming to terms with end of their lives in this world. And if they believe in God, they may have questions about the state of that relationship that need to be answered. Like I said, a lot of wisdom, but I did not fully embrace it at the time.

Do Not Pray “If it be thy will”

In the Word of Faith, they tell you not to pray, “If it is Your will” when God has already promised healing in the Bible. So when he prayed that, inwardly, I rebelled. I thought that just guarantees he won’t be healed. 1) If it’s a promise in the Bible, you don’t pray “If it be thy will.” God wouldn’t have promised it if it wasn’t God’s will. 2) You are already expressing doubt in your healing when you say that. So it was up to me to keep praying for him “according to the Word.” I thought the outcome of his illness was under my control, and accepting death was surrendering to Satan.

Hopefully by now, you understand I don’t accept that definition of faith anymore. I’m probably going to have to write a book on all the ways the Word of Faith messed me up. Again, I say, thank God that minister was there to model a truly biblical and Godly faith for my uncle. He was able to die at peace with himself and at peace with God. And even then, I knew that was really more important than curing his disease.

From Faith to Faith

One lesson in this is any kind of faith that tells you, you are supposed to control things you cannot control is bad for recovery. You need to stay away from that. You need the kind of faith that teaches wisdom to know the difference between what you can control, and what you cannot. You need the kind of faith that doesn’t beat you up for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means.

And something I found through all this is when you do read the Bible in context, it teaches a kind of faith that is good for recovery. I’m talking about the kind of faith my professor taught me, the kind my uncle’s minister showed, because it’s good at teaching the wisdom between what you can control, and what you can’t. But again, only when it’s read in context. So that’s what I want to leave you with. Faith that is good for recovery shows itself in serenity, courage, wisdom, and peace. So I invite you to make this prayer a part of your recovery.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know that difference.

-The Serenity Prayer

Grace and peace to you.

My Third Principle for Recovery

Does faith help or hurt recovery? In my experience, it depends what kind of faith. In most religions, I would say there three possible meanings of faith.

  1. Faith as a set of rituals and doctrines accepted by members of a particular religious order. For example, if someone asks, “What faith are you?” it’s like asking, “What religion are you?” And you could answer, “I’m of the Catholic faith,” or “the Presbyterian faith,” or “the Jewish faith,” or whatever.
  2. Faith as belief. The Apostle’s Creed, for example, has many statements about what Christians believe. Those beliefs we usually say we accept by faith.
  3. Faith as trust. If someone says, “I believe in God,” that usually means they believe God exists and would be the second kind of faith. If someone says, “I have faith in God,” that is usually more personal. That person claims to have a relationship with God built on trust. This kind of faith doesn’t have to be religious. You can faith in your family, a mentor, a friend, a program like AA, anyone or anything you think is trustworthy.

When you encounter the word faith in the Bible, or you hear people talk about faith in church or synagogue, it could mean any of these. Usually, you have to infer the meaning through context. For example, Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham,

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

(Gen 15:6 NRS)

When it says Abraham “believed” God, what kind of faith is it talking about? Not the first. There were no temples or organized religion about the God called “the LORD” at that time. Is it the second, belief? God had just promised him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen 15:5). He believed that promise, so it could be belief. God said it, and he believed it. But the Hebrew word for “believe” in verse six can also mean “trust.” Maybe the point is not Abraham’s belief itself. Maybe it was trusting God, believing the one who promised was trustworthy, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Faith and the Third Principle

I’m talking about this because my third principle is: Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

So of the three, which is best for recovery? Number three. Lesson’s over. You can go home.

Sorry, I wish it was that simple. Any of them can help with recovery.

Regarding the first kind of faith, if you are part of a church, synagogue, or other organized religion, you can probably gauge whether it helps or hurts your depression. How do you normally feel when you leave the service? Uplifted or beat up? I’ve experienced both. If it’s the former, it’s good. If it’s the latter, it’s bad.

Regarding the second, if you believe in the tenets of a religion, it can be a comfort. I can sometimes calm myself by repeating the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. On the other hand, feeling pressured to believe something you don’t is likely to make you more depressed. But ideally, one and two should lead you to three.

The third, a trusting relationship with your higher power (whatever that means to you), I think, is essential to recovery. However, trust in a higher power, just like in a person, does not happen automatically. It takes time and experience. And like recovery, it is mostly one day at a time. But any of these three meanings could legitimately be called faith. Each of them plays a different role in the life of a believer, but number 3 is the one I have found most helpful.

Another Kind of Faith?

There is one more type of faith that seems to be uniquely American, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I say that because most preachers of this kind of faith historically began in America. It is no longer unique to America, but even most of those who are from other countries learned it from Americans. I would advise you to avoid it altogether.

When I was involved in it, it was often called the Word of Faith or Full Gospel movement. Some other names I’ve heard are “Health and Wealth,” and “Prosperity Gospel.” Unless it is a local church broadcast, this is the version of faith you usually see preached on television. They own the Christian networks, and the biggest names have audiences in the millions.

This type of faith says, If you believe something enough and do not doubt, your faith becomes some magic force you can use to coerce God to give you whatever you ask for, as long as you can find a passage in the Bible that promises what you want. You stand on that promise until God gives it to you. And you don’t take “No” for an answer.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1 KJV) is one of the most popular verses for explaining this. Faith is what makes the unseen seen. When you hope for something, it is not seen yet. But faith (belief) will make it manifest. And so basically, this says God is under your control.

But before you buy into this, you need to ask, “Did God really promise this? Did God promise health, wealth, victory and success in everything I do?” The Word of Faith preachers say yes, and they have a whole litany of scriptures about how you will be healed and prosperous and victorious in every situation—if your faith is strong enough. They quote all these Bible verses that sound like that’s exactly what God promised every believer. On the surface, it looks like trust, because you are taking God “at his word.” That is, if God promised it in the Bible, they believe it. That means they trust God, because they know God is not a liar.

“(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden,” by Lynn Anderson

Did God Promise That?

But what if God never promised you that? Would you still trust God? See, I was in the Word of Faith for a long time, over a decade probably. When I prayed, I would have my verses lined up, and I prayed, and I believed, and I received the way they taught, and it never manifested. I thought it was my fault, because I didn’t have enough faith, or I had too much doubt for it to happen.

But faith that is trust recognizes God is in control, not you. You can’t use faith to force God to give you what you want just because you quote some Bible verses around it. God may answer you like the leper who came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean” (Mat 8:2-3).

But we don’t always get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God, and trust that God hears you.

But not all of us get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God and trust that God hears you.

And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

(1Jo 5:14 NRS)

But there’s the rub. If we ask according to his will, God hears us. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” said the leper. That’s the model of faith the church has taught from Jesus to the apostles to the saints of the last 2000 years to today. It is the most authentically biblical model of faith. It has been practiced in both Judaism and Christianity from their origins, and it is the essence of AA’s third step, which says surrender your will and life to the care of your higher power.

Promises. Promises.

The Word of Faith does not belong to any legitimate, Biblical understanding of faith I outlined above. Of course, I understand why it’s so popular. I practiced it for over a decade. I was a true believer in that model of faith. The problem is, they don’t read the Bible in context. If you don’t read it in context, you can find promises of health, wealth, success, or whatever you want. If you can find it in the Bible, God has to give it to you. God has no choice. And if you can make the Bible say anything you want and then use that to make God give you whatever you want or do whatever you want, then wow! Suddenly, you’re like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

“My own terminator? You have to do what I say? Cool!”

You have access to power most people can only dream of. All you have to do is believe what the Bible says. You literally have the keys to the Kingdom, on earth and in heaven, right there in your Bible. Who wouldn’t want that? I saw the appeal, and I went for it.

When the Other Shoe to Drops

Unfortunately, all those promises of health, wealth, and success were taken out of context. I learned that the hard way, but thank God I learned. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you read the Bible in context, there are only two things God promises to you and me personally: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be all with us always (as in eternal life). That’s it. Those are the only things the Bible promises to you or me as individual believers.

I think this is why people get fooled. It’s not just about people reading or not reading their Bibles. I read my Bible daily, and I still got fooled. The problem is most people don’t know how to read the Bible in context. So when they say God promised you things that God never promised to you as an individual believer, you don’t know they are taking it out of context. The result is they misrepresent God and set you up for disappointment. I lived with that disappointment long enough. I can tell you, it is no fun.

Faith in Magic or Faith in God?

The way I see it, if you want to live a life of faith, you have to choose between two types of faith. Will you choose the faith that trusts God’s promises of forgiveness and restored relationship with God? Trust in the promise that God will be with you always? Faith that trusts that God loves you and desires ultimately for your good, even if you don’t understand how your current circumstances have anything to do with your good? Faith that acknowledges God is in control, not you?

Or will you choose faith as a “substance” that claims if you know how to use it, God will have no choice but to give you the desires of your heart? Which one will you choose? Faith as trust, or faith as magic? I chose the latter, and it almost ruined me. Because over and over again, I kept trying to force God to fulfill promises that God never made. Trust me, that is a losing game no matter how many aces you have up your sleeve.

So when I talk about faith that is good for recovery, I mean a trusting relationship with God, or your higher power if you prefer. This is the kind of faith Jesus taught, his Apostles taught, and the church has taught for the last 2000 years. Yes, that tired, old, dead tradition (as Word of Faith preachers call it) is what taught me what true faith is. And really, full disclosure, if I had received the miracles and healings and wealth they promised, I’d still be in the Word of Faith camp. But when that didn’t come, I almost lost my faith. Actually, I did lose my faith. I lost my faith in magic and found my faith in God.

What Kind of Faith Is Good for Recovery?

I don’t know where you are on your journey. Maybe you want to believe in something but don’t know what it is. If so, that’s not a bad place to be. Your search could lead you to your higher power, one that is worthy of your trust.

Maybe you’re in a good traditional faith, but you’ve encountered this magic faith, and those promises of health, wealth, and success are tempting you. Maybe you’re already in the magic faith like I was, and it’s not working for you, and you think it’s your fault. It’s not. It’s not your fault that it’s not working. It has nothing to do with whether you have “enough faith” or not, because God is in control, not you. The only thing you did wrong was believe people who preached a different gospel. That is the only thing you did wrong, and you can stop following them at any time.

You can come to faith as trusting God, trust that God loves you, trust that your sins are forgiven, because while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Trust that God ultimately is working for your good. I have been in that kind of faith for a while, and ironically, this is not the faith that promised me healing. But I have experienced healing here, healing that never would have been possible if I had continued to believe I could control God with my “faith.”

My third principle of recovery says, Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

Here are some questions to ask before you apply any type of faith to your recovery.

  1. Is it about faith in God or faith in faith?
  2. Is faith about making God give you what you want, or is faith about acknowledging God is in control?
  3. Do they only talk about success and victory, as if no one who has faith ever fails at anything, is poor, or gets sick?
  4. Is the Bible like a magic spell book to them, as if it will give you anything you ask, if you quote the right verse?
  5. How do they explain when it doesn’t work? Is it always your fault?
  6. Do they talk about “believing God for something,” as opposed to believing in God?
  7. Is there any room for reasonable doubt, or do you have to believe everything they say, no questions asked, even if you know it’s not true?

Trusting God doesn’t mean you never have doubts or questions. It means you trust God loves you and will never leave you or forsake you in spite of your doubts and questions. It doesn’t mean you expect God to stop anything bad from happening to you. It means in the midst of trials and tribulations, you trust God is with you and will work this for your good, as Paul said in Romans.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

(Rom 8:28 NRS)

That is the only kind of faith I have found to be sustainable, healthy, and good for recovery.

Grace and peace to you.

The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.