Happy New Year, everyone! Today is the first day of my new devotional series on coping with mental illness in the church. To be honest, I’ve gotten progressively more nervous about writing these posts the closer it’s gotten to 2020. I take that as proof that this is what I’m meant to be doing. Prayers are appreciated!
When I started thinking about depression, anxiety, and mental illness in the Bible, Hannah’s story was the first that came to mind. I always remember her story with the image of her weeping and praying so desperately that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. I can feel that swallowing hole in my chest that she must have felt. I can feel the sobs that come so hard I believe my eyelids flipped inside out. If anyone knows deep emotional pain, it is Hannah.
Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”1 Samuel 1:4-8 NIV
As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.”
“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.1 Samuel 1:12-18 NIV
I imagine Hannah’s husband and rival wife did not help her depression. In fact, verse 7 says that Peninnah would remind Hannah of her barrenness so often that it led to Hannah refusing to eat! She exacerbated Hannah’s negative thinking out of sheer pettiness, as best I can tell. Then, there is Hannah’s husband, Elkanah. Verse 5 says that he loved Hannah, and he did give her a double portion of sacrifice to prove his love and care for her. However, his response to her weeping winds up being pretty selfish. I think if I was unable to have a child and my husband asked me, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I would be ready to slap him. Hannah’s feelings weren’t about Elkanah. She was struggling with an issue of her identity.
Then, we meet Eli the priest. Eli’s first response to Hannah’s anguish isn’t much better than Elkanah’s. He asks her if she’s drunk. Whether as a cry of indignation or an outpouring of pent up hurt, Hannah tells Eli her story. Eli responds with the first helpful statement in the whole chapter. Eli recognizes Hannah’s strength of character and faith, and he offers her a blessing.
Hannah dealt for many years with a situation of barrenness that no one ever wants to go through. Coupled with undeniable relationship stress at home from Peninnah, it is not surprising that she sometimes feels hopeless and has no appetite. Thankfully for us, the author of 1 Samuel included three ways that Hannah responded to depression that turned her hopelessness into joy and generous obedience when her son finally was born.
Three Ways Hannah Coped with Depression
- She reached out for help instead of hiding. If I were Hannah, I would have run away in embarrassment and anger when Eli asked me if I was drunk. Instead, Hannah took the opportunity to reach out for help. She told Eli her story and entered in a brief conversation with him. Likewise, we can reach out to others in our depression and engage in a conversation that reduces our feelings of isolation.
- She allowed Eli’s blessing to reshape her view of herself. Before Hannah went to the tabernacle to pray, the identity spoken over her most often was from Peninnah. Peninnah, a petty rival wife, probably forced the idea down Hannah’s throat that she would never bear a child and that she was the lesser wife for being childless. However, when Eli spoke a blessing over Hannah, Hannah allowed herself to view her situation positively. She believed that her situation was not a flaw of her character but one in which God would prove His faithfulness. By listening to Eli, Hannah turned a negative view of her circumstances into a positive one.
- She addressed her physical needs. In verse 18, the Bible says that Hannah ate and then her face was not downcast. Praying and talking to Eli did not immediately fix her situation. In fact, verse 20 says that Hannah did not immediately get pregnant after this event, but that bearing a child occurred “in the course of time.” Instead, Hannah addressed the physical needs she had been neglecting by not eating. The combination of food and a changed mindset redirected Hannah’s path from hopelessness to praise.
Hannah’s deep pain of childlessness is exacerbated by a cruel rival wife and slightly clueless husband. Though the Bible does not call her depressed, her symptoms of anguish and not eating indicate that she probably struggled with years of depression just like many of us do today. Thankfully, the Bible shares a few tips we can use to cope with our depression like Hannah does so that we can praise God for His faithfulness in difficult situations.