Spiritual PTSD

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

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

click to read article, "Spiritual PTSD" | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Image credit: “Elijah In The Desert” (1818) by Washington Allston

Elijah’s Traumatic Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Course of Treatment

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

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

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

click to read article, "Spiritual PTSD" | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Image credit: “Elijah In The Desert” (1818) by Washington Allston

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

What About Us?

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

I think it can. One of the perks of writing a blog is that I get to hear from many of my fellow Christians who reach out to share their stories. But the heartbreaking thing is that many of those stories are ones that involve deep hurt, much of it caused by fellow church members. People have been abused, dismissed, slandered, and much more all by people who claim to be following God. Even worse, the party at fault is often in a leadership position. Far too often, a Christian’s deepest hurts come from the people who should be the first ones to reach out in love and compassion.

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

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8 thoughts on “Spiritual PTSD

  • I experienced PTSD by being attacked by a demon. It was extremely traumatic and still affects me after 13 years. I was in the shower and I was upset about something and mouthing off which I shouldn’t have been doing, but in an instant a demonic presence jumped on my back and immediately fear, torment, condemnation, anxiety, and total hell broke out in my life. I was totally convinced God had left me and took His Holy Spirit and no matter what I said or did, nothing could comfort me. It has changed my life forever and I am hoping to find something or someone to help. It is miserable to be in a constant state of “something is wrong” and be totally convinced it’s true which causes anxiety and fear. I havent slept all night for 13 years and have bowel issues because of nerves. It is hell. So if anyone knows of a Holy Spirit PTSD counselor it would be awesome!

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  • I used to be very on fire for God. I reveled in the presence of the Holy Ghost…craved it like my next breath. One day in 2009, the Holy Ghost came on me like never before. I was in awe. The word came that no weapon formed against me shall prosper, and I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you always. I thought it was about just regular life issues. Next thing I knew, I was arrested and charged, dragged through a criminal “justice” system, for a crime I didn’t commit. I was later exonerated, but the trauma of being arrested, missing out on a major, once in a lifetime event in my daughter’s life, losing my job, even still having people look at me like yeah right, you know you did it when they hear my story haunts me to this day. If I am driving and I see cop lights suddenly I have panic attacks. I started having panic attacks in church also…especially when the Holy Ghost was hot and heavy. I started not wanting to go to church or bible study at all. I began to backslide, while still preaching, and struggling with things like hearing voices, and conversations that weren’t happening. I almost lost my marriage and my family, and made the biggest mistake of my life as a result…it eats me up inside to this day. It wasn’t until last night that I realized why. I didn’t know you could have spiritual PTSD. ironically, I have done battles with demons, been attacked in my sleep, been threatened, smelled sulfur the whole nine, and it didn’t scare me from church, but this, being jailed for something I didn’t do, being warned by the Holy Ghost then feeling abandoned and betrayed by the God I loved with my whole being, scared me to my core. What do I do? He keeps sending word to me through the prophetess that he hasn’t forgotten me, He sees me…loves me…but I can’t seem to shake it. I get yelled at by my Pastor Mom a lot cause I don’t go to church cause I just don’t feel like it…she doesn’t know or understand…I don’t know how to explain it. Who gets panic attacks because the Holy Ghost is blessing? I feel like the worst Christian and even worse preacher. I should be able to deal with this, yet I find that I can’t. I know that other people have had more traumatic experiences. Most days I feel like how dare I feel this deep hurt and betrayal? Suck it up and let it go, you were eventually found not guilty and the charges dropped, so what if you had to spend money you didn’t have for an attorney who didn’t take you or your case seriously, thought you were guilty even in the face of evidence to the contrary, and couldn’t have cared less of the outcome, to the point of laughing about it? So what if you were roughly treated when in police care? So what you missed one event in your kid’s life? Get over it, you’re home, you’re safe, in the grand scheme of things you won. But I can’t…the hurt and fear run deep…so deep…and I only just figured out why. It saddens me…no wonder I battle depression and anxiety, and apathy, and my physical ailments. No wonder I can’t seem to pull ahead in my finances and am questioning the very existence of God. I talked to my husband about it yesterday and he asked me so now what? I don’t know,,..I just don’t know.

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