The Curious Case of King Saul

Recently, I received a couple of questions in regards to mental illness after the death of Jarrid Wilson, an assistant pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship Church in Riverside, California. Harvest is famous for its renowned senior pastor, Greg Laurie, who is a wonderful preacher of the Word, but who also does his ministry in a very trendy manner. Jarrid Wilson was the pastor to the Young Adults section of the church; young and dynamic, in one sense he could be considered a type of the younger generation of preachers that are in many churches today. Neither he, nor Greg Laurie for that matter, ever looked like the old “Billy Graham model” of a preacher. That is not too much of a problem to me in the sense that a preacher can take a dress code (or lack thereof) to an extreme, no matter whether they are conservative or ostentatious. But often times, I have sensed that this and several other aspects that I’ll point out is forced, not so much serendipitous as it’s coordinated (the old idea used to be phrased as “we have to look like the ‘world’ to win the world”).

Wilson was an up-and-coming young preacher at Harvest. What’s more, he presented an image of a paramount preacher family with a beautiful and vivacious young wife and two children. But Wilson suffered from mental illness, and therein lies the problem of the last few days from the time of his death onward. I say this from a perspective of ministry and by no means do I intend to discount the mental health issues he suffered from; I have been in ministry long enough to know many servants of God who suffered from periods of depression or melancholia. What I do have a problem with is the idea that was revealed in his last text:

“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts.
Jesus doesn’t always cure depression.
Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD.
Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort.
He ALWAYS does that.”

What kind of statement is that? The ramifications are many in only so many ways. Theologically, what kind of Jesus does that reveal? Is our salvation (soteriology) nothing more than a mental exercise, perhaps an existential one? Should we not expect that His presence in our life will come with an infusion of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit? Is that too much to expect? Should we break with the pattern of listening to what the Bible says that we are children of God, and what our privilege as children of God is rather than creating a false dichotomy where now we must submit ourselves to constant psychoanalysis so that (it seems) we can wallow in constant self-loathing? For many reasons I just cannot accept it, for it seems that if we do, suicide could become a viable option for just about anyone who suffers from mental sickness in the Church. And that is totally unacceptable.

I should also say that there is the added danger of the extreme of Calvinism where adherents to that idea would talk predestination regardless of what a person decided to believe or not to believe. The idea of salvation that says “once saved always saved” that many of our Baptist brethren subscribe to comes from here. And perhaps that is what Jarrid Wilson was pinning his hope on when he decided to take the drastic step toward suicide.

From what we have seen these last few days, Wilson was very much in the forefront of confronting the issue of mental illness within the Church. I have no problem with that; it is a very valid concern. But the idea that the Church can offer a non-spiritual/non-Biblical solution and instead rely on psychology is like mixing oil and water – it is a dangerous mixture. I feel that if Jarrid Wilson’s mental illness was so pronounced, he probably should have avoided ministry altogether in spite of all the talents that he had toward the ministry he was doing. The very last ministry that he did was to officiate the funeral of another person who had committed suicide. If he was involved in counseling that woman, which I assume he was, I can only imagine the indescribable trauma of having to officiate her funeral. What would a preacher be able to say in that kind of event? How could you sincerely talk about the Blessed Hope in Eternity when one is absolutely hopeless on earth? Could we close such a service by saying what Jesus told His disciples before He went to the Cross – “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer-I have overcome the world” – and believe it? I guess the answer is self-explanatory. It takes a special type of minister to be able to do that.

After that story broke out, I spent a couple of days in prayer and looking into the Word of God. The Holy Spirit led me to the life of perhaps the most tragic person in the Old Testament – King Saul. He has been called the Biblical Macbeth. Many modern day preachers and thinkers have studied his life in detail and diagnosed him with various mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, extreme paranoia, a man with uncontrollable rage/anger issues. However, he was the man chosen by God to be anointed as the first king of Israel. He obviously did not suffer these problems before that moment. Before that moment, he was the youngest son of a man from the tribe of Benjamin named Kish. Tall, muscular, and handsome, his only concern when he first comes up in the story in 1 Samuel was finding the lost donkeys of his father’s farm. Yet God saw something in him and chose him to be the first king of Israel.

One cannot understand how or why Saul’s seemingly normal life turned into one of paranoid madness. The Bible seems to indicate that it happened around the time of Samuel anointing a child named David, youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, to be the next king of Israel. Interesting that it did not happen the moment in 1 Samuel 15 after his disobedience to God’s commandment to destroy the Amalekites. It did not. The prophet Samuel confronted Saul and told him in no uncertain terms that God had rejected him from being king of Israel any longer. God “has torn the kingdom” from him. I’ve often thought about the irony of that moment; nothing happened to Saul immediately. He even celebrated his “victory”, and managed to get Samuel to stand next to him before the people. The more I studied that moment, I began to understand problem that Israel now had when they had asked for a king in the first place. They thought they were asking only a for a man to lead them like all the other nations. What they would get was a system of government which (like what would happen later with the Temple) would have the trappings of devotion to God and His ordination, but would in reality be devoid of His presence because of the stubbornness – sin – of the people in it, in this case, King Saul.

Saul’s focus, like many a public official and politician today, was on the affirmation of the people – they were his focus. And as in any human government, the bureaucracy will continue to function despite the changes, with or without the honor and submission to the presence of God and His will. But God will never step aside or relinquish authority. Psalms 62:11: “Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God.” God will often make that clear to human beings in His time, not ours.

How many months or years passed by, one does not know. But at some moment shortly after Samuel anointed David, things started to change for King Saul. “An evil spirit from the Lord began to terrorize him.” How did that look? What was it? How did it reveal itself? One thing we know for sure, his servants diagnosed the problem correctly and even came up with a solution.

The Bible does not go into the specifics of Saul’s problem - at least not directly. It does allude to some specific instances that must have been downright frightening to those who saw it. Saul’s servants talked to Saul and asked him if they could find a musician (one of them knew a good one in the town of Bethlehem who was a very incredible talent!) who could play and perhaps alleviate him from whatever was troubling his mind. There is something important here. It seems Saul’s trouble, the torment of that evil spirit, may have been something that had no ‘off switch’. Saul could not think of anything else except of the evil that ran through his mind. This is not isolated to him. Historic leaders from ancient kings to modern times have suffered similar problems. The old saying from Shakespeare’s Henry IV which says, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” is only too true. Leaders such as Augustus Caesar, Herod the Great (mentioned in Luke 2 and Matthew 2), Joseph Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and even great leaders such as Winston Churchill are just a few examples of leaders who suffered similar episodes to King Saul and just could not come out of it. It is said that during the time of the Watergate investigation in 1973-1974, as all sorts of leaks started to come from White House officials and other agencies of government, President Nixon became increasingly paranoid to such an extent that he would spend entire nights listening to conversation recorded by listening devices to isolate and find the culprit or culprits. Even Dr. Billy Graham later mentioned in his autobiography that “something came over him.”

Something had come over Saul. His courtiers understood that it was something foreign. It could not be rationalized. It could not be bargained with and a person in a position of leadership does not have the luxury of letting an ‘understanding’ public know about it with the hope that they will just go along with his problem. They realized it was something otherworldly, evil (an evil spirit from the Lord) and therefore it had to be confronted by something that also could be “otherworldly” – music.

It was God’s plan to bring David into the palace of King Saul. That was not at all an accident. No other musician could do what David did and get the result that he did. It wasn’t a matter of just any type of music or genre, it had to be one that would be able to drive out and keep out the evil powers that tormented Saul. I believe that David (as he would be several times in his life in the future) moved under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and because of that, Saul would be refreshed, rested and calm, in peace. It took some time. Several months, maybe even a year or two would pass by from the events at the end of chapter 16 and chapter 17. David was with Saul for some time, but would go back home to Bethlehem and would be gone for enough time that Saul, even if he had been profoundly and positively affected by David and his music ministry, would forget about and not recognize him nor remember from which family and which place he came from. Not even his military commander nor anyone else for that matter recognized or remembered David. I also believe that from 1 Samuel 16 to 17, King Saul did see several months of relative normalcy return to his life. It is only in chapter 18, after a lot of time had passed, that we read once again that the evil spirit had returned.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t go into specifics about Saul’s mental sickness as a whole, but it does share something that gives us an idea of it, and we should balance this out by saying that as bad as Saul’s condition was, the nation still united under him, and he, for the most part, commanded their loyalty. For the most part, the system of government worked. We do not read about general discontent among the people except with few who ran to David in the Cave of Adullam. We do not read of any gross injustices (except to the Gibeonites, but that would come later, and the priesthood) nor overbearing tyranny on the people of Israel. Even David’s own tribe of Judah was only too happy to help Saul find David, twice. The Philistines were a perennial problem, but in addition to chasing after David, Saul did fight them a couple of times, and won, before the final battle on Mount Gilboa. This was a point that I did not see for many years despite having read the account countless times. Somehow, Saul still functioned as a king, at least for a little while. But we should take a look at the inner side, the part that only people in close quarters to Saul saw firsthand.

Chapter 18 gives us some details about Saul’s mental processes. I understand another dynamic in this story: the spiritual dynamic. In several different facets, Saul’s spiritual life had become erratic, unhinged in its outer experience side, but for all practical purposes, he does not have the touch of God working in him like it did during the time he was first anointed. The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 12 that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. This was especially true in the Old Testament. Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, Joshua, and basically every saint of the Old Testament could testify that God helped them in their weakness; in fact, the reason they could do anything at all as described in Scripture was because God was working in them, in spite of their weakness, as much as through them.

Saul came with a bunch of personal weaknesses, and he was anointed to be the first king of Israel! He never understood the power that he had because he never took time to understand the God who gave it to him, who was with him to, in essence, make him become a king worthy of the nation of Israel. Samuel anointed Saul in 1 Samuel 10 and the first experiences that he had as the king of Israel had nothing to do with the people, but rather, with the God whose anointing oil had fallen on his head (1 Samuel 10: 1-13), and yet, Saul’s focus was never about pleasing God. He had tremendous experience, but one would think that those experiences were more of an embarrassment than an enjoyment, at least, that was the way that Michal his daughter would put it to David many years later.

Saul’s life came with an unfortunate dichotomy. When the day came for him to be presented to Israel, he was hiding among the luggage (what must some of the people have thought when they found him – is he going to be our leader?), and yet the presence of God moved on some people in spite of this embarrassing episode in his life, and joined their hearts to his. When the people of Jabesh-Gilead needed help, the Spirit of God came down upon Saul, “while he was following after the cattle” (it had not occurred to him what a king was supposed to do or how to present himself as such before Israel) and made him to command an army and destroy the Ammonites.

There is an interesting part of his dichotomy coming forth here; the human-oriented side of it was very much aware of public acclamation and emotions, and he was okay with it being the first priority of his life. Then what about the spiritual/God side? He became (underscore that word) what the Bible talks about would happen in the last days with much of the “Christian” church – “they would have a form of godliness denying the power thereof.” Saul was all about the forms. He learned what it meant to be a “charismatic” leader from a human perspective, but what happened when the people were afraid and abandoned him on the battlefield with the Philistines (1 Samuel 13)? Samuel told him that God would be with him (that was the point of all those signs in chapter 10) and to wait. Samuel would come to Gilgal (another irony in the story) and have a special sacrifice before they would go out to fight the Philistines. The Israelites were afraid of the Philistines (had been for years) and they were abandoning Saul in droves. Saul finally could not handle it! He thought, “the people are scared because of the lack of sacrifice – we take care of that, everything will be alright and the people will come back to me”. You see, the form and ceremony had become more important than the Truth – the presence of God – behind it. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel to his faith life.

I think that was the reason why in 1 Samuel 13 Samuel’s words to him were not an out-and-out condemnation, but a warning. But Saul does not seem to be a person of introspection. Therefore he did not see his own vulnerabilities. The second time was in 1 Samuel 15 when Saul disobeyed God’s express command to destroy the Amalekites. He thought the excuse that he told Samuel would easily fool the old prophet – remember, his focus was on the forms, and he was bringing the animals “for sacrifice.” But how did that explain the existence of the Amalekite king, Agag? Samuel revealed a powerful truth to Saul that day, one that he would never like nor accept completely: “The Glory of Israel will not lie nor change his mind for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” I wonder if the irony of this particular point will be realized.

Not for a moment do I think, nor do I imply, that Jarrid Wilson was some great sinner in his private life. I do not know that, nor is there evidence to that end. But there is evidence of the dichotomy in his faith life. He talked that way until the end. The last couple of years, mental illness became the dominating subject of his ministry. He admitted it openly in Harvest Church, and for their part, they extended as much support as they could. Several people publicly supported Wilson. Greg Laurie for one, and most notably, Kay Warren and her husband, Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church. I’ve often wondered though if the ‘help’ they offered did not exacerbate the problem. The reason? They may have had good intentions, but the focus of the divine healing was really on one point, salvation after death. This was really the only point where they spoke of Scripture and God’s power and the unchanging nature of His salvation. Everything else on that subject was an attempt at acclimating psychology into the pulpit. The most serious consequence of this type of acclamation is that confusion enters into the one place where it should never be – the pulpit and the Church. And I do not mean only the Institution. It’s also in the Proclamation. The Message becomes diluted to such an extent that it is no longer effective, or affective. And the fellow who would know that more clearly than anyone else is the fellow who is standing behind that pulpit and trying to convince a dying world that “there is hope”, “mental sickness is nothing to be ashamed of”, and “its curable”. The forms of Godliness and religious piety are all around; but not the power of the Holy Ghost.

What’s worse – and every true preacher of the Gospel knows this – when we stand behind the pulpit and call out the message of the Word of God, we are in essence standing at the foot of the cross of Calvary. It is not some Holy of Holies that is a nothing more than a relic in a church building, but rather the place where wretched sinners comes by invitation to find salvation no matter how terrible their sin or the problems. Jesus said it best: “Come unto me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The Preacher is not the vicarious presence of Christ (like the Catholics’ believe of their priesthood), but rather the messenger, and if they believe, the power of the Holy Ghost will move through them in healing and deliverance. But that said, it is not easy when the sinners come with their sins and people come with their problems. And if a Preacher is standing at the pulpit or at the altar with a diluted message or in a spirit of confusion, the spiritual assault will be overwhelming, as the final assault on Saul on Mount Gilboa.

The weekend before his death, Jarrid Wilson officiated a baptismal service, the ordinance where those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and have openly professed the conversion in their hearts, join with their Lord and Savior in water baptism, thereby identifying with His death, burial, and resurrection. The old person of sin (in the life of the candidate) is symbolically dead and buried, being lowered under the water, and a new person born of the Holy Spirit is raised to “walk in the newness of life,” symbolized by pulling them up from under the water. Perhaps he should have at this moment reminded himself, as well as everyone else, of Colossians 3: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ (in water baptism), keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set you mind on the things above, no on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, and in them you also walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another since you laid aside the old self with its practices and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him”.

Jarrid Wilson’s life had an unfortunate dichotomy. Somehow, that Colossians 3 passage never figured in. Two days later, he was conducting the funeral of a woman in Harvest Church who had committed suicide, and as he sat in his home afterwards, all he could think about was the hopelessness of life. For the last few years he was appreciated by people for his candor and openness to reveal his own bouts of mental illness. There were support groups. He was invited to speak and take part and different forums within the Church world as well as out of it. Did it all reinforce the dichotomy? Did it keep his focus only on the issues of this world and the depressing nature attached to them?

Wilson seems to me to have been a preacher trying too hard to prove that God was still moving in his life, that the Gospel he preached was still relevant to the world that he preached to even though it had stopped having an effect on his life. I say that with all due respect. It is what it seemed to me. I have learned to watch and listen for extremes, extremes in behavior, action, words, in attire. There was an intensity about Jarrid Wilson that did not seem healthy. An affected conviction and/or emotion while in public... maybe that was it. Or perhaps it was emotions unchecked or unrestrained. At the end of the day, one should ask, did he really believe what he proclaimed about faith in Jesus Christ? Or was it the hopelessness of ‘mental illness’ that he fell into? The answer only points in one direction despite our best efforts to say otherwise. The matters of eternity are in the hands of God. I pray that God would comfort a hurting family, heal a wounded ministry, and enlighten with His truth and power a confused Church.

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