Elijah’s Depression - Page 1
by John Lowe
Today’s message is personal. I must confess that I have been treated for depression for 16-17 years. It is caused by, or so they say, a chemical imbalance in my body. It is a terrible disease and I have said many times that I would rather have some serious physical problem than this awful depression and anxiety. It so happens that I have both to deal with. Medication helps, but they are always there to some extent. Depression is like the common cold. Eventually it touches everyone—even God's people.
It would be nice to think we Christians didn't have dark days, that discouragement came only to other people, that we can just go ahead and tough it out, that everyone will understand us and help us get through those dark times. But looking through the Bible at the great saints—at people we applaud as heroes—we find that they also had bouts with depression, despair and anxiety. If we are to experience all the wonderful benefits of being born again, we must learn how to deal with depression.
The classic example of a depressed person in the Bible is the prophet Elijah, the iron man of the Old Testament, and a faithful servant of God. Elijah lived and served during the days of the wicked King Ahab and his sinister queen, Jezebel, who introduced Baal worship into Israel. That right there would be enough to discourage most people.
Elijah was the champion of the status quo; maintaining tradition and customs. Chosen by God to challenge the king and the prophets of Baal and to call the nation back from apostasy. In a contest on Mt. Carmel, he was God's instrument to prove to Israel that Jehovah was the Lord. But after that amazing victory Elijah sank into the depths of despair. He sat down under a juniper tree and asked God to take his life.
Does that surprise you about a man of God? I hope not. Longfellow said, "Some must lead, and some must follow, but all have feet of clay." We sometimes look upon men like Elijah as super saints. In reality, he was, as the scriptures say, "A man of like passions even as we are." That means he was cut from the same bolt of human cloth as we. He had the same weaknesses, frailties, and emotions as the rest of us. Yes, even Elijah became depressed.
These two experiences, Elijah on Mt. Carmel and Elijah under the juniper tree, are set side by side in the scripture (1 Kings 18-1 Kings 19). In 1 Kings 18, Elijah is at the height of success; in 1 Kings 19 he is in the depths of despair. In 1 Kings 18 he is on the mountain top of victory; in 1 Kings 19 he is in the valley of defeat. In 1 Kings 18 he is elated; in 1 Kings 19 he is deflated. We are all capable of such roller-coaster emotions.
1 Kings 18 records the incredible story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel. He assembled Israel on the mountain and accused them of spiritual schizophrenia. They were "halting"—literally "limping, between two opinions. They could not decide whether to worship God or to worship Baal.
So Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal—all 450 of them—to a theological shoot-out. "I'll call on my God," he says, "you call on Baal, and let's see which one answers with fire from heaven. The one that does will be the God of Israel."
Baal's prophets accept the challenge, set up their altar and began crying to their god. But no fire falls.
"Maybe he can't hear you," Elijah says. Then he suggests that they shout louder. They do, but still no fire falls.
"Is he asleep?" Elijah taunts. "You had better wake him up."
As a final appeal, Baal's prophets slash themselves with knives but that doesn't work either. (I wonder who had that bright idea.) No fire comes. After all this, Elijah builds an altar to the Lord, digs a trench around it, and orders that water be poured over it. In all, twelve barrels of water are poured on it, which soaked the sacrifice through and through and the ditch around it is running over.
Then Elijah prays a simple prayer and God sends fire to consume the sacrifice, the altar and even the water.
With that turning point, the people worshiped the Lord and shouted, "The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God." Then, in obedience to Elijah's command, they slaughtered Baal's prophets. It was a high hour. Everyone knew God's hand was upon Elijah.
Elijah is not permitted to relish the mountain-top experience for very long, however. As soon as queen Jezebel hears what happened she sends Elijah a message saying, "You have killed all of my prophets; by this time tomorrow I am going to kill you also." That message would certainly create some tension.
When the prophet of God read her message his heart sank and he began to run for his life. He ran all the way to Beersheba, the southern-most city in Judah. Beersheba was the end of civilization. Beyond it there was nothing but desert. He was getting as far away from the queen as possible.
There he left his servant, perhaps because he didn't intend to come back, perhaps because he didn't want his servant to see what he was really like. Then he went another day's journey into the wilderness alone. Have you ever gotten so depressed that you didn't want anyone to see just how down you were? Psychologists call it "withdrawing.” Depression is hard to cover up, because you can usually see it in a person’s eyes or hear it in their voice.
When Elijah finally quit running he sat down under a juniper tree and asked God to let him die. "I've had it, Lord," he said, "take my life for I am no better than my ancestors" (1 Kings 19:4). They had been unsuccessful in stamping out apostasy (renunciation of a religious faith) in Israel and so had he. He felt like a failure.
Out of sheer physical exhaustion, Elijah fell asleep. He was psychologically wrung out and physically drained. The Lord let him sleep. After a time, the Lord sent an angel who prepared a meal for Elijah, awakened him and gave him food to eat and water to drink. Then he slept again. Once more the angel awoke him and fed him in preparation for a journey to Mt. Horeb where he could get away from the people and pressures that were troubling him. Strengthened by the food, Elijah finally reached his destination, 150 miles to the south. This time he had gone as far away from Jezebel as he could go and still be on the same continent.
There he sat down in a cave, wrapped himself up in self-pity and grumbled about his fate. While he sat in dark solitude God asked him, "Elijah, what doest thou here?" Elijah then told God his sad tale. "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken the covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with their swords; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away."
Elijah is singing the blues. He feels he has done his best for God and it has been to no avail, so he has a pity party. All of us get down like that sometimes. Business men get down; preachers get down; women get down; teenagers get down. We know people on our jobs and in our families who are down. At times, we all feel ourselves pulled down; maybe even beat down.
Elijah's depression wasn't bound up in any one cause. Rather, it stemmed from a number of things. I want you to notice the four factors in his depression found in this experience.
The first is fear (1 Kings 19:3). Elijah, frightened by the threats of Jezebel, runs for his life. Fear is almost always a factor in depression. Many times, like Elijah, we become afraid of failure, of loneliness, of not getting a job completed, of not making it through school, of not having our marriage go the way we'd like.
Second, failure (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah held a negative opinion about himself. He felt he was no more successful in checking the nation's apostasy than the prophets who had gone before him. It's easy to think: "I'm no good. I'm incompetent. God made a mistake when He made me."
Third, fatigue (1 Kings 19:5). Elijah was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mountain tops can leave us that way. He needed rest and relaxation. Depression is always related to or reflected in our physical condition.
Fourth, futility (1 Kings 19:10). Elijah said, "I am the only one left and now they are out to get me." He feels alone, hopeless and has negative expectations about the future. Elijah is paranoid. He thinks everybody is out to get him.
I read a statement some time ago that captured my attention. It said, "Just because you aren't paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." Remember that!
Elijah was looking at life through dark-colored glasses. He saw no way out.
Have you ever felt like Elijah? I have. Perhaps you are feeling like him right now: afraid, alone, exhausted, burned-out, and hopeless. Maybe you are singing the blues. If so, you are a good candidate for the juniper tree.
I want you to see what helped Elijah climb out of the valley of despair and go on to a lifetime of useful service. It can help you too. Through the experience of Elijah, God gives us some divine principles for dealing with depression.