God's Prophet Elijah Suffered Depression Too
My wife and I not only own and lead Christian Counseling Associates, but also SoulCare Counseling. Here is a blog I wrote for SoulCare Counseling's website, that many people suffering from depression have found helpful. I hope it is a blessing to you too.
As a retired pastor looking back over my forty-four years pastoring six churches, there were times of great joy and satisfaction but there were also times of deep depression. Most church members have no idea of the stress pastors endure and the depression they often experience as a result. But they should because it is important to understand that experiencing depression doesn’t mean you don’t love God or have faith. It means you are human. Even the greatest servants of God experienced dark days. A prime example is the great prophet Elijah. Even though he was a great man of faith, Elijah suffered depression.
When Elijah suffered depression, there was a paradox.
How could Elijah, the man of great faith suffer depression? There's no question that he was truly a man of faith. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah boldly confronted King Ahab with God’s judgment for Israel’s idolatry. There would be no rain for three and a half years. At the end of that time, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenged the prophets of the false god, Baal, to a contest to see who was truly God. Which one could bring down fire from heaven? At the end of the contest, Jehovah was indisputably proven to be the one true God. All the people declared their faith in Jehovah, and Elijah slew all the priests and priestesses of Baal.
Yet in 1 Kings 19, a strange thing happened to this man of faith. Evil Queen Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. In fear, he ran into the wilderness where he sat under a juniper tree, and Elijah suffered a depression so severe that he prayed for death. Exhausted, he twice fell asleep and an angel fed him. The angel then sent him on a journey to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There, he spent the night in a cave where he complained to God that he was the only faithful prophet in Israel and his enemies sought his life. God told Elijah to stand on the mountain where a great wind blew, shattering the rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper where God told Elijah to return to his life and anoint two new kings as well as his successor, Elisha, who together would deal with the unfaithful in Israel and leave seven-thousand who had not bowed to the false idol Baal.
When Elijah suffered depression, there were 4 factors at play.
What caused Elijah to fall from determination on Mount Carmel into depression under the juniper tree? When Elijah suffered depression and when you suffer depression, there isn't just one but several factors at play. Here are 4:
The Fear Factor
One depression factor is fear. 1 Kings 19:3 says that when Elijah suffered depression, “He was afraid and arose and ran for his life…” Fear is almost always a factor in depression: fear of what others will think or do, fear of loneliness, fear of not getting a job done, fear of not finishing school, fear of our marriage not going right.
The Failure Factor
Another depression factor is failure. In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah said, “I am not better than my fathers.” He saw himself as no more successful in stopping Israel’s idolatry than were the prophets before him. In depression, it is typical to begin thinking, “I’m useless. I’m incompetent. I’m a failure.”
The Fatigue Factor
A third factor in depression is often fatigue. In 1 Kings 19:5 we find that Elijah was emotionally and physically exhausted so that he fell asleep under a juniper tree. One thing about mountaintop experiences, times of activity that yield great success, is that they tend to drain you without your realizing it. People who say, “I don’t need a day off or a vacation; I don’t need to rest and relax” are setting themselves up for a fall. Depression is always related to or reflected in our physical condition.
The Futility Factor
The fourth factor in depression is futility. In 1 Kings 19:10, depressed and self-absorbed, Elijah saw himself as the only faithful prophet with his enemies seeking to kill him. As Elijah suffered depression, he felt alone, isolated, and hopeless. He had negative expectations of the future. He was paranoid, thinking everyone was out to get him. He was looking at life through the lens of futility. He saw no way out. Is that you right now?
When Elijah suffered depression, there were ways to counter it.
When we look at this biblical case study of depression and how to deal with it, we see four strategies that helped Elijah and that can help us when we experience depression:
Strategy #1: Take some time off.
The first thing you can do to fight depression is to take some time off. Elijah suffered depression partly because he'd been so busy attending to the needs of others that he’d neglected self-care. So, God gave him a vacation where he could get physically and emotionally recharged. When we use up our emotional and physical energy, we become exhausted, which leads to depression. So, we need to find ways to recharge our batteries so that we don’t experience burn out and depression. People who say, “I’d rather burn out than rust out” are headed for the juniper tree. We need sleep, rest, exercise, and good food.
Strategy #2: Share your honest feelings.
The second thing you can do to fight depression is to do what Elijah did and share your honest feelings. As Elijah sat in the cave wallowing in his gloom, and God asked him in verse 9, “What are you doing here, Elijah? In the Bible, God often asks people questions to which He already knows the answer. He does that because He knows that sometimes we have feelings that are poisonous emotionally, and we need to get rid of them by talking them out. One great way to do that is through Christian counseling. Studies show that the act of putting our problems and emotions into words enables the brain to cope.
Strategy #3: Get perspective.
A third thing that can alleviate depression is to get perspective. Elijah's depression told him, “You have been faithful to God and what good has it done? God has abandoned you, you have failed, and hope is gone.” Depressed people have a distorted view of God, self, and the world. So, God showed Elijah powerful displays without God and then stillness with God. Great activity like what happened on Mount Carmel isn’t always a sign of God’s presence; God is there even in the stillness. Then God adjusted Elijah’s view of himself as indispensable to God’s work in the world. Elijah said, “I’m the only one still faithful and they seek my life.” That is, “Without me, there is no hope.” So, God reminded him, “I have seven thousand prophets who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Then He had Elijah anoint the successor God had already chosen to carry on his work. Sometimes we think that everything depends on us, when really everything depends on God. If God’s plan depended solely on us, He would be in serious trouble!
Strategy #4: Return to the routine.
One other thing we can do when we’re depressed is to return to the routine. Get back in the mainstream of life and go to work again. God allowed Elijah to sit in his depression just so long. Then He told him to get up and return to his way, his life, and get to work again. There is no medicine so powerful as a new task. Sometimes the best way out of depression is to get our focus off of ourselves and onto a new purpose, a new mission. Find someone who needs you, and help them. When you help others, you help yourself.
Dr. Mark Riley is Co-owner and Executive Director of Christian Counseling Associates.