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.
Elijah, A Study In Contrasts
On one hand, Elijah is a man of faith. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah boldly confronts 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 challenges 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.
But in 1 Kings 19, a strange thing happens to this man of faith. Queen Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah. In fear, he runs into the wilderness where he sits under a juniper tree and goes into a depression so severe that he prays for death. Exhausted, he twice falls asleep and an angel feeds him. The angel then sends him on a journey to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There, he spends the night in a cave where he complains to God that he is the only faithful prophet in Israel and his enemies seek his life. God tells Elijah to stand on the mountain where a great wind blows, shattering the rocks, but God is not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. Then there is a fire, but God is not in the fire. Finally, there is a gentle whisper where God tells Elijah that he is to return to his life and anoint two new kings as well as his successor, Elisha, who together will deal with the unfaithful in Israel and leave seven-thousand who have not bowed to the false idol Baal.
Four Factors In Depression
What caused Elijah to fall from determination on Mount Carmel into depression under the juniper tree? Depression isn’t caused by just one thing, but many factors.
One factor is fear. 1 Kings 19:3 says, “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.
Another factor is failure. In 1 Kings 19:4 he 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.”
A third factor in depression is fatigue. In 1 Kings 19:5 we find Elijah emotionally and physically exhausted, falling 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 fourth factor in depression is futility. In 1 Kings 19:10, Elijah declares that he is the only faithful prophet and they are seeking to kill him. He feels alone, isolated, and hopeless. He has negative expectations of the future. He is paranoid, thinking everyone is out to get him. He was looking at life through the lens of futility. He saw no way out. Is that you right now?
What To Do When You’re Depressed
The first thing is to take some time off. Elijah had 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.
The second thing is to share your honest feelings. As Elijah sat in the cave wallowing in his depression, 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.
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!
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.