I don’t know about you, but the more spectacular the event for which I speak, the more melancholy I feel in the days afterward. I’ve heard many a pastor talk about The Monday Blahs, not to mention the frequency that they get seriously depressed while ministering to ungrateful, complaining parishioners.
If you’re a pastor or parish minister, or are simply struggling in the depths of depression, take to heart that Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in the history of God’s people, and he dealt with extended depression to the point that he was suicidal.
God’s People Get Depressed
According to psychiatrists the majority of Americans suffer from serious, clinical depression at some point in their lives, but most never get help; they just fight the battle on their own. We know that serious depression is anger that has been suppressed or unexpressed or denied: it’s anger underground.
But depression serves a constructive purpose. Beginning as a normal grief response, depression is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth, because it’s the natural process of letting go of something no longer helpful or useful. If I am experiencing the low mood and empty feelings of depression, perhaps nothing has gone horribly wrong. What if God is shaking me out of my comfort zone and errors in faith or perception?
Sure it’s painful—all loss is difficult—but what if, in order to grow, he has to disillusion me of unrealistic ideals or expectations, and the faith I placed in fallible people or human traditions?
The problem arises when depression becomes ingrained and we’re stuck. Prolonged “sadness chemicals” cause imbalances that may need professional help to deal with while we work on the relevant issues.
One of God’s Greatest Prophets Struggled with Depression
Fortunately, God helps us by giving us a case study in depression in 1 Kings 19. We see from the text that Elijah experienced many classic symptoms of depression:
- Fear – Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… (1 Kings 19:3);
- Suicidal thoughts – Elijah prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4);
- Excessive sleepiness – “Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep…” for a couple of days or longer (1 Kings 19:5-7);
- Irritability and feelings of rejection – “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away,” he says, repeating his complaint twice (1 Kings 19:10);
- Elijah struggled with his depression for nearly two months (1 Kings 19), well past the recommended length for getting help.
What’s really bizarre about this is, just days before, Elijah preached one of the most powerful sermons of his life and performed astounding miracles to confirm all he said. He confronted 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, exposing them to God’s people as the false prophets they were.
In direct response to Elijah’s heroic faith and obedience, and against overwhelming odds, God publicly accepted his sacrifice, literally sending fire falling from heaven to consume the sacrifice and confirm Elijah’s ministry. A few hours later he sent a downpour, in answer to Elijah’s prayers, on a land that had suffered drought for three years.
Why would a man who had just experienced such miraculous, powerful displays of God’s power suddenly be crippled by fear, hopelessness, and despair? Why would he run to a desolate corner of the world and seek to die?
Some have called this after-the-mountaintop-experience “post-adrenaline depression,” and suggested we just cooperate with it, saying that when the adrenal system crashes, its need for rejuvenation far exceeds any need just to feel better. In fact, the mood is deliberately designed to slow me down so recovery can take place. Rather than fighting this feeling, it is best to listen to its message and try to rest.
Not necessarily a lack of faith or indication of sin, then, Elijah shows us God’s most dynamic servants suffer from depression. But that’s not where God left him.
God Recognized that Elijah’s Depression Was Not an Imaginary Problem
Elijah’s depression was real. It was tangible. You could have cut it with a knife. God did not say, “Get a hold of yourself Elijah. This is a sinful attitude. Where’s your faith? You need to pray more and work harder.”
God did not treat Elijah roughly. In answer to Elijah’s prayer to die, God just let him sleep. Then God’s angel fed him and let him sleep some more. Then God sent him to a solitary mountain cave for forty days and nights.
In all that time, God didn’t say a word; no sermon, no counseling session. He didn’t set Elijah down for a face to face talk. God left Elijah alone to rest and think and regather strength in his presence. But eventually God dealt directly with Elijah’s depression.
God Sent Elijah to His Word
God sent Elijah to Mt. Horeb, the Mountain of God where the Word of the Law was given to Moses and where Elijah heard God’s still small voice in the whisper. You might even say God sent Elijah to “church.”
God speaks directly to us in the Mass. He feeds us with his Body and Blood, nourishing, nurturing and sustaining us with himself, his comfort and presence.
The interpersonal connections we make with God and others at church have health benefits. Science confirms that that attendance at a house of worship is related to lower rates of depression and anxiety. Also, prayer and meditation have been shown to lower the risk of depression and heart disease and improve immune function. Time alone with God in prayer and Bible study is a powerful anti-depressant.
God Asked Elijah to Talk to Him about the Problem
Twice, God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). Didn’t God know? Of course he knew; but Elijah needed to vocalize what was wrong in his life and explain what he thought the problem was. God knows and designed our need to feel heard and understood, so we can go to him to fill that need. And once Elijah vented and got it all off his chest…
God Dealt with the False Beliefs Fueling Elijah’s Depression
Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free.” Why is that? Because false ideas, false beliefs, especially about God, have power over us and keep us enslaved.
Instead, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Wisdom in the Scriptures means to have God’s perspective, and God promises to give us this perspective if we ask him. Once we see things the way God sees them, we are able to stop resisting what is, and our anger and depression begin to lose their grip.
But we have to be watching our circumstances, reading the Scriptures, listening for his voice in our lectio divina and Bible study and Bible teachings and relationships. We have to be in the truth, and with the Truth.
Elijah’s reply to God revealed the error in Elijah’s thinking: Elijah didn’t think God was doing anything through his ministry (1 Kings 19:14). Hidden in the midst of Elijah’s complaint was an accusation: “I’ve been beating my head against the wall serving you Lord. And everything seems to just be falling apart around me. What are you doing?”
When I am depressed, I don’t think clearly. I feel like God doesn’t care and isn’t doing anything. I have no hope, no confidence, and I don’t see God at all. When I am depressed I need God’s perspective.
And so, God corrects my thinking with truth, just like he did Elijah’s: “Elijah – you’re not the only one left” (1 Kings 19:18). God assures Elijah he has been working all along, even though Elijah couldn’t see it. God’s got it all under control.
God Got Elijah Moving
When God finished his counseling session with Elijah, he was still in a complaining mood, but God tells him he’s got a job for him: “Go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu … king over Israel, and anoint Elisha … to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:15-16).
We know now that exercise is as or more effective than medication in combatting depression. Get moving.
Sometimes medication and professional help are necessary to jump start the healing of depression, so reach out for that help if you need it. But also think about how God dealt with Elijah’s depression. Go to him and try his prescription:
Go to Church,
Go to God,
Get in the word,