10. Overcoming Bouts With Depression (1 Kings 19:1-21)Related Media
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, including a detailed account of how he killed all the prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this warning, “May the gods judge me severely if by this time tomorrow I do not take your life as you did theirs!” Elijah was afraid, so he got up and fled for his life to Beer Sheba in Judah. He left his servant there, while he went a day’s journey into the desert. He went and sat down under a shrub and asked the Lord to take his life: “I’ve had enough! Now, O Lord, take my life. After all, I’m no better than my ancestors.” He stretched out and fell asleep under the shrub. All of a sudden an angelic messenger touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked and right there by his head was a cake baking on hot coals and a jug of water. He ate and drank and then slept some more. The Lord’s angelic messenger came back again, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, for otherwise you won’t be able to make the journey.” So he got up and ate and drank. That meal gave him the strength to travel forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the Lord spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Look, the Lord is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the Lord, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came and then head for the Desert of Damascus. Go and anoint Hazael king over Syria. You must anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to take your place as prophet. Jehu will kill anyone who escapes Hazael’s sword, and Elisha will kill anyone who escapes Jehu’s sword. I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him.” Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen; he was near the twelfth pair. Elijah passed by him and threw his robe over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you.” Elijah said to him, “Go back! Indeed, what have I done to you?” Elisha went back and took his pair of oxen and slaughtered them. He cooked the meat over a fire that he made by burning the harness and yoke. He gave the people meat and they ate. Then he got up and followed Elijah and became his assistant.
1 Kings 19:1-21 (NET)
How should we overcome seasons of depression and discouragement? Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world, with 264 million people of all ages being affected by it.1 Statistics say that 1 in 4 women and 1 out of 10 men will be diagnosed with clinical depression at some point in their life.2 Researchers say men’s stats are lower probably because they are less likely to share their feelings and seek help.3
Some of the people that God has used the most have struggled with depression. Charles Spurgeon, who is often considered the greatest preacher since Paul, would commonly take two to three months off to go to a resort in France because he was so depressed. He also would have days where he wouldn’t leave his couch.4 He considered these fits so common to a minister that he wrote a whole chapter on it in his book, Lectures to My Students. It’s called the “Ministers Fainting Fits.” We all have times of fainting. Martin Lloyd Jones also thought this was a common and perplexing issue for Christians in general. Since Christians have so much to be thankful for, why do we so commonly struggle with discouragement and depression? As a trained medical doctor and well-known pastor, he wrote a whole book addressing the issue called Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure.
Again, many great leaders have struggled with it. Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest American presidents once said this: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. ... To remain as I am is impossible. I must die to be better.”5 Here in this text, Elijah, one of the greatest prophets and spiritual heroes in the Bible, has a season of depression. During it, he cries out to God to take his life (1 Kgs 19:4). Likewise, Moses, while dealing with the demands of ministry and difficult people, cried out the same in Numbers 11:15. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul talked about how in his ministry in Asia he was “burdened excessively” beyond his strength and that he “despaired even of living.” In Matthew 26:38, Christ said before going to the cross that his soul was “deeply grieved, even to the point of death.”
If some of the greatest that God has ever used, including his Son, struggled with depression and discouragement, certainly, we will at times struggle with it as well. Therefore, as we consider this narrative where Elijah struggled with depression and God helped restore him, we can find basic principles that will help us work through our bouts with depression and help us help others struggling with it.
Big Question: What principles about overcoming depression can we discern from Elijah’s struggle with it and how God ministered to him in 1 Kings 19:1-21?
To Overcome Depression, We Must Beware of Circumstances Which Might Trigger it and Minimize Them When Possible
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, including a detailed account of how he killed all the prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this warning, “May the gods judge me severely if by this time tomorrow I do not take your life as you did theirs!”
1 Kings 19:1-2
At the end of 1 Kings 18, Ahab had gathered 850 false prophets to confront Elijah on Mount Carmel. There, Elijah challenged them to prepare a sacrifice and pray for Baal to send fire from heaven on the sacrifice. After they had cried out to Baal for many hours with no response, Elijah prepared an altar, had buckets of water poured over it, prayed to the God of heaven, and God sent fire. Then, Elijah had all the false prophets killed and later prayed for rain, and it rained after a three-and-a-half-year drought. Ahab then left Carmel by chariot back to Jezreel where his wife Jezebel was staying. No doubt, Jezebel had seen the rain and assumed there was some victory on behalf of her prophets. However, there was not. Ahab gave her bad news instead. All the prophets of Baal were dead because of Elijah. She wasn’t happy that there was rain after a three-and-a-half-year drought, and she wasn’t ready to submit to God. Like Pharaoh, who saw many of God’s miracles, her heart was hardened, and therefore, she promised Elijah that he would die within a twenty-four-hour period.
When Elijah heard this, he fled for his life and eventually asked God to take his life, which was a sign of his struggle with depression. As we consider the events surrounding Elijah’s struggle with depression, we can discern common circumstances that trigger bouts with depression.
Application Question: What are common circumstances that trigger depression, especially as seen in the narrative with Elijah?
1. After experiencing great highs, it’s common to experience deep lows.
Elijah had just achieved a major victory against the false prophets of Baal, Israel had repented of their sins, and God had used him to stop the drought. This was a great victory indeed. However, after great victories, we’re very prone to great emotional lows. Part of this is our natural body chemistry. After running on adrenaline to accomplish some great goal (like completing midterms or some major project) and having the excitement after, it’s normal for the body to at times swing to the opposite extreme by struggling with emotional and physical fatigue, as the body chemistry adjusts back to normal. Sometimes, this emotional/physical fatigue can last a long time, especially when we’ve been running on adrenaline and caffeine to accomplish the task for a long period. In addition, from a spiritual side, after a major spiritual victory—a wonderful time at Sunday worship, finishing a weekend retreat, or mission trip—in the celebration and excitement, we tend to lower our guard, relax, and the enemy who does not rest attacks us. This is very normal and that probably happened to Elijah. After a major success, he was vulnerable.
2. Before major ministries, it’s common to experience deep lows.
Though we don’t see this with Elijah, it has been the common experience of many. Charles Spurgeon said this about his experience of depression before great victories as he counseled the pastors at his college:
This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing; so have far better men found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Fasting gives an appetite for the banquet. The Lord is revealed in the backside of the desert, while His servant keeps the sheep and waits in solitary awe. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day’s dawn.6
Many others have experienced this as well, right before preaching, leading worship, ministering to someone in conflict or caught in sin, and other types of ministry. The night often comes before the day. Before major victories, there is often a low.
3. When experiencing a major disappointment, it’s common to experience deep lows.
With Elijah, no doubt he was expecting positive news after God had defeated Baal and his prophets and restarted the rain after years of drought. Israel had repented. Ahab had listened to Elijah when he told him to celebrate because rain was coming and then soon told him to head home before he was overtaken by the rain. Surely, things would be better in Israel after many years of rebellion and three and a half years of drought and famine. However, after Ahab got back and gave the bad news to Jezebel, she reacted harshly and promised to kill Elijah. Certainly, this must have shocked Elijah. He probably expected a season of peace, righteousness, and probably economic stability in Israel, only to find out he was still a fugitive. This unexpected outcome, no doubt, contributed to Elijah’s depression. For the person who found out he lost his scholarship or job, or who discovered that he has cancer, or who had great dreams of happiness in marriage but now his or her mate is asking for a divorce, or who just lost a friend or family member, bouts with depression are not uncommon. We should be aware of those tendencies when we experience major disappointments, so we can guard our hearts against the lows that follow. Also, we should be aware of those tendencies when others experience them. It’s at those times that we need to reach out to lend a sympathetic ear, provide a meal, ask to babysit their kids to give them time to recover and at times grieve appropriately. Battling with bouts of depression is common after experiencing major disappointments.
4. When continually overworking without rest, it’s common to experience deep lows.
Not only had Elijah worked hard in confronting the false prophets of Baal and praying for rain to end the drought, but when it began to rain, he ran fourteen miles to Jezreel (1 Kgs 18:46). Then, after Elijah heard Jezebel was going to kill him, he fled 80 miles to Beersheba.7 After getting to Beersheba and leaving his servant there (v. 3), he then traveled a day’s journey into the desert (v. 4). Apparently, there was no time to rest because soon after the day’s travel, Elijah just collapsed in exhaustion and began to sleep (v. 5). There is an old Greek proverb that says, “You will break the bow if you keep it always bent.” This means if we’re constantly living under stress and not resting, we will ultimately break under the pressure. Maybe, that was happening with Elijah as well. In the Gospels, Christ, as the perfect human, demonstrated his need for rest. He would at times go away, leaving the ministry, and rest. He would also encourage his disciples to rest as well (Mk 6:31).
When God instituted the Sabbath for Israel, he instituted it to deliver them from the idolatry of work. Work, success, and accomplishment can at times become our god—our primary pursuit—and by taking a weekly sabbath day and resting, it heals and restores our bodies and delivers us from the idolatry of work. Now, certainly, we are not under the law and are not required to cease work from Friday evening till Saturday evening as the Jews were, but the sabbath principle continues. Christ said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Sabbath is not our master, but by taking a sabbath, we will have more joy and productivity in life. Ray Pritchard eloquently summed up our need to rest this way:
There is a time when you need to get up and go to work, and there is a time when you need to lie down and take a nap. Sometimes the best thing we can do for the Lord is to take a vacation. Play tennis. Ride your bike. Watch a football game. Knit a sweater. Have a date with your sweetheart. Play with your grandchildren. Eat an ice cream cone. Take an evening, make some popcorn, sit on the couch, and watch a video. There are times when God’s work demands strenuous action. And there is a time when you need to sit in the recliner, crank it back, get a bowl of Cheetos and a Coke, pick up the remote control, and watch ESPN for a while. There is a time to be active and busy, and there is a time to relax. There is a time to write, a time to work, a time to preach, and a time to put on your helmet and go ride your bicycle. Solomon reminded us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything under the sun.8
Likewise, Gene Getz shared a helpful story that illustrates how rest leads to more productivity:
I’m reminded of two men who started a journey across the great northland with two separate dog teams. One driver decided to stop and rest his dogs every seventh day. The other man decided to drive his dogs straight through.
At the end of the first week, one of the men—as planned—stopped his team and rested all that day. The other man continued to travel. By the end of the next week, the man who had rested his dogs, nearly caught up with the man who traveled straight through. But again, he stopped to rest his team on the seventh day. By the end of the third week, the one who had rested his team had passed the man who traveled straight through—and in the end reached the final destination far ahead. All of us need rest and recuperation. This is part of God’s plan for all of us. Though we are not under Old Testament law, the principles still apply. Experience verifies it.9
Be careful of overwork, it will steal our joy and strength. It’s clear that this was a problem with Elijah because when God first ministers to him through an angel, he just allows Elijah to sleep, eat, and recover (v. 5-8). Again, a bow that is always bent will eventually break. It is no surprise that Satan tempted Christ at the end of forty days of fasting in the wilderness when he was hungry and weak (Matt 4:2-3). Satan often does the same to us when we are physically and emotionally exhausted. It’s often right before bedtime when couples are exhausted from work all day and taking care of kids at night that they get into fights. We must be aware of times of weariness; at those times, we’re especially prone to depression and attacks from the devil.
Again, we should be aware of these vulnerable seasons which can trigger depression—after a great victory, before a major ministry, when experiencing a major disappointment, and when continually working without rest. This will not only help us better navigate those seasons and the common bouts of depression that may come from them but also help us better minister to others.
Application Question: How have you experienced bouts with depression in general and specifically during these vulnerable seasons—after a great victory, before a major ministry, after a major disappointment, or after a season of strenuous work? How should we navigate these vulnerable seasons and help others do the same? What are some other seasons where people are prone to depression?
To Overcome Depression, We Must Be Aware of Its Signs and Respond to Them Appropriately
Elijah was afraid, so he got up and fled for his life to Beer Sheba in Judah. He left his servant there, while he went a day’s journey into the desert. He went and sat down under a shrub and asked the Lord to take his life: “I’ve had enough! Now, O Lord, take my life. After all, I’m no better than my ancestors.” … He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.”
1 Kings 19:3-4, 10
As mentioned, after Elijah heard from Jezebel that he would surely die in the next twenty-four hours, he ran for his life to Beersheba. This trip was about 80 miles towards the very southern end of Israel right before the desert. There, he leaves his servant and goes a day’s journey into the desert. He finds a tree, sits down under it, and asks God to take his life—declaring he was no better than his ancestors.
After hearing about the death threat, Elijah starts to demonstrate some unhealthy behaviors that would only hurt him in this situation instead of helping him. These are common for people struggling with depression.
Observation Question: What signs of depression or depressive behaviors do we see in Elijah that we must be careful of?
1. Struggling with strong fears can be a sign of struggling with depression (or help lead to it).
Elijah struggled with fear of being killed. Certainly, this would be normal in his situation. He had just received a legitimate death threat. However, it’s clear that this fear hindered Elijah’s ability to trust God (cf. Matt 13:22, 1 John 4:18). God provided food from ravens to feed Elijah and multiplied oil over months so he could eat bread during the famine. God stopped the heavens from raining and brought rain all at Elijah’s request. Could God not also protect him from Jezebel’s threat? We will see later that God will in fact protect him from other physical threats. In 2 Kings 1, King Ahaziah will send soldiers to take Elijah by force several times, and God sends fire from heaven to consume them. Fear will commonly hinder our faith and blind us to God’s faithfulness. In Matthew 13:22 (NIV), Christ said the “worries of this life” “choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Even though we know about God’s faithfulness, fear commonly keeps us from living according to what we know to be true. When struggling with fear, we often can’t remember or be influenced by all the ways that God has provided for us in the past—food, shelter, family, friends, job, and even protection. In addition, fear leads to depression. Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in a person’s heart weighs him down.” As Elijah continued to worry about being murdered, his heart sank lower and lower into depression. In fact, as mentioned, he soon asked God to kill him.
Likewise, we must be careful regarding worries about some past failure, worries about the future, or worries about some conflict. God provided for our past, and he will certainly provide for our future. As Christ said, if God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, how much more will he care for us (Matt 6:25-34)?
To protect ourselves from depression or to overcome it, we must be careful of fears which will hinder our faith and confidence in God’s provision. Second Timothy 1:7 says, “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
Application Question: How do we protect ourselves from fears that hinder our faith and lead us into discouragement?
Philippians 4:6-7 says,
Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
To battle these anxious thoughts, we must (1) choose to reject them as not from God, (2) continually pray about the situation, including bringing our requests before God, and (3) give God thanks in faith. When we give God thanks in faith, it helps us remember and see God’s faithfulness around us, which will help us trust him for future grace. Also, when we do this in obedience to God’s Word, he gives us his peace “that surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7)—peace that just won’t make sense when considering our circumstances.
Elijah struggled with fears about his future, which weighed him down. Typically, people who struggle with depression are also battling various fears—some rational and some not as rational. We must help them remember God’s faithfulness, pray, and trust God so they can have peace. Isaiah 26:3 (ESV) says this, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
2. Extreme lack of perseverance or strength, especially in situations or activities that we previously enjoyed or that wouldn’t normally overwhelm us, can be a sign of struggling with depression.
After Elijah heard Jezebel’s threat, he not only ran for his life but also was ready to quit ministry and life in general. With Elijah, he had been hunted for three and a half years previously, and God protected him at a deserted brook and later at a widow’s house in Sidon. This was nothing new for him. However, this is a common sign for those struggling with depression. The things that they previously could handle now wear them out, and they just want to quit. They want to drop out of school, quit their job, end their marriage, and sometimes even their life. We should be careful when everything feels overwhelming, and we want to quit everything. When encountering those feelings, we’ll certainly need to find strength in God and through others, but we also may need to rebalance for a season including lightening our load.
3. Isolating away from people in general, but especially those who can help us or want to help us, can be a sign of struggling with depression.
For some reason, after Elijah got to Beersheba, he left his servant there (v. 3). Maybe, he left his servant because he wanted God to end his life and therefore didn’t want his servant around to see it, or he was simply embarrassed about his emotional instability. We can only speculate. After a day’s travel in the desert, Elijah laid beside a tree (v. 4-5). He was isolated and by himself. This is common for people struggling with depression. They often separate from the relationships they previously enjoyed. They separate from friends, family, co-workers, and church members. To them, this seems rational, but because they are so depressed, they even more so need the support they are separating from. By isolating themselves, they put themselves in an echo chamber of unhealthy thoughts without someone to help them have a proper perspective. In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Solomon said this:
Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken.
Solomon says pity the person who falls and is all by himself. Therefore, we must be careful of isolating ourselves especially from people who can build us up—friends, family, church members, and the like. Certainly, it’s clear that isolation was a problem because when Elijah met with God in the cave, God told him to anoint Elisha who would be his assistant. God gave Elijah a friend who would help him bear the burden of ministry. We also need healthy relationships with those who will help bear our burden, pray for us, and encourage us when battling depression.
4. Extremely irrational and negative thinking can be a sign of depression.
Elijah not only struggled with fears but also irrational and negative thinking. Elijah said that he was the only prophet left and that he was worse than his ancestors (v. 4), which neither were true, and he asked God to take his life, even though God clearly wasn’t done using him. He wasn’t thinking or speaking rationally, which would only increase his depression. We always reap what we sow (Gal 6:7). If we sow negative thoughts and words, we’ll reap a negative harvest in our lives and also in others.
Application Question: How should we battle the irrational, negative thinking that is so common in seasons of depression?
- To battle irrational thinking, we must recognize negative thoughts and reject them by submitting them to Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul said: “… we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.” How do we take our thoughts captive? We recognize wrong thoughts, negative thoughts that don’t align with what God’s Word says about us, our future, or others, and we confess them before Christ and continually fight to turn away from them, instead of accepting them as reality.
- To battle irrational thinking, we must think on God’s Word instead.
In Matthew 4, every time Christ was tempted by Satan, he responded with a specific Scripture text. Likewise, we need to memorize and quote God’s Word often to combat irrational thinking in seasons of depression. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.” Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength; they rise up as if they had eagles’ wings, they run without growing weary, they walk without getting tired.” First Timothy 6:6-8 says, “Now godliness combined with contentment brings great profit. For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either. But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that.” Not only do we need to remember specific verses, but it is also very helpful to increase one’s bible reading and attendance at church and small groups to saturate our minds with God’s Word and help deliver us from irrational and negative thinking during difficult seasons. Continually listening to worship songs which are full of Scripture will be tremendously helpful as well.
- To battle irrational thinking, we must allow others to correct our negative thoughts.
When Elijah eventually went into the cave and repeated twice before the Lord that all Israel had rejected God and that Elijah was the only prophet left, God eventually corrected him by saying he had reserved a remnant who had not bowed to Baal (v. 18). God had also called others to help in the ministry to Israel, two future kings and a future prophet named Elisha (v. 17). Elijah was not the only one left. Certainly, as we faithfully get in the Word and pray, God often corrects our wrong thinking. But oftentimes, he will use others to help us see things more clearly from God’s Word and a balanced perspective. We need people that we meet up with, share our thoughts with (even irrational ones), and who help us work through them from a biblical and practical lens.
Application Question: How have you struggled with some of these depressive behaviors or seen others with them? How do you battle fears and irrational thinking which bring you down? What are some other signs of struggling with depression?
To Overcome Depression, We Must Draw Near God and Rely on Him More Deeply
So he got up and ate and drank. That meal gave him the strength to travel forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. He went into a cave there and spent the night. All of a sudden the Lord spoke to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Look, the Lord is ready to pass by.” A very powerful wind went before the Lord, digging into the mountain and causing landslides, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the windstorm there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. All of a sudden a voice asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been absolutely loyal to the Lord, the sovereign God, even though the Israelites have abandoned the agreement they made with you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and now they want to take my life.” The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came and then head for the Desert of Damascus. Go and anoint Hazael king over Syria. You must anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to take your place as prophet. Jehu will kill anyone who escapes Hazael’s sword, and Elisha will kill anyone who escapes Jehu’s sword. I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him.”
1 Kings 19:8-18
After God allowed Elijah to rest and have good food provided by an angel, he then sent Elijah on a spiritual retreat—to draw near God. His recovery from depression would not only happen by taking the appropriate physical measures, Elijah needed to address it spiritually as well. Elijah travels and fasts for forty days and nights and then meets with God on Mount Horeb. We have seen this forty day fast at other times in Scripture. Before God gave Moses the law, he fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:28). It was after Christ fasted for forty days that God empowered him through the Spirit for his ministry to Israel (Lk 4). No doubt, God was about to use Elijah’s struggle with depression for the good. He was going to draw Elijah to a time of great weakness and dependency on God for forty days. And at the end of forty days, God was going to reveal himself to Elijah in a special way. Likewise, yes, there are physical ways to address depression, but we should not neglect the spiritual remedy as well. Scripture says we should see all our trials as God drawing us to himself and making us more into his image. James 1:2-4 says,
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
We should consider our various trials as a test of our faith, including depression. Therefore, the way to primarily remedy them is through our faith, which is what God called Elijah to do. Elijah fasted for forty days while traveling to Mount Horeb to meet with God. He takes a spiritual retreat, which would help restore his psycho-emotional heath.
Observation Question: What does God do with Elijah during this spiritual retreat and how does this apply to us, as we draw near God?
1. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God created a deeper dependence on the Lord.
Elijah’s travel from Beersheba to Mount Horeb was around 200 miles.10 The fact that this took forty days shows us that Elijah was still depressed and weak. He averaged only 5 miles a day. This especially stands out when considering Elijah’s fourteen-mile run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel ahead of Ahab’s chariots (1 Kgs 18:46). During Elijah’s travel to Horeb, he was essentially crawling. He was physically weak—traveling off a meal he had before starting the journey—and emotionally weak. No doubt, during Elijah’s travel, he had to lean on God more. He had to trust him more. He also had to believe God had good things for him. God had called him on the journey. He was going to the mountain of God to meet with the Lord. Likewise, when dealing with depression and physical weakness, our work is often harder because it takes so much energy to focus. We want to quit. However, if we are faithful to trust in God and draw near him, he will carry us through, and it will create a greater dependence on and faith in the Lord. Again, Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength; they rise up as if they had eagles’ wings, they run without growing weary, they walk without getting tired.” God told Paul, who struggled with a thorn in the flesh (probably some physical disease), “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). No doubt, God had allowed Elijah to be especially weak during the journey, so that Elijah could learn to rely on God more and gain special strength through him—not only for the journey, but more importantly, for his ministry after.
2. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God helped Elijah self-reflect by revealing his wrong motives and thoughts.
On the mountain, God questioned Elijah twice by asking, “Why are you here?” (v. 9, 13). This is reminiscent of when God questioned Adam about his sin (Gen 3) or when Christ questioned Peter about the genuineness of his love (John 21). Since God is omniscient—knowing everything—we can rightly assume that he asked these questions for their benefit. He wanted Elijah to consider the motives in his heart. Often during times of trial and pursuing God, God exposes the sins in our hearts and begins to work on them—exposing insecurities and wrong views about ourselves, God, and others. With Israel, God said he led them into the wilderness to reveal what was in their hearts (Dt 8:2). The wilderness showed idolatry, lack of trust for God, discord, and other negative things that God wanted to deal with. Likewise, God was going to expose and root wrong things out of Elijah during this time, so he could strengthen him for his future mission.
When questioned, Elijah declared that he had been faithful to God, Israel had rebelled against God and was killing the prophets, and that he was the only one left. All of that was correct except for the fact that Elijah was not the only one left. In addition, if we consider Elijah’s prayer for death in the desert and Elijah’s response to God at the cave together, they might imply some other negative views he was harboring. His responses seemingly implied that the task was too much for Elijah and that he couldn’t do it anymore. Elijah’s responses also seem to imply that Israel was hopeless—they couldn’t be helped. They also might imply that God’s mission had failed. It was over, and therefore, it was time for Elijah to go home. Elijah’s negative thoughts of him being alone, that the task was too much, that Israel was hopeless, and that the mission had failed only contributed to his depression.
3. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God helped Elijah learn contentment with God’s presence and his Word, even when dealing with the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.
After questioning Elijah the first time, God told Elijah to go out of the cave to stand before the Lord who was about to pass by (v. 11). Before Elijah came out of the cave, there was a powerful wind that passed by the mountain and began to tear it apart, but God wasn’t in the windstorm. Then, an earthquake happened, but God wasn’t in the earthquake either. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Finally, God appeared in a whisper. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and came out of the cave (v. 13).
Interpretation Question: Why did God allow a windstorm, earthquake, and fire to come by the mountain, though he wasn’t in them and then reveal himself in a whisper?
Most likely, it was because Elijah had become dependent on God revealing himself in the miraculous and expected God to do so during Elijah’s troubling circumstance. God had moved in Elijah’s life through many miracles—stopping and starting the rain in response to his prayers, providing food through ravens and angels, resurrecting the dead, and bringing fire from heaven. Maybe, part of the reason Elijah was so depressed was because he expected God to move miraculously again when Jezebel promised to kill him or that she would have repented like many in Israel did. However, God’s sovereign hand over the events of life doesn’t always guide circumstances as we would want or pray it would. Sometimes, God’s will is the difficult path instead of the easy path or the one we think is best. When Jesus asked God to take the cup of suffering from him, God still chose to send him to the cross, and Christ said God’s will be done. Again, unfulfilled expectations probably contributed to Elijah’s depression. He wanted God to move miraculously, especially in considering the leadership of Israel, but God had not, which discouraged Elijah. Essentially, God was challenging Elijah with, “Would he be content if God only provided his presence and his Word—not the miracle Elijah desired?”
Likewise, many of us get depressed and discouraged because we’re expecting God to move in some special way—maybe by deliverance, but God instead reveals himself through grace for us to persevere. We’re expecting God to move by miraculous healing, but God wants to reveal himself through grace to have gratitude and joy despite sickness. We’re expecting God to move by some quick resolution to the problem, but instead, he asks us if we’ll be content with his presence and his Word. Oftentimes the grace that God gives is not what we ask for, it’s simply, “I will be with you.” Is that enough for us? It seems God was teaching Elijah contentment in his difficult circumstance with God’s presence and his whisper and not necessarily the miracles Elijah wanted. God often does that with us as well. Is God’s presence and his Word enough, even if the circumstances aren’t changed? He may not change our circumstance, but he will be with us during our circumstance which is enough (cf. Heb 13:5-6). When we truly accept that, it can deliver us from many a fear and depression.
4. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God restored his mission.
Clearly, one of the reasons Elijah was struggling with depression and discouragement was the fact that he had lost a sense of mission and no longer wanted to do his ministry. Proverbs 29:18 (NIV) says, “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” In the KJV, it is translated, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” When we don’t know God’s Word and his will for our lives, we tend to go down the wrong paths; we tend to lose discipline and find ourselves in sinful, destructive places. Therefore, to restore Elijah, God needed to give him a renewed purpose and mission. So, God tells Elijah to anoint Hazael as the king of Syria, Jehu as the new king over Israel, and Elisha to take his place as the chief prophet to Israel.
Likewise, when we lose a sense of mission, God’s call on our lives, it’s easy to cast off restraint—to start thinking the way we shouldn’t think, doing things that we shouldn’t do, and going places that we shouldn’t go. It’s easy to fall into bouts of depression and discouragement because of a lack of direction which gives hope. Again, this is why a concentrated time of seeking God is so important when dealing with bouts of depression. Because it’s there, as we spend extra time in God’s Word, prayer, and with the church, that God speaks to us. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Psalm 25:14 (NIV) says, “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”
Do we still have a sense of mission—a sense of God’s calling on our lives? One of the greatest things that Christians have that the world often doesn’t is that we are part of a mission that is bigger than ourselves and will ripple throughout eternity. God is building a kingdom on this earth, and he has called us to be part of it—to be his co-workers (1 Cor 3:9). He has given us talents and spiritual gifts to use for his kingdom, and he has given us clear commands. We are called to seek first God’s “kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33) and “to make disciples of every nation” (Matt 28:19). He promises us if we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we “will be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). He promises to use us according to our hunger and also to give us satisfaction in that righteousness. To restore Elijah, God renewed his mission.
5. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God corrected his wrong views and thoughts.
Though Elijah had said twice that he was the only one left, God finally corrected Elijah. In verse 18, God said this to Elijah, “I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him.” Elijah was not alone. The work that God was doing in Israel and the surrounding nations was too big for him to do alone. God was going to work through a pagan named Hazael, an Israelite named Jehu, and through 7,000 Jews who never bowed to Baal or kissed his images. God always keeps a remnant. For Elijah to have victory over his depression, he had to think correctly; therefore, God corrected him as Elijah drew near to God.
6. During Elijah’s spiritual retreat, God called him to take on an assistant who would be his friend and help him bear his burden.
When Elijah anointed Elisha, Elisha was not simply going to be his future replacement; he was going to be Elijah’s assistant (1 Kgs 19:21). He was going to help Elijah bear the burden of ministry. In addition, Elisha would refresh Elijah. In 2 Kings 3:11 (ESV), Elisha is described as pouring “water on the hands of Elijah.” He refreshed him, and we need people who refresh us as well, especially in seasons of depression and discouragement. As mentioned, Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up.”
Likewise, if we are going to overcome depression and discouragement, we must draw nearer to God, even as Elijah did. We need to have seasons of extra fasting, prayer, worship, and devoted service to the Lord, and as we draw near him, he heals us or gives us special grace to persevere and be used by him despite our weakness (2 Cor 12:7-9). Again, this does not deny the physical and chemical aspects of depression and discouragement; it recognizes that we are a complex unification of body and soul. The body affects the soul, and the soul affects the body. As we draw near God in our difficult seasons, God creates a deeper dependence on him; he exposes wrong views and motives; he teaches us contentment with his presence, Word, and plan, whatever it may be; he restores a sense of mission which is commonly lost when under the cloud of depression, and he commonly gives us people who refresh and strengthen us—who help carry our load.
Are you drawing near God in this season so you can have the hope, refreshment, strength, and direction needed for this difficult season of your life? James says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
Application Question: What are some ways for a person struggling with depression to draw near God? In what ways have you especially pursued God during seasons of difficulty and bouts with depression, and how was it beneficial to you? How is God calling you to draw nearer to him in this season?
To Overcome Depression, We Must Get Busy Serving Others
Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen; he was near the twelfth pair. Elijah passed by him and threw his robe over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, then I will follow you.” Elijah said to him, “Go back! Indeed, what have I done to you?” Elisha went back and took his pair of oxen and slaughtered them. He cooked the meat over a fire that he made by burning the harness and yoke. He gave the people meat and they ate. Then he got up and followed Elijah and became his assistant.
1 Kings 19:19-21
After hearing God speak in a whisper and being challenged and recommissioned, Elijah got back to work. He left Mount Horeb, traveled 160 miles from Mount Horeb to Abel Meholah11 to find Elisha (v. 16, 19), and anointed him—calling him to serve as his assistant and apprentice. Likewise, one of the difficulties of battling depression is that it makes us self-centered. We become consumed with ourselves, our bad circumstances, our future, and tend to forget God and others. Often, the best thing we can do when depressed is get busy focusing on and serving others. By taking on Elisha, Elijah was going to spend a great amount of time investing into his young apprentice, somebody who would continue Elijah’s work after he was gone. Similarly, when battling depression, we should focus on serving our family members who need our care and attention, church members, co-workers, and especially those less fortunate than us. No doubt, by calling Elijah to serve others, God was bringing light into the darkness of Elijah’s depression. Serving doesn’t minimize our struggles, but it makes us realize that our struggles are not everything. Many others are in fact suffering worse than us.
Proverbs 11:25 (NIV) says, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” As we refresh others by the giving of our time and resources, we can trust that God will refresh us, including giving us more joy and peace. In John 13:17, after washing his disciples’ feet, Christ said this: “If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” God blesses us when we serve others, and certainly one of the ways he often blesses us is by delivering us from our depression.
Application Question: Why is serving others so important for being delivered from depression? How have you experienced refreshment by putting others before yourself? What should people do if they are so depressed that they can’t motivate themselves to help someone else?
Applications for Ministering to Depressed People
Application Question: What are some final practical applications for ministering to those struggling with depression and helping ourselves get out of it?
1. In ministering to the depressed, we must remember that being a faithful Christian does not guarantee that we’ll never experience bouts of depression and discouragement.
Moses, Elijah, Paul, and even Christ struggled with depression. Charles Spurgeon and many other saints that God greatly used had bouts with it. This is important to remember so we don’t condemn others for having bouts with lowness and so we don’t condemn ourselves. Depression is part of the human experience (in part simply because of body chemistry), and therefore, we must learn how to navigate seasons of it and help others with it.
2. In ministering to the depressed, we must always remember that humans are a complex unity of body and soul (or body, soul, spirit).
Because of this complexity, the body affects our soul, and the soul affects our body. We haven’t dealt much with this, but sin can negatively affect our emotions and our body as well, since we were not made to live in sin. When David had not repented of his sin with Bathsheba, in Psalm 38, he describes himself as being “deprived of health” (v. 3) and struggling with “anxiety” (v. 8). Therefore, sometimes repentance is needed to get free of depression or even to gain physical healing (cf. 1 Cor 11:28-31). Other times, it must be addressed physically by taking more rest, eating properly, exercising, balancing our time, and possibly using medication. Certainly, in all seasons we must seek God in a greater manner, as he created our bodies and uses our trials for the good. When ministering to the depressed and people in general, we must consider the complex unity of body and soul.
3. In ministering to the depressed, we must spend a lot of time asking questions, allowing time for people to express their thoughts and emotions (even irrational ones) without condemnation.
Before God instructed Elijah, he asked him twice why he was there (v. 9, 13). Initially, he just allowed Elijah to vent and share without correction. Likewise, when ministering to those struggling with depression, we should also be slow to speak and quick to listen (Jam 1:19). We should ask questions like:
How long have you been struggling with depression? Have you noticed any triggers which make it come on stronger? Are there times when you experience relief? Are you sleeping and eating well? Do you feel like you’re too busy at school or work? Do you have a regular sabbath? How has your time with God been? Are you practicing regular spiritual disciplines like prayer, time in the Word, worship, and fellowship?
As God asked Elijah questions, we should ask questions as well and listen, so we can better understand the struggling person and figure out how to best minister to him or her.
4. In ministering to the depressed, we must wisely apply God’s Word and general wisdom to their situation.
Though God began asking questions, he did eventually give Elijah instruction to help him think correctly and have a sense of renewed mission. Again, James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” As we prayerfully listen, we can discern how to best instruct the person, whether that means encouraging them with having a more balanced life with time for rest and recreation; for them to repent of sin or a lie they have accepted about themselves, their future, God, or others; for them to develop healthy relationships with people that encourage them and help them bear their burdens; and/or simply their need to draw near God for a season and listen to his voice in God’s Word. When counseling, we should use Scripture as much as possible, applying it with wisdom, gentleness, and sympathy.
5. In ministering to the depressed, we must remember to point people to a deeper pursuit of God.
Again, Elijah spent forty days fasting and then drawing near God on a mountain. There, God spoke to Elijah and helped restore his thinking and sense of mission. Often, to find relief from depression, we’ll need to pursue God in a heightened fashion for a season as well. For some, their battle with depression will require them to keep a higher devotion to the Lord than their peers for the rest of their lives to maintain peace. If that is God’s will for them, it’s actually a blessing because they might never seek God in the same way apart from such a battle. Like God said to Paul, his grace is made perfect in weakness. For those few, we must trust that God chooses to not remove the thorn in the flesh for a greater purpose (2 Cor 12:7-9).
6. In ministering to the depressed, we must be patient.
Finding relief when battling depression often won’t happen quickly. Sometimes, a good night of rest and a good meal will be enough. At other times, we’ll have to practice all the above for a season—maintaining our body, including having good rest, retraining our mind in God’s Word, having trustworthy people to vent to and bear our burdens with, and in general continually pursuing and relying on God. Galatians 6:10 says, “So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.” Also, 1 Peter 5:10-11 says, “And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him belongs the power forever. Amen.”
Application Question: Which principle stood out most and why? What are some other principles that might be helpful for a person to apply when struggling with depression and discouragement? What role should medication play with those struggling with depression?
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah, after hearing Jezebel’s threat of taking his life, began to battle with depression—even wanting God to take his life. From his example and how God ministered to him, we learn principles about overcoming our own bouts with depression and helping others who struggle.
- To Overcome Depression, We Must Beware of Circumstances Which Might Trigger It and Minimize Them When Possible
- To Overcome Depression, We Must Be Aware of Its Signs and Respond to Them Appropriately
- To Overcome Depression, We Must Draw Near God and Rely on Him More Deeply
- To Overcome Depression, We Must Get Busy Serving Others
Application Question: What stood out most in the reading and why? What questions or applications did you take from the reading?
- Pray that God would give us wisdom to deal with our bouts with depression and also wisdom to help others struggling with it.
- Pray that God would give us grace to rejoice in the Lord regardless of our situation and that depression and discouragement would flee.
- Pray that God would give us grace to continually and undistractedly draw near him and that God would draw near us in a special way—that we would know his presence, hear his voice, and trust him.
- Pray that God would correct our wrong thoughts, give us a renewed sense of mission, individually and corporately, and that God would give us healthy relationships that help us have joy and complete the mission God has given us.
Copyright © 2022 Gregory Brown
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1 Accessed 5/7/2021, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
2 Pritchard, Ray. Fire and Rain: the Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah . Keep Believing Ministries. Kindle Edition.
3 Pritchard, Ray. Fire and Rain: the Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah . Keep Believing Ministries. Kindle Edition.
4 Pritchard, Ray. Fire and Rain: the Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah . Keep Believing Ministries. Kindle Edition.
5 Pritchard, Ray. Fire and Rain: the Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah . Keep Believing Ministries. Kindle Edition.
6 Spurgeon, Charles H.. Lectures to My Students: Practical and Spiritual Guidance for Preachers (Volume 1) (pp. 204-205). Aneko Press. Kindle Edition.
7 Guzik, David. 1 Kings (The Enduring Word Series).
8 Pritchard, Ray. Fire and Rain: the Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah . Keep Believing Ministries. Kindle Edition.
9 Getz, Gene A.. Men of Character: Elijah: Remaining Steadfast Through Uncertainty . B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.