We come now to my favorite passage in Elijah’s life, 1Kings 19. I can’t relate very much to Elijah calling down fire from heaven, but I can certainly relate to Elijah in this chapter. But first we need to understand the setting (MAP). Elijah has just won a great victory at Mt. Carmel over the prophets of Baal, the Canaanite false god who demanded ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. The Israelite leaders who witnessed this demonstration have (apparently) turned to God, and God has ended the drought he brought upon them because of their idolatry. Elijah has outraced Ahab to Jezreel, where he undoubtedly anticipates Ahab and Jezebel’s repentance or surrender or defeat.
Read 19:1-10. What a contrast! Up to now, Elijah has been the epitome of spiritual courage—now he collapses, runs away when Israel most needs his leadership (possibly missing the chance for national repentance), and turns into a suicidal basket case.
This is a profile of spiritual depression—a specific kind of depression that is related to commitment to God. Elijah’s depression (along with many other biblical characters) alerts us to the fact that being committed to God does not necessarily exempt us from getting seriously depressed. I have certainly found this to be true, including very recently. It also discloses common causes of spiritual depression, and awareness of these causes can prevent or mitigate serious spiritual depression. I think these causes also help to explain why depression is so rampant in American society. Let’s see...
Common causes of spiritual depression
Elijah’s depression is the result of a “perfect storm”—the convergence of several common causes. The first factor is what we might call unrealistic expectations. Re-read 19:4 – “I’ve had enough” means “That’s the last straw—I can’t take any more.” He is referring to 19:2—when instead of repenting or surrendering, Jezebel ordered Elijah’s death. But why was this the last straw? Why not the time in Cherith or Zarephath? Why not the three years living with Ahab’s death order? Probably because Elijah expected that the dramatic victory on Mt. Carmel would result in Ahab’s and Jezebel’s repentance or judgment (even though God never promised this). When this didn’t happen, Elijah collapsed in despair.
It is easy to get in trouble by letting legitimate spiritual desires turn into expectations that go beyond what God actually promises. This happens most often by expecting that key people in our lives will make good decisions about God. Of course we desire that they do this, and we pray to this end. But God has never promised that our desires or prayers (or even God himself) will overturn people’s free will. I have been devastated by expecting family members to turn to Christ—only to suddenly harden again and back away. I have counseled Christian friends about their wrong attitudes, watched my counsel sink in—only to see them revert back to the same wrong attitude. When things like this happen, they are bound to make us sad because we care about them. But when we base our emotional security on people’s choices rather than God’s faithfulness, the result is serious depression.
It is also instructive that Elijah’s collapse came when he was physically and emotionally exhausted. Imagine the physical and emotional toll that the showdown on Mt. Carmel exacted. For many days (possibly weeks), Elijah’s life was on the line. Even though God empowered his 18 mile run to Jezreel, he would have been physically exhausted. This exhaustion left him without any emotional resilience when Jezebel’s response disappointed his expectation.
Make no mistake about it: to serve God is to be “on active duty.” This means a busy life—and occasionally periods of extreme activity and stress. And we have an enemy who does not play fair—he will ruthlessly attack us when we are weakest. As Paul says in Col.1:29, serving God will involve tiring labor (kophizo) and painful struggle (agonizomai). But having said this, some of us (including myself) wind up in a state of serious spiritual depression because we chronically overdo. In the name of serving God and others, we try to live perpetually on too little sleep, inadequate rest and recreation, no exercise, poor nutrition, etc. Then we wonder why a disappointment hurls us into depression and despair. We have to accept our own physical and emotional limitations (which differs from person to person), and we have to find a pace that enables us to go the long haul instead of sprinting until we collapse. Scheduling adequate sleep, relaxation, exercise, etc. is not a sinful luxury; it is a stewardship responsibility so we can be healthy, long-term servants of God and people.
Then too, once Elijah started to fall apart, he made things far worse for himself by being relationally isolated. We read in 19:3 that after fleeing to Beersheba, Elijah “left his servant there... and went on alone.” This servant was not simply a luggage-carrier; he was a spiritual friend and colleague who risked his own life by being on Mt. Carmel and going to Jezreel. At the very time when Elijah most needed his support, he left him and totally isolated himself (juniper tree; cave). How irrational!
If you’ve ever been seriously spiritually depressed, you know how desirable this feels, how rational it seems. The more depressed you get, the less you want to be around anyone. You just want to zone out by sleeping, watching TV, playing video games, drinking, indulging in internet porn, etc. But what you need most is to open up to friends who know and love you and can spiritually encourage you. They can help you “bear this burden” (Gal.6:2) when you are being crushed by it. Conversely, withdrawing from them almost ensures deeper depression and decisions that make matters worse.
Do you have friends like this? You have to build these kinds of friendships so that they’re already there when you get depressed. It’s too late when you’re wiped out and you don’t have this in place (Eccles. 4:9,10). The average American adult male has less than one friend! There are many cultural reasons for this (careerism; entertainmentism; relational machismo), but we were never designed to bear adversity without close friendships! If you know Christ, you are part of God’s family and you don’t have to be relationally isolated. Get in a home group and build some close Christ-centered friendships! If you don’t know how to do this, ask someone in your home group to help you develop this.
Re-read 19:10. Not only is Elijah preoccupied with his enemies’ power (rather than with God’s proven power), but there is also evidence of what I call a Messiah complex: “... I alone am left.” It’s like he saying, “I’m the only committed one, I’m the only one who really cares about your cause. It’s all up to me—and I can’t bear this weight anymore.”
It’s easy for Christian workers to slip into this attitude. I slip into it (in varying degrees) several times a year. I subtly begin to go beyond playing my little role and trusting God to play his big role. The less I pray, the more responsible I feel to change people’s lives, solve their problems, meet everyone’s needs. This becomes an oppressive burden that drains me and wears me down. I start to feel self-pity because of the crushing burden I have carry for God! And if this goes on too long, I want to quit and run awaybecause I’m “burned out.” It’s hard to play Messiah when you’re not!
Do you know what all of these causes have in common? Pride: “Life should follow my expectations;” “I don’t have to acknowledge my physical and emotional limitations;” “I don’t need to build and maintain close relationships;” “I can handle all of life’s demands without God’s help.” This may sound harsh, but it is actually hopeful. If pride is the underlying problem, learning humility can prevent and/or mitigate much depression. Do you see the connection between our culture’s affirmation of these forms of pride and the epidemic of depression (EXPLAIN)? This is why most (not all) forms of depression are ultimately spiritual—we were never designed to live life without humbly depending on God. You can begin this way of life by laying down your autonomy from God and asking him forgiveness through his Son Jesus. Relating humbly to God won’t eliminate all depression, but it will help immeasurably.
God’s restoration plan
But what if you find yourself or a friend in deep spiritual depression? You need to know how God restores spiritually depressed people so you can cooperate/work with him. Note how God restores Elijah—the order is important.
Note that God takes the initiative to seek Elijah out. This is his compassion and mercy (Ps.103:13,14)—and we should do the same for our depressed brethren.
He doesn’t respond the way I am tempted to respond: “What are you doing under that bush? You’re deserting! Get up out of there and get back to Jezreel!” But God is compassionate (Ps.103:13,14) and wise. He begins by addressing Elijah’s most basic and immediate needs—rest and sleep. Had Elijah blown it by running away? Yes. Is his thinking and decision-making deeply flawed? Yes. But he is so shattered at this point that he is unable to process correction or instruction. Before any of that would be profitable, Elijah needed help to regain his physical and emotional equilibrium.
I thank God I have friends who helped me this way when I’ve collapsed. They have shown me mercy, covered for me, insisted that I get some rest, get medication, etc. I hope you will do the same for your friends when they are deeply depressed.
Then, once Elijah has recovered some measure of stability, God begins to get at the root causes of his depression—not by direct correction or instruction, but by asking him a question (read 19:9). Of course, God isn’t asking because he is seeking information; he knows what Elijah is doing there. He is asking to help Elijah begin to help him process and reflect on his perspective, to clarify for himself his (flawed) thinking. And when Elijah responds with a flawed answer, God doesn’t correct him immediately—he waits and then asks again (19:13).
How patient and wise this is! When I am in this much pain, I am not initially able to hear God’s answer even though I may be screaming for it. Knowing this, my good friends spend time with me, asking questions, empathizing, etc. This sacrificial love has helped me to reflect and clarify and eventually get to the point where I am ready and able to receive corrective insight from God. Are you willing to do this?
Then, at the right time, God corrects Elijah’s perspective with his truth. Since the ultimate reason for our spiritual depression is wrong/prideful thinking, the ultimate remedy is humbly receiving correction by the truth. In this case, God spoke to him through an outward sign and an audible voice. Read 19:11-13. How strange! God brings three awesome demonstrations of destructive power. But God “was not in” them. But presumably he was “in” the gentle whisper (“the sound of sheer silence”. What does this mean? Scholars explain this in different ways—here’s my best guess.
Earthquake, wind and fire were common elements in Old Testament theophany (see Ex.19:16-19; 24:12-18).1 They are especially associated with God coming to dramatically and decisively judge evil (see Ps.104:1-4; Isa.19:1; Jer.4:11-13; Ezek.1:4; Rev.6:12-17; 16:17-21). Elijah expected God to continue to judge his enemies in this spectacular way (as on Mt. Carmel), but the fact that “God was not in” the wind, earthquake or fire signified that it was not his will to judge that way at this time. The “gentle blowing” signifies God’s more “normal” way of advancing his plan and judging his enemies in this age. That’s why God goes on to tell him how he will do this in 19:15-18 (read). God will work through Hazael, Jehu and Elisha to defeat Baalism in Israel, and the knowledge of God will continue to spread through the 7000 who remain faithful to him. Thus, God corrected Elijah’s “Messiah complex” by reminding him of two very important facts of which he had lost sight: “It is not all up to you—I have a very thorough and effective plan for Israel” and “You are not alone—I have many others who love and serve me.” Since this is the case, God is saying: “Now go back and play the role I’ve designed for you, trusting me to fulfill my plan in my own way and time.” And Elijah listened and recovered and did just that.
Usually in less dramatic ways, God will speak to us through his Word (directly or through other friends) to correct our prideful misbeliefs and remind us to trust his sovereign power and wisdom. And when we humbly receive God’s correction, his peace and hope gradually return, along with guidance and motivation to resume our roles in his service. I am so thankful for God’s mercy and faithfulness in this area!
1 This is one of several parallels between Moses and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. Both experience God’s awesome power while Israel is caught up in idolatry. Both received miraculous provisions of food and water on the way to Mt. Horeb. Both were in a rock cleft or cave when God “passed by.” For more parallels, see Raymond B. Dillard, Faith in the Face of Apostasy (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1999), p.55