Introduction: In this sermon about depression, Paul Powell uses Elijah as an example of how to approach the common experience of depression and provides four remedies. Use this outline and sermon illustrations about handling depression as you preach on this sensitive topic.
Depression is the common cold of our emotions. Eventually it touches everyone — even God’s people.
It would be nice to think we Christians didn’t have dark days, that discouragement came only to those around us. But looking through the Bible at the great saints — people we laud as heroes — we find that they also had times of despair. If we are to experience victorious living we must, therefore, learn how to deal with depression.
The classic study of a depressed person in the Bible is the prophet Elijah, the iron man of the Old Testament. Elijah lived and served during the days of the wicked king Ahab and his sinister queen, Jezebel, who introduced Baal worship into Israel.
Elijah was the champion of orthodoxy, chosen by God to challenge the king and the prophets of Baal and to call the nation back from apostasy. In a contest on Mt. Carmel, he was God’s instrument to prove to Israel that Jehovah was the Lord. But after that amazing victory Elijah sank into the depths of despair. He sat down under a juniper tree and asked God to take his life.
Does that surprise you about a man of God? I hope not. Longfellow said, “Some must lead, and some must follow, but all have feet of clay.” We sometimes look upon men like Elijah as super saints. In reality, he was, as the scriptures say, “A man of like passions even as we are.” That means he was cut from the same bolt of human cloth as we. He had the same weaknesses, frailties, and emotions as the rest of us. Yes, even Elijah became depressed.
These two experiences, Elijah on Mt. Carmel and Elijah under the juniper tree, are set side by side in the scripture (1 Kings 18-1 Kings 19). In 1 Kings 18, Elijah is at the height of success; in 1 Kings 19 he is in the depths of despair. In 1 Kings 18 he is on the mountain top of victory; in 1 Kings 19 he is in the valley of defeat. In 1 Kings 18 he is elated; in 1 Kings 19 he is deflated. We are all capable of such roller-coaster emotions.
The 1 Kings 18 records the incredible story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel. He assembled Israel on the mountain and accused them of spiritual schizophrenia. They were “halting” — literally “limping” between two opinions. They could not decide whether to worship God or to worship Baal.
So Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal — 450 of them — to a theological shoot-out. “I’ll call on my God,” he says, “you call on Baal, and let’s see which one answers with fire from heaven. The one that does will be the God of Israel.”
Baal’s prophets accept the challenge, set up their altar and began crying to their god. But no fire falls.
“Maybe he can’t hear you,” Elijah says. Then he suggests that they shout louder. They do, but still no fire falls.
“Is he asleep?” Elijah taunts. “You had better wake him up.”
As a final appeal, Baal’s prophets slash themselves with knives but that doesn’t work either. No fire comes. After all this, Elijah builds an altar to the Lord, digs a trench around it, and orders that water be poured over it. Twelve barrels of water in all are used until the sacrifice is soaked through and through and the ditch around it is running over.
Then Elijah prays a simple prayer and God sends fire to consume the sacrifice, the altar and even the water.
With that turning point, the people worshiped the Lord and shouted, “The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God.” Then, in obedience to Elijah’s command, they slaughtered Baal’s prophets. It was a high hour. Everyone knew God’s hand was upon Elijah.
Elijah is not permitted to relish the mountain-top experience long, however. As soon as queen Jezebel hears what happened she sends Elijah a message saying, “You have killed all of my prophets; by this time tomorrow I am going to kill you also.”
When the prophet of God read her message his heart sank and he began to run for his life. He ran all the way to Beersheba, the southern-most city in Judah. Beersheba was the end of civilization. Beyond it there was nothing but desert. He was getting as far away from the queen as possible.
There he left his servant, perhaps because he didn’t intend to come back, perhaps because he didn’t want his servant to see what he was really like. Then he went another day’s journey into the wilderness alone. Have you ever gotten so depressed that you didn’t want anyone to see just how down you were? Psychologists call it “withdrawing.”
When Elijah finally quit running he sat down under a juniper tree and asked God to let him die. “I’ve had it, Lord,” he said, “take my life for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). They had been unsuccessful in stamping out apostasy in Israel and so had he. He felt like a failure.
Out of sheer physical exhaustion, Elijah fell asleep. He was psychologically wrung out and physically drained. The Lord let him sleep. After a time the Lord sent an angel who prepared a meal for Elijah, awakened him and gave him food to eat and water to drink. Then he slept again. Once more the angel awoke him and fed him in preparation for a journey to Mt. Horeb where he could get away from the people and pressures that were troubling him. Strengthened by the food, Elijah finally reached his destination, 150 miles to the south. This time he had gone as far away from Jezebel as he could go and still be on the same continent.
There he sat down in a cave, wrapped himself up in self-pity and bewailed his fate. While he sat in dark solitude God asked him, “Elijah, what doest thou here?” Elijah then told God his sad tale. “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken the covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the swords; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away.”
Elijah is singing the blues. He feels he has done his best for God and it has been to no avail, so he has a pity party. All of us get down like that sometimes. Business men get down; pastoral leaders get down; women get down; teenagers get down. We know people in our offices and in our homes who are down. At times, we all feel ourselves pulled down.
Elijah’s depression wasn’t bound up in any one cause. Rather, it stemmed from a number of things. I want you to notice the four factors in his depression found in this experience.
The first is fear (1 Kings 19:3). Elijah, frightened by the threats of Jezebel, runs for his life. Fear is almost always a factor in depression. Many times, like Elijah, we become afraid of failure, of loneliness, of not getting a job completed, of not making it through school, of not having our marriage go the way we’d like.
Second, failure (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah held a negative opinion about himself. He felt he was no more successful in checking the nation’s apostasy than the prophets who had gone before him. It’s easy to think: “I’m no good. I’m incompetent. God made a mistake when He made me.”
Third, fatigue (1 Kings 19:5). Elijah was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mountain tops can leave us that way. He needed rest and relaxation. Depression is always related to or reflected in our physical condition.
Fourth, futility (1 Kings 19:10). Elijah said, “I am the only one left and now they are out to get me.” He feels alone, hopeless and has negative expectations about the future. Elijah is paranoid. He thinks everybody is out to get him.
I read a statement sometime ago that captured my attention. It said, “Just because you aren’t paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
Elijah was looking at life through dark-colored glasses. He saw no way out.
Have you ever felt like Elijah? Perhaps you are feeling like him right now: afraid, alone, exhausted, burned-out, and hopeless. Maybe you are singing the blues. If so, you are a good candidate for the juniper tree.
I want you to see what helped Elijah climb out of the valley of despair and go on to a lifetime of useful service. It can help you too. Through the experience of Elijah, God gives us some divine principles for dealing with depression.
Take Time Off
The first thing that helped Elijah was to take time off so he could get physically and emotionally rejuvenated. He had been so busy taking care of the needs of the nations that he had neglected his own needs.
When we use up our physical energy we become exhausted. When we use all of our emotional energy, we become depressed. We must therefore find some way periodically to replace the emotional and physical energy that life and work drain from us. If we do not, we will experience burn-out and depression.
Elijah needed rest, food, and relaxation. He needed to get away from the people and pressures that were getting to him. So do we occasionally.
A poem says it best:
If you put your nose to the grindstone rough
And hold it there long enough,
For you there will be no such thing
As a bubbling brook or birds that sing.
These three things will your life compose,
Just you, the stone, and a ground-down nose.
No one can run full throttle all the time. We all need to slow down to an idle occasionally. Some people say it is better to burn out than to rust out. That’s spiritual nonsense. It is better to live out your life in victory than to do either. Getting away helped Elijah. It will help you also.
There is often a close relationship between our physical and emotional state. Our body and our soul live so close to one another that they tend to catch each other’s diseases. If we are down emotionally, it affects the way we feel physically. If we get sick physically, it affects our emotions.
Keeping healthy in general — getting enough of the right kind of food, enough sleep, and sufficient exercise — while no guarantee against depression, may help to prevent it and will certainly keep the body in a better state to deal with it.
If you are depressed, first get a good physical check-up; have a medical examination to see if there is anything physically or chemically wrong with you. If everything is alright physically, take some time off to let your body and soul catch up with one another.
That’s not always easy to do. Thomas Spurgeon, son of Charles H. Spurgeon, once wrote a friend concerning a period of forced inactivity due to ill health, “I fear I shall find it hard work to do nothing.” Many people are that way. They are workaholics. They feel guilty about doing nothing.
But we all need to live balanced lives. We need a rhythm between work and rest. If we don’t find it we will become either a basket case or a casket case. Jesus recognized this and said to His disciples, “Come ye apart and rest awhile.” The fact is, we must either come apart or fly to pieces.
Let It All Out
Second, Elijah talked through his frustrations. While he sat in a cave feeling sorry for himself, God asked, “What doest thou here, Elijah?”
Have you noticed in scripture that God is always asking questions for which He already knows the answers? He asked Adam, “Adam, where art thou?” God knew where Adam was. He asked Cain, “Where is thy brother Abel?” God knew that Abel was already dead. He asked Moses, “Moses, what is that in your hand?” God knew that Moses had a staff in his hand. Here he asks, “Elijah, what doest thou here?” God knew what Elijah was doing there. He helped him get there.
Why, then, did God ask Elijah this question? To give him an opportunity to talk, to vent his frustrations. Then God listened non-judgmentally as Elijah poured out his feelings of anger, bitterness and self-pity.
We all have such feelings at times; unless we rid ourselves of them they will poison us emotionally. There are some health-giving emotions like love, faith, hope. But there are also some destructive emotions. Fear, anger, worry, bitterness, hatred, jealousy, and self-pity are slow killers. We must find some way to rid ourselves of these destructive feelings.
But how can we do it? How do we rid ourselves of these pent-up feelings? Exercise, just plain hard work is one way. It relieves a lot of tension. A person could almost jog himself out of a depression. Some even believe the brain produces its own “mood-elevating chemicals,” which are enhanced by exercise, among other things.
That is not easy to do. When we are depressed we often exhibit apathy. There is a slow down in the body processes. We lose interest in usual activities. We don’t feel like doing anything. It’s hard just to get through the day. At those dark times we lack energy.
Tears are another way. Depressed people tend to cry a lot anyway. That is good. Tears are a God-given means of release. I hope you never lose your ability to cry. Someone has said that the answer to all of man’s emotional problems is salt water: sweat, tears, or the ocean. There is some truth there.
Talking is perhaps the most effective way to rid ourselves of harmful emotions. When we talk it is like pulling the plug out of the bathtub. All sorts of bad feelings are drained from us. Everyone needs someone in whom he can confide without fear of condemnation.
The head of the medical school at the University of Oregon said sometime ago that probably more good is done between two friends at ten o’clock in the morning over a cup of coffee than in the doctor’s office all day long. Talking to a friend can help to bring life back into perspective and enable us to solve our problems. If we had more friends we would need fewer psychiatrists. Find a non-judgmental listener and pour your soul out to them.
And as you talk to others, don’t forget to talk to God. He, too, will listen non-judgmentally. Elijah practically accused God of infidelity. But God is not defensive. He deals patiently and tenderly with His over-wrought child. He will do that with you also.
God didn’t say, “Elijah, prophets shouldn’t talk like that.” He didn’t make him feel guilty for his feelings. He accepted him and listened to him. Say what you want to God. He can take it. He will not be judgmental as you pour out the hurts of life to Him.
A word of caution however; be careful about talking about your problem too much. The person who goes around pitying himself bores others with repeated stories of his troubles; the result is he is left more and more to himself.
Get Life Back In Perspective
The third thing that helped Elijah was to get life back in perspective. He felt that God had forsaken him and that he alone remained faithful to the Lord. His reasoning went something like this: “Here I am, doing my best to serve the Lord and look what happened. God has forsaken me. I alone am left. It’s me against the world.”
Depressed people often feel like that. They have problems because they pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones, focus on immediate rather than the long-term consequences of behavior, are overly hard on themselves, attribute success to outside forces and failure to their own lacks, and in general reward themselves too little and punish themselves too much.
Unfortunately Elijah had arrived at the wrong conclusions. So at that point, the Lord chose to reveal just how warped and distorted his view of things had become.
Ultimately all depression can be traced back to some distorted view of life. In Elijah’s case, he had a distorted view of himself and a distorted view of God. He needed to know that God was there and that there were others who had not bowed to Baal.
First, God reveals Himself to Elijah in a new and fresh way. He sent a tremendous wind, a cyclone, that ripped through the mountain. But God was not in the wind. Then God sent an earthquake that shook the whole mountain; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, He sent fire and lightning, but God was not in the fire.
Then there came a still small voice through which God spoke to Elijah. The Hebrew expression “still small voice” literally means “a voice of low whispers, a sound of gentle stillness.”
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, wind and lightning and earthquakes are often associated with God. They are ways that He manifests Himself to us. Yet here God speaks to Elijah in a voice of low whispers.
It is as if God is saying, “Just because I have not spoken to you as I have to others in days gone by, doesn’t mean I am not here.” Though God was silent, He was not absent. Though Jezebel was thundering, she was not in control. God was quietly going about His work. We need to remember that.
Following World War II there was found on the wall of a basement in Germany these words:
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when I can’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.”
God is the God of wonders but He is also the God of whispers. Elijah not only needed a new perspective of God, he needed a new perspective of himself. He thought he was the only one who was still faithful to God. God had to remind him that He had seven thousand prophets who had not yet bowed their knee to Baal. In fact, God had already chosen Elijah’s successor and He commanded him to go and anoint Elisha for this work.
Elijah thought he was more important than he really was. He thought everything depended on him. We sometimes feel the same way. Listen, if God’s work depends solely on you and me, God is in serious trouble.
When I become overly impressed with my own importance I remember what I read recently: “If all the preachers and all the garbage collectors quit at once, which would you miss first?”
Then I try to remember what would happen if a group of women were playing bridge one afternoon, and the phone rang, and the lady of the house was told, “Have you heard the news, Paul Powell just died.” When she broke the news to her bridge partners one of them would probably say, “Oh, that’s a shame. He was such a nice man. I really liked him … whose bid is it?”
Keep life in perspective. We can’t take God’s work too seriously, but we sure can take ourselves too seriously. None of us is indispensible. The workmen die but the work goes on.
Get Back In The Mainstream
Fourth, Elijah got back into the mainstream of life and went to work again. God allowed Elijah to sit in the dark cave of self-pity just so long. Then He told him to get up and get busy again. There was a new king of Israel and a new prophet to be anointed. The time for complaints and self-pity were over; Elijah now needed to get back to work. He needed the tonic of a new task.
With us, as with Elijah, the best way to quit feeling sorry for ourselves is to start feeling compassion for somebody else.
The great psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was once asked by a Tucson, Arizona newspaper reporter, “Suppose you think you’re heading for a nervous breakdown. What should you do?”
Most of us would have expected the great psychiatrist to say, “See a psychiatrist.” But he didn’t. Instead, his reply was, “Go straight to the front door, turn the knob, cross the tracks and find somebody who needs you.”
Don’t sit around in isolation. Don’t get all wrapped up in yourself. Don’t have your own pity party for too long. Get up and get back in the mainstream of life working for God and His kingdom. In helping others we help ourselves.
By these means Elijah whipped his depression and went on to the lifetime of useful service. In fact, he ultimately closed out his ministry in a blaze of glory as God swept down on him and carried him into heaven in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire. Thank God we can do the same.
Despair need not be the doxology of life. It might be the invocation. It was for me. “May those dark days make us tender enough to keep focusing on Him.”