Chime In: Elijah-Like Discouragement

Count me among those whose knee-jerk reaction to depression has typically been “Toughen up, read your Bible, and pray. Sissy.” A verse a day keeps dark moods away, after all. As a result, those who are going through times of painful sadness have often been reprimanded by Christian leaders rather than pitied and helped. I think we’re prone to at least two mistakes, or at least I have been.

First, we deny the reality of deep depression. Conservative Christians, probably in an overreaction to the Oprah-ization of our society, have almost denied that depression happens. Quite a bit. To godly people. I was struck by this fact again while reading through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress this week with TCBC. Last night’s study focused on Christian and Hopeful’s bondage in Doubting Castle. Bunyan—who has never been confused with Dr. Phil—described Christian’s depression as so deep that it twice brought him to the point of suicide. And when I stopped to think of it, Christian is in good company. Even a cursory study of Scripture reveals that Job, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, and Jeremiah all experienced grief to the point that death seemed a welcome solution—to say nothing of the lamenting psalmists. Paul had a time where he despaired of life—either desiring death or at least believing that it was inevitible. To pretend that God’s choice servants won’t go through bitter depression is to ignore the biblical record.

Second, we respond to deep discouragement in a less than helpful way. It’s complicated, to be sure. Some people may need to be reproved for self-pity. They certainly need to know that suicide is a murderous, selfish, God-denying thing. Others may need empathy, which is especially challenging for those of us who are naturally “chipper.” All need gospel grace. The point is, the knee-jerk reaction with which I opened the article isn’t the answer.

With these thoughts in mind, I invite you to think through Elijah’s deep discouragement in 1 Kings 19 with me. Read over it, then answer two questions:

1. What caused Elijah’s discouragement?

2. How did God respond to Elijah’s discouragement?

I’ll share some thoughts in time, along with a personal example, but first I’d like to encourage you to think through the passage yourself and share your thoughts with the rest of us. I’m not looking for something in particular—there are multiple right answers. Chime in.

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13 Responses

  1. Chris,

    I appreciate this. I have been thinking about some of these similar things recently. Here are my brief thoughts on your questions:

    1. What caused Elijah’s discouragement?

    Elijah was discouraged because he did not see God do what he thought God should have done. Elijah had just experienced a great victory on Mt. Carmel. The issue on Mt. Carmel was “Who is the True God,” and God proved Himself to be the one, true, and living God. After this victory, I believe that Elijah was expecting for God to send a National revival and the people would reject Baal and turn back to God. The people did not turn to God, so Elijah viewed himself as a failure. Verse 10 sums up Elijah’s feelings.

    In my short ministry, I have already had a few “Juniper Tree Experiences.” It is discouraging to preach your heart out only to have people leave your Church or continue on in their old sinful ways. We expect God to move. Really, we should not expect anything less, but it is discouraging when He does not move the way we think he should.

    2. How did God respond to Elijah’s discouragement?

    God revealed to Elijah that He was still perfectly in control of everything. God was in the “still small voice.” God might not work on behalf of His people like we want Him to, but He does work. Elijah was not alone. There were 7,000 other faithful people who were following the Lord. God has a remnant. It might be small compared to the masses, but nonetheless, it is a remnant for His glory.

    God also showed Elijah that the work of God was not finished because he commanded him to ordain a successor. Elisha carried on the work of God among the people. Christ said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

  2. 1. Elijah was worn out and exhausted. He was running and walking miles. So he took a nap.

    2. God sent him food. No scolding, no “snap out of this!” speech. After he is refreshed and he claims he’s the only one left, God tells him he’s not. I would consider that encouragement, not scolding.

    Sometimes we get discouraged, even to the point of depression, because we are physically exhausted. And sometimes we can’t help it that we are exhausted–maybe we have a sick baby we’re taking care of. And God has compassion on us. He gives us grace, whatever our circumstances.

    Some might consider my comments too simplistic. I am obviously not talking about every situation of depression. But I think sometimes people miss what the Bible tells us in this account. There’s a physical side of depression that is often ignored.

  3. Chris, what do you think of Bunyan’s solutions to Christian’s depression? He gave him two lectures through the mouth of Hopeful, then they prayed, and Christian recalled the Key of Promise he held in his bosom, and with that unlocked Doubting Castle and escaped.

    Sounds a bit like your “buck up” solution.

    In any case, as far as Elijah is concerned, I’d say Derrick is correct above in saying Elijah was expecting the mighty manifestations of the morning to continue in the evening. When Jezebel sent him notice to ‘prepare to die’, his illusions came tumbling down, and he ran.

    God’s response was to show him that he must have confidence in the mighty God who moves in secret, quiet, unspectacular ways. Elijah had to believe the God of promise. That part at least is similar to Bunyan.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jeremiah 33.3

  4. Good thoughts. Keep them coming.

    A few people have mentioned to me via email physical/chemical causes of depression. That’s a tough one, but we’ve discussed it a bit in this post.

  5. Depression is caused by various reasons: (1) Circumstances, such as trials; (2) Physical issues; (3) Stress and the pressures of life & ministry; etc. For Elijah, it seems to be linked to the stress of his Mt. Carmel experience, coupled with unfulfilled expectations from the Lord (much like Derrick said) and fear of God’s (and his) enemies.

    Ultimately, however, no matter what brings on depression, it is a feeling. It’s real; it affects us physically (esp. the mind); but it is a feeling nonetheless. I’m not trying to be simplistic or harsh. I’ve experienced depression and anyone who experiences it, whatever the cause, does not *feel* like getting up in the morning or going to work or fulfilling God-given responsibilities. However, for Christians, we must never allow feelings to determine how we act; our actions must be driven by truth. We trust and obey, whether we feel like it or not. Some may need medication to deal with a physical problem that brings on the depression; but they still have no excuse to act on their feelings.

    For Elijah, God spoke to him; God revealed Himself to him; and God gave him a proper perspective (since our perspective is skewed by depression). We must also go to God’s Word and let Him speak to us when depressed. We also need to get a Job-like glimpse of God, which gives us proper perspective. Then we must take what we *know* (truth) and act on it.

    There are three components of our personhood: intellect (mind), emotion (feelings); and volition (will). It seems there needs to be a logical order to these. The mind must always be engaged first by truth; emotions and decisions follow. The same is true in worship (but that’s another blog). The depressed (for whatever the reason) must always engage the mind with God’s truth and act on it alone. They may also find themselves soon coming out of the depression because they’ve gained a proper perspective. Elijah did.

    Chris, while I’m sure many pastors have responded in ways that you described in paragraph one, in my experience many pastors are misunderstood and their views have been grossly distorted on this subject. I won’t take time to explain that as I’ve written a tome already.

  6. Chris,

    I think we need to be careful about speaking as if depression were just a more advanced kind of discouragement. While the word may be used that way colloquially, real depression is not the result of discouragement generally. Real depression generally works in patterns and while it can be triggered by various means, generally has no direct link to discouragements in the depressed person’s life.

    The reason I bring this up is that to suggest that it is is to lay a heavy burden on those who are reading your blog, and will never comment, but whose situation is being subtly misrepresented.

    I hope that I don’t come across as having a go at you. But as one who suffers with depression, it would be helpful to get your clarification on this.

  7. to answer the questions first:
    1) Elijah came off the “mountain top experience” to find himself attacked by the enemy (Jezebel and Ahab). Rather that trusting in the God who destroyed 450 false prophets in chaptr 18, he now loses hope because of one woman’s threat. We are not told what the exact cause is, but he tells the Lord that he is the only one left who is serving the Lord (v10, 14). So there seems to be a shift of focus from God to himself – kind of a pity party that no one seems to be following his lead.

    2) God gently seeks to shift his focus away from himself and onto God (v11-12), gives him spiritual tasks to do for God (v15-16), and corrects his faulty thinking (v18). Instead of wallowing in self-pity, God redirects his thoughts to Himself, and to the work of the ministry.

    I think this text is instructive. Was Elijah’s discouragement justified? I don’t believe so. He was not the only one left; there were 7000. I find this to be the general pattern in scripture when people are discouraged/depressed. Their mind dwells on things that aren’t necessarily true, or helpful and our sinful tendency is to allow those thoughts to spin out of control. Psalm 42, 43 point this out, “why are you cast down…? Hope in God.” Great men in scripture and church history have struggled through depression (i.e. Spurgen for one). However, I don’t believe that those examples justify the allowance of depression, only prove the necessity of all men (no matter how highly they are revered) to “hope in God, who is the health of (our) countenance, and our God.” Our greatest need is Christ in every situation.

    Physical difficulties, tough circumstances, strained relationships, and the like will come to all of us. It is how we choose to respond to them that will reveal our heart toward God.

    I offer these thoughts humbly.

  8. Haven’t meditated as much as I know I should before responding. But in keeping with my habit of TOTALLY relating to those servants of the Lord that tend to receive the tsk-tsks…
    1. Elijah was tired. He was afraid, utterly consumed with fear, and wanted to DO something about it. He felt alone, and so convinced himself he was. He believed in himself (at least, his actions and defeats) to be mighty enough to turn the world around, in a very dejected way. He took his eyes off the one, Great Only Truth and tried to find his worth by comparing it to what he saw around him, by what he had “accomplished”. He forgot his worth in the Lord, even though he seemed to be shouting about it.
    2. God provided rest. And food, both physical and spiritual. He reminded Elijah of preparing his physical and spiritual self BEFORE the journey, as sometimes, in the middle of the journey and storm, it’s too hard. God stayed. He waited, unchanging. Although Elijah kept repeating himself (to convince whom? himself?), God didn’t need to. God was (is) STILL. God allowed (required?) Elijah to turn back and face his fear. Reminded him that he was not alone, not so perfectly isolated in his desire to leave all to follow God, and that he, in fact, did not see all that God sees. Allowed Elijah to be frail, not so very excited about the new, next journey. Showed Elijah, and the rest of us, that our thoughts aren’t necessarily realities. That the “biggest deal” isn’t necessarily as big as the “zoom” lens we’re putting on it makes it seem. That there is no “ultimate defeat” when God is our God, when we accept He is Majestic and Still.
    Thanks, PC. I needed this.

  9. I agree with Taigen. A victorious Christian is constantly in the business of re-educating his mind. When one (as Elijah) is weary and fearful… perhaps a bit disallusioned…. there is a need to step back for a different view. But instead, we wallow.

    Much of this battle is won in the mind, although there may be other causes stemming from physical roots. I think of what Jim Berg has said, “You are only as spiritual as you are rested.” How often I have found that to be true. Fatigue has a way of skewing the mind. When things are perplexing, we have a tendency to think them to death. But God knows our frame and remembers it is but dust…that perhaps in order to think more clearly, some basic temple maintenance is in order. When you think about it…folks who wrestle with depression often manifest insomnia, eating disorders, and even dehydration (for lack of drinking, or the direct result of too much coffee!). God is loving and patient…He dealt with these needs so that, when refreshed, Elijah could effectively listen to the hard things.

    I think of David in Ps. 121 and Ps. 34. Upward focus is necessary for deliverance. We need to run all our self-talk through a scripture sieve and see if it is true (Phil 4:8).

  10. This is not an easy one Pastor Chris but one that is very necessary to be discussed. Bible believing folks are going to secular sources for answers because we don’t want to talk about it. What kind of answers are they getting there? Or they are turning inward with no answers and becoming disillusioned. Can we find the answer in God’s solutions? Can we pause long enough to say that that there are no easy answers but there must be Biblical answers for those who struggle? If you have never struggled like Elijah give it time…you will. Ali and Diane ‘s comments are insightful. Elijah was tired. How does fatigue affect you? How does extreme fatigue affect you? How does giving something or someone all you have physically, emotionally and spiritually affect you? If you are one who lives passionately it will be different than someone who can take things as they come in an easy going way. God treated Elijah with compassion for his needs, fears and discouragement. Then He knew the point at which it was time to refocus Elijah on Himself and His eternal purposes, the bigger picture. Could it be the key is the discernment of knowing when and how to help the depressed person refocus? If done to soon we lack compassion. If done too late we miss the opportunity to minister in someone’s life. I am grateful personally for someone who discipled me, listened , counseled, then said “O.K. Julie , it’s time to get your eyes off yourself and on rivet them on Christ.” It is not an quick, easy fix but it is the only one. Now I know that is where I must go in my thought processes and resulting emotions.I must preach the truth to myself. Peering into another one’s life it is easy to see the back and white answer so we think. Another key is discipleship. How can we meet the needs of someone who is struggling if we don’t walk a while with them? Thank you Pastor Chris for this discussion.

  11. Elijah had been, to put it mildly, under major stress. He was fighting a major battle. I try to imagine what it would have been like to face off against those 450 prophets of Baal. I don’t think Elijah was afraid they would win the contest. But watching those evil men, feeling the dark oppression as they yelled and leaped about and cut themselves trying to get Baal’s attention, and knowing the people of Israel were still thinking this god might be worthy of their worship—how that must have vexed Elijah, even as he mocked Baal. For a man with such a zeal for God and such a passion to see Israel return to the worship of God to be surrounded by so much evil—the blatant idolatry of the prophets and the disgusting apathy of the people—had to have been terribly difficult.
    And then to top it off, he headed up the execution of 450 men. Yes, the execution was just and completely deserved. But there’s no way he could have been involved in killing that many men and have left the scene with his spirit unaffected. And perhaps having just seen all those men die made Jezebel’s threats much scarier. Elijah had certainly faced death before, but this time he had just seen death up close and personal.
    So Elijah had to have been drained in every way—spiritually, emotionally, physically.( Just on a practical level, he had “organized the whole event”– with a bit of help from Ahab. That in itself would have been rather taxing.)
    And Elijah had entered this battle as the lone prophet of God. Yes, Obadiah had just told him about 100 prophets of God who had escaped Jezebel, but evidently they weren’t there on Mount Carmel. Standing alone is hard! Standing alone and escaping that insidious pride the lurks inside us is even harder. How humbling it must have been to be the man chosen by God to show the people that Jehovah is indeed God and to be used in turning their hearts back to God. But I wonder if pride crept in as well and caused Elijah to dwell on the notion that he alone was left. I mean, to be the one man in Israel whose prayers can hold off or bring on the rain! To be the one man who can pray and have fire fall from heaven! It would be pretty hard to be in that position and stay free from pride. Obviously, I don’t know what was in his heart, but I think verses 10 and 14 hint at it anyway. And pride always sets us up for discouragement because it turns our focus on ourselves and off God. It makes us feel that the results of our efforts are dependent on us and not on God. It skews our perspective and makes us cling to half truths we’ve concocted.
    I’ve wondered about verse 4, where he says, “I am no better than my fathers.” I wonder if he was thinking back to the prophets before him who had also “preached their hearts out,” had seen the people respond positively, and then had watched them fall back into sin. With Jezebel unrepentant and on the war path, his hopes of a true revival were probably pretty well shot. And “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
    So I think I’ve taken up enough space on your blog answering your first question.
    As to your second question, just a couple thoughts.
    I love the way God cared for him. It makes me think of Psalm 103. He rescued him from destruction, He crowned him with loving kindness and tender mercies, He satisfied him with good things to eat. (And as I read on in the psalm, I see more parallels that I hope aren’t too farfetched.) He used Elijah to execute righteousness and justice by having him anoint kings and prophets who would destroy worshipers of Baal. He made himself known to Elijah in a special way (as He had to Moses). He was slow to anger and abounding in mercy toward him. He knew Elijah’s frame, that he was only dust. He appointed Elisha to take Elijah’s place because Elijah’s days were like grass. But God is from everlasting and His kingdom is forever. And He would one day be sending the perfect Prophet and King. And Jesus will one day make all people acknowledge that He is Jehovah God!

  12. Why was Elijah discouraged? We don’t really know it does not say exactly. Can we not agree that God made the physical, emotional and spiritual parts of us to be intricately intertwined? Can it also be agreed that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and that even with all our modern technology the best doctors/scientists do not understand the human body or soul? Can it not be possible that there are aspects of our physical makeup that when disturbed for various reasons can bring about an emotional response due to deficits in the body’s resources? And what about the other way around? Peering into another’s life with our answer is fraught with difficulty. We all must walk before God alone. I don’t even have the answers for myself much less another, but God does.But I can encourage one who is walking through a valley in their life. There are times are there not when it is appropriate for me to jump into the muck of someone else’s life and assist them in carrying their load by listening, praying, edifying, encouraging them in the truth? There are also times when part of the answer is to wait, rest and renew the physical body…it may take time. There are scores of folks struggling with what is known as adrenal fatigue and exhaustion, good folks who have not lived in self focused patterns of life but their bodies are tired..pastors, their wives, missionaries, homeschool moms and dads…It would be a great comfort for those who desire to walk with God through these weary days if we could learn grace and extend grace and compassion in truth to those who are looking to God and who see our lives for answers and support. The body needs one another it is God’s plan. God took Elijah through this time to teach Him glorious truth about Himself. He can also use our valleys of exhaustion or weariness to teach us glorious truth about Himself. It is in God’s strength alone we must live and move and have our being…in our weakness He is strong.

  13. Sticking strictly to the text:
    Elijah was afraid because of Jezebel’s threat. Fear of man is a huge factor in discouragement/depression.
    Elijah answers God’s question of “What are you doing here?” with specific answers, but all are ‘supporting’ his ultimate concern with/focus on self. To generalize, Elijah was self-focused.
    God’s answer could be characterized as an initial demonstration of His power. Perhaps this was to get Elijah’s focus off of himself and onto the LORD. Perhaps it was to give Elijah a reminder that He is in control.
    The next step in God’s response is to get Elijah actively obeying His word – this is huge in dealing with discouragement/depression.
    He ends the counsel with specific commands wrapped in encouragement based on His promise.
    Summation: discouragement/depression (all valid medical issues aside) is handled with a re-focusing of the individual from self to God by taking them to the Word and the active obedience to it – all wrapped in the assurance of God’s character (again, through His Word).

    FWIW, Jehu’s dealing with the Baal worshipers has got to be one of my all time favorite Bible stories! Following through on the people Elijah anoints is tremendous encouragement in itself.

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