American Journal of Biblical Theology
April 29, 2007
Copyright © 2007, John W. (Jack) Carter Scripture quotes from KJV
Living in today's world is quite a challenge. Though life always presents its challenges, it seems that this past century has poured more stress on people as many agrarian lifestyles have given way to industrial, technical, and service sectors that each place high expectations on those who are immersed in them. Technology is intended on making life easier as our work becomes more efficient, giving us more leisure time. However, the stress of keeping up with today's frenetic pace causes us to fill that time with more work. Most families juggle multiple jobs in order to maintain the highest possible level of income, yet committing to debts that allow them to live at a higher economic level than their income provides. High paying jobs exact their own stress, and stress within the home is exacerbated by the continued absence of the primary care givers. There is very little job security in most areas of employment. We live with many stressors in our lives, and some of these may be of our own making. It is no wonder that people are stressed out and the circumstances of their lives serve to take them to the point of burnout or beyond.
This stress exacts a physical and emotional cost on those who live at the edge of burnout. One of the most common emotional responses to the attempt to cope with stressful circumstances is depression. Nearly everyone has experienced emotional depression at some point in their lives, and many people deal with depression on a regular or chronic basis, and for these the consequences can be debilitating. Jesus promised to those who place their faith and trust in Him that He would give to them an abundant life, one of peace, love, and joy. However, it is near to impossible to realize that abundant life when one is immersed in the slough of despond, blinded and buried in the emotional baggage that accompanies depression. The experience of depression can act like a pair of dark sunglasses that noticeably and negatively impacts our perception of all that is around us. Consequently, consideration of this circumstance is relevant for all Christians. Each of us will at some time either experience the throes of depression, or will be involved in a personal relationship with someone who is experiencing it.
The first step to solving most problems is to come up with a definition of the problem under consideration. What is depression? Depression is a common, and sometimes debilitating emotional state that leads to discouragement, negative self-worth, and feelings hopelessness and despair. This is quite the opposite of the emotional state that God intends for His children. There are two types of depression that we experience. The first is situational or circumstantial depression that is triggered by life experiences and the way we interpret their effect on our lives. The second form is clinical depression that is triggered by hormonal imbalance, brain dysfunction or other purely medical conditions. Though circumstances still exacerbate the trauma experienced in clinical depression, those who suffer from clinical depression need the help of specially trained medical doctors and Christian counselors. Understanding and dealing with the triggers of depression is important for those who deal with clinical depression, but for these a balance of medical and spiritual healing must take place. Though God's Word provides wonderful counsel for dealing with depression, those with clinical depression still must seek additional medical help.
Life has its ups and downs, and sometimes we can respond destructively to either extreme. Christians are not immune to depression, and as a matter of fact, might even be more prone to it. Christians who experience depression are in good company. We see in scripture many examples of individuals who were faithful to God and yet went through periods of deep and miserable depression that were brought on by their interpretation of the circumstances around them. Some notable examples include Abraham (Gen. 15), Job (Job 3:1), the Teacher (Eccl. 1:2, 2:17), David when chased by Saul, Gideon when oppressed by the Midianites, Jonah under the fig tree, Jeremiah over the sins of Israel, and many others, notably including Elijah, the revered Old Testament prophet who seemed to have repeated bouts with depression. We see many examples of faithful people dealing with periods of depression. Each of these overcame their depression, and each victory was obtained the same way. Maybe there is something here for us to learn.
It is very important to note that situational depression is caused by how we interpret circumstances, not by the circumstances themselves. Identical circumstances will affect different people in different ways. A particularly traumatic circumstance may plunge some people into depression while others seem to simply shake the dust from their shoes and move on. Different people respond to trauma differently. It is that response that triggers the slough of despond. When we shift our focus from the circumstance that vexes us towards God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to change the way we interpret circumstances that can trigger despair. Rather than create a pattern of behavior that would bring about our own defeat, we can rely on God who is our true source of delivery.
The Bible contains a lot of help for people who battle the demon of depression. One scriptural example we can learn from is the experience of Elijah in 1 Kings, chapter 19.
And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.
Elijah has just confronted the Canaanite and Israelite prophets of the mythical gods of Baal and Asherah with a very dramatic duel. Elijah first went to counsel Ahab, the evil king of the Northern kingdom of Israel and his wife, Jezebel. These two had led Israel away from God to worship Baal (the Baalim) and Asherah, the mythical pagan fertility gods of the Canaanites. Ahab rejected Elijah's counsel, declaring him the "Troubler of Israel." Elijah countered by accusing Ahab of leading the people away from God, promoting the worship of a godless and evil pagan myth, and subjecting himself and all Israel to Godís judgment for this sin. So a duel ensued, a duel that the LORD orchestrated in order to show Ahab that He is LORD. Elijah commanded the people to bring two bulls for sacrifice to Mount Carmel. In the morning the prophets of Baal would prepare their altar and the animal for burned sacrifice, and call upon their mythical gods to come down and burn the sacrifice. Through the day the prophets prayed, wailed, and cut themselves while Elijah teased and taunted them. Finally, when time for sacrifice came, Elijah called them to the side, rebuilt the alter of 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel, placed the cut pieces of the sacrifice on the stones and wood and dug a trench around the sacrifice. He then told the pagan prophets to douse the sacrifice three times with water until the trenches were full. At that point he prayed to God and fire fell, consuming the sacrifice, the wood, and the stones, and the water. The people responded, rejecting Baal and returning their allegiance to God. Elijah commanded the people to take the 450 prophets of Baal, and possibly the 400 prophets of Asherah, to a near valley where they were massacred. Following this repentance of Israel, rain fell; ending a three-year drought that Elijah had himself prophesied before Ahab.
Ahab had witnessed the duel, the presence of God, and permitted the massacre of the Baalists. Since Israel was led to repent, it appears that there was at least some repentance on Ahab's part. However, his pagan wife Jezebel was not present at Mt. Carmel and did not witness the work of God in that place.
One would think that this experience would result in a very emotional high for Elijah. However, the circumstances that followed the duel sent Elijah in a quite different direction. Ahab returned to Jezreel, bringing the news to his wife, who had led the nation in the worship of Asherah. Her response was not as amicable as Ahabís.
Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. 3And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. 4But he himself went a dayís journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.
Here Elijah sounds more like Jonah. What were the circumstances that triggered Elijah's depression? Elijah had a true fear of Jezebel's claim to kill him, and fully knew of her power to carry out her wish. Jezebel had already proven herself as a persecutor of God's prophets by killing many in her efforts to purge the worship of the LORD in Israel. As the queen, she also had the authority and resources to locate and kill him, so he ran in fear of his life, crossing the border into Judah, out of her jurisdiction. It is curious that Elijah demonstrated bold courage when he stood for the LORD between Ahab and Israel, but his courage evaporated when he was called upon to stand up for himself.
Up to this point in Elijahís experience, God spoke clearly to him, and he saw God work in miraculous ways. However, all of these circumstances were in support of God's purposes for Israel. That purpose had, in Elijah's perspective, been fulfilled. Israel had repented, and the drought was over. Now, when he was in personal need, he looked to God for another miracle, but heard nothing. When his expectations were not fulfilled in his own way, his faith faltered. When he did not hear God's clear voice and direction, he felt abandoned. He wanted to hear God in all of His power. Elijah had a lesson to learn.
Do you see anything here that is a bit incongruous? Why should he be afraid of Jezebel? Would God not defend him as He did Israel? Remember, it is not the circumstance that creates depression; it is the interpretation of the circumstance. Depression is a very difficult condition to define. If you were to talk to Elijah you would certainly ask why he is afraid. He would probably agree that there is no rational reason for fear, but the fear and depression is still real. Depression is an irrational response to a circumstance, so the intervention with rational arguments often fails to help. Look at some of the self-destructive ways Elijah responded to the news.
- He was afraid.
- He ran from his responsibilities, even to another country.
- He isolated himself from those who could minister to him.
- He wallowed in self-pity, avalanching to a lack of self-worth, and a perceived lack of usefulness.
This is a typical cycle of depression. Sin leads to anxiety, which leads to depression, despair, and breakdown. (Hindson/Byrd).
If we look at where depression starts, we can begin to understand a little more about how to overcome it. It starts, again not with the circumstance, but by our interpretation of it, and that interpretation is a sinful one. It is an interpretation that is self-centered, and is not focused on God. The depression starts when we take our eyes off of God and His authority, and turn to our own desire and feeling of self-will. Elijah knew that the power on Mount Carmel was not his own, but was God's. It was God he was defending, not himself. It was when circumstances get personal that Elijah's lack of confidence shows itself. Elijah's source of confidence changed when He no longer relied on God, and that was Elijah's sin. Rather than placing his confidence in the power of God to protect him, he focused only on his powerlessness to defend himself against the authority of Jezebel. He understood that God would act to defend his nation, but Elijah's sin of low self-esteem caused him to think that God would not do the same for him alone. By personalizing the circumstances, Elijah had produced a no-win situation, because by himself he could never overcome Jezebel. By relying upon his own abilities, his situation was truly hopeless.
When we find ourselves in the depths of depression, we may often see this same pattern realized in our own lives. Elijah misunderstood and rejected God's promise of protection, and by so doing experienced an emotional avalanche as his world seemed to come crumbling down around him. However, was his world truly crumbling? All that had actually taken place was a verbal threat from a pagan queen.
The actions that one takes in response to depressionís triggers can start an avalanche of self-destruction. For Elijah, depression was a self-inflicted means of escape from the responsibilities of the real world. Elijah's fear resulted in decisions including running away and isolating himself from others. It is the isolation that can be most destructive, for a depressed person is his own worst counselor. Self-counsel when motivated by depression leads to despair, and ultimately can lead to breakdown. With few exceptions, it is this breakdown that leads to depression's worst outcome: violence or suicide.
God intervened in Elijah's situation and in doing so we see an example of how depression is overcome.
And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. 6And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. 7And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. 8And he arose, and did eat and drink,
Three things happened here. What were they?
- Elijah was approached by an angel, a messenger from God,
- Elijah was fed, given an opportunity for rest, and
- Elijah was given a specific, meaningful, task.
First, Elijah fell asleep. Often, those who are depressed will hide from their fears by sleeping. His sleep was interrupted by the touch of God's messenger. When someone is going through depression, intervention is needed. Note that the intervention was not aimed at Elijah's depression, but rather, in meeting some basic needs that Elijah had failed to fill. He was not eating. Often, depression leads to such a change in focus that individuals fail to take care of themselves as they usually would, a sign to others that there is a problem. Again, much time might be spent in bed; eating habits change for the worse (some people may overeat while others might fast), personal cleanliness and grooming habits may change.
The angel of the LORD laid Elijah down after feeding him the first time. Elijah did need rest. If we get ourselves into the slough of despond by way of an extremely stressful lifestyle, rest is needed. God ordained rest in the Sabbath as both a command and as an example. One cannot expect to live well on six or less troubled hours of sleep per day. The implication in this passage is that when the LORD's messenger laid Elijah down, he was able to actually rest well.
Finally, though Elijah's journey was one of escape, the messenger would turn the journey into one of purpose. God would use Elijah's response of fear and flight to teach him, to disciple him, and make him a better prophet. The messenger changed his random flight into a journey with a specific direction: Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses met God face to face.
And went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. 9And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? 10And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb after being cared for by God's messenger. One would think that Elijah would have overcome his despair when God had intervened, yet when the word of the LORD Himself came to Elijah, rather than respond in praise and worship, his focus was still on himself. One very important characteristic of depression is this self-centeredness. Elijah became so self-centered that he no longer fell in awe in God's presence. God asked Elijah a simple question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" I see two things of significance here. First, God called Elijah by his given name. What does it mean when the God of Creation calls you by name? His relationship with you is personal. He is not some far-away creator and dictator. Second, the question that God asked pointed directly to Elijah's sin. Where was Elijah supposed to be at this time? Had Elijah not responded to Jezebel in such a dramatic way, he would still be in Israel, serving as a prophet. Instead he had removed himself from Israel without God's command to do so. He had removed himself from the ministry and very purpose of his life. Elijah came to Mt. Sinai hoping to find God there. Note that there is no indication that the angel gave him specific instructions to journey to Sinai. However, Israelite tradition held that this was where one would come to meet God, since Moses met God there. God's question points at the inadequacy of that argument: yes, God was there on Mount Carmel, but God is also with him in Israel. There is no real need for Elijah to be here.
When a Christian is depressed, often one of the first questions asked is, "Where are you, God?" People seek out the sanctuary of the church the same way that Elijah sought out Mount Sinai. They are looking for God to perform some kind of sign or wonder that will make His presence felt. One who is often obsessed with the focus of their depression, and it would seem that only a miraculous sign can bring them out. Elijah finds himself at Mount Horeb looking for such a sign.
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: 12And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
When we are in the slough of despond, we want to hear God in the wind, earthquake, and fire. We want God to come to our defense in mighty power and demolish the source of our stress. When we do not experience such a response we wallow in self-pity arguing that God does not hear us, that our prayers do not get through the ceiling, or that we are not worthy of God's care. These irrational statements testify to a misunderstanding that is similar to that Elijah experienced, so God had a lesson for him (and us) to learn. God does not change. All of God's demonstrated power is exercised through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us in the center of our hearts as that "still small voice", that word of truth that we know is the real truth that exposes our folly for a lie.
The violence of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, like the violence of other circumstances can drown out the quiet and peaceful Word of the LORD. Likewise the volume of our own self-centeredness can drown out that voice. If we recognize this, we can stop looking for God in circumstances and restore our search for Him in our own hearts where he truly abides. We can stop looking for signs, and start listening to God's voice. Maybe that statement should be repeated: we can stop looking for signs and start listening to God's voice.
And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? 14And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Elijah had seen the signs he sought, and understood that the Word of God was not in them. He was now ready to listen to the LORD. Note that the LORD's question for Elijah did not change, nor did Elijah's response. Again, the circumstances that brought about this incident did not change. Elijahís stress was not in the circumstance; it was in Elijah's interpretation of it. It is Elijah's interpretation that needed changing. Elijah needed his confidence in God restored, as well as his confidence in the task to which God had called him.
the LORD said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: 16And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room.
God's word to Elijah was simple, and would completely change his life. (1) He revealed his presence to Elijah through that small voice, and (2) he told him to get back to work: get back to doing what it is that God called him to be doing. Yet, God brought him back to the task in a gentle way, calling him first to Syria to anoint a new king. However, the second assignment was quite significant: Elijah was to anoint Jehu to be king over Israel in Ahab's place; much like Samuel anointed David while Saul was king over all Israel. God had a plan to depose Ahab and Jezebel, and Elijah would be part of it. Furthermore, Elijah needed help in his ministry tasks, and the work that Elijah was doing would need to continue after the LORD calls him home. So, God commanded Elijah to anoint Elisha as a prophet and take him "under wing," training him in the ministry.
All of these tasks were those that Elijah had been called to, had been prepared for, and was well-qualified to do when he would submit himself to God rather than to the vagaries of life's circumstances. Trying to work in the frenetic and stressful pace of life without God was quite destructive to the spirit of Elijah who was so disposed to self-centeredness. However, the truth of the matter is simple: the true source of a Christian's strength, confidence, and purpose comes from God and His promises. When we fully rely on Him, as Elijah was intended to have done, we are equipped and strengthened to stand against the wiles of the devil and against our own shortcomings. We may be reminded of Paul's writings to the Ephesians when he listed the armor that God provides to protect us: truth, righteousness, the gospel, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (Eph 6:12 ff).
What impact can depression have on a Christian's ministry? Depression, and the sins that we attach to it, are all powerful tools that satan can use to minimize the effectiveness a Christian in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it might help us to realize that it is not God who inspires depression, but satan, and when we give into it, we are being obedient to satan, not to God. God has called us to ministry, and to a mission. Satan can sidetrack us by discouraging us, by causing us to question our self worth, or usefulness. The truth is, that the only worth we have is in God anyway, and His worth is infinite.
What are some of the ways we can overcome depression?
- Understand that the enemy is not the circumstance, it is our sinful interpretation of it.
- Recognize the signs of depression early, so that you can respond to it before you experience the avalanche.
- Don't feel guilty for depressed feelings. You are in good company.
- Believe that God is greater than your problem.
- Turn all those problems over to God in prayer, admitting that you are not the one to solve them.
- Believe that God has a purpose for your difficult circumstances.
- Realize that depression feeds on self-pity which must be confessed and forsaken as sin.
- Realize that you cannot always have your own way. God's way is always best, and sometimes His purposes are difficult to see.
- Realize that you are not responsible for everything that happens around you. Actually, you are personally responsible for very little.
- Acknowledge that you have no valid excuse for staying depressed.
- Get up, Get out, and face reality.
- Avoid major stressors. Recognize them as beyond your ability to handle, and give them to God.
- Recruit the help of a friend or counselor to avoid the errors of self-counsel.
- Get exercise, eat right, and take care of your body: it is the temple through which the Holy Spirit reveals Himself to you.
- Confess and forsake sinful actions and sinful thinking.
- Get your priorities in proper order.
- Get involved with the needs of somebody else.
God's purpose for you does not include your submission to the vagaries of situational depression. Recognize the signs of its presence and seek LORD as He is the One who will bring us home, and the homecoming is worth the effort. It is when we are home with the LORD that the abundance of peace, love, and joy that He promises will be found.