Handling Discouragement and Situational Depression
We all have times in our lives when negative circumstances begin to affect us emotionally. We wouldn’t consider ourselves clinically depressed but we are experiencing some pretty significant “down” feelings. This is referred to as situational depression, reactive depression or just plain discouragement. Symptoms of this condition include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, disruption of normal eating patterns, negative thinking, tendency to cry more often and even suicidal thoughts.
The Bible relates an event in the life of the prophet Elijah when he was experiencing this kind of depression. The way that God dealt with the prophet can give some insights into how we might deal with this condition in our own lives or in the life of someone we know.
Let’s start with a little background. Elijah was a prophet to Northern Israel (the Kingdom of Israel had split into Northern Israel and Judah after Solomon’s reign) in the days when Ahab and Jezebel were ruling the land. These two leaders were some of the most ungodly rulers in Israel’s history. They led people away from worshipping Jehovah and promoted the idolatrous worship of Ba’al, a heathen god. Elijah was sent to Israel to call them back to God.
As we pick up the narrative in I Kings 17, Elijah confronts King Ahab and communicates a message from God that it will not rain in Israel for 3 years. The King knew this drought would cause famine and economic ruin for his country so he threatened to kill Elijah. Elijah was directed by God to hide out by a brook (Cherith) where the water from the brook and a miraculous supply of food brought by ravens would sustain him. Of course, drought meant that eventually the brook would dry up. Elijah stayed by the brook, watching daily as it got smaller and smaller until the day came when there was no water. On that day, God spoke to him and told him to go to Zarephath (imagine the faith it took to stay put and wait!). There a widow would care for him. God empowered Elijah to preform two miracles for the widow. He created a bottomless supply of flour and oil and when the widow’s son got sick and died, he raised him from the dead! Obviously Elijah was filled with the Spirit and power of God.
Finally in I Kings 18, Elijah comes out of hiding and confronts King Ahab, challenging him to a contest between Jehovah and Baal. The nation gathers on Mt. Carmel where the 450 prophets of Baal begin praying for their god to send fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice they have placed on the altar. They pray and go through all kinds of antics to try to get Baal to answer but to no avail. At evening, Elijah prays a simple prayer and fire comes down from heaven and consumes the sacrifice AND the altar. The people of Israel proclaim that Jehovah is God and they kill all of the prophets of Baal. Quite a significant victory!
This is where things go downhill for Elijah. It is important to note that up to this point Elijah has seemed strong, consistent, patient and faithful. However, upon hearing of the death of all of her prophets, Queen Jezebel makes a determined threat to take Elijah out (I Kings 19:1-2). This threat causes Elijah to run away, throw himself down under a tree and request that God take his life. He is basically saying… “I am done!” Elijah’s circumstances had become too much for him and he fell into discouragement/depression even to the point of asking God to take his life (I Kings 19:3-5).
This is where God steps in and walks Elijah out of depression. God’s method, of course, is genius and provides a template for us to follow! Here is how it unfolds:
God finds Elijah under the tree. With a gentle touch He awakens Elijah and gives him something to eat and drink. Elijah eats and then lies back down to rest again. After awhile the Lord gives another gentle nudge to awaken Elijah and gives him another meal. Up to this point, God has not asked Elijah any questions, hasn’t expressed any disappointment and hasn’t judged Elijah at all.
The first thing to address when you find yourself discouraged or depressed is your physical condition. Elijah had been through quite a bit leading up to Jezebel’s threat. He was exhausted. God’s first remedy was to let him sleep and to feed him. It is important to make sure you are getting proper rest and eating healthy. You may also want to have a medical exam since some mood dips can be chemically induced. God has allowed for the invention of many different types of medications that can be very helpful to change the body chemistry of the depressed individual and bring relief. Note, however that this is not the end of the treatment. Addressing the physical needs through rest, diet and possible medication needs to be followed by addressing the emotional/mental/spiritual aspects of the depression.
Once Elijah has been refreshed, God asks him a question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” This question is not an accusation but was meant to get Elijah to verbalize what was going on in his mind and emotions that had caused such a desperate response. Elijah’s answer (I’ve been faithful but it didn’t work, I’m all alone I Kings 19:10) revealed some of the causes of Elijah’s discouragement.
a) Elijah is believing a lie. He is believing that he is all alone when the truth is much different. This is very common when we find ourselves depressed or discouraged. Certain negative thoughts have gotten into our minds and taken over. Later God will challenge this lie with truth to help bring Elijah out of his doldrums. I encourage depressed clients to journal their negative thoughts, find Scriptural truth to challenge the negative thoughts and renew their minds with those truths.
b) Elijah was focused on what God hadn’t done rather than on what God had done. God had miraculously provided for Elijah at the brook, preformed amazing miracles through Elijah at Zarephath and showed up in a big way on Mt. Carmel. Elijah was literally on the mountain top in his ministry. I am sure he expected things to turn around for him and for the nation after the contest. Jezebel’s threat was NOT what Elijah expected. Elijah focused on the fact that God did not handle the Jezebel problem instead of focusing on all of the problems God did handle. What expectation might be behind your own discouragement? Surrender that to God and focus on all that God has done for you in the past.
God asked Elijah to travel to Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai). It was a 40 day journey and gave Elijah a lot of time to keep reflecting. Once there, God wanted to remind Elijah who He was. He sent an earthquake, a wind and a fire but God did not speak through those. He chose to speak to Elijah in a still small voice. The message was that while God is the God of the big events, He also cares for each of us personally. Mt. Sinai is where God had entered into a relationship with His people Israel and he was reminded Elijah that, in spite of the idolatry, He was still Israel’s God and more importantly, He was still Elijah’s God.
Perhaps it would be good for you to remind yourself of who you are in Christ. I am God’s child. I am loved. I am forgiven. I am accepted in the beloved. I am complete in Him. These truths give us confidence in our relationship with God and give us strength to stand up to any negative circumstance.
God did need to correct the lie that Elijah was believing. Elijah was discouraged because he FELT like the only one left following God. However God still had 7000 others who had not bowed down to Baal (I Kings 19:18). Sitting with God and letting Him reassure us of His love, care and presence is good but it may also be necessary to reach out to people in our lives who care. Feeling connected to others helps us feel better about ourselves.
God gave Elijah time to get over his depression but at some point it was time to get back to work. God commanded Elijah to get busy doing his job again, anointing Kings and even enlisting a new prophet, Elisha (I Kings 19:15-17). It is possible to get stuck in the recovery process and spend too much time reflecting. At some point shifting our focus from ourselves (introspection) to others (ministry) plays a huge role in pulling us out of our down moods. There are always people who have needs that you can touch. Reaching out and ministry to others energizes us as we become a channel for God’s love and spirit to flow through.
I hope these thoughts help you if you are struggling. Don’t hesitate to reach out if the depression/discouragement doesn’t lift. Sometimes we need the help of someone else to guide us through the process.