Test Your Perception: Was Elijah Depressed and Suicidal?

Always the Fight Ministries: Displaying compassion for those fighting mental illness, addiction, or abuse. (c)2019Nancy Virden

Taken from 1 Kings 18, 19.

Elijah was a preacher and prophet whose account is recorded in the Old Testament. Some say he was merely afraid, others say he lost his faith.  In my opinion, Elijah experienced what appear to be textbook symptoms of major depression. Let us take a deeper look. Follow along in the Bible passage here. 

Evidence/Action #1:  Elijah’s mindset seems negative as he complains twice he is alone, the only prophet of God left in his country. Time passes between these two statements, during which a fellow prophet tells him there are at least one hundred others. Elijah experiences a great “high” of victory over prophets of Baal, a foreign idol. 

Argument for Depression #1: Although Elijah knew of other prophets, including the one who spoke with him,  he repeated that he was alone. Depression works that way sometimes. Negativity, both fuel for and a symptom of depression can distort one’s view of reality. Hope hides in the darkness. Good moments are not enough to pull us all the way back out. In addition, the adrenaline from a victory can add stress as the rush depletes.

Evidence/Action #2: Perhaps as many as two years later, Jezebel the queen makes a threat to his life. He runs away and his mood quickly weakens. The first action Elijah takes with regard to this is to isolate himself by leaving his servant behind and enter the wilderness alone. He has plenty of time to ruminate and worry in the midst of nowhere.

Argument for Depression #2:  Some chronic types of depression are felt daily to varying degrees. A triggering event such as loss, trauma, or fear can take the mood disorder further and lead to major depression. Notice that Elijah goes a day’s journey into formidable wasteland described in Deuteronomy 8:15 as lacking water and full of scorpions. He is not unfamiliar with the characteristics of this landscape, yet seemingly takes no food or drink. This implies acting out in despair. 

Evidence/Action #3: He tells God he is done and prays to die.

Argument for Depression #3:  He feels worthless. Past efforts seem futile as he believes nothing has succeeded in bringing his nation back to God. Perhaps he had expected to die by now after a full day in the sun without water and is frustrated. No doubt he experiences consequences from his lack of self-care.

The view that depression equals spiritual unbelief or sin is short-sighted. Anyone may choose to ignore God’s promises and dwell in fear. However, when severe depression brings a follower of Christ to the point they beg to die, it is worth noting that they are asking God.

How does God deal with Elijah’s mood?

Evidence/Action #4:  God sends an angel, urging Elijah to take the first step toward self-care.  The angel encourages Elijah to act opposite of overwhelming emotions. He says, “Get up! Eat.”

Elijah manages to function this little bit, then falls back, his energy spent.

Argument for Depression #4:  As an all-knowing God, it strikes me that he would understand how to respond to Elijah’s negativity and sense of hopelessness. Elijah’s symptoms seem textbook so far and God’s response is a therapeutic one. He does not reprimand Elijah for emotional pain. He does not scold him for wanting to die. He allows him to rest. 

No quick fix seems to exist when it comes to struggling with severe depression.  We see in Elijah’s experience that God did not make his depression go away. Healing works on a continuum and only one notch forward at a time leads to willingness, then desire to live.

Evidence/Action #5: The angel again instructs Elijah to eat for strength, then tells him to walk. He warns that the journey ahead will be too much.

Argument for Depression #5: Some say it takes great courage to focus on living when all one wants is to die. God knows Elijah needs hope and courage. Perhaps Elijah also needs to remember that life is too hard for anyone to bear on human strength alone. He has been trying to control what is out of his control. 

Depression is complex. God will use this length of time to teach us restorative lessons. After eating, Elijah accepts by faith that God wants him alive.

Evidence/Action #6: Elijah travels for forty days and forty nights on the strength of one meal. He exerts himself to an impossible point while his weakness is met by God’s power. Finally resting in a cave, God asks him to define his circumstances. “Why are you here?”

Argument for Depression #6: This scripture does not imply Elijah’s mood lifts. He answers God saying,  “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. (My translation: I have poured every ounce of my being into what I care about most.) The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. (My translation: All I have done has added up to a big zero.)  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. (My translation: There is no hope for change.)”

Evidence/Action #7:  God opens communication, listening patiently for Elijah to vent and to spell out exactly what are his fears. He knows we learn best when we are given room to discover answers for ourselves.

God tells Elijah to wait and watch for him to come by. A mighty hurricane-force wind, powerful earthquake, and raging fire pass the cave, but God is not in any of them.   Following the perils, God presents himself by speaking gently in a whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Argument for Depression #7: God has given Elijah several opportunities now to watch his unmatched power at work. The intended lesson is rewiring Elijah’s brain to figure out there is no need for one person to try and fix the world’s problems because Almighty God is in charge. The gentle whisper pulls him close as God’s love proves he has not rejected Elijah. Still, Elijah answers with discouragement. Blinded by negativity, recent miracles are not his focus. 

Evidence/Action #8:  God directs Elijah to keep moving. He tells him to return to work and continue fulfilling his calling as a prophet of God. God also encourages him with the fact that seven thousand others also trust in God! 

Argument for Depression #8: Elijah is probably preferring isolation. God gives him a reason to move out and be with people again. Elijah receives a motive to continue living, a specific assignment only he can fulfill.  This is a tender, therapeutic way for God to challenge Elijah’s depression-fueled negative thoughts with a sense of purpose.    

Evidence/Action #9:  His drive to honor God as he has always tried to do, draws Elijah out of the cave. No scripture yet implies he felt better emotionally.

Argument for Depression #9: This is an example of how mood may be affected when expectations or felt needs are not met “soon enough.” In a state of depression, one may lose hope because relief is not in sight.  However, Elijah obeys despite his feelings. This is faith-in-action, not proof of joy.

All this time that God is keeping Elijah alive during this trial, he accepts him as-is, walks with him, encourages and provides for him, and allows his despairing prophet the time necessary to revive. God is also preparing to meet Elijah’s great need.   

One of the prophets who remains loyal to God is Elisha (Note the spelling). He is God’s chosen right-hand-man for Elijah, yet until now has not been ready. Soon, the two meet as Elijah trusts God’s leading and anoints Elisha. Finally, Elijah is no longer alone.

Then again, he never was.

Today’s Helpful Word

1 Kings 19: 7,8

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.

 

 

**** COMMENTS ALWAYS WELCOME

NOTE:  I am not a doctor or mental health professional, and speak only from personal experiences and observations. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental or behavioral health care.

If you are feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, in the U.S. call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or for a list of international suicide hotlines, go here.

If you are suicidal with a plan, immediately call 911 in the U.S. or go to your nearest emergency room. (for international emergency numbers, go here ). Hope and help are yours!

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