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 appears textbook symptoms of major depression. Let us take a deeper look. Follow along in the Bible passage here, and leave a comment to continue a thoughtful discussion. 

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 he experiences a great “high” of victory over prophets of Baal, a foreign idol. Afterward, Jezebel the queen makes a threat on his life. He quickly weakens.

Argument for Depression #1: Elijah knew there were at least 100 prophets besides himself.*  Depression works that way sometimes. Negativity, both fuel for and 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, an adrenaline rush of victory can add to stress as it depletes.

Evidence/Action #2: The first action Elijah takes with regard to his mood is to isolate himself by leaving his servant behind and entering the desert alone. He has plenty of time to ruminate and worry in the midst of nowhere.

Argument for Depression #2:  Notice he goes a day’s journey into formidable wasteland described as lacking water and full of scorpions.** He is not unfamiliar with his surroundings, yet takes no food or drink. This implies major depression and acting out in that mindset. Isolation is a noticeable symptom of depression and keeps a person locked in their own thoughts.

Evidence/Action #3:  He prays to die.

Argument for Depression #3:  He feels done, and worthless. Trying seems futile.  No doubt he experiences consequences from his lack of self-care.

The view that depression equals spiritual unbelief is short-sighted. Anyone may choose to ignore God’s promises and dwell in fear. However, when major 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 just 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 major depression.  We see in Elijah’s experience that God did not just make his depression go away. Recovery is 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. Already having reached the point of despair, God knows Elijah needs hope and courage. Perhaps Elijah needs to remember that life is too hard for anyone to bear only by human strength and that he was never the one in charge.  After eating, Elijah accepts by faith alone that God wants him alive.

Evidence/Action #6: Elijah’s weakness is matched by God’s strength. He travels twenty-four hours per day for forty days and forty nights. There is no one day on, next day off schedule. He exerts himself to an impossible point while God provides for his needs.

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 his mood lifted. Elijah 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 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 shows himself by speaking gently with a whisper. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Argument for Depression #7: Elijah again answers in discouragement. Still blinded by emotional pain, 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: It is a reality check. Elijah is given a reason to keep living—a purpose. He has a specific assignment that only he can finish. This is a gentle, therapeutic way for God to challenge Elijah’s depression-fueled negative thoughts.    

Evidence/Action #9:  Driven to honor God as he has always tried to do, Elijah leaves the cave to accomplish what God is asking. No scripture implies he felt better emotionally.

One of those who remain 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.

Argument for Depression #9: This is an example of how answers to expectations or felt needs such as Elijah’s may seem too slow in coming. In depression, one may lose hope when relief is not in sight.   

Elijah obeys again despite his feelings. This is faith-in-action, not spiritual failure.  God kept Elijah alive while he waited, did he not?

When Elisha finally becomes his assistant, Elijah is, after all this time, 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.

*1 Kings 18:13

**Deuteronomy 8:15


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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