In recent months I have studied and preached on the life of Elijah. Most weeks I reference James’ description of him as a man of like passions. He faced the same highs and lows that do, he knew strength and weakness, joy and sadness, victory and defeat, peace and discouragement, and perhaps even depression.
At Cherith, he was cut down, humbled, at Zarephath he was refined in the furnace, and then at Carmel, he prayed and showed the people the God who answers by fire.
Throughout his life, so far, we can relate to his experiences. But reaching 1 Kings 19 we see a drastic turn as Elijah plummets into discouragement, and I would even say depression. In verse 4 he voices an emotion I am sure many have felt, “It is enough…”
Elijah over the days and weeks covered in 1 Kings 19 came to understand that when we come to the end of our strength, we find God’s has just begun.
As we look at a few lessons from Elijah’s experience, I want to make a few disclaimers.
- There are varying degrees of discouragement and depression. Sometimes the solution is quick and comparatively easy. Other times the answer comes through slow, careful counsel.
- Some battles with discouragement and depression are spiritual/emotional while others are physical. Both have unique approaches and we must be careful to recognize the differences.
- I do not intend to condemn or criticize those who struggle with depression/discouragement. God answered Elijah’s despair with compassion and patience. We ought to do the same with ourselves and others.
- Some struggles are preventable, and while there is a degree of responsibility in some cases it is not profitable nor possible to guilt discouraged people back to health. However, it is wise to take steps to prevent spiraling into discouragement where possible.
- As with many spiritual truths, much of what I cover here is simple, but that does not mean it is easy.
Why Did Elijah Face Discouragement/Depression?
1. Elijah was Physically and Emotionally Spent (1 Kings 18-19)
For years Elijah had been on the edge. While it may seem counterintuitive that following a great victory Elijah would snap, that is exactly what we see. Often a person can push on at heightened stress levels for long periods but then the break comes when the stress has gone. We see this often with military personnel with PTSD. When the mind finally feels safe enough to relax that is when the problems for many begins.
2. Elijah was Caught up in the Emotions of Victory (19:1)
Sometimes the moments after victory can be our most vulnerable. Climbing down from a mountain can be more dangerous than going up. Marathon runners sometimes do more harm to themselves after a race then during their training.
Sometimes after a victory, we let our guard down and the enemy finds a weakness. Or it may be that when we gain a victory the enemy doubles-down and launches a counterattack.
We must remember that we await our ultimate place of rest in glory. It doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the victories God gives in this life. Neither does it doesn’t mean we dread a battle to follow after each win. But it does mean we remember we’re on the battlefield far from home and moment-by-moment we must trust the Lord.
3. Elijah was Not Thinking Realistically/Clearly (19:1-3)
Elijah ran for his life because of a threat. Who threatened him? What was the source of the threat? Jezebel. But was this someone who had the power to fulfill their threat? Was Jezebel greater than God? Was Jezebel more of a threat than the 850 prophets he just defeated? The answer may seem obvious to us, but to Elijah, and to anyone struggling with discouragement or depression, things are not always so clear.
When we are discouraged or depressed, we will often be inconsistent in our thoughts and behavior. One moment Elijah is fleeing to save his life, the next he is praying for God to take his life.
If we know we are prone to such thought patterns when we spiral into discouragement, then we need to take steps to help ourselves in advance. It helps to have a circle of trusted friends who we can rely on. Friends we will choose to trust when we cannot trust ourselves. In advance of the battle, we must determine to trust what we know about God from His Word, rather than on what we feel.
4. Elijah Focused on His Fear, Instead of His Father
Another reason Elijah struggled was that he fixed his eyes on Jezebel, instead of on God, the circumstances, rather than His Creator. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can walk on water through the storm.
Elijah Responded in the Flesh Instead of Praying. Instead of taking Jezebel’s threat to the Lord, he ran. Fear ought not to control the believer’s life.
The remedy to fear is belief. All through the account of his life, Elijah waits for a Word from the Lord and when the Lord spoke he believed and obeyed.
This one time he reacts instead of waiting for a Word from God. He runs for HIS life – all other actions have been for God’s glory or Israel’s good; this is the first time we see him act for himself and he falls.
5. Elijah Isolated Himself from Strengthening Relationships (19:4)
We also must note that Elijah left his servant behind. Some old-school commentators commend him for not making others witness his struggle. But this is wrong.
Often when we face discouragement we isolate ourselves, making ourselves even more discouraged. The times we most need others around us to lift us up we often push others away.
In Proverbs 27:17 we read of the benefits of friendship (iron sharpens iron), in Ecclesiastes we read that two are better than one, when Jesus sent out His disciples in Mark 6 He sends them in teams of two, and Paul followed that pattern by working as a team.
When we find ourselves facing discouragement or depression and we just want to push everyone way, we need to do the opposite and bring a trusted friend near.
6. Elijah Got Lost in Self-Pity (1 Kings 19:4)
Of all the problems we see this comes across as perhaps the harshest. However, self-pity is a real issue and must be confronted.
Elijah would claim to be the only one standing (I, only I remain) but this sounds simply proud. Israel had repented and turned to the Lord. Obadiah revealed that several hundred had been saved. But Elijah put himself at the center and lost sight of the truth. Further, he would complain that he was no better than his fathers. However, which of his fathers had been used of God to raise the dead? He seemed to excel many of his forefathers. However, even if he did not, why did that matter.
Again, he was not thinking clearly.
Our self-pity will lie to us about the problem and will pull us from the solution.
So, what can we do?
At the risk of oversimplifying things I will finish with these very brief points:
• Look after yourself physically and it will help you spiritually (it’s not a coincidence that God’s first step with Elijah was to feed him and make him sleep)
• Enjoy victories, but don’t get distracted by them.
• Lean on what God’s Word lets you know, not on what you feel.
• Keep your eyes on God, not the problem.
• Pray, don’t just react with instinct.
• Have a trusted network of spiritual friends
• Humbly worship, don’t focus on self.