Depression is a psychological disorder that affects a person’s thoughts, moods, feelings, behavior, and physical health. People used to think it was “all in your head” and that if you really tried, you could “pull yourself out of it.” Today doctors know that depression is not a weakness, and that people cannot deal with the problem of depression without help.
Several months ago, an article published in the Chicago Tribune said that depression affects more than twenty-five percent of Americans of all ages and races. Depression rates are lower among married people, especially married men, and those in long-term, intimate relationships. Depression is higher among divorced people and those who live alone. Depression is also higher among people who do not go to church regularly.
Why is depression higher among people who do not go to church regularly? The reason is because they are deprived of the best medicine for depression: a personal relationship with God. Although depression is an illness that affects many people, with God’s help anyone can come out of depression and live a victorious life.
The best example of this great truth is the prophet Elijah. When the story of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-40 is analyzed, one discovers that Elijah had a great victory on Mt. Carmel against the four hundred prophets of Baal. At the request of Elijah, God had demonstrated his great power by consuming the sacrifice Elijah offered to God.
By his action, Elijah demonstrated that Yahweh was the only God of Israel. The inaction of Baal and the meaningless prayers of his prophets showed that Baal could not answer the prayers of his followers because Yahweh was the only true God.
Everyone recognized that Elijah was God’s prophet. This was Elijah’s request when he prayed to Yahweh: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding” (1 Kings 18:36).
Elijah’s purpose in calling for this confrontation was to show the people of Israel that Yahweh was the true God. Elijah prayed: “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God” (1 Kings 18:37). God answered Elijah’s prayer by sending fire from heaven, thus vindicating Elijah’s work as a prophet. God showed that he was a true God by giving Elijah a great victory.
Elijah followed the Deuteronomic teaching about false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-18) by putting the false prophets of Baal to death: “If prophets . . . appear among you and . . . say, ‘Let us follow other gods’ . . . those prophets . . . shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
But when Jezebel heard what Elijah had done to her prophets, she promised to kill him the next day. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with a severe message. She said: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 King 19:2).
When Elijah heard about Jezebel’s threat, he was greatly afraid. He became so depressed that “he got up and fled for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). It is in Elijah’s experience that we learn about the consequences of depression and how to overcome it.
When does depression happen? Generally, depression happens after a mountain-top experience, after a tragic event in one’s life, when one is afraid, or when a person believes there is nothing to be gained through personal effort.
Elijah’s depression came out of his mountain-top experience: he was on Mount Carmel when he gained his great victory. But, soon that victory caused him to fear for his life. When his life was threatened, Elijah went through the valley, the valley of deep darkness. Because of Jezebel’s threat, Elijah was afraid; he felt sad, helpless, and hopeless.
What causes depression? There are many reasons for depression. Stress is one of the major causes of depression. Stress can be caused by health problems, death in the family, financial crisis, anger, and many other reasons.
Depression can also occur because of conflict. Some of these depressing feelings are generally caused by a close relative or a friend. In some cases it can be a spouse, a member of the family, one’s boss, a co-worker, or even one’s enemy. In Elijah’s case, that person was Jezebel.
What are the symptoms of depression? The story of Elijah reflects the condition of a depressed person.
1. A depressed mood. A depressed person feels sad, helpless, and hopeless and may experience crying spells. For Elijah, his depression was caused by fear. Elijah was depressed because he was afraid and because he believed his situation was hopeless.
2. Loss of interest in normal daily activities. Depressed people feel no interest or pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. For Elijah, he desired to stop being a prophet; he ran away from what he was doing.
3. Sleep disturbances. Sleeping too much or having problems sleeping can be signs of depression.
For Elijah, the problem was sleeping too much. 1 Kings 19:4-6 says: “He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.”
4. Significant weight loss or gain; an increased or reduced appetite. For Elijah it was a loss of appetite. The angel had to command him: “Get up and eat.”
5. Thoughts of death. Depressed people have a persistent negative view of themselves and the future. They may have thoughts of death, dying, or suicide. Read again what Elijah said: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:3-4).
6. Low self-esteem. Depressed people feel worthless and have excessive guilt. Elijah said: “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
7. Depressed people feel that they are the only ones facing problems, that they are left alone in a cruel world. This is how Elijah felt. He said: “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10).
Was Elijah depressed? He sure was.
When people are depressed, there are several ways by which they can deal with their depression.
One way to treat depression is by visiting a doctor who will prescribe some drugs to deal with the symptoms of depression. Medications are available that are generally safe and effective, even for the most severe case of depression. With proper treatment, most people with serious depression improve, often within weeks, and can return to normal daily activities.
Another way of dealing with depression is through counseling. When a person is facing a stressful situation, counseling may help a person deal with that difficult situation. When a person is facing problems with another person, a skillful counselor may provide helpful advice to deal with people who cause stress in one’s life.
I believe that medication and counseling are effective in dealing with depression, but I also believe that the ultimate solution to depression is God: “I am the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15:26).
When God met Elijah on Mount Horeb, God told his depressed prophet: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). Elijah was in the wrong place. What God was trying to tell Elijah was that he could not run away from his problem. To help heal the prophet’s damaged emotion, God allowed Elijah to have a personal encounter with him: “The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by’” (1 Kings 19:11).
Since a personal relationship with God can be a solution to depression, people of faith can deal with depression by learning to live with God every day.
What happens when people of faith are afraid? They can pray: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be afraid”(Psalm 23:1).
What happens when people of faith are filled with stress? They can pray: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters”(Psalm 23:2).
What happens when people of faith are down emotionally? They can pray: “He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3).
What happens when people of faith cannot live on the mountain top? What happens when they have to face the fearful valleys? They can pray: “Even though I walk through the valley of the deep darkness I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
What happens when the enemies of people of faith make their lives miserable? They can pray: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5).
What happens when people of faith think they are lonely? They can pray: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6).
When people of faith are depressed, what is the answer to their depression? They must say and do this: “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Depression is real. But God is more real than depression.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary