If you were to ask a preacher who was the greatest preacher to come out of England, you would probably hear the name Charles Spurgeon. His preaching has been recorded in a number of books and it is clear that he knew his Bible and was greatly used by God in the 1800’s. His church was very large and his sermons were printed in the newspaper every week. He taught young preachers and has written many books. But did you know that Spurgeon suffered with depression during his ministry?
“When articulating his own depression, Charles Spurgeon spoke with brazen clarity: ‘The worst cloud of all is deep depression of spirit. … The worst ill in the world is a depressed spirit. … Of all things in the world to be, dreaded despair is the chief. … Depression is … the shadow of death. … Depression is … my horror of great darkness.’ These were not mere pithy, little sayings doled out to be quotable. Rather, they were forged in a lifetime of brute experience. From the age of fifteen to his death in 1892, Spurgeon was never fully liberated from ‘Giant Despair.'”4
The prophet Elijah had a similar bout with depression. You might not think such a mighty prophet of the Lord would ever become discouraged. In fact, he had just experienced a miracle on Mount Carmel. God had answered his prayer by sending fire from heaven in front of a wide-eyed crowd (1 Kings 18:20-40). The enemy had been defeated and all of Israel saw raw evidence that God was real. But the next day, a message from an enemy triggered his depression and he was ready to give up. Read the next chapter to see how God helped Elijah.
- How did depression affect Elijah?
After all that the Lord had done with Elijah, it may seem surprising that he suffered from depression. But it did. As we look at the chapter, look for the things that led to Elijah’s depression.
It came after an emotional high (1 Kings 19:1).
On Mount Carmel, God had answered Elijah’s prayer, consumed his offering, and defeated the prophets of Baal. The people realized that they had been wrong in worshipping idols instead of God. This was a great victory for God and Elijah.
It was triggered by a threat (1 Kings 19:2).
“It is difficult to believe that Elijah is the same man who defied 450 prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. He seems to be a different man, but there is an explanation for his condition.”3 When Jezabel heard the news, she sent a threatening message to Elijah telling him what she planned to do. Her grandiose statements basically meant that she would be killing Elijah in the next 24 hours. Could she do it? She was the queen at the time, so she had the ability to do it. It was a real threat.
It made him want to quit (1 Kings 19:3-4).
The victory on Mount Carmel was soon forgotten and Elijah ran for his life. “He ran all the way through the kingdom of Judah to the southernmost town in the land, Beersheba”1 and left his servant there. Then he went another day’s journey into the wilderness hoping to stay hidden from Jezabel’s assassins. Having arrived at a broom tree, Elijah finally broke. “Let me die!” “Elijah had forgotten the lessons God had been teaching him at Kerith, Zarephath, and Carmel. His eyes were on his circumstances rather than on the Lord.”1
It caused him to think he was alone (1 Kings 19:10,14).
An angel miraculously provided food and water for Elijah to drink. After eating, he traveled for forty days and nights to Mount Horeb. This was “the very place where God had revealed Himself to Moses and Israelites and where He had entered into a covenant with His Chosen People.”1 Despite God’s provision and safety, Elijah was still overcome with depression. He was convinced that Israel had rejected God despite his zealous efforts and that he was the only one left. “Of course he knew that he was not the only one left of all the faithful remnant (cf. 18:13), but he felt all alone.”1 He mentioned this twice to God.
- How did God respond to Elijah?
As the all-wise Creator of people, God knows what is best and always does what is best. He knows how to help each person who is suffering from depression. So as we look at how he handled Elijah, take the time to note how God did it.
He met his physical needs (1 Kings 19:5-7).
Before leaving for Horeb, God sent an angel to feed Elijah twice. An angel awakened him to show a baked cake and a jar of water. After sleeping for a while, Elijah was awakened to eat a second time. This food enabled him to travel all the way to Horeb.
He asked him a question (1 Kings 19:9,13).
God didn’t lambast Elijah for his depression. Instead, he asked him a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” When you think about it, Elijah was no longer in the place he was needed. His fear had driven him far away from the spiritual battlefield of Israel. God’s question was a reality check. Why was he here? By these questions, God was causing Elijah to think more clearly. But God didn’t just ask the question. He also listened to his answer.
He gave him something to do (1 Kings 19:15-17).
It is interesting that God did not respond to Elijah’s depressed speech. Instead, he gave Elijah something to do. He told him to travel from Horeb all the way to Damascus. There he was to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his replacement.
“These leaders would help turn Israel away from the evil of idol worship and would facilitate the total destruction of the wicked line of Ahab and Jezebel: “And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death” (1 Kings 19:17). Elijah had dealt a death-blow to Baal-worship in Israel, and the three men Elijah would anoint would remove the remaining vestiges of that particular form of idolatry.”2
Whether Elijah’s depressed thinking ended his usefulness to the Lord, I am not sure. But I do know that having something to do must have caused him to feel useful again.
He revealed his wrong thinking (1 Kings 19:18).
Was Elijah the only one left who was still faithful to the Lord? In the previous chapter, Obadiah had told him that he was taking care of 100 prophets whom he had hidden in two caves. So, Elijah wasn’t the only one. But “fear and discouragement caused him to see only the dark side.”1 God answered his wrong thinking by telling him that he still had 7000 faithful believers in Israel. But God didn’t expose his wrong thinking until the right time.
Did you notice how God patiently worked with Elijah during his depression? He met his physical needs, asked him a question, gave him something to do, and finally revealed his wrong thinking. It was a process that could be helpful in working with others who are suffering from depression today. God didn’t yell at Elijah but slowly worked with him seeking to bring him back to where he needed to be.
- How should we treat depression?
McGee brings up a good point. “I am sure that some very pious Christian would have given Elijah a fine little lecture on how to be cheerful and optimistic and smile in his situation. They would have told him that Romans 8:28 was still in the Bible. May I say to you, I don’t think you could have gotten Elijah to smile.”3 Do you feel equipped to work with someone who is depressed? Most of us probably don’t think so. A depressed person often thinks irrationally, and we don’t understand why. But after watching how God dealt with Elijah, we should have learned a few things.
Consider the person’s physical condition.
When someone is going through a depressed state of mind, it may be partly due to the person’s physical condition. When someone is tired, exhausted, malnourished, or sick, they may not think as clearly as they would otherwise. This is something to take into account when dealing with a depressed person.
Carefully ask questions and then listen.
It is easy to “know” the solution to someone’s depression before you actually do know it. Your past experience or knowledge of counseling may give you confidence that shouldn’t be used at the beginning. Asking questions without a judgmental motive can allow the depressed person to voice their feelings and give you a better idea of what is going on. Listening is the key. If you speak before giving the person the opportunity to speak, you might end up being as helpful as Job’s friends.
At the right time, expose wrong thinking.
There is a time when wrong thinking should be exposed. But patience and self-control are key here. Instead of becoming angry with what the depressed person is saying or doing, take the time to listen and observe before pointing out the wrong thinking. This takes a great deal of patience but will be received if you are willing to wait for the right time.
God has not blessed every Christian with medical, psychological, or counseling expertise, but each of us has the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom given to us by Christ himself. As we interact with people who are depressed, let us follow God’s example and lovingly and patiently work with them with the hope that God will help them out of their depression. And let us continue to pray for God’s wisdom as we seek to know what is best to say and do in each situation.
1 Constable 528.
2 “Why was Elijah afraid of Jezebel?”
3 McGee 291.
Albert, Brian, “Spurgeon Can Help Your Depression” as viewed at www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/spurgeon-can-help-your-depression on 12/17/2023.
Constable, Thomas L., “1 Kings” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1989.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. II. Joshua through Psalms, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.
“Why was Elijah afraid of Jezebel?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=6434 on 12/17/2023.