From a sermon series on 1 Kings by See Huang Lim, a missionary at IBF.
God’s Depressed Prophet
After the climatic competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, as readers we might think that the nation of Israel will finally turn back to God. Unfortunately, as we enter 1 Kings 19, we see Elijah losing hope. From this chapter, I want to highlight 3 points:
1) God’s depressed prophet,
2) God’s gentleness,
3) God can restore our hope.
[Read 1 Kings 19:1-18]
God’s Depressed Prophet
First, let’s look at God’s depressed prophet. Some psychologists define depression as loss of hope. As human beings, we need hope to keep living. Once people lose hope, they find it hard to get up in the morning, to eat, or continue doing normal things. Among depressed people, the rate of suicide is very high—27 times higher than the general population.
We can see that Elijah has lost hope. Elijah was probably expecting a huge revival. But in spite of the miracles in chapters 17 and 18, Queen Jezebel isn’t interested in the God of Israel and continued persecuting believers of the true God. Elijah must have thought, “How could these people see God work in such a mighty way and still choose to rebel against him?”
So deep was his depression that he wanted to die. Not even God’s prophets are immune to depression, though they have heard God’s voice and seen miracles.
There was a great British preacher called Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century. Thousands of people would fill a hall to listen to him. But during one religious meeting in London, there was a tragedy in Spurgeon’s life.
It happened in a large music hall where he gave a sermon. There were over 10,000 people that night. Some trouble-makers yelled, “Fire! Fire!”, which caused a stampede. 7 people died and 28 people were injured from the stampede. This incident affected Spurgeon for life although he continued his ministry. For many years, he would feel sad and start crying for no reason.
In the U.S. alone, one-third of evangelical pastors say they regularly battle discouragement, depression, or fear of inadequacy. Many pastors report feeling burnt out from ministry. A few months ago in California, the head pastor of large church took his own life, and he was only 30 years old.
So, I want to challenge the misconception that “real” Christians don’t have depression. Today, my purpose is not to explore the many causes of depression. Rather, I just want to reflect on Elijah’s story and highlight that anyone can succumb to depression.
I will, however, mention one cause of depression. That is, we live in a broken world. We sin, and we are surrounded by the sin of others. So let’s not be surprised that anxiety and depression are common in the human experience.
Moving on with Elijah’s story: What does God do when he sees his depressed prophet?
Throughout chapter 19, God treats Elijah with care and gentleness. The Lord could have scolded Elijah, “Stop your moping and get your act together. Why don’t you have faith in me?”
Rather, in verses 5 to 8: God provides food for him and lets him sleep. Before addressing Elijah’s spiritual condition, God cared for Elijah’s physical condition. Only then could Elijah make the long journey to Horeb, the mountain where he talked with God.
In verse 9, God speaks to Elijah in the mountain cave: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Some readers think God is reprimanding him: “Why are you hiding here instead of continuing your work?” But I think this question is a gentle invitation to Elijah to unburden his soul. Basically, I think God is saying, “Tell me what your problems are. Isn’t that the reason you came here?”
Then God listened to the prophet’s complaints twice. Elijah poured out his heart, saying how he has been doing his best to serve God and yet the people he tried to help want to kill him.
The wonderful thing about our God is that He doesn’t only listen to our praise and thanksgiving. He also listens when we feeling the total opposite of thankful. Did you know that the book of Psalms isn’t all about happy songs? One third of the Psalms are songs of lament.
Now, what else do you notice about God in this story? Let’s read verses 11 to 13 again:
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
That is the amazing character of our God. He is mightier than the strongest force of nature, and yet he is gentle.
We find this affirmed in the person of Jesus, whom the Bible tells us is “the exact representation” of God (reference: Hebrews 1:3). Jesus spent much time with people who were social outcasts or ill or poor. He is not a God who only takes interest in the powerful, clever, or successful.
In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” He is not a King who only wants to conquer and dominate his people through fear. Rather, this gentle King came to restore our broken world with his love.
Coming back to subject of depression, what can we learn from our gentle God? Perhaps we should also be gentle with those who are suffering.
Often, people who are depressed do not take good care of themselves. So, a kind gesture like treating them to a meal can be helpful.
Instead of just telling a depressed person, “You should pray more” or “You should trust in God more”, perhaps we could listen and try to understand them. A depressed person is already feeling terrible about themselves and lonely. Careless advice may simply cause them to feel more discouraged and isolated.
Another way we can help is to be patient. Deep problems do not have quick solutions. A person may relapse into old habits after making progress. Rather than be upset with them, we should commit our hopes for them to God. Psalm 34:18 says, God “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Care for them but recognize that it’s not your responsibility to “fix” their problems. Let God work in His way.
God can restore our hope
In Elijah’s case, what did God do? This brings me to my last point: God can restore our hope.
The cause of Elijah’s despair was Israel’s unrepentant ways and him being the last true prophet alive. In verse 18, God addresses Elijah’s despair. God says that Elijah is actually not alone. There are others – 7,000, in fact – whom God has preserved as his servants.
He also gives Elijah instructions of what to do next, including preparing Elisha to be Elijah’s successor. This showed Elijah that God still had plans for Israel, even though Israel was wayward. After this, did Elijah recover from his despair? We don’t know exactly what he felt after that, but we know that he followed God’s instructions.
We live in a broken world. If our attention is constantly on its brokenness, we lose sight of God’s plans for this world, which are still ongoing. We may also lose sight of God’s goodness, which He has proven in the past.
God wants to give us hope. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” These words were spoken concerning the nation of Israel, but I believe they are also true for each of our lives and also for the world.
I remembered the first year of being in Japan to be particularly difficult. Apart from transitioning to a new work environment and learning to teach children, which I had no prior experience doing, I had to deal with cultural and language adjustments. It was also in the middle of winter when we moved to Japan. Also, I felt the pressure of having to live up to the standards of the previous missionaries who stayed in Japan for 16 years and were very good at teaching children. I remembered falling sick very often during that stressful year.
I soon felt depressed. Many times, I felt that it was a mistake to move to Japan and felt like wanting to return to Malaysia. I was thankful for some people at church who were kind to listen and pray for me. Eventually, a friend of mine from Malaysia recommended that I see a Christian counselor, and through that counselor’s help, I was able to overcome my struggle and find a reason to continue staying in Japan.
One of the psalms that brought me hope when I was feeling down was Psalm 42. The songwriter of Psalm 42 explores his sadness and acknowledges it. In Psalm 42 verse 5, he writes “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” He even asks God in verse 9, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” At the same time, he counsels himself, “Put your hope in God.” He recalls his past experiences of God to remember that God loves him. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a solid foundation.
Let me close by talking again about Charles Spurgeon, the English preacher I mentioned earlier. Though he was known to be witty and humorous, he also experienced depression and anguish. His wife wrote that his anguish was so great, she sometimes feared that it would paralyze him from ever preaching again.
Spurgeon saw his own suffering as a part of God’s plan. Through suffering, he could understand the heart of Jesus more and also have more compassion for other suffering people. Perhaps he took this idea from Hebrews 2. Hebrews 2:14-18 talks about how Jesus understands our suffering:
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not the angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
In this broken world, there is only one thing we can truly rely on. We find it in a personal relationship with the God who cares about us.
In conclusion, God invites us to experience His gentleness and to find hope in Him. In return, we are called to follow after the Messiah in His gentleness to others who are hopeless. Let’s pray.