I’m starting a new bi-weekly series where I will share some of my favorite papers written when I was in seminary studying counseling. They will be about faith, science, and faith + science!
The Bible is not a psychotherapy manual, but the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 reveals much about depression, both in how humans experience it and in how God reacts to it. After Elijah witnesses the mighty power of God in burning up sacrifices (1 Ki 18:38-39), wiping out the Baal prophets (1 Ki 18:40), bringing rain after a drought (1 Ki 18:41-45), and empowering him to escape the wrath of Ahab (1 Ki 18:46), one would expect Elijah to feel strong and confident. Jezebel’s death threat (1 Ki 19:2) doesn’t sound all that threatening when God has just performed multiple miracles. Yet Elijah’s response to the threat is to flee to the desert outside Beersheba and lay down to die (1 Ki 19:3-4). This incongruence between experience and reality is normative for depressed persons. Although Elijah has every reason to trust God, he feels weary of his burden and wants his life to end.
Many Christians do not understand depression and therefore react badly to those suffering from it. Well-meaning Christians can give very bad advice that often leads to more guilt rather than deliverance from depression. How comforting, then, is God’s response! Rather than impressing upon Elijah his stupidity in not trusting the almighty God, He sends an angel to feed and care for Elijah (1 Ki 19:5-6). For forty days and nights, the angel gently leads Elijah through the desert to Mount Horeb (1 Ki 19:8-9). God takes care of Elijah’s needs for a month and a half, treating him with over-kindness and silent support. It is not until this loving foundation is laid that God speaks to Elijah and says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki 19:9). This too is telling. God does not list all the ways in which He has been there for Elijah or guilt Elijah for his lack of trust. Instead, he invites Elijah into a conversation, meeting him where he is rather than demanding more from him than Elijah is capable of giving.
Elijah responds, once more expressing a disconnect between his experience and reality (1 Ki 19:10). Although he has just seen the prophets of Baal destroyed and the people of Israel cry out in worship of God (1 Ki 18:39), all Elijah can focus on is the negative. This would be the perfect time for God to remind Elijah of reality, but instead He says, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Ki 19:11a). Instead of proclaiming truth, God offers His presence. In a powerful display of the character God has already revealed, God is not found in the wind or the earthquake or the fire (1 Ki 19:11b). God reveals himself in a gentle whisper (1 Ki 19:12).
Having experienced God’s presence, Elijah humbly covers his face. God asks his prophet “What are you doing here, Elijah?” once more (1 Ki 19:13). God remains gentle, and Elijah remains confused in his depression. He repeats the same story of being overwhelmed by the spiritual dysfunction of Israel and feeling alone in his job to fix it (1 Ki 19:14). Only now, after caring for Elijah, appearing to him in a whisper, and asking for his story twice, does God make a speech. He still refrains from chiding Elijah. Instead, he gives him a purpose and some much-needed encouragement. God tells Elijah to anoint kings over Aram and Israel as well as to appoint Elisha as Elijah’s own successor. This is good news to Elijah, who feels entirely alone as God’s prophet. There is yet better news when God reveals that there are seven thousand Israelites who serve Him (1 Ki 19:15-18). There is no real reason for God to tell Elijah this other than to encourage him and gently bring his experience into alignment with reality. Elijah believes God and finds Elisha, who becomes his attendant (1 Ki 19:19-21) .
Elijah’s story shows that even the mightiest and most faithful followers of God can suffer from depression. His focus on the negative and inability to see the positive is a universal symptom of depression, one which he experiences even after encountering God’s presence. Yet more encouraging to readers who might suffer from depression is God’s response. God cares for Elijah physically, reveals Himself to Elijah, and answers Elijah’s need for companionship by giving him Elisha as a partner. God does not give up on His followers when they experience depression. Instead, He meets them where they are and gently brings them back to their purpose.