Why Was Elijah Depressed?

Elijah cave

Elijah has always been one of my favorite Bible characters, and I’m particularly intrigued by the chapter where he fights deep depression (1 Kings 19). The mighty prophet had witnessed amazing answers to prayer, stopping the rain for years before starting it again. He had multiplied a widow’s meager supply of food and raised her son from the dead. And for good measure, he called down fire from heaven and slayed the false prophets of Baal.

Huge victories, to say the least. Impressive demonstrations of faith. Causes for great celebration, we might think.

So how in the world did Elijah become utterly depressed—to the extent that he wanted God to end his life?

Although some people act as if depression has only one cause, in Elijah’s case we see this simply isn’t true. You might come up with a different list than mine, but I’ve found 7 lessons about depression we can learn from Elijah’s story:

  1. Be careful what you listen to. The onset of Elijah’s melancholy can be traced to 1 Kings 19:2: “Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah.”  Every moment of every day, we are bombarded with messengers, aren’t we? God is speaking. The devil is speaking. And we receive countless positive or negative messages through the people around us and diverse forms of media. Beware: The spirit of Jezebel is still speaking, my friend! And if we listen to that diabolical messenger, we’ll inevitably become depressed, just like Elijah.
  2. Avoid the tendency to go it alone. Elijah made two mistakes that contributed to his downward spiral. First, he left his servant behind (v. 3). During the prophet’s dark hours in the cave, no one was with him to cheer him up or offer helpful perspective. But an even worse problem was his disconnect from the God-fearing Israelites who could have been his allies: the “seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal” (v. 16). It’s depressing to feel all alone in a daunting mission—but sometimes we just need to connect with those who would happily be our comrades.
  3. Recognize the physical factors influencing your state of mind. Depression isn’t just a spiritual or psychological condition. Often it’s greatly influenced by factors that are physical or chemical in nature. If you study this chapter in detail, you’ll see that Elijah was extremely fatigued, deprived of adequate sleep for several days. He also was dehydrated and lacking in nutrition until God sent an angel to give him water and food (vs. 5-8). On top of everything else, he had faced a period of great stress, which often results in adrenal exhaustion and other deficits in a person’s body chemistry.
  4. Assess whether you’re in the right place. Twice in this passage, God asks the prophet a fascinating question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verses 9 & 13). If you’re feeling depressed today, it’s good to ask whether you’re “out of position” in some way. Are you in a job or ministry where you don’t fit? Are you remaining in the wrong city or country, when the Lord has been nudging you to move somewhere else? Are you staying in a toxic relationship, when you know you don’t have God’s peace?
  5. Beware of the egotistical view that everything depends on you. When you try to play God, you will inevitably become both exhausted and depressed. Elijah told the Lord, “I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (v. 10). He knew there was a lot more work to be done in bringing repentance and national restoration to Israel, and he felt the job depended entirely on him! When we get stuck in that kind of overwhelming mindset, we need to pause and (1) cast our burdens on the Lord, and (2) recognize our need to team up with other people in order to fulfill the remaining mission.
  6. Amid whirling circumstances and activities, make sure you don’t lose touch with God’s gentle whisper and still small voice. While it’s clear Elijah knew a lot about intimacy with God, it seems he slipped away from that intimacy amid the busyness of his life and ministry. Can you relate? In the midst of the busyness of “serving God,” it’s all too easy to neglect spending quality time with Him. In this case, the Lord showed Elijah “a great and strong wind…an earthquake…and a fire” (vs. 11-12), but the divine message came with His gentle whisper instead of any of these dramatic events. Ask yourself: Can you still hear the Lord’s quiet voice when you’re by yourself, or do you only feel His presence when the worship band is blaring?
  7. Find hope in remembering your mission—or in finding a new one, if necessary. Elijah had already accomplished a great deal. It was understandable to wonder if his life’s mission had already been completed. But it’s incredibly depressing when you no longer believe God still has an important purpose for your life. A major breakthrough in shedding his depression came when Elijah was recommissioned by the Lord with a new calling—to anoint some kings and “anoint Elisha as prophet in your place” (v. 15-16). Perhaps this is a message for you as well: It could be time to equip the next generation and train your replacement!

Action Steps

Most of us have faced a bout of serious depression at one time or another. Hey, if it could happen to Elijah, you and I certainly aren’t immune.

However, you don’t need to stay in the “cave” or the valley of despair. Learning the lessons from Elijah’s story, you can believe God’s promises and quit listening to the messengers of condemnation and defeat. You can learn to rely on the Lord and your comrades instead of carrying the entire load on your own shoulders.

It’s also important to regularly monitor the physical factors you’re dealing with. Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition? Do you need to take steps to eliminate some of the stress in your life?

Perhaps it’s time to ask yourself the “placement” question God asked Elijah. Are you in the right place…the right role…with the right people?

If, like Elijah, you’ve lost your sensitivity to the Lord’s gentle whisper amid life’s busyness, I pray you’ll hear it once again. And when you do, don’t be surprised if He reaffirms your calling—or gives you a whole new mission.

I’m praying your best days are still ahead!  

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God’s Love Songs

With the approaching of Valentine’s Day, I found myself Googling “The Greatest Love Songs of All Time.” Wow. Pretty interesting list.

Many of the “secular” love songs could be described as mushy…overly sentimental…even corny. And some of your favorite songs probably didn’t make the list (sorry, but Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” was overlooked).

One of the striking things about the tabulation of great love songs is that often they’re just a dim reflection of the kind of love God has for us, and wants from us. After all, the Bible tells us “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). That’s where it comes from. Our Lord is the ultimate Lover and the source of all genuine human love. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And even if you think you’ve got a pretty good supply of human love, it’s destined to run out someday unless you’re connected to the never-ending source of love.

Perhaps you’ve never really thought of God as the ultimate romantic. But if you take a look at the world’s great love songs, you’ll see they’re often more scriptural than you’ve ever imagined.

For example, when the Bee Gees asked the probing question “How Deep Is Your Love?,” can’t you hear Jesus asking you about that as well? In John 21:15-17, He asked Peter this question not just once, but three times. And Paul picked up on the same theme when he prayed for you to be rooted and grounded in love…able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).

Yes, God’s love is very deep, very wide, very long, and very high. As John Mark McMillan says in his song, “How He Loves,” “if His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.”

So, I could go on and on about how the world’s love songs reveal the human craving for a love that ultimately must be found in a relationship with God:

  • We all want to experience a constant love like Whitney Houston expressed in her song, “I Will Always Love You.”
  • We want to experience the transforming love described in Celine Dion’s song, “Because You Loved Me.”
  • When we pass through life’s storms, we want God’s assurance that “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
  • We’re desperate to have someone who truly believes in us, even when we don’t believe in ourselves, and Kenny Rogers expressed this well in “She Believes in Me.”
  • We need someone who loves us not because we’re perfect, but rather says “I Love You Just the Way You Are,” as Billy Joel and Bruno Mars have sung about.

Yes, we’re looking for romantic love, but we also need something deeper and more durable than that. We want someone who sees us with grace—“Through the Eyes of Love,” as Melissa Manchester’s beautiful song says.

However, if your God is just a religious God, it will be pretty hard to see Him in any of these love songs. You definitely wouldn’t want a religious, angry, puritanical God to be your Valentine, would you?

I’m sure glad God saw to it that The Song of Solomon would make it into the Bible. Lest we think of Him as some distant, judgmental, religious tyrant in the sky, He reveals Himself there as our passionate Bridegroom and Lover, obsessed by our beauty—even when we feel anything but beautiful. And even when we’re down on our luck and down on ourselves, He sings love songs and dances with us (Zephaniah 3:17).

It’s so cool that Jesus didn’t choose to do His first miracle in a church service. Instead, He turned water into wine at a wedding! (John 2) Ironic as it might sound, Jesus wasn’t nearly as religious as we are. If we could grasp that fact, we would be much better at attracting unbelievers—and especially young people—to the Savior’s unending, sacrificial love demonstrated on Calvary.

What are your favorite love songs? They probably say a lot about what you need God to do in your heart today. So, go ahead and sing. Go ahead and dance. Throw caution to the wind.

He’s waiting to be your Valentine.

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Getting My Calluses Back

Jim guitar 115

A few years ago, I shared with a friend how I used to enjoy playing guitar and leading worship in my early days as a Christian.

“Do you still play?” she asked.

“Oh no, I gave that up long ago,” I replied.

Showing her the finger tips on my left hand, I continued, “See, I don’t even have calluses anymore.”

It was a pretty straightforward conversation—or so I thought. But as I was praying later that day, I distinctly heard the Lord tell me, “Jim, if you had more calluses on your fingers, you would have fewer calluses on your heart.”

How convicting! I saw that when I laid down my guitar several decades ago, I also began to drift away from intimacy with the Lord in my private worship times.

Then a few weeks ago, I was sharing this story with a friend named Justin, and he perceptively asked me, “So, Jim, did you get your calluses back after that?”

I was horrified to admit that I’d taken no action at all after God so clearly rebuked me. But I assured my friend that I wouldn’t procrastinate any longer.

“The next time you see me, make sure to ask me about my calluses,” I urged him. “If I still haven’t picked up my guitar and started worshiping the Lord in my personal devotions, tell me I’m a hypocrite!”

Thankfully, I’ve taken action this time. I’m getting my calluses back, ready for my friend to ask me that question.

Both my guitar playing and my worship are very rusty, however. I’ve found that it takes a while to develop calluses on your fingers again—or to remove them from your heart.

Don’t expect to see me leading worship in public anytime soon. I’ve long since recognized that other people are far more gifted.

But I want to make private worship a more intentional part of my life, regularly listening for God’s voice and asking Him to soften my heart.

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, Jesus warned about the danger of allowing calluses to form on our hearts: “This people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (Matthew 13:15). What a tragic condition. Yet all too common, I’m afraid.

Like calluses on our fingers, callused hearts develop gradually, over time. If the condition progresses, we ultimately find ourselves in a situation just as the Bible predicts: spiritually unable to hear or see.

If you notice calluses on your heart today, the key isn’t necessarily to develop calluses on your fingers instead. But the process is working for me.

One thing is for sure: Without regularly experiencing God’s presence, our hearts will inevitably grow hard. Like a desert that seldom experiences rain, we become spiritually dry and emotionally barren.

If you truly want to reverse hardness of heart, here’s a homework assignment: Read Psalm 95 in its entirely and ask the Lord to restore you to a heart of worship…listening…and responding. Write down what He tells you to do, and find a friend like Justin to hold you accountable to do it.

 

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Spiritual Hunger & the Legacy of John Hunter

More than 30 years ago, I received a call from an elderly man named John Hunter. Someone had given him my name, and he said he hoped I might be able to answer some of his questions about the new things God was doing in the church.

I agreed to meet with him, and after that initial meeting John and I got together often. I learned that he had already known the Lord for more than 50 years—much longer than I had even been alive at that point. He didn’t flaunt his credentials, but he also had many years of experience as a church leader and Bible teacher. John clearly knew Christ in a deep and profound way.

So why did he want to get together with me?  That was something I always found puzzling. Was it that he had a fatherly concern for me as a young Christian leader? Yes, I’m sure he wanted me to succeed as a leader—but that was not why he wanted to get together.

Did he want to straighten out my theology? No, that was the furthest thing from his mind.

Still to this day, I’m shocked by John’s primary reason for wanting to spend time with me: He was so hungry for the things of God that he hoped to learn something  even from a “youngster” like me.

This may not seem so remarkable to you, but it still challenges me to the very core of my being. Why? Because John Hunter was hungrier for the Lord than I was.

Let me explain…

Before I met John, I was pretty satisfied with the spiritual level I had attained. I felt knowledgeable about the Scriptures and in touch with the Holy Spirit—wasn’t that enough? But John exemplified the same kind of insatiable hunger for God that the apostle Paul wrote about:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect [mature], have this attitude  (Philippians 3:12-15).

Until his dying day, John Hunter was still pressing on, not satisfied with the knowledge of God he already had. In his later years John developed Parkinson’s Disease, which made it much more difficult to “press on”—but he did nonetheless. His gait was more wobbly each time we met, as if his tall, lanky body might fall at any moment.

But he insisted on getting together anyway.

When we sat to have lunch, John’s hands shook violently if he tried to gesture or to bring a spoon to his mouth. Often his food spilled on his shirt, drawing the attention of those at neighboring tables in the restaurant.

As his final days approached, John’s words came out slowly and slurred. Sometimes he didn’t finish the sentences he started. But I could always sense the presence of the Lord during the times we shared.

It will be great to see John Hunter again someday. In heaven, I’m sure he has a fantastic new body, unaffected by anything like Parkinson’s. And I can’t wait to see how his childlike spiritual hunger is finally being satisfied as he dances in worship before God’s throne.

Let’s remind each other to follow John Hunter’s example, always yearning to go higher, toward the “upward call of God”  for our lives. Let’s stay hungry until our hunger is fulfilled in eternity.

And perhaps the Lord would even have us invest ourselves in a new generation, as John Hunter did with me. Our lives will be changed when we do.

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God Isn’t in Your Box

Peter meant well when he offered to put Jesus in a box (Matthew 17:1-8). His proposal wasn’t meant as any kind of disrespect. In fact, he thought it would honor  the Lord to build Him a proper memorial.

When Peter saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus, he got so excited that he thought it would be a great idea to put them in boxes too. He assumed Jesus would be quite pleased to have equal billing with such dignitaries.

It took a voice from heaven to show Peter the error of his ways. Along with James and John, he fell face down to the ground, and “they only saw Jesus”  when they got up (v. 8).

Only Jesus.  That’s the kind of revelation we need as well–a revelation that rids us of all the religious clutter, so Jesus is no longer eclipsed.

But throughout human history, people have tried to put God in their boxes. Sometimes this is overt, and several cultures today openly build “spirit houses” to house their myriads of gods.

But for most of us, the effort to confine and control the Almighty is much more subtle. We put Him in a Sunday morning box, a denominational box, or try to confine Him to the four walls of our church building. We forget that the kingdom of God is much bigger than any church meetings or programs. It’s a 24/7/365 sort of thing, after all.

Over and over, we must be reminded that “the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands”  (Acts 7:48). Even when the Israelites had the Ark of Covenant in sight, God’s presence wasn’t confined within the box. His glory continually filled the holy of holies and often filled the entire tabernacle or temple. It led the Israelites by a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night.

It’s the height of arrogance to think we can keep God tucked away in our boxes. Whenever we try to do that, if we’re courageous enough to open the box and look inside, we find that He’s GONE!

I’m wondering if this is what happened to the church in Laodicea, described by Jesus in Revelation 3:14-22. They had they become lukewarm and spiritually blind, but that wasn’t the worst part. Things were so bad that Jesus was on the outside,  knocking on the door for permission to come back in.

Perhaps the Laodiceans thought they had successfully confined Jesus to their tidy box of religious rituals and programs. Yet all the while, He had escaped—as He always does when we attempt to confine Him. Fortunately, there was still time to hear His voice and have fellowship with Him again. Do you hear Him knocking today?

 

 

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