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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5 Strategies for Overcoming Stress Overload

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Stress often gets a bad rap. It’s not always bad. Our goal should certainly not be a “stress-free” life, for that kind of existence would be extremely boring and unproductive.

Just as a guitar string needs some “stress” in order to be in proper tune, so do we. If you strum a guitar string that is too tight, it’s liable to snap. But the same is true if the string is too loose. Whether too tight or too loose, if the string is out of tune it becomes more vulnerable to damage.

Of course, a few people have the gift of perfect pitch, able to keep their strings under exactly the right tension. But most of us need to use a guitar tuner or some other device that lets us know how the string is supposed to sound. Instead of the subjective approach, just tuning the instrument by ear, we need an objective standard to synchronize with.

I hope your life is well-tuned today, with just the right amount of stress. But if you’re anything like me, your tendency is to keep juggling more and more balls until you’re in danger of stress overload. Eventually you hit the breaking point, and it’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Over many decades of life and ministry, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in detecting and diffusing stress overload—mostly because I’ve so often been its victim.

Here are 5 of the top strategies I’ve discovered for overcoming this commonly recurring problem:

  1. Remember that God is God, and you’re not.

This principle is so basic, yet so deep. At the root of all stress overload is the human inclination to forget that God is on the throne of the universe. Throughout the Scriptures, we’re told to be still and know that HE is God (Psalm 46:10). We’re reminded that the government of creation is on HIS shoulders rather than ours (Isaiah 9:6-7). And we’re invited to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7) and find rest for our soul (Matthew 11:28-30).

Not matter how strong, smart, creative, or resilient you might be, you will do a terrible job trying to be God. So if you feel like you’ve been given “more than you can handle” today, it may be because you’re trying to shoulder responsibilities that only God Himself is qualified to handle.

I’ll never forget my Grandma Fraggiotti singing her favorite hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The song’s beautiful message somehow was even more penetrating when sung in Grandma’s distinct German accent.

  1. Recognize you’re not called upon to solve every problem and meet every need.

I’ve often fallen prey to stress overload because of trying to do everyone else’s job for them. Years ago I used to love playing volleyball during our church picnics. I was, in all humility, better than most of the other players, so I frequently tried to cover their positions as well as my own. Although I usually was successful doing this for a while, the ball would typically end up falling right where I myself was supposed to be. I was so overextended covering other people’s assignments, that I too often failed to cover my own.

I love John the Baptist’s reply when people asked about his identity. “I am not the Christ!” he told them (John 1:20). You and I need to remember that profound truth as well. We are not the whole body of Christ, but simply a part. In order to fulfill our true identity, we need to be very clear on who we are NOT.

On several occasions, people tried to get Jesus involved in situations He knew He wasn’t called to handle (e.g., Luke 12:13-14). At other times, He refused to fit into other people’s timeframe, because He realized His time had not yet come (John 7:2-8, John 11:3-6).

You will surely succumb to stress overload if you’re always allowing other people’s procrastination to constitute an emergency on your part. Likewise, you must learn to say “no” when you discern that people have an agenda for you that’s not God’s agenda.

  1. Focus your attention on the needs of today, rather than excessively dwelling on baggage of the past or events in the future.

One of my mother’s favorite Bible verses was Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Much of our stress comes either from trying to change yesterday (which is impossible) or worrying about situations that may or may not occur tomorrow.

Remember: God only promises to give us enough grace and strength for TODAY. When tomorrow comes, we’ll have the strength we need then too. But we’ll inevitably find ourselves overwhelmed if we attempt to shoulder the cares of yesterday, today, and tomorrow all at the same time.

  1. Remember the Sabbath principle.

God designed humankind to experience a rhythm of work and rest (Exodus 20:8-11). You weren’t made to work 24/7, nor even 24/6. You need to get adequate daily sleep and set aside consistent time each week for rest and revitalization.

Stress overload is also reduced when you take time to exercise, have fun, and do other activities that provide “energy in.” Stephen Covey refers to this principle as “sharpening the saw.” Few things are as stressful as trying to carry out our responsibilities in life when we’re feeling drained and empty.

  1. Periodically disengage from the cares of life for several days in a row.

While a weekly Sabbath rest break is vital to overcoming stress overload, sometimes we need more than that. I periodically come to places in my life when I need a personal retreat, vacation, or even a sabbatical.

To paraphrase Jesus’ words in Mark 6:31, “You need to come apart so that you won’t fall apart!” He and His disciples were hard workers, pouring their lives out for others. But He also modeled the importance of regularly getting away from the grind of ministry in order to gain new perspective, recharge our spiritual batteries, and regain our emotional vitality.

My favorite car ever was a baby blue 1976 Fiat. But it was a stick shift, and sometimes I forgot to push the clutch when shifting gears. The result was a terrible grinding sound, as the moving gears collided. I learned a valuable lesson from that car: Whenever I’m about to make a major shift or transition in my life, I need to “push the clutch” and momentarily disengage the gears.

By implementing these 5 strategies, you can experience a life of greater balance, joy, and longevity. Instead of operating on overload, your stress level will become like the strings of a finely tuned musical instrument.

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The Perils of Being a Good Juggler

jugglers

I have an exceptional ability to juggle lots of balls at the same time. I don’t mean literal balls. My hand-and-eye coordination isn’t good enough for that. But, better than most people, I’m able to successfully juggle multiple projects, activities, and relationships.

Many of my best friends are only able to focus on one project at a time. Sometimes I envy them, for being a good juggler is both a blessing and a curse.

Almost anyone can successfully juggle one ball from hand to hand. And with a little practice, most people can handle two or three balls. Juggling four or five balls is far more difficult, though. Even if you can juggle four or five balls for a short period, the problem is sustainability.

I’ve found that when you’re a good juggler, people keep giving you more balls. It’s not really their fault, but your boss, spouse, kids, and friends seem to think your capacity is unlimited. So you go from juggling one ball…to two…to three…to four. And everything goes splendidly at first.

Yet when you’re a good juggler, you inevitably end up with one more ball than you can handle. Sadly, you seldom see how hazardous this progression is—not until ALL the balls end up on the floor.

Those of us who are good jugglers typically end up juggling many of the wrong  balls. We have a hard time saying NO. Instead of prioritizing and focusing, we try convincing people of our nearly superhuman abilities.

There’s an old gospel song that says, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” The challenge for good jugglers is that we often forget Who this song is referring to. God is able to simultaneously juggle all the balls in the universe—but we’re not God.

If you’re a good juggler like me, my heart goes out to you. As the Scriptures advise, I hope you’ll learn to cast your cares on the Lord, remembering that He’s the only limitless juggler. May you regularly seek His wisdom on which balls are meant for you, and which ones aren’t.

If you’ve taken on too many balls, running the risk of dropping them all, I pray you’ll recognize your precarious situation before it’s too late. In the end, you’ll be far more productive—and much happier—if you focus on your true calling. That’s where you’ll find God’s grace and strength.

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