As we wrap up our series on Sin, Mental Illness and the Church over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to look at several Biblical figures who exhibited symptoms commonly associated with mental illness. Today, we’ll look at Elijah. In subsequent posts we’ll look at King Saul and the Apostle Paul…
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
1 Kings 19:1-10 (ESV)
I’d like to share a few observations about this story insofar as it pertains to mental health…
There’s no evidence in the Scriptures that Elijah was ever depressed. He was clearly frightened and discouraged when he was running from Jezebel, but the incident described in 1 Kings 19:4 in which he asks God to take his life occurred two days after Elijah was an integral part of God’s demonstration of His power and glory on Mount Carmel in which he conquered Baal and his prophets.
We toss around the word “depression” in many instances when we really mean something else. Depression involves persistent feelings of sadness or unhappiness and/or a loss of ability to experience pleasure that by definition lasts for at least two weeks, and often lasts for months or years, especially when untreated. People often experience depressed mood as an adjustment reaction to life circumstances (loss of a job, a romantic breakup, illness, a family member being identified with a disabling condition, etc.) without experiencing the physical signs and symptoms typically associated with depression (changes in eating habits, weight, energy level, memory, concentration, libido). By definition, because of the time frame involved and the absence of any indication in the text that Elijah experienced symptoms of depression prior to confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, we can’t say (using our current terminology that Elijah was “depressed.”
People can and do become acutely hopeless in response to their situations. Teens in particular are noted for their inability to see past their immediate pain to recognize their long-term potential and impulsively commit acts of self-harm with high potential for lethality. One doesn’t need to be clinically depressed to act upon suicidal thoughts.
While there’s no particular verse in the Bible prohibiting suicide outside of the prohibition against murder, Elijah recognizes in this passage that God uniquely has the authority to give and take human life. He turns to God in his moment of crisis in which he no longer desires to live, as opposed to taking the matter into his own hands. I’m less concerned about suicide risk when teens can recognize the impact of completed suicide on their family and friends or when they’ve been raised with the same understanding of Scripture demonstrated by Elijah in this passage.
What I was most struck by in Elijah’s story was the extent to which the disconnect between his expectations and reality contributed to his feelings of hopelessness and despair. We struggle greatly when our expectations don’t meet our circumstances…when our ministry doesn’t go as we planned, when our job is different than we envisioned, when our kids or spouses struggle as a result of disability. Elijah clearly thought the miraculous sign that God performed on Mount Carmel, coupled by the slaughter of 450 prophets of Baal would have led King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, along with the nation of Israel to turn from their idol worship. Elijah had fearlessly risked his life in the past in the service of God. Fear entered his mind when events didn’t unfold in the way he envisioned, despite personal experience of God having protected him from his enemies and performed miraculous acts (including the first resurrection documented in Scripture) through Elijah’s ministry. He was probably disappointed as well that he wasn’t elevated to a position of prominence as a result of his role in this most recent spectacular demonstration of God’s power. The ability to live free of the burden of our expectations and in accordance with God’s plan is critical.
The other piece of Elijah’s story that is most relevant is his propensity in the moment to view his circumstances in an inappropriately negative light. He offers two great examples in this passage of what my cognitive-behavioral therapist friends refer to as “thinking errors.”
“for I am no better than my fathers”
Elijah was judging his success based upon the results achieved as opposed to his faithfulness to the mission God gave him. It is most certainly true that others before Elijah sought to turn Israel away from pagan worship and toward God without Israel demonstrating repentance. Elijah did his job up to and through the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. He may have abandoned an opportunity to witness to God by fleeing in response to Jezebel’s plans to kill him (the text doesn’t let us know whether God had alternate plans for Elijah in the immediate aftermath of the events of Mount Carmel) , but he’d fulfilled the tasks God had given him up to that time.
I, even I only, am left
This one God addressed directly. In verse 18, God informs Elijah that the faithful remnant in Israel was far larger than Elijah recognized…
Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
We often assume that we’re all alone…that we have no friends, no supporters and perceive that the situations we face are far more dire than reality would indicate. Such misperceptions often intensify feelings of worry and sadness, and increase the risk for anxiety disorders or depression.
One last observation in the passage that confirms something I see often in clinical practice…rest is absolutely essential to good emotional self-regulation. Here, God took the initiative to provide for Elijah when Elijah would have likely died without such provision. Also, as with Moses and later, Jesus, God called Elijah to a forty day period of quiet and preparation in the wilderness during which he was sustained by God before embarking upon a series of very important tasks in his public ministry.
I know personally that I’ve erred on the side of working myself to a state of mental exhaustion because of assuming the success of our ministry efforts depended upon me as opposed to God, rationalizing the behavior to myself as worship. The downside has been times when I don’t do a very good job representing Jesus because of inappropriate displays of emotion…ask anyone who works at my office!
Elijah wasn’t depressed. But we’re at risk of becoming depressed or anxious when our need to fulfill our mental images of a desired reality gets in the way of our recognition that God is in control of our circumstances.
Image: “Dieric Bouts – Prophet Elijah in the Desert – WGA03015” by Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475) – Web Gallery of Art: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Key Ministry has assembled a resource page for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents on depression in children and teens. We’ve included…
- Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
- Links to other outstanding blog posts on depression from leaders in the disability ministry community
- Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.