Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:1–40 and I want to read two stories about the prophet Elijah today, but we need to read a large section so we can get the whole story. A lot has already happened up to this point, but you’ll figure out how things are going as we read. The only thing you really need to know is that the current king of Israel is an evil guy named Ahab who married an even worse, pagan woman named, Jezebel, who did everything they could to insult God and provoke His anger.
Elijah comes on the scene as God’s messenger and tells Ahab that because of the horribleness in Israel, He was going to bring a three-year drought. God then tells Elijah to take off for a while. During this time, a good man named Obadiah becomes governor under Ahab, which is a pretty difficult job for a faithful man of God. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 18:1.
“After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
That’s what I call a power encounter. Elijah, the man of God called during a very difficult time, stands alone on the mountain, surrounded by hundreds of enemies – but he’s bold, brash, and confident. So much so that he not only builds his altar but soaks it with buckets and buckets of water. And then BOOM, God shows up in an amazing way! The people’s hearts melt. They have seen firsthand that the Baals are fake and the Lord is God. Elijah is vindicated, the people turn on the false prophets, then as the people repent God ends the drought with a great rain. Elijah even tells Ahab he better get going because the whole country is about to be one, big, flooded, mud pit and if he didn’t leave now his chariot was going to get very stuck.
Wouldn’t we all like to have God use us in such a way?
The book of James in the New Testament actually uses this passage to say that this sort of encounter isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Christians. In fact, James 5:13–18 says that the same God, the same Spirit, the same power that was at work on Mount Carmel is available to the people of God in the church. He says,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
A Nature Like Ours
Our first instinct might be to say, “Nah. That’s Elijah. He’s the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. I’m not like him!” Today’s message isn’t about prayer. What I want to focus on right now are the words, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”
Other translations say that “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” (NIV) or “Elijah was just like us…” (BSV) or “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…” (KJV) and James’ point is to argue against the idea that Elijah was special somehow.
Remember the story in Acts 14(:8-18) where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and God heals some people through them, but everyone starts to worship them as Zeus and Hermes instead of believing in Jesus? The whole crowd starts getting ready to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them and Paul tears his clothes and cries out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news…” “We’re not gods! We’re just regular people! Jesus is God! Jesus has the power! Jesus did the miracle! Let’s talk about Jesus!”
That’s what James is saying too. Elijah was just a guy that God chose to work through. Elijah was just a guy who did what God told Him to do. When God said to pray for a drought, he did. When God said to pray for rain, he did. Elijah didn’t make the rain start or stop. No one can do that except God. Elijah was just a regular guy who just said what he was told to say. God had the power. God did the miracle. Let’s talk about God.
That’s the whole message of the book of James. You want an answer to prayer? You want to see Jesus at work in your life and others’? Here’s how: It’s not believing that you’re super special and powerful, it’s knowing you are not but trusting Jesus and just doing what He tells you to do anyway. Then you’ll see His power.
What Was Elijah Like?
But I want to go back to 1 Kings for a bit and take a look at the kind of guy Elijah was – because it’s easy to think, “Oh sure, you say ‘he’s just a guy’, but he’s, a super-saint. He was always praying, always trusting, super humble, charismatic, organized, full of joy and trusting God all the time…. that’s why God used him. I’m not like that. If Elijah had half the problems I had, then the story would have been different…”
But let’s look at 1 Kings 19. These verses come right after the Mount Carmel power-encounter, right after the rains come, right after all that amazing God stuff….
“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.”
Elijah hears that Jezebel is after him and what’s his reaction? You’d think it would be to put the boxing gloves back on, ring the bell, and call round 2 – but no. We see terror, depression, suicidality. This often happens to people after great battles, even if they are great victories. You’ve probably experienced this. Things don’t go so well for a while, but you’ve been putting up a fight – or you have a bunch of days where some really cool stuff happens. You focus on a project and it goes really well… you have an awesome, busy vacation… you have some kind of personal breakthrough… you run a race or paint a picture the best you’ve ever done… and then, for some reason, the next day you feel totally deflated, depleted and depressed. You were flying high yesterday – proactive, energized, able to get the job done – but today, now that the stress has let up, you can’t handle anything. You’re foggy. You get sad. You get sick. The amazing thing you just did yesterday looks worse than it did. You spiral into a funk. Ever felt that? Where does that come from?
Some people call it the “Let-Down Effect” or “Adrenal Fatigue” and you’ve probably experienced it. It basically means that our bodies are capable of squirting all kinds of helpful hormones into our system to keep us going when we need energy, but those resources are finite and once the stress is over (whether it’s good stress or bad) those helpful hormones are depleted, our systems start to crash, and our bodies and minds start to unravel. You’ve probably felt this if you jump into an exercise you haven’t done in a while. Day One goes great, you’re surprised how well you do, but the next day you feel like you’re going to die.
That can happen mentally too. You tell your body that you can’t afford to be grumpy or tired right now – so you hold all those negative feelings in, push down that stress reaction, overlook all the stuff that’s bothering you – so you can get the job done, enjoy the vacation, or whatever – but those brain chemicals run out too. And living in fight or flight for that long has filled your body with stress chemicals and other issues. That box of emotions you’ve been packing inside your heart gets full and starts to leak. I’m sure you know the feeling. This may be part of what Elijah was going through.
Some people, if they are naturally or usually more anxious or depressed than average, or naturally have less energy than average, or have learning or physical disabilities, start with a deficit and end up requiring more of their minds and bodies than others. An introverted person has to psych themselves up to go to a party, or give a presentation, or have a discussion they’re not looking forward to. A person with ADD has to psych themselves up to be able to buckle down to study for a long time or pay attention during an important family dinner or meeting. Your average person can wake up to an alarm clock, eat breakfast, take a shower, and go for a walk – but for someone with depression, that takes way, way more energy to do and then actually requires some recovery time! Maybe Elijah was that kind of person too. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Look at what happens here. Elijah, the man who had just confronted thousands of armed zealots with great courage, knowing that God absolutely had his back – is now scared of one woman. So much so that he takes off and “ran for his life” 200 kilometres South. He’s not praying or doing anything positive. He’s running as far away as he can, to the very edge of the Promised Land. He gets there and is utterly exhausted. He’s so scared he won’t even tell his servant where he’s going and takes off into the wilderness, alone, and collapses under a shady tree. At that moment, depression really takes hold. He ran away to escape death. But what does his exhausted, depleted brain say?
Look at what he prays. He says, “It is enough.” Literally, that means, “Let it be enough.” “I’m done, Lord. I can’t take anymore. Please let this it.”
Then he says, “Take away my life”, meaning, “I want to die. Kill me, God.” He ran away to escape death! How muddled are his thoughts? How messed up are his emotions? How depleted are his mental and physical reserves? He’s so down he wants God to kill him. “God will do it better than Jezebel”, he may have thought.
He says, “I’m no better than my fathers.” Here we see how utterly disappointed he is with himself. He feels like a total failure. Keep in mind the Mount Carmel encounter was only a week ago! But now, all of that is forgotten. All he sees is how cowardly he is, how fruitless his ministry has been, how impossible the fight against Jezebel is, how nothing will ever change, how he’s not the right man for the job, how he has no help, no support, no comfort, no hope.
Now, keep in mind, these are all lies – but that doesn’t matter. His brain is incapable at this point of processing truth. He’s so stuck in the dark that he can’t see the light.
He prays this one sentence prayer and passes out.
Consider our phrase from James again, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…”. We see Elijah on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven or confronting the evil Ahab, or praying for rain and seeing a flood and we think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” But we often forget about Elijah under the broom tree a week later. Elijah wasn’t super-human. He was just a guy who said “yes” to God. That’s James’ point. God showed Elijah grace in choosing him even though he was a very weak vessel. Elijah obeyed and God gave him everything he needed on Mount Carmel. But the story isn’t about how special Elijah is. All Elijah did was say “Yes” and then go where he was told to go and say what he was told to say. God did everything.
God’s Gracious Response
I don’t want to leave the story without looking back at 1 Kings 19:5-8 to see God’s response to Elijah’s prayer. Did he kill him? Rebuke him? Let’s see.
“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.”
How does God respond to this utterly spent man, who is totally depressed, took off on his responsibilities, gave his resignation, and then seriously contemplated suicide? Wind and fire? A booming voice from the mountain top?
No. He sends an angel to deliver some pancakes. No sermon. No judgment. No guilt. No pressure. Just some pancakes. And then the angel left him alone to sleep some more. Elijah’s problem wasn’t lack of faith – his problem was physiological. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. He didn’t need a lecture or pep-talk or guilt-trip. He needed pancakes and some rest. God knew that. God knows our physical limitations. He’s not disappointed with us for being human.
What does God do next? What does the angel say, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” God acknowledges that Elijah’s problem isn’t faith, it’s physical. “Dude, you’ve rested, but now you need to eat some more.” God, for now, completely ignores the content of Elijah’s prayer that he prayed in that depressive funk, and just says, “Ok, eat something. You’re not done yet, but I totally agree that you need to recharge. Take some rest. Eat some food. Once you’re ready, I’ve got something else for you. Now that you’ve slept, sit up and eat and you’ll feel better.” What’s the prescription? Prayer time? Meditation? Worship songs? Big meeting? A new schedule? A better list? Nope. More pancakes. And these were like, seriously good pancakes too. Had to be like Lembas Bread from Lord of the Rings. Because they fuel him for a while.
With his body rested, his belly full, things started to look a little better. Is he fully recovered? Heck no. Is he 15% better than when he laid down and wanted to die? Sure. He’s got enough in the tank for whatever thing God has next. Elijah’s depression prayer is forgotten, Elijah gets up, says “Yes” to God again. And God doesn’t send him to take on the world again. God gives him a break for over a month, but keeps him moving forward. And sends him to mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel. In other words, instead of sending Elijah back to work right away, God bring Elijah back to Him. He brings Elijah back to the genesis of his faith. Back to basics. Back to what brought Elijah and God together in the first place. And they have a long talk.
I’ll leave the reading of the next part of 1 Kings 19 to you, but suffice to say that after Elijah has recovered a bit, God meets Elijah in a powerful way, deals kindly but appropriately with his needs, his attitude, and his sins, but also brings him back for about 15 more years of ministry – even mentoring God’s next prophet. God saved Elijah by His loving kindness.
God Prefers the Weak But Willing
Let me close with this: When God calls a person to salvation and wants to use a person for His kingdom, He doesn’t call the strong, talented, powerful, influential, wise, and smart. He prefers people who are weak but willing. They know they are weak, but they are willing to say “I’m not sure why you chose me, but Yes, I will go. I will do it your way, in your strength, in your time, because I know I can’t do it on my own.” And then He equips them to do the job.
That’s the strange part. God bypasses the already capable so He can equip those who are incapable. God bypasses those who seem to have it all put together, in favour of people who are a mess. God bypasses the intellectually superior in favour of those who know they don’t know it all. God bypasses those who are secure unto themselves and chooses people with great insecurities because they are the ones who know they need Him most. God prefers the weak but willing. Then He equips those people, making them stronger, smarter, more powerful, more influential, wiser, and more talented. All He requires from us is to say “Yes, Lord.” And since that person knows where they came from – and everyone else knows where that person came from too, and the wild improbability that they would be able to pull off what they are doing – God gets the glory. God blesses us, we feel useful, and He gets the glory. It’s a good deal.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” Flawed, emotional, prideful, prone to depression, anxiety, even suicidality – but God chose Him, equipped Him, put Him in the right place at the right time to do amazing things – and all Elijah had to do was say “Yes”. And then, even when Elijah had a total meltdown, God didn’t turn His back on him and head off for someone better who wasn’t so damaged. No, God was gracious, loving, kind, patient, truthful – and gently scooped Elijah back up, set him on his feet, strengthened him, and kept using him.
That’s what God does. That’s how God sees you, your family, and this church. No one is too messed up, too far gone, too weak, too stupid, to be saved and to serve. What disqualifies someone is pride and a hard heart. What matters is simply saying, “Yes, Lord. Despite my weakness, insecurities, failures, and fears, I will serve – but I won’t go unless you go with me. I can’t do anything of value on my own.” (Ex 33:15) That’s a heart God can use.
So, my encouragement to you is the same as before. Don’t write yourself off – or anyone else. If you’re in sin, stop, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing and He promises to do it. But your past or current mess, or the past or current mess of that person who has been blowing up their life, doesn’t mean God is done with them, and it doesn’t mean God can use them or you to serve His kingdom.
Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe you need some recovery time. Don’t feel bad if you’re under the broom tree right now. Don’t feel guilty that life wiped you out. You are a human being, even as we are. Don’t feel bad that your brain and body are depleted and all you can do these days is sleep and eat some pancakes. That’s ok.
But – but while you are there under the broom tree, don’t think God’s done with you. Don’t think God’s mad at you. Don’t think that God is disappointed with you. He’s not. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) You need to accept help, accept that you’re depleted, accept you are weak and let him and God’s people minister to you.
And for that person you are concerned about, that seems like they’ll never recover? All that needs to happen – literally the one thing that needs to happen – is for them to ask God for help. Consider the prodigal son. Consider Peter who denied Jesus. Consider Elijah. He ran as far as he could, gave up, and passed out. But, in that dark moment, he simply said, “God, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m a mess.” It was a cry for help, and God used it. Sure, what He asked God to do was wrong – but that didn’t stop God from helping him. God took that cry for help and used it. God knew what He really needed. Why did God answer that prayer? Because it had the single, most important ingredient God can use to change a life – humility. All the words were a mess – but within his heart was the ember of humility that God could use to restart his fire.
So that’s what we’ll pray for. We’ll pray for those who are weak, and we’ll pray for humility. Humility to accept our limitations and receive God’s amazing grace.
Well, we took down the Christmas decorations at home this week. No more tree, lights, or socks on the wall (nothing says Christmas like decorating the wall with fancy socks you’ll never wear, right?). The socks have been replaced with our standard portrait, the tree has been boxed up and the furniture rearranged so that you’d never know it was there. Some of the stores are hanging in there though. I went out a few days ago and still saw some snowflakes and poinsettias around, but they’re likely to come down soon too. All the special holiday food has been eaten and we’re back on the normal meal plan – and maybe even less than that as we try to shed some of the celebratory pounds. I know a few of us had birthdays in the last few weeks – I had my 39th this week – so that means no more presents for almost a whole year.
I think we had a really good Christmas season together this year, but sadly, as Chaucer said, “all good things must come to an end.” I’m not sure if you feel it, but January is actually a difficult month for a lot of people. In fact, the third Monday of January, this year the 16th, is sometimes called “Blue Monday” and is considered by some to be the most depressing day of the year. One newspaper I read this week called January “nothing but a 31-day chasm of despair.”[i]
I did some digging around for actual experts and statistics to support the idea of blue Monday and found it been largely debunked, but there are a few correlations that make January seem a little worse, making Blue Monday at least relatable.
The weather is often cold and dark, which contributes to some people’s Seasonal Affective Disorder[ii]. Family has all gone home and the Christmas buzz is over, so we start to feel lonely. And if there was unresolved drama during the visits, those thoughts come crashing back at us when they leave. The credit card bills come due. By the third week of January we’ve likely already given up our New Year’s Resolutions and feel like failures.
This can be an especially dangerous time for people who are already suffering with depression, anxiety, or other metal illnesses because it compounds their struggles. When Christians talk about this sort of thing, we try to see it from a biblical perspective, and part of that is to realize that as the world around us seems to turn against us, and the bad feelings start to rise, so do temptations.
Now, with that as the introduction, let me pause for a second: I was really torn about this message this morning. Part of me wanted to get back into 1st Corinthians, but I felt strongly that I needed to share this sermon as a warning and an encouragement about the present or coming season of depression that you may be facing. Times like this bring a lot of spiritual dangers.
Not everyone here will go through this, but everyone, because we are a family, will be affected. I’ll go even further to state that no everyone here will even understand what it’s like to go through a season of depression – even though they or someone they know has.
It’s not an easy thing to deal with, believe me I know. I’ve struggled with different forms of depression for a long time, and they are hard on everyone. While you may not fully understand it, and a few of you may be in denial about it, I think most people here know what I’m talking about.
What I want to do this morning is to help you understand depression from a biblical perspective, and hopefully give you a few tools to combat it, because these depressive episodes are going to bring about all manner of dangerous temptations that have the potential to lead you into spiritual dangers, and I don’t want that for you, your family, or the church.
Two qualifications before we start, though: First, books upon books have been written about this topic, so this is going to be exceptionally abbreviated. And second, I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have studied and experienced some of this, so I do think I have a bit of a handle on it.
So, as your pastor, here are a few things I want you to know about depression and how you can face it as a Christian:
Two Kinds of Depression
The first thing I want you to know about depression is that it comes in a variety of forms, but you can lump their causes into two broad categories: things that happen inside you and things that happen to you.
On one hand you have the depression that happens because of things happening inside of you. Major, chronic, and persistent depression, bipolar, postpartum, premenstrual syndrome, hormonal changes in men, etc. are all examples of depressions that happen regardless of your circumstances. You could have the best week ever, with sunshine, a perfect diet, great exercise, get a million dollars, and a promotion at work, and still feel terrible. And it’s because the chemicals in your brain and body are working against you.
Regardless of how great everything is going, you feel like you’re looking at life through dark sunglasses, wearing your itchiest pants, with a 50 pound weight around your neck, and headphones on with a negative voice that is stuck on repeat that keeps telling you how bad things are. It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s horribly guilt producing, because you want to feel good, you kind of know things aren’t so bad, but you still feel horrible.
These types of depression are often life-long struggles which require not only spiritual and relational help, but also professional therapy and medical interventions.
The second type of depression comes from outside you. Examples of this are Seasonal Affective Disorder where the lack of sunlight causes you to feel miserable, or ‘Situational Depression’ where you face extra stresses or troubles in your life like stress, sickness, big transitions, failure, or death, and it taxes your system and puts you into a depression.
Sadness vs Depression
Now, just to clarify, I’m not talking about “sadness”. There’s a huge difference between sadness and depression, and unfortunately we’ve lost some of the nuance as we’ve used these words interchangeably. Some people who are sad think they are depressed, while others who are chronically, medically, depressed sometimes mistake it for sadness – and are sometimes treated by those around them as though their medical illness is a temporary sadness – and that’s not good. Everyone gets sad at times, but not everyone will face depression.
The easiest way to understand the difference between sadness and depression is that sadness is triggered by difficult event and you feel sad about it. Sadness requires something to have happened. You are sad about something – that you lost the game, failed the test, broke your arm, that your friend died, that you lost your job, or someone stole your favourite thing. Sadness gets easier over time as we go through grieving, when something changes for the better, the hurt fades and we feel better.[iii] Depression doesn’t require a “cause”. It can start from something bad happening, but then it doesn’t fade.
It’s a mental illness, and it’s easiest to understand as such. It’s like a broken bone, a virus, or crones, or an allergy. You can’t just make it go away. If someone broke their arm in an accident, you wouldn’t tell them to think positive and it’ll get better, right? Or, if someone had the flu, you wouldn’t counsel them to pretend that they didn’t have the flu, would you? Depression is an illness. Sometimes it just happens and then sticks around for a long, long time.
Being Depressed Isn’t a Sin
Which leads me to my second point, which is that being depressed isn’t a sin. Regardless of which type you face, whether it comes from inside you or outside, it is not a sin to be depressed. It may feel like it sometimes, and may lead you to all sorts of sinful temptation, but depression in itself is not a sin.
David, the author of some of the most beautiful psalms of worship, also faced some times of deep despair where he spends whole seasons of his life crying out to God. In Psalm 6:6 he says, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye Wastes away because of grief.”. He terribly depressed, but his pain is never represented as a sin.
Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in scripture, powerful in word and deed, a worker of miracles and a mighty man of God – and yet in the end we see him in a dark depression and totally afraid. He cries out that he feels totally alone, yet there were thousands of believers around him. He runs away terrified of a pagan queen, even though God has already protected him dozens of times. After seeing God come in power through one of the most amazing miracles in scripture, he takes off, falls to the ground, won’t get up, and wants to die. Yet, this wasn’t ever presented as sin. What we see is God lovingly taking care of him instead. (1 Kings 18-19)
ob is another example of a person who faced depression. Horrible things happened to him – his family died, his possessions were lost, his health destroyed – and he cries out for death, wishing he was never born, hating his life, bitter in soul, terrified of every moment that it’s never going to end and that it will only get worse (3:11, 3:26, 10:1, 30:15-17).
And, though I must tread carefully here, I believe that Jesus Himself faced not only sadness and grief, but true depression. It says in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus is able to understand our weaknesses because he was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. Isaiah 53:3 calls Jesus a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. I think there are a few places that show us times when Jesus faced deep sadness, and possible depressive episodes, but I believe that it is in the Garden of Gethsemane, moments before His arrest, trial and crucifixion, that we see true depression. He says to His friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…”. Jesus, who that He came as the only one who could save mankind from sin by dying on the cross, actually asks God to stop the mission saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”. It hurts too much. Everything inside of Him screams to just give up. He’s in such mental, spiritual, emotional agony, that His sweat comes as drops of blood.
Depression Effects Everyone
Which brings me to my third point, which is that depression is extremely common, that many people are facing it right now, and whether you have it or not, it’s probably affecting someone you know.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). That’s a two-fold promise. First, that we will have trouble, and one of those troubles is mental illness and circumstances that lead to deep sadness and depression.
In fact, these troubles, including depression, are often given by God. Job, in 16:12, says, “I was at ease, and he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces…”. Job’s trials were God’s idea.
When Jesus walked the earth He and the disciples came upon a man who was born blind. “And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2-3)The man suffered through many trials, since birth – and this in a society that didn’t have much help for people with physical handicaps – because God decided to make him blind. Why? Not because of sin, but because God had a unique, special plan for his life that required him to have a certain kind of weakness.
A synagogue leader’s little girl, and Jesus’ good friend Lazarus needed to get sick and die so people could see that Jesus had the power to raise the dead.
The Apostle Paul was used by God to heal many people’s diseases so they would know he was a true messenger of God’s Word, but when he begged God to remove his own source of constant pain and frustration, God said no. “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (1 Cor 12:9)
Sometimes our struggles are because of the effects of sin in the world, that we are surrounded by evil, under Satan’s dominion, in a world touched by the curse. Sometimes our pain is a result of people sinning against us, their own sin causing us permanent damage. But the Bible is also clear that sometimes God chooses to bless people by giving them or someone they love, or someone in their church, the gift of suffering – including what we’re talking about today, mental illness and depression.
I know that sounds strange, but it’s what scripture teaches. We wouldn’t have Psalm 23 if David hadn’t gone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We wouldn’t know of the Passover if Israel hadn’t spent 400 years in captivity. Job wouldn’t have stood out as a man of God and example of faith if he hadn’t faced such deep trials. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, all faced deep hurts, trials and pain – but are also written down in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith. And there are many more in scripture.
Their faith in God, the faith of those around them, and those who would read their stories after, grew because of the trials they faced. They were deeper people because of their suffering. (Romans 5:3-5)
And it’s not just biblical figures either. CS Lewis, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John Bunyan, and many, many faithful Christians through the ages have all suffered with depression. Not sadness, not melancholy, but deep, dark, often overwhelming depression. And yet, their faith, dependence and love for God grew. They were and are mightily used by God. Depression affects everyone, but it is not always a bad thing.
That’s where I want to leave it this week. Next week I want to look at some biblical ways that we can think about and face depression when it comes, but for now I want you to think and pray about what we’ve already learned today.
I want you to admit that depression is real and that you or someone you love may be facing it, and I want you to realize that you are not alone – but more than that, that God has a plan for it for your good and His glory.
I want you to pay attention over the next week when the blues creep in, and I want you to know that your sadness, depression, and desire for comfort isn’t a sin, but it can lead you to temptations – and to be on guard for those times.
And finally, I want you to pray for those who are facing depression. Pray they will find healing, hope and peace in Jesus – and that we as a church will show them love, patience, kindness, grace and understanding.