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To briefly recount the background of the story, three years before, at the urging of the Lord, Elijah had announced a drought as punishment on the nation of Israel for its idolatry and worship of the Baals which had been instigated by the wicked Queen Jezebel. As you recall from your Sunday School lessons, a contest was arranged on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal to determine once and for all just who was the REAL God of Israel. Each would build an altar for their god and then a sacrifice would be made. The god who answered by fire, consuming the sacrifice, would be the winner. All day long the prophets of Baal danced and prayed, sang and prayed, whined and prayed, all without result. Finally, at the end of the day, Elijah prayed his relatively short prayer and God answered by fire! BIG time! Yahweh wins! Elijah wins! YES!
Now, the prophets of the Baals had been exterminated, the rains have begun again, and except for the very real threat of retribution from Jezebel, Elijah should have been feeling on top of the world.
But no - he was in a blue funk. He went out into the wilderness, away from all human contact, slumped down under a tree and said, "All right, Lord, enough is enough. I have had it with this prophet business. I have been on the front lines for you my entire life. I have been the leader of the pack in every one of your causes, on call 24/7, worked my fingers to the bone. And what do I get for it? Jezebel has a contract out on me. Why should I bother? The people will never REALLY listen. All they care about is themselves. It has been that way for generations and will ALWAYS be that way. I break my neck to do what is right, to try to get THEM to do what is right, but it never works. I am burned up and burned out. Like the guy in that old movie, `I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.' Just kill me now and get it over with. I have HAD IT!"
Quite a speech. One might expect that the Lord would respond with something like, "There, there, boy. Chill out. It's all right. You are doing a fine job. Don't be so depressed. It will all work out in the end." But the Lord does not say that. The Lord does not say anything. Just silence.
You can picture the prophet looking around him after that emotional volcanic eruption...the scrub brush, the tree he was leaning against, the pale blue desert sky. "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" Finally, Elijah took that time-honored way of temporary escape - he fell asleep.
Why should Elijah be so terribly depressed? After all, as much as anyone alive he had seen the evidence of God's power. He had watched as God provided an unending supply of food for the poor family that had offered him hospitality for three years. He had participated in God's restoration to life of a desperately ill young boy. He had been God's field commander in that great victory on Mt. Carmel. One would expect that Elijah of all people would never hit bottom. But he did.
What causes such depression? If Elijah is instructive, a good part of the answer is sheer frustration.
I have told you this before, but it bears repeating. Many years ago after a funeral for one of the most faithful leaders in my father's congregation and long before I ever went into the ministry, I asked Dad if that was the toughest thing about being a pastor...having to bury one of the most dedicated saints of the church. He said, "No, not at all. After all, a Christian funeral is a celebration of victory. The toughest thing about being a minister," he said, "is going to a board or committee meeting, watching people act so absolutely contrary to everything you have been trying to preach and teach, and wondering whether or not you have made a nickel's worth of difference in anyone's life." Elijah probably would have said AMEN.
Of course, preachers are not the only ones who have to deal with frustration and despair. People break their necks to do the best possible job and then find they are out of work because a corporate raider has taken over the company and is selling all the assets. A father and mother try to give their youngsters a proper upbringing but are now crazy with worry because their teenage son has been arrested for selling drugs. A husband sits quietly by, unable to do anything, as his wife slowly wastes away, the victim of the inexorable advance of an incurable disease. A marriage that had started with such promise of excitement years ago has now drifted into day after day of mutual boredom. A marriage that STAYED wonderful through the years is now over, ended by the cold hand of death, leaving the survivor to wonder if there will ever again be any laughter in life. A list like that could go on and on. Psychology Today(1) pointed out years ago that the average American is ten times more likely to be depressed than his father and 20 times more likely to be depressed than his grandfather. As Thoreau once wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and these days it is worse than ever. Oh, Elijah, we hear you calling.
Is there any word from the Lord on this? Is anybody there? Does anybody care? As I said at the beginning, one of the reasons I love the Bible is that it refuses to be blind to human frailty, even among the heroes of the faith. But another reason is that the Bible DOES have a word from the Lord. It offers strength to overcome the frailty, in this case the feelings of depression that sometimes come to even the strongest of us. Please do not misunderstand - what I am offering this morning is not some automatic cure-all (because as that horrible situation in Houston this week with a mother murdering her five children demonstrates, some depressions need professional attention). So saying, for the vast majority of feelings of despair and hopelessness there are some practical remedies that will work.
See what happens with Elijah. "All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up and eat.' He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again." It hardly comes as a surprise that proper nutrition and rest are critical to a decent mental attitude. Overstressed, underpaid workaholics will inevitably have trouble. Elijah's body and mind were an integrated whole. His body needed to be right before his mind could be right.
Then there is another step. When Elijah woke up again, the narrative says, "Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God." The message here is not to overcome depression by running away from problems or even going off on an extended vacation. What is significant is Elijah's destination. Mt. Horeb was the place where Moses first met God in the burning bush. It was also known as Sinai, the place where God gave the Law. For Elijah, a trip to that holy mountain was a pilgrimage to his spiritual roots...a place to rekindle memories, to recall all God had done throughout history. The mountain was a setting that would force Elijah to think about something other than himself.
More was needed, of course. The next step was conversation with the Lord - a prayer, if you will. Elijah set up camp in a cave, and as scripture has it, "the word of the Lord came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
One more time, Elijah explodes. "Lord, I have done my part. I did everything I was supposed to, but I have not made a nickel's worth of difference. The people just keep on keeping on. And for all my trouble, as usual, good old Elijah is caught with his butt in a sling again - Jezebel wants to carve me like a Christmas turkey. When you're up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to think about draining the swamp...and, as you know, Lord, I cleaned that up. I am tired of this!" Quite a prayer.
Have you ever prayed one like that? There is nothing the matter with it. It is not as if God does not already know how we feel. God knows. But letting it all hang out can be therapeutic. As someone has said, "A trouble shared is a trouble cut in half." That may overstate the case, but the words of the hymn writer surely do not:
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.(2)
Then there is another step in bouncing back. God told Elijah, "'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." The message for those who are occasionally deeply depressed is that furious activity - wind, earthquake, fire - is not the answer. A time is needed for quiet reflection, to FEEL the Lord's presence.
To be sure, there is one more step. Simply getting back to your roots is not enough. The Lord's initial question is repeated: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Once more the prophet makes his excuses, but this time God responds with some work for him to do.
I read somewhere about some aspiring psychiatrists who were attending their first class on emotional extremes. The professor began, "Mr. Jones, just to establish some parameters, what is the opposite of joy?"
"Sadness," said the student.
"And the opposite of depression, Ms. Smith?"
She thought a moment and said, "Elation."
"How about the opposite of woe, Mr. Brown?"
The student replied, "I believe, sir, that is GIDDYUP."(3)
Elijah's experience says Mr. Brown is right on the button. A blue funk will never be dispelled by sitting off somewhere and feeling sorry for ourselves. Get back to the real world and get busy with your normal tasks.
One brief aside in all this. Do you remember Elijah's claim that "I am the only one left," the last faithful person on earth? Well, the Lord lets him know that that is not true. There are thousands more who are on your team. Two things should be noted: first, when you are deep in the pits, you rarely think straight and tend to exaggerate your predicament; and second, despite all evidence to the contrary, you DO have friends out there, people who are supportive, who care, and are willing to see you through.
To be sure, Elijah is not the only person in scripture who at times was depressed. It happened to Jesus. He was frustrated that even his closest disciples often misunderstood him. He stood on a hill overlooking Jerusalem one day and broke into tears because the people would not listen. One night, as he prayed in a garden, his distress was so great that scripture says he sweat great drops of blood and begged for escape. The word from the Lord in all this is that deep depression occasionally happens to the very best. The story of Elijah offers a prescription for dealing with it.
I am grateful that I have never had much problem with depression. Only once actually...in a church I served some years ago. One thing after another began to work on me...money problems, a slowdown in membership growth, too many meetings, not enough time with family, even termites in the Education Building. It all finally got me down. On top of that was what one author has called "seemstress"(4) - the stress of trying to put the best face on everything, conveying the message that everything is all right when, deep in your heart, you KNOW that it is all going to hell in a hand basket. I tried to keep on that happy face and look on the bright side through it all, but that became very wearing. I remember going on vacation that year, hoping that some time away would snap me out of it, but it did not. I have always loved my work, but for the first time in my life, when a vacation was over, I did not want to come back. My sojourn in the wilderness that year only left me asking, "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?"
I began to get the answer from Elijah's story. Do a better job taking care of myself physically (eating right, proper rest, exercise, take my day off when I was supposed to, and so on - which, as my staff continually reminds me, is a lesson I STILL have not really learned). Do not neglect my roots - set time aside for things that are ultimately important (quiet time for prayer, study, meditation) and for certain people who are equally important, (an incredibly wonderful wife and two of the best children a father has ever had). I was never particularly tempted to sit and feel sorry for myself but Elijah's program of therapy says, if you ARE tempted, that IS something to be on guard against. Finally, I had to realize that things were probably not so bleak as I had been inclined to think. And I had to remember that I was not alone - there were and ARE caring and supportive friends, and especially the one scripture calls "the friend who sticks closer than a brother," our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the one who invites us, in our deepest, darkest moments, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden - all you Elijahs - and I will give you rest."
1. Oct., 1988
2. Joseph Scriven, c. 1855
3. Pastor's Professional Research Service, 3/89-4/89, p. 2
4. Lloyd Ogilvie, Making Stress Work for You, (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1984), p. 194