Discouragement, Depression and Hope (1 Kings 19)

The famous artist, Pablo Picasso has a period of paintings known as his blue period – paintings between 1901 and 1904 just after a close friend had committed suicide. There’s no sun in any of these paintings, everything is in shades of blue, green, or grey, achieving a low light effect, there are no smiles, the people appear almost lifeless in the way they are depicted.

Most of us will experience times of life we might describe as a ‘blue period’, times we feel flat or discouraged. Some will also experience very dark times where we feel flat or even depressed for much longer. Statistics for Australia indicate that at least 1 in 5 young people will experience significant depressive systems by the time they are 18. At any one time 1 in 6 Australian men are experiencing depressive symptoms, and women are twice as likely to experience them.[1] Not all of us will necessarily experience severe depression, yet all of us will find ourselves at times somewhere along the spectrum of discouragement and depression. How does the gospel of Jesus help us as we face discouragement? How can we help others who are feeling discouraged? As we look at the deep discouragement Elijah goes through in 1 Kings 19, let’s notice: 1. The reality of discouragement, 2. Some causes of discouragement 3. Some remedies for discouragement.

1. The reality of discouragement for God’s people

We see the low point Elijah has reached in v4: He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” It is an extremely low point isn’t it? He’s had enough of what he is facing, and feels like death would be the best way out.

Elijah’s not the only one in the Bible who experiences such a low. Job reaches a point where he says: “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? (Job 3:11,16). Many Psalms also express discouragement and difficulty. If you’ve ever felt discouraged or even depressed as a Christian you are not alone. Great people of God such as CH Spurgeon and William Cowper knew by personal painful experience, what deep depression of the spirit meant.[2]

Even the strongest of God’s people may feel deeply discouraged. We see something of Elijah’s great faith in the chapters prior to this.  In 1 Kings 17 we see how he pleaded to God to raise a young boy from the dead, and God did. In 1 Kings 18 we see him confronting the Israelites, saying: How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal is God follow him, confronting Ahab and the prophets of Baal, and God powerfully answered his prayer. Can you imagine the emotional high of seeing fire come from heaven and so spectacularly consuming the sacrifice and licking up the water, then seeing people fall down and say, the LORD he is God, the LORD he is God? The one who experienced those great highs, is now experiencing this great low, where he wants God to take his life.

People of great faith can still experience times of great discouragement, and even depression. Christian singer Michael Card, describes being in a place even darker than Elijah here. Elijah prays for God to bring his life to end, Michael Card can recall having thoughts of bringing his own life to an end. In his song, ‘The Edge’ he pledges to never make the choice to end his own life, which he knows would be selfish and wrong:

I’ve found that as I’ve travelled
Through the inscape of my life
That mountain tops make valleys in between
And when that nameless sadness
Like a cloud comes over me
I look back on all the brightness I have seen
I promise I will always leave
The darkness for the light
I swear by all that’s holy
I will not give up the fight
I’ll drink down death like water
Before I ever come again
To that dark place
Where I might make
The choice for life to end
And realize that though my world
Might seem so torn apart
Most often it is joy that breaks the heart
And that I am the richest man
Though I must beg for bread
For the very One who might condemn
Has called me friend instead (Michael Card, the Edge)[3]

He knows by experience great darkness, he knows it will be a fight, a struggle at times, yet he knows the hope Jesus can bring.

I remember being at another church, where the song leader looked out at everyone and said: ‘Come on I want you to smile and act like you really are Christians!’ That’s a fairly unhelpful thing to say, because you don’t know what everyone is going through at that particular moment of time. On the one hand I understand the song leader’s frustration, it can be hard leading singing, especially if you look out and people depressed. Yet to be a Christian does not mean you always have to be smiling. I pray we’ll be a church where we know and display the real joy of having our sins forgiven, of being secure in the love of our Heavenly Father, yet I pray we’ll also be a church we’re people feel safe to be real, to be sad, and be discouraged. Discouragement will be a reality for God’s people.[4]

2. Some causes of discouragement

a) Physical. In v5-6 we see Elijah lays down to sleep, gets up to eat and drink, then lies down to sleep again. It’s obvious that he’s physically exhausted isn’t it? Young babies sometimes do this, sleep, eat for a little while then go back to sleep, (teenagers might do this sometimes too J) but for Elijah to do it it’s clear he’s exhausted. Confronting Ahab and the prophets of Baal would have been very draining, since then he’s been running for his life, he’s physically exhausted.

It’s important to recognise the Bible sees us as people with physical needs. In an article on what Christian doctors say about depression, Ed Welch says: Although our physical condition never makes us sin, it certainly can make us more prone to temptation. Likewise, certain physical conditions, such as exhaustion, sleep deprivation, hypothyroidism, Vitamin B12 deficiency, exposure to certain medication side-effects, or inherited physical tendencies can make us more prone to depression.[5]

The Bible recognises that physical causes can be part of our discouragement.

b) Emotional/relational – two times in this passage, Elijah refers to being alone v10 he says, I am the only one left, then again in v14 I am the only one left. Now he’s not exactly right as we’ll see, yet Elijah does feel very much alone at this point.

God has made humans to be relational beings. There are times when it’s helpful for us to be alone for a while, yet a lack of meaningful interaction with others can lead to discouragement. Many of our relationships today are very superficial. You can have 200 Facebook friends, or lots of people you say hello to, yet have no one with whom you feel able to be real with, and share life with.

c) Spiritual. You can tell a lot about people’s world view, by what they see as the cause of discouragement. Some people see the world in only physical terms, so if you feel depressed or discouraged, the cause is physical – your only hope is to exercise, rest, diet or take some tablets. Others see people relationally or psychologically and will say what you most need is someone to talk to. The Bible says we are more than just physical or relational, we are also profoundly spiritual beings, so we need to also recognise spiritual causes.

As we look at Elijah’s discouragement, we can’t know everything about his heart, but we can see that there is also a sense of self-pity that comes across, there is a sense of disappointment, of his expectations not being met. Elijah seems disappointed with himself, with God’s people, and perhaps even with God.

He expresses disappointment with himself in v4 when he says, I am no better than my ancestors. It’s good to recognise we are no better than anyone else, but it seems Elijah had hoped to be better than his ancestors, to perhaps bring about a change that others before him had not been able to.

 He expresses disappointed with God’s people in: v10, v14 when he says: I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left. What he says is mostly true, though things aren’t quite as bleak as he says.

Elijah saw the people on Mt Carmel bowing down saying the LORD, he is God. He may have hoped things would change in Israel, yet in the short period afterward it’s as though nothing has changed.  Jezebel seems to still be running things and she’s seeking to kill him. Elijah seems disappointed at the lack of change. Yet in his disappointment is self-pity and exaggeration, things aren’t quite as bad as he says. He speaks as though he knows the whole picture, but he doesn’t.

Like Elijah we can become discouraged or depressed because we’re disappointed with ourselves, with others or even with God. We may feel helpless, we try to change an area of behaviour, but we keep giving in to the same sin, we’ve tried to help others, but they just keep going back to the same old patterns of behaviour. Behind our discouragement or depression can be issues like self-pity and wrong thoughts about God.

3. Some remedies for discouragement

Recently a friend told me of someone they knew who had struggled with depression for a long time, then they’d read a book by Christian author Ed Welch,  Depression: A Stubborn Darkness  , and it had been a great help. In our church foyer we’ve got some smaller booklets he’s written, called  Depression: The way up when you are down. He doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy solutions, and he says different people are helped by different truths. In this short time we can’t say everything we could about the hope the Bible gives for discouragement and depression, but let’s notice some practical hope we can take from this passage:

 a) Physical rest and refreshment (v5-8)

Earlier we saw how in v5-6 Elijah slept, got up to eat and drink, then lay down to sleep again. Later he gets up to eat and drink again, and is strengthened by the food. Even prophets like Elijah need physical rest and strengthening from food.

A little while ago, I was feeling quite flat for while, and I was getting concerned, thinking I should not be feeling like this. Then I made a few basic adjustments to my life, one of which was just to stop work earlier at night, and make sure I was getting enough sleep. It made a huge difference.

Paul gives Timothy both spiritual advice, and physical. He tells him, God hasn’t given us a Spirit of timidity (2 Timothy 1:7), Then elsewhere: use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses (1 Timothy 5:23).

Great Christians in the past have also used both spiritual and physical remedies. Charles Simeon who preached for over 50 years to a church at Cambridge University, advised  his  young  friends  to  walk out and inspect  the  three-mile  stone  out  of  Cambridge  each  day:  ‘Exercise,  constant  and  regular  and  ample,  is  absolutely  essential  to  a  reading  man’s  success.’ [6]

John Newton, writing to a discouraged person said: I hope the change of air and exercise will do you good. Sometimes  when  nervous  people  come  to  me,  distressed  about  their  souls,  and  think  that  is  their  only  complaint,  I  surprise  them  by  asking  if  they  have  no  friend  in  Cornwall,  or  in  the  north  of  Scotland,  whom  they  could  visit…[7]

b) Gently confront your sin (v9,13)

In v9 & 13 God asks a question: what are you doing here Elijah? Obviously God’s not asking this question because he’s surprised to discover Elijah there, he asks the question for Elijah’s benefit:

The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. (Proverbs 20:5).

God is very gentle with Elijah here, this conversation is in the context of God also caring for Elijah physically, yet God is gently drawing out of Elijah what is in his heart. As Elijah answers and God responds we see that everything wasn’t quite as bleak as Elijah was portraying it.

When we’re feeling discouraged or flat, it’s helpful to ask ourselves questions like: what am I concerned about? What does the way I’m thinking right now, show about my heart? What does it show about what I’m believing about God?  Does my thinking indicate I believe God is not in control, or not good, or not powerful? Examining our hearts, or having Christian friends who’ll be loving, gentle and honest with us, can help us see issues like self-pity, an overemphasis on ourselves and an inadequate view of God.

 c) Talk honestly with God (v4,10,14)

Elijah feels so low, that he wants his life to end, yet in v4 we saw, that he still prayed, he talked to God honestly about it, expressing how he felt. Later when God asks him the question, he again spoke to God honestly. He’s doing the right thing with his disappointment and self-pity, bringing it to God, the only one who can help.

Sometimes when we’re feeling really low it can be hard to pray. The prayers in the Bible can help us, we can take a Psalm and make it our own: Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea;  2 hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught…4 My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. 5 Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. 6 I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest…17 Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.  (Psalm 55:1-2,4-6, 17)

David wants to escape his situation. He can’t, but he can and does talk honestly to God about it. Talking honestly to God, and recognizing God’s character helps grow our faith in God.[8]

d) See God in the ordinary and unspectacular (v11-13)

In this chapter Elijah travels to Horeb, more commonly known as Sinai. Some suggest he’s going there because he wants to die where Moses died. Others have suggested he’s returning to the place the Covenant was given, to bring his accusation to God that the people have broken his covenant.[9] Others have suggested he wants to see the glory of God, like Moses in Exodus 33-34 when God allowed him to hide in a cleft on Mount Sinai while his glory passes by. Some say that’s what Elijah’s doing in the cave on Mt Sinai. We can’t read Elijah’s mind, but what we can see is that when God tells Elijah to come out of that cave, God reveals himself in a less spectacular way than he had previously. In chapter 18 God send fire down to consume the sacrifice, but here we read God’s not in the powerful wind that comes, or the earthquake, or the fire. God reveals himself in a much more ordinary way,v12 says a gentle whisper, a still small voice. God doesn’t always reveal himself in visually spectacular ways.

Earlier in my Christian life, there was a period where I was longing for God to reveal himself in some spectacular way to me. Then one morning as I was reading my Bible, writing some things down and praying, I realised that in the ordinary act of reading my Bible, God was speaking to me. Not in an audible voice, but through his word, he was showing me things about myself that I needed to repent of, he was showing me more of what he was like. I realised I didn’t need a spectacular experience of God, what I needed was to listen to God revealing himself to me in an ordinary way, by picking up my Bible and reading it. That might seem obvious, but realising that has been life transforming for me, as I learn to see God revealing himself to me in an ordinary, yet profound way through his word.

 e) Recognise God and his plans are bigger and better than your discouragement (v15-18)

Elijah had thought he was the only one left, and the best thing that could happen was for God to take his life. Yet God’s plans were bigger than Elijah realised. God was still in control of the political kingdom, he shows that in v15-16, telling Elijah the next kings to go and anoint. During the week a new government was finally in Australia. Some people seem ecstatic, others are discouraged, but no matter how you voted, it’s good to know that God hasn’t lost control, he’s the one who ultimately brings people to power and removes them. God is also still building his followers, Elijah was not the only one, as he thought, God tells him in v17 of 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. God still had work for Elijah, and God’s plans for his people were far bigger than Elijah realised.

Charles Simeon, wrote this to  a  woman  who  was  depressed:  ‘you  are  too  much  occupied  in  looking  at  yourself,  and  too  little  in  beholding  the  Lord  Jesus  Christ.  It  is  by  the  former  you  are  to  be  humbled;  but  it  is  by  the  latter  that  you  are  to  be  changed  into  the  divine  image.’[10] That’s good advice isn’t it? It’s not bad to look at ourselves and see how weak and inadequate and helpless we are. Yet if that’s all we ever focus on, you will always be discouraged and distressed. We make progress as we look more and more to Jesus, the one who is everything we are not. We are weak, he is strong, we are sinful, he is perfect, we can’t make ourselves acceptable to God, he can make us acceptable to God through his death on the cross. He is able to give us the grace and power we need to live for him. We can’t build the church, but Jesus is building his church, throughout the world. It may look small in some places, we may feel discouraged at times, yet God and his plans are far bigger than we realise.

It’s ironic isn’t it, that God answered Elijah’s prayer to bring back a boy’s life, answered his prayer to send fire from heaven, answered his prayer to send rain, but when Elijah prayed to God to take his life, God’s answer was not now, and not ever. Elijah is one of only two people we read of in the Bible who did not die, he was taken to heaven.

God and his plans are much bigger than we realise. Progress when we’re discouraged can be hard, but the way forward is not by focussing downward or inward, but by looking upward to the one whose grace is all that we need.

 


[1] http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=1.7 (accessed 10 September 2010).

[2] No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of heart, for Jesus Christ our lord once said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.”(Mark 14:34). There was no sin in him, and consequently, none in His deep depression (CH Spurgeon).

[3] Complete lyrics: http://www.michaelcard.com/details_product.php?com_type=song&com_id=192

[4] Jesus says: In this world you will have trouble. (John 16:33). Paul says “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22). Christians won’t always be on an emotional high.

[5] Christian Doctors on Depression, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 18-3, Spring 2000, 39.

[6] Hopkins,  92. (cited in : Peter Barnes lecture notes on Charles Simeon, 8 )

[7] Josiah Bull, Letters of John Newtown, 389 .

[8]  Another eg: 1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. .. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. (Psalm 130:1-2,5)

[9] Dale Ralph Davis argues that: Elijah’s mission on Mt Horeb was to bring covenant accusation against Israel for breach of the covenant, 1 Kings p262-3)

[10] Hopkins,  131 (cited in : Peter Barnes’ lecture notes on Charles Simeon, 8 )

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