How God Handles Depression

By Paul Wheatley

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kgs. 19:10)

In our reading this morning, we pick up in the middle of a story of Elijah in his back and forth with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Perhaps you’ve heard it before: Ahab and Jezebel had been systematically reworking the northern kingdom to worship Ba’al, Jezebel’s Sidonian god, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They put money and influence in the hands of the priests of Ba’al. It all came to a head when Elijah showed up as Ahab called all Israel to gather at Mount Carmel to worship Ba’al.

Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Ba’al’s prophets are 450 men. … If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him” (1 Kgs. 18:22, 21 ESV). They each make a sacrifice, and call on their god to come down and consume the sacrifice.

Nothing happens for Ba’al’s people, but for Elijah, the Lord comes down and consumes the offering. Elijah and the Lord won!

What happens next might surprise you. Does Elijah continue the victory, eradicate Ba’al worship, and restore worship of the Lord? No. He runs away, hides, and falls headlong into despair. It says, “he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. … He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” God’s vindication didn’t matter. The victory and success didn’t matter. Elijah felt isolated and alone, and wanted to die.

Author Andrew Solomon began a groundbreaking article — sparking a national conversation about depression in a time when it was still taboo and misunderstood — by writing this: “I did not experience depression until I had pretty much solved my problems. … It was when life was finally in order that depression came slinking in and spoiled everything.”

Today I want to talk about something we don’t talk enough about in the church. I want to talk about what Andrew Solomon himself referred to, quoting the Psalms, as “the noonday demon,” the darkness, sadness, and desperation we now call depression, and I want to talk about depression’s spiritual counterpart, despair. But first, I think it’s important that we be clear about a few things.

First off, depression and despair are two different things, and by talking about them together, I don’t want to merge them in to a monolithic whole. Depression is a state of mind, characterized by a low mood and aversion to activity that can range from a seasonal or situational sense of feeling down to a dangerous and potentially deadly clinical state that may require psychological and medical intervention. Despair, as I’m meaning it here, is a state of faith in which someone actively abandons all hope that it is possible for God to help or save them in any way.

Second, I want to be clear that while depression may have some spiritual causes, and some strong effects in our spiritual lives, it is not simply a spiritual malady. Just as we are spiritual, physical, and emotional beings, experiences of depression can at times be more emotional or physical — relating to the physical brain chemistry — than just spiritual.

Third, I want to acknowledge that while this is becoming less of a taboo in the broader culture, in the Church we still have trouble talking about this. But we in the Church are not strangers to this. If this is you, I want you to hear from me that though it may feel otherwise, you are not alone, and don’t have to go through this alone.

In our readings today, we see elements of both depression and despair. It comes especially in Elijah’s despair that the God who had consumed his offering and vindicated him in front of Israel could save him from Jezebel’s threat on his life.

I want to look especially into Elijah’s lament, and God’s response. As we do this, we will see that sorrow need not have the final word because God invites us to offer him our deepest, darkest depths, our sadness and fears, that we may walk with him in hope.

I want to look at what is going on with Elijah. How does he go from the heights of victory to the depths of despair in such a short time? The first thing I want to observe is that the seeds for Elijah’s despair were already growing and bearing fruit before he ever confronted the prophets of Ba’al.

When he gathers with Israel at the showdown with Ahab and the prophets of Ba’al, some of the first words out of his mouth are words we hear mirrored again in his lament to God: “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Ba’al’s prophets are 450” (1 Kgs. 18:22 ESV). One of the chief lies of despair is that you are utterly alone, beyond God’s help. Regardless of whether it’s true — and in this case it is not true: God later reveals that there are yet 7,000 who have not bowed their knees to Ba’al — it feels true, and sometimes that’s all that matters. This was Elijah’s story. Victorious or not, he felt totally alone. I suspect we’ve all been there.

But I want to note something else about the next two times Elijah expresses this loneliness to God. The first time, at Mount Carmel, Elijah says it as a matter of course in his address to the Israelites, but the next two times, he expresses that feeling because God asked him. “Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord. … for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” Did you hear that? God asks Elijah.

I want us to pay attention to this. It is easy in our prayers to pray for the things that we are sorry about: the sick and suffering people in our lives, the victims of violence and oppression, and even our own sins — if we’re aware of them and sorry for them — it’s easy enough to come to God with these prayers.

You know what it’s hard to come to God with? Anger: Our anger at injustice, our hatred of our enemies, our frustration with unjust systems in the world that perpetuate social tragedies as well as the little indignities and hatred we experience around us. And like Elijah, that hatred is just as easily turned inward as it is outward, and often these go together. Elijah turns the sword on the prophets of Ba’al, and then is just as quickly willing to turn the sword on himself, and God.

But God is not afraid of it, and even after Elijah expresses it, God comes to him, not in the raging wind, not in the violence of the earthquake, and not in the burning of the fire, but in a sound of sheer silence. And then God asks again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God is more powerful than our pain, our sadness, and our dark anger, and for this very reason, he allows us — No, requests of us! — that we turn our anger, sorrows, and hopelessness to him. He may not fix. He may not quiet the storms raging in our hearts, but when we bring these to God, he can do something with us.

The Psalms we said this morning are a great example of this. They begin in hunger and sorrow and go deeper from there. “As the deer longs for the water-brooks,” in Psalm 42, transitions in Psalm 43 to this: “Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked. … Why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?”

I know this Psalm, Psalm 43, by heart for several reasons. One is that it doesn’t take long in life and a ministry of hope before you come in contact with enemies of hope. Sometimes it’s others, but most of the time those enemies of hope circle around my head, or reside in my heart, in my thoughts, in the news I read, or in the hurts and offenses I recount over and over again. This Psalm reminds me that the voices running in circles in my head were calling me away from the hope that I wanted to proclaim to others and leading me to despair.

But this Psalm became a part of the fabric of my soul when I began preparing for ordained ministry. There is a tradition of praying Psalm 43 as a priest’s preparatory prayers for celebrating the Eucharist. It’s all there, the heaviness of the world, the heaviness of my heart, the wickedness and the deceit that so easily take root in our world and in our hearts, and the help and hope that the Psalmist hasn’t yet received but believes is only found in God. And this is what it means to worship, isn’t it?

It isn’t to have all the answers, all the questions fixed, and all the darkness of the world flooded with blinding light. It’s to recount what God has done in the past as a pattern and a hope of what God could do in the darkness and challenges of the day.

It’s to look at Jesus with the demoniac when our own hearts want to run headlong into destruction, and find the man clothed and in his right mind. It’s to see Jesus wrestling with evil in his temptation, with his own will in Gethsemane, and to see him move forward on his course, even it means the cross. And it’s to see that same cross — the darkest of all acts — in light of the empty tomb. It’s to hear God’s voice in the sheer silence, bidding our cries, seeing our darkness, and at last saying, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.” Keep going. Keep going.

It is to offer ourselves, our hopes, our fears, our anger, our sadness, and our longing for justice and peace to God as prayer, as worship, as lives given purpose in God’s plan for us.

“Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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