Defeating Discouragement and Depression

An alarming rate of the Lord’s servants suffer from major discouragement and depression. What has been especially difficult and alarming is the number of presentations I have listened to that seem to indicate that this discouragement comes to those who are in some way, “weak” and “sinful.” Often times the listener goes away with the sense that if only I were “more holy,” or perhaps “more disciplined” I would be able to “break free” from these feelings of discouragement. Panic, anxiety and other physical “reactions” to stress and strain are often assumed to automatically be signs of “bad theology” or “personal sin.” Often such symptoms certainly may in part be connected with sinful choices. But we need to remember that one cannot assume that because a servant is going through a time of depression – even the type that effects one physically, that that is necessarily the result of “sin” in faith or practice. For those who refuse to accept this, I simply need to remind you of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ, in His humanity, suffered physiological symptoms (sweating blood) on the eve of his crucifixion. Yep, you have “physiological results” from “internal strain.” I hope we would not say that Jesus’ suffered from “bad theology” or “personal sin!” Just as it was normal for Jesus, to suffer the physiological effects of strain at Golgotha – Those of us less divine can certainly expect that often we will feel the effects of discouragement even depression and anxiety in our weak, physical bodies and brains!

For the last seventeen years, I have had the privilege of pastoring in Michigan, Minnesota, and now in Arizona. What I have discovered is that while each ministry and minister is unique, and while the cultural setting may vary from region to region, we are all very similar in the way discouragement attacks us. This article was initially written several years ago during a time in which we have dedicated several months of preaching and teaching to the topic of “The Bible’s answer to discouragement and depression.” What began as a 4 week preaching series grew into a 10 week “journey” into a specific time frame in the life and ministry of Elijah. What follows is some Biblically based information that when applied can be helpful for the man or woman who faces the common times of discouragement and even depression, within the context of life and ministry. This brings us to our “case study.”

You will remember that in 1 Kings, chapter 18, Elijah experiences a great victory on Mount Carmel. After this victory, including the execution of the prophets of Baal, God sends rain and helps Elijah win a “foot race,” against the chariot of Ahab to Jezreel. I believe it would be obvious to say that Elijah has a full day in chapter 18. It also seems clear from the text, that Elijah was experiencing victory in life and ministry. However, when you come to the next chapter (chp 19) you will notice a major change in demeanor. Our victorious, triumphant Elijah becomes fearful, depressed, and despondent. Wow, what a change! The reason I mention this portion of the OT is because it is very instructive for God’s servants today. I believe you will notice some very interesting parallels as to the cause and then solution of this type of ministry and life depression. Notice what I believe to be contributing factors to Elijah’s depression.

#1 – Elijah is going through a major “life” and “ministry-change.” From what we can determine here in this portion of 1 Kings, Elijah is going to be transitioning into a new phase of prophetic ministry, namely that of “mentoring” the next major spiritual leader, Elisha. This marks the beginning of the end of Elijah’s ministry. Counselors (both “Biblical” and “Secular”) will tell you that people are most susceptible to discouragement when they find themselves in the middle of a “life-transition.” I believe that this is no different for the Lord’s servants.

#2 – Elijah suffers a major “failed expectation.” It seems very apparent from these chapters that Elijah expected Israel to turn back to Jehovah. Not only does that not happen but also the queen is after his “neck!” This again rings true with those involved in day to day life and ministry. How common it is for a pastor to feel like a failure on Monday morning, a Christian School teacher to feel unloved because they struggle with not getting a raise in salary when others in the ministry structure do! A Bible Camp Director when out of a dozen supporting churches, he can only muster up 3 to help during “clean up week!” A pastor who does not get the pay raise he needs, even when the church could afford it. You get the picture. These types of “failed expectations” can easily propel us into self-pity and discouragement.

 

#3 – Elijah suffers from physical exhaustion. Let’s not forget Elijah’s journey here. Remember it all began on Mount Carmel. After his victory, he runs all the way to “the entrance of Jezreel.” After getting word that the queen is out to get him, he continues his journey all the way to Beer-sheba where he drops off his servant and then runs 15 more miles (a day’s journey) into the middle of the Negev desert, finds a tree and essentially collapses. When you add it all up, that’s more than 80 miles! We think that was all in about a day and a half! Well, how would you feel after running over 3 marathons in a short period of time! The text seems to describe this journey as anything but “calm.” Very clearly, he is running for his life. Very clearly, God’s servant is physically tired.

How common it is for all of us who have been in ministry to get tired, and then as a result to feel “down.” No matter what kind of ministry you find yourself, we all have the same “MO.” Your “to do” list is longer than your “grocery list.” The problem is that we often set unfair and unreasonable expectations on ourselves. This is no doubt connected with the day and age we live in. We are used to “instant this and that,” and so we get frustrated when our ministries are not zipping along at mach 3! So to compensate we work, work, work, and work, (often at the expense of a healthy diet and exercise program!) until we’re whipped. As I look at my own heart I have to admit that sometimes I am guilty of this because I think (or maybe “others” in the congregation wrongly think) that building God’s church is more up to me, than Christ. Remember His words, “I will build my Church!” I think if we really believed that, we could avoid the sin of “workaholism.” That’s not to say that we are to be lazy, but remember even Christ took time out of his earthly ministry to rest. I’ve heard it said, “You need to come apart, before you come apart!”

#4 – Elijah suffers from emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Without a doubt, “ministry” takes something out of you. Anyone who has tried to counsel or help others in time of crisis knows that “ministry burns energy.” As you think of Elijah here, let’s not forget that he had spent the entire previous day doing battle – not just expending physical energy; he was involved in spiritual battle! All ministry, if it is God-honoring, will be involved in this type of “spiritual warfare.” Paul does not stutter when he proclaims in Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” When you give of yourself in ministry there is a spiritual and I believe emotional drain that takes place.

#5 – Elijah suffers from isolation. When you come down to 1 Kings 19:4, the prophet here is all alone. You will remember that back in Beer-sheba, Elijah drops his servant off. Elijah is all alone. We really don’t need to be surprised that Elijah actually thinks that he’s all that’s left for Jehovah. That is a normal feeling when you’ve isolated yourself from everyone else! God was good later in the text to remind Elijah that, “no son, you’re not alone, I have another 7,000 in Israel who have not bowed to Baal. Have you ever had that feeling? Oh God, only I am left!!! When you think about that, Isn’t that pathetic! I mean really! This might be an indication that some of us have taken “separation” to the unbibilcal extreme of “isolation!” God did not intend for that to be normal! He very much is into the “team mentality.” God is not interested in each of us fighting as an “one-man army” – he has placed us into His army, with other soldiers who love the Lord as much, if not more, than we do! That’s why he gives us each different gifts, so that in the midst of the battle we are able to lean and rely on each other! What is interesting here is that not only does Elijah isolate himelf from other people, he also ignores God! Not once in this “Mt Carmel to Jezerel to Beer-sheba to the middle of the Negev” trip, do you see God’s servant praying. And finally at the end of verse 4, when he does pray, it’s rather self-centered – “Please God, just kill me!”

#6 – Elijah suffers from panic. When we look at all of these other contributing factors to Elijah’s “burn-out,” it should not surprise us that God’s servant is taken over with fear. This is the same guy who in faith, takes on 450 prophets of Baal (chp 18), is feed at the brook Cherith (chp 17) and then later that same chapter tells the widow at Zarephath to, “Fear not” concerning enough food for himself, her and her son. The point here is this, Elijah was no spiritual wimp. He has seen first hand God’s supernatural hand of deliverance. I only mention this to point out that “panic,” and “depression” are not only characteristic only of the “unspiritual.” It often attacks believer’s who for years have faithfully and selflessly served the Lord. Many of God’s choicest servants both in scripture and throughout history have wrestled with this. What is hard to believe is that Elijah would run from a woman who gives an oath to her “gods,” the same gods who proved to be totally helpless the day before, when fighting against Jehovah. Elijah is not in a frame of mind to realize the obvious about the impotence of Jezebel, and her gods! There will be times that we are faced with fear. But we should not forget that God has promised to be with us. God has ordained and continues to maintain our ministries. We do not need to fear because God is faithful!

Well, What’s the answer? Notice with me that God helps Elijah in this time of depression by focusing on several issues. First, God allows Elijah to have victory over depression from the physical sphere. Then the spiritual spere. And last, the relational sphere.

A. Attacking depression from the Physical realm.

1. Healthy Sleeping – The first thing God allows Elijah to do is to get rest. One of the first things to suffer when we get “over-extended” in life and ministry is sleep. Here God allows His prophet sleep. Many times we don’t get the sleep we need because we are still working, or we’re worked up so much in our mind that we can’t sleep (another indication that we might not be trusting God). Most folks in ministry don’t have a problem with too much sleep, it’s usually too little!

 

2. Healthy Eating – When the angel awakes Elijah he gives him bread. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that God’s bread probably didn’t have 35 additives in it. I doubt it had the word, “Wonder!” stamped on the side. My guess is that God’s bread was nutritious. We in ministry are frankly notorious about our bad eating habits. What is amazing is that often the preachers with the “biggest mouth” about destroying our bodies (temples of the Holy Spirit) with cigarettes, drugs, and booze, often are destroying themselves with the “biggest belly!”

3. Healthy Drinking – The third point here is to simply note that when giving Elijah a drink, it wasn’t wine, it wasn’t juice, it was “good ol” water! The point here is not that it’s wrong to have a coffee in the morning or an occasional soda, its simply again to note that God gives his servant healthy drink in his time of need. It is interesting to note that modern day psychologists believe that depression hits hardest those who are not eating and drinking in a healthy manner.

4. Healthy Physical Pace – The last issue here is simply to realize that after this time or physical refreshment, he went forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (about 200 miles south of Beersheba). A long trip for sure, but a much more reasonable pace that that first 80 mile dash at the beginning of chapter 19! Physicians are telling us today that with physical exercise it is possible to do damage to your body with either the wrong kind of exercise or the wrong amount (including in some cases – too much). Within the last several years, several famous middle age athletes have died pre-maturely because of over-exercising. Probably most of us struggle with the other extreme – not enough exercise!

B. Attacking depression from the Spiritual realm.

1. Elijah finally begins to pray – When you come to the end of verse four, in a fit of desperation, the prophet prays to God. The point could be made that perhaps this isn’t the best prayer, but at least he’s now talking to the one who can help! I must admit that this has happened to me more frequently than it should. I will be working on a problem and I get stumped and so after I’ve exhausted all my mental resources (which doesn’t take too long!) I say well, “at least I can pray!” No doubt God would have us learn to do this first! Many times depression is a result of Holy Spirit conviction concerning unconfessed sin in the life of God’s servant. David reminds us in Ps 66:18 that this will block our fellowship with the Lord, causing a “sense” of separation from God (even though He’s not the one who’s moved away!). The answer to unconfessed sin, according to 1 John 1:9, is “prayer!” Sometimes it’s Satan functioning as the “accuser of the brethren,” trying to discourage us with “false guilt,” stemming from past failure that has already been forgiven and forgotten (except by us & Satan!). Again, the answer is prayer. The point here is that finally God’s servant begins the process of healing through prayer.

 

2. Elijah listens to “the word of the Lord” – When we come to verse 9. The Servant is now in the Sinai range, finds a cave and begins to listen to “the word of the Lord.” In communicating his disappointment in God’s people and even in God himself, finally Elijah listens to Jehovah’s answer for the situation he finds himself in. It is interesting that in this revelation from God, Elijah is asked the question, “What are you doing here?” No doubt a reference that his arrival to this location was initiated by his fearful fleeing, and not the result of the Lord’s instruction. The prophet’s response shows that he felt tired, fearful and alone in the face of those who hated both himself and God. The Lord’s answer to Elijah is so descriptive of God’s character that we find it used in Romans 11, by the Apostle Paul, in his explaining of how some of the house of Abraham have not deserted God. Here Elijah is instructed to anoint Hazael, Jehu and Elijah. It is encouraging to remember that the Lord, through these men, completed the destruction of the Baal worshipers that Elijah had begun. Additionally, God reminds his discouraged servant that, “no” he was not alone, another seven thousand had not bowed the knee to Baal. This “word” needs to be sounded again today. Often the pastor, deacon, Sunday school teacher, Christian camp worker, the mother, the father, the teenager and a host of others feel like they’re all alone. My dear Christian friend, hurting in life and ministry – you are not alone! God is with you, others have gone on faithfully in the face of similar discouragements and God was faithful in getting them to the other side. God will be faithful to you, He will not fail you – He can’t, He’s God! He will accomplish his purpose in a way that is best for you, and consistent with his sovereign will. Our salvation and ministry are all a result of God! He is both the author and finisher of our faith. Because of Him, we can and must go on. For in going on in faith, even in the face of discouragement and depression, we have the privilege of witnessing and partaking in God’s work and deliverance. Remember Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” This brings us to the last part of Elijah’s attacking depression.

I don’t have the room here to treat this fully. The Hebrew term for meditate (hG,hey,- pronounced “he-gah”) mean’s “self-talk.” The idea you hear preachers use is a cow chewing it’s food. That’s really not the best description. A better idea would be like a dove who “coo’s.” We are to “coo” God’s Word – In other words, we are to “self-talk” day and night (Joshua 1:8, Ps 1:1, etc….). When we are hit with those waves of discouragement. It is imperative that we talk to the Lord, and “self-talk.” That is we reflect on the promises of God’s Word. David was not free from discouragement. A quick view of the Psalms reveal that. Powerful is Psalm 31. David works through a list of reasons he runs to God for comfort. In times of discouragement, the Father desires that we run to him. “As a father pieties his children…..” Praise the Lord he cares about his children, especially during the low times of life and ministry.

 

C. Attacking depression from the Relational realm.

1. Elijah seeks out Elisha – When I was a teenager, one of the most popular movie series was “Rambo.” My take on the movie series back then was that the story line was essentially the same. In each episode, a “one man” army goes and kills all the bad guys, so America can live safe and free in the face of the communist threat. I’ve observed many in ministry with the same attitude. They can handle this all by themselves! The problem here is that if you actually tried to fight a real “modern day” war this way, once the bullets started to fly, you would probably have a life expectancy of about…3 seconds! This is not to say that The Lord on some occasion won’t ask us to stand alone in face of sin. But it is to say that the scriptures consistently demonstrate a “team mentality” to ministry. Sometimes in a quest to be separate from the world, we actually isolate ourselves from each other! Here, Elijah has help in that God directs him to Elisha. As one reads the following chapters, it is very apparent that Elijah not only becomes a mentor to Elisha, but additionally Elisha becomes a very special source of encouragement to the older Elijah.

2. Elijah is “ministered unto” by Elisha – At the end of this chapter, the reader finds a very interesting phrase. In verse 21, the reader will note that after Elisha sacrifices the oxen and says his good-byes to loved ones, “he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him.” The idea is that the younger Elisha goes and serves and encourages the older Elijah. The impact here should be several fold. First, it is important for those of us who are constantly serving others to allow God and others the occasion of serving and ministering to us. Second, those of us who are younger in ministry should not be afraid to speak a word of encouragement or do a kind deed of service to those who have gone before us. Frankly, I have always unconsciously believed that those who are in minsitry with significant responsibilities don’t need my support or service because obviously at that level of spirituality, they don’t need it. I’m finding out that they need it probably more than those of us with less responsibility! It is important to remember that God created us with the need for fellowship. It is good to be able to have friends and comrades in ministry. And if one doesn’t have any friends, it may be good to ask himself, am I “friendly?” Better yet, ask your wife. God doesn’t want a bunch of disconnected and discouraged, “ministry-Rambo’s!”

By way of conclusion, when you’re tired and feel like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, remember the words of Elisha (to his fearful servant in Dothan) in 2 Kings 6, “Fear not; for they who are with us are more than they who are with them.” Praise God we serve a Lord who says, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee (Heb 13:5).”

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