When Trouble Comes

"I’ve Had Enough": Elijah's Desperate Depression

Author: Philip Graham Ryken
Publisher: Crossway
Genre: Christian Living
Book Review
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Excellent for This Topic
Reading Level: Easy
This is a bedside-read for you to pick up at night when your heart is hurting. It's written with compassion, understanding, and gentleness. At the same time, it is deep and rich, and draws from many parts of Scripture to minister truth to your hurting heart. We came across this book because a friend gave it to us in our pain. It was a balm. We know that it can minister to you too, because it is full of God's Word.
Chapter
| 13 Minutes
CHAPTER 2

“I’ve Had Enough”: Elijah’s Desperate Depression

Suicidal Thoughts

When Ahab’s chariot arrived at Jezreel, jealous Queen Jezebel was waiting to meet her king and hoping to hear good news. She heard instead that her prophets had been put to death, so she flew into a deadly rage and sent word to Elijah that he was next (1 Kings 19:2). Thus, Elijah learned that he was a dead man, and in that moment, all his courage abandoned him. The prophet’s great faith was driven out by sudden anxiety. “Then he was afraid,” Scripture says, “and he arose and ran for his life” (v. 3).

A man can run a long way when he is running for his life, and Elijah ran ninety miles, all the way to Beersheba. Then he went another day’s journey into the desert (v. 4). He ran and ran until finally he threw himself down under a lonely tree. Then he prayed. After all, Elijah was a man of prayer. So how is this for a prayer? “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (v. 4).

Notice that even at the point of absolute desperation—when he may have been the loneliest man in the world—Elijah still managed to pray. He took his complaint to God. Rather than taking his life, as he was tempted to do, he asked God if he could die. Deep down, the prophet knew that suicide is a sin—not an unforgivable sin, and often a sin of weakness rather than malice, but a sin nonetheless. So even when he wanted to die, Elijah acknowledged God’s lordship over life and death. We see the same thing in Job (Job 10:18–19), Moses (Numbers 11:15), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14), and Jonah (Jonah 4:3). All of these men wished that they could die, but they did not kill themselves. Instead, they took their despair to God in prayer.

Anyone who has ever been depressed knows how Elijah felt. But even people who are never depressed can learn to be sensitive to the cries of anguish all around them. Elijah’s desperate plea finds a modern echo in the 1996 film Trainspotting, in which the lead character says (edited for profanity):

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television. … Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows. … Choose rotting away at the end of it all … in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish … brats that you’ve spawned to replace yourselves. … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Elijah never watched television or did drugs, but this is basically how he felt. By the time he reached that lonely tree in the wilderness, he was choosing not to choose life. Like the poet Donald Hall, he wanted to “sleep, rage, kill the day, and die.”[1]

It is strange to say, but some people still have the idea that if they trust in Jesus, all their troubles will be over. God will get them better jobs, find them suitable mates, or remove temptations to sin. But salvation in Jesus Christ does not bring an end to life’s troubles. In fact, sometimes they are just starting. Christians get hurt. We get discouraged and depressed. Sometimes we are so afraid that we abandon our calling and run for our lives, or face suicidal temptations. Even spiritual leaders get scared, quit, run away, and think about ending it all. So when we see Elijah lying under his tree, we also see our own weakness.

Spiritual Depression: Its Causes

It is not hard to come up with plausible explanations for Elijah’s depression. He had at least half a dozen good reasons to be suicidal.

First, fatigue. Elijah was exhausted. He had run eighteen miles to Jezreel, then another ninety miles down to Beersheba. By the time he reached Mount Horeb, which is where his journey ended (1 Kings 19:8), he had run three hundred miles in all! As athletic as he was, Elijah was on the verge of complete physical collapse, and a tired believer is a vulnerable believer. As several great leaders are claimed to have said, fatigue makes cowards of us all.

Second, isolation. No Christian can thrive or survive without the communion of the saints. Yet Elijah had been virtually alone for more than three years. Now he was totally alone. Having deliberately left his servant behind in Beersheba (v. 3), Elijah had cut himself off from godly companionship.

Next, spiritual opposition. Elijah had stood all alone against all the prophets of Baal. He overcame them, but then he was opposed by Jezebel, that mistress of Satan. Thus, the prophet came under direct spiritual attack. Relentless spiritual opposition is bound to bring a believer to the point of despair.

Here is another explanation for Elijah’s depression: the normal rhythms of human emotion. The prophet had just experienced a spiritual high, the ultimate mountaintop experience. He had witnessed the mighty acts of God in the fire on Mount Carmel. But then he came back down to earth, hard, and thus it is no surprise that he became a blue believer. No one can live a godly life on sheer emotion.

Add to Elijah’s emotional fragility the feeling of emptiness that often follows ministering in the name of God. When Elijah was up on the mountain, the strength of the Lord surged through every molecule of his being. Now the vessel was empty. There is always something draining about serving as a conduit for the Word of God.

Then what about dashed expectations? Very likely Elijah went to the palace in Jezreel fully confident that he had won the day and that Israel would turn back to God. But meeting Queen Jezebel was a cold slap in the face. Although Elijah had won a battle, he had not yet won the war—a discouraging reality.

Along with Elijah’s shattered expectations went the very natural response of fear. Scripture is explicit about this: “Then he was afraid” (1 Kings 19:3). In that moment, when he was gripped with fear and his life passed before his very eyes, Elijah took his gaze off the Lord and fixed it squarely on his own troubles.

Then, on top of everything else, the prophet was dealing with guilt. Having run off in his own direction, Elijah was absent without leave. He had deserted his post in the middle of the battle, abandoning his divine calling at the very moment when the spiritual destiny of his nation was hanging in the balance. Thus, Elijah had failed miserably in the one area of life that was his greatest strength: bold faith. His self-condemnation was just: “I am no better than my fathers” (v. 4).

Many factors contributed to Elijah’s spiritual depression. There are simple (or at least partial) remedies for most of them, and knowing these remedies is an important aspect of self-care. If we are struggling with spiritual depression, we should identify its causes as clearly as we can and apply the obvious practical remedy. So if we are tired, we should get some exercise and then get some rest. If our bodies are breaking down, we should eat healthy, balanced meals and, if necessary, receive proper medical care. If we are isolated, we should go to worship and speak with Christian friends. If we are under spiritual attack, we should pray for spiritual protection. If we are guilty, we should confess our sins to God and to one another.

Spiritual Depression: Its Cure

All of these remedies are fine as far as they go, but Elijah had a deeper need. When his story is fully and properly understood, it becomes apparent that he was crying out for a Savior—the Savior that we meet in Jesus Christ. When Elijah said that he was no better than his fathers, he was doing something more than confessing his sins; he was acknowledging that he was not the Prophet whom God had promised (see Deuteronomy 18:15–18). Therefore, someone else would have to come and save God’s people.

Eventually Elijah would meet the Savior for himself, with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–13). But long before that day came, while Elijah was still under his lonely tree, God answered his prayers by showing him the same kind of grace that he gives to us in Jesus.

God did not abandon Elijah. In the darkest, loneliest moment of Elijah’s life, God was right there with him. Scripture says that the prophet “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’” (1 Kings 19:5–7).

Elijah was touched by an angel—twice. The tenderness of this gesture makes it clear that God loved this man just as much under the broom tree, when he wanted to die, as he had loved him up on the mountaintop, when he was preaching the Word. Take this lesson to heart in every struggle: God could not love you any more than he does. His love for you in Jesus is not circumstantial; it is perpetual.

Take this lesson to heart in every struggle: God could not love you any more than he does. His love for you in Jesus is not circumstantial; it is perpetual.

When Elijah had had enough, he discovered that God’s grace is more than enough. In a time of deep discouragement, God sent an angel to touch his prophet with a gentle hand and speak to him in an audible voice. Then God gave Elijah the rest that he needed. He left his prophet to sleep safely and peacefully under the broom tree, and after he ate, to sleep again. Elijah’s life-restoring nap fulfilled one of the Bible’s most precious promises: the Lord “grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:2 NIV).

All of this is beautifully depicted in “Sleeping Elijah,” a painting by the contemporary Chinese artist He Qi. In the painting, Elijah sleeps serenely on the ground while an angel hovers over him, overshadowing the sleeping prophet with soft wings and cupping one hand over his angelic mouth to whisper words of grace to him.

It was also God’s grace to give Elijah fresh bread and cool water (and then, after his nap, to bring him seconds). God did all of this without one word of condemnation. Remember that Elijah had run away from his calling; therefore, he no longer had any legitimate claim on the blessing of God. But rather than turning his back on his prophet or telling him to stop feeling sorry for himself, God showed him grace upon grace. God wasn’t finished with Elijah. His life still had a kingdom purpose. So does ours: no matter how discouraged we are today, God still has a bright plan for our tomorrow.

Admittedly, things did not get better for Elijah right away. In fact, they got worse. The prophet traveled forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. By the end of those forty days, he was as discouraged as ever, which is not surprising. Depression can be hard to shake. Getting rid of it requires more than taking two Bible verses and calling your pastor in the morning. Even the strongest Christians may need months to return to joyful service in the kingdom of God.

When Elijah reached the mountain, he went into a cave (probably the cave where God had long ago appeared to Moses; see Exodus 33:20–23) and held his own private pity party. “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts,” he said. “For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10).

This was not Elijah’s finest moment. The prophet’s speech was riddled with half-truths, partial falsehoods, and careless exaggerations that made his situation seem much worse than it actually was—a common temptation for people who are feeling depressed. The repetition of his words in verse 14 suggests that he had been rehearsing this speech all the way to Mount Horeb. Elijah was full of self-righteousness, self-importance, and self-pity. “Poor me,” he was saying. The undeniable fact is that he had run away from his calling. Yet all that he could think about was everything that he had done for God—and everything that God wasn’t doing for him.

What we say to ourselves is very important. When we are depressed, it is tempting to say things like “I deserve better than this”; “I can’t take it anymore”; “No one can help me”; “No one can solve my problems”; “Nobody loves me”; “Nobody cares”; or “I am the only one.” If this is what we tell ourselves, then it is no wonder that we are discouraged! Instead, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves, reminding ourselves that because we are accepted in Christ, God will never leave us or forsake us.

God did not abandon Elijah at Horeb. He was still there for him. He continued to have compassion on his prophet. He spoke to him again—not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12 KJV). And when God spoke, he gently called Elijah back into active service for his kingdom (vv. 15–18).

By the mercy of God, Elijah’s faithful ministry as a prophet continued to bless the people of God. Far from ending his ministry, Elijah’s season of depression laid the foundation for further fruitfulness.

The way God cared for Elijah at Mount Horeb and under the broom tree helps us understand how to help people who are discouraged or depressed. They may not need very much advice. They probably don’t need us to tell them what’s wrong with them. They may not need anyone to say very much at all. But they do need a gentle touch, the ministry of our personal presence, and someone to help care for their daily needs. They also need to know that they are deeply loved—not only by us, but also by the God who still has a loving purpose for their lives.

You are a child of God, and therefore, your heavenly Father has the same grace for you. He will give you everything that he gave to Elijah. And he will give it to you in Jesus Christ, who is God’s rest for the weary soul. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is also daily bread and living water. So he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus Christ is forgiveness for sin; there is no condemnation for anyone who trusts in him—not now, not ever (Romans 8:1).

Content taken from When Trouble Comes by Phil Ryken, ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
[1] Donald Hall, “Kill the Day,” in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems, 1946–2006 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 390.

Author

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Philip Graham Ryken
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Ryken has published more than 50 books, including When Trouble Comes and expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. He serves as a board member for the Gospel Coalition, the Lausanne Movement, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Contributor 

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Crossway
The purpose of Crossway has been, from its founding as a not-for-profit ministry in 1938, to publish gospel-centered, Bible-centered content that will honor our Savior and serve his Church. Crossway seeks to help people understand the massive implications of the gospel and the truth of God’s Word, for all of life, for all eternity, and for the glory of God.