Hope in Depression

Kids have more money today than ever before. They are also exposed to more advertising than ever… As a result, children as young as 18 months can identify various name brands, and their desires influence how adults spend billions of dollars. Psychiatrist Juliet Schor, author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, has discovered that this involvement with consumer culture leads children into more conflict with parents. It also contributes to anxiety, illness, and depression in some children.  Schor sums up the message commercialized children receive:

They’re more likely to have poor self-esteem, which is not a surprise because a lot of the messages the consumer culture sends them are that you’re nobody if they don’t have the right tennis shoes or you’re not drinking the right soft drink.[i]

The message is simply, you are what you have. We are living in a culture that is designed to create dissatisfaction in order to entice us to consume more. We are living in a time that creates unrealistic and therefore unrealized expectation, which means that life is less satisfying for many people. The result is that there is a growing hopelessness for the future. It’s this hopelessness that is contributing to the growth of depression in people’s lives.

One of my seminary courses, years ago was on ‘Affective Disorders,’ taught by Dr. Richard Hindmarsh, who was both a medical doctor and had a degree in counseling. It dealt with the issue of depression. I’m not an expert in this field of study, but we are going to look at this topic from a biblical example. 

To give us a simple model regarding the nature of depression, let me say that there are basically two kinds of depression. The first is usually a response to negative external problems because of a real or a perceived sense of loss.  The second kind of depression is more severe, longer in duration and generally runs in families. The second type creates chemical imbalances within our bodies.

Depression is not new to our time. Even godly people have struggled with depressive episodes in their lives: Job, David and Elijah to name a few. One incident is found in the life of Elijah. The depression that he experienced came as a result of some very challenging and demanding elements in his life: some call this type of depression: ‘reactive depression.’ It comes after times of loss. The book of James reminds us that Elijah, though a godly and effective servant of God, was a man of like nature as us. ‘Elijah was a human being, even as we are.’ In another translation it states: ‘…Elijah was a man just like us… (James 5:17-N.I.V. 2011).’

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah, the man of God, a tremendous man of faith, was struggling with great challenges. He was standing alone challenging a nation that had strayed from God. The people were vacillating between God’s values and the dominant cultural values of the people around them. They worshipped both Yahweh and the Baals. His ministry of confrontation placed an incredible strain on Elijah mentally, spiritually, and physically. His response is probably one of the greatest examples of depression in all of the Bible. He even lost his will to live.

When you read through 1 Kings 19, you’ll discover all the signs of depression: withdrawal, negativity, diminished interest in usual activities, self-rejecting attitude and loss of self-esteem or a sense of worthlessness. Physically, we can see a loss of energy, a diminished capacity to concentrate and think, often with a change of sleep and eating patterns; experiencing significant weight loss or gain. People who struggle with depression can have excessive indecisiveness, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and feelings. There is usually a repressed anger towards God, others and themselves.

The Psalmist, David expressed his despair and depressive state to God as reflected in Psalm 42:6, 11 and 43:5 – “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

So where can we experience the grace that David talked about where God reveals his concern for those who are walking through a season of depression? In Elijah’s experience we discover four aspects that bring hope in depression.

God demonstrates his concern for our physical wellbeing.

There are people who become physically and emotionally incapable of moving forward in their lives until God touches them. Notice how God sent an angel to Elijah to minister to his physical needs for food and rest. “All at once an angel touched him and said, Get up and eat (1 Kings 19:5b).”

God begins by ministering to the needs of his servant. Here we see how much God cares by sending this angel to Elijah to minister to him. That’s the first thing that needs to be reinforced in a person’s life who is struggling with despair and a sense of abandonment. The second thought is that depression affects our bodies. Depression affects people differently when it comes to eating.  Some lose their appetite while others binge on food as a source of comfort. Our emotions are affected by our physical state. People who are tired and lack the proper nutrients are more prone to depressed moods.  Notice in the text that the angel brought food for Elijah to eat.

Another thing we glean here is that God sends someone to help us. In Elijah’s case it was an angelic being. Angel means messenger. God will send messengers to us. Sometimes they are actual angels, but often they are people God uses to help us through the experience.

We can be assured of God’s promise that He will never leave us, though there may be times we may feel that way. When someone is depressed they feel that God has totally departed from them. All of their feelings are messed up. They feel like they have been deserted, but we need to understand that God’s word is true, that his word is settled forever in the heavens. 

Regardless of how depressed you might feel, God is with you and He will sustain you. Thank God that his angel came and touched Elijah. Here we find one of the roles of angels. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14)”.

Though we’re often unaware, God has sent angels, spiritual beings that you and I usually do not see and bring help to us in our times of distress. God sent angels to help Lot and his family before the destruction of Sodom. Elisha saw God’s angelic army protecting him in the city of Dothan. That is why the writer to the Hebrews encourages us to be open to strangers. 

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).”

However there is another sense in which the idea of an angel needs to be understood. God sends human messengers to bring a word of grace in our time of difficulty. In the first three chapters in the book of Revelation, the message comes through the angel of the church. In those texts, this is not talking about the angels that are ministering spirits, rather it is talking about the pastor of the church, who conveys God’s message into the lives of people. But this idea is not limited to the pastor, but is for anyone God uses to speak ­a word of hope into the difficult, despairing and even depressing times in people’s lives.  

It was interesting that the angel came a second time. God brings others to come to us at different times to encourage us in our times of despair. God does not give up on us.

Hope Comes as We Experience God’s Faithfulness

God is always there for us, even when we have responded poorly in challenging moments in our lives. Sometimes our emotional distress is a result of our poor decisions in life. I’m not suggesting that this is always the case, but there are times when we are our own worst enemy. That we fail God, we sin, and in the process we fail ourselves.

Elijah, was discouraged, then afraid, and finally in his despair, he surrendered to his emotional fears. You can see the progression. He felt that life was not worth living. He felt that it was useless to continue on. No matter what he had done for God it didn’t seem to make a difference. 

We must move away from the concept that we can control outcomes and how other people respond to us. We can only address how we are going to respond to life’s disappointments. We can be sure that there will be moments of disappointment, discouragement and distress in life. Part of the human condition is that we suffer in this life. Jesus warned us that in this life there will be trouble, but we can still have joy because we know that this isn’t all there is. We have a hope that transcends this world (cf. John 16:33).

Though Elijah had been faithful in general, in this time of discouragement he had deviated from God’s purposes. It led to despair and eventually to depression. It states that Elijah went to Mt. Horeb….  Once there, God asks him ‘what are you doing here?’

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’

So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’[ii]

Even though Elijah was struggling with God’s purposes for his life, God still came to him in his time of despair and depression. God never gives up on His children. He is always at work in our lives. But you say, I’m out of the will of God. I’ve disobeyed the Lord. I have failed my God.  How can He care for me? 

Elijah had obeyed God and it turned out all wrong in his mind. His life was threatened. Rather than revival there was a hardening of heart. Elijah fainted, he ran away in fear, he despaired of life itself. He lost sight of God.

Here we find God challenging Elijah, at Horeb. God didn’t give up on him. God used this time to renew something in his own heart and life that would help him be effective in the future. I remember a song when I was a new believer sung by Dallas Holmes in which he stated the goodness and faithfulness of God in our times of failure. The one line says it all, ‘Though I may have been out of His will, I’ve never been out of His care.’

God’s care does not stop because of our failures or sins. God never stops working in our lives. God does not give up on us. Even when we have given up on ourselves. He is faithful. God will just keep coming in love and mercy in our lives.  His love may be expressed in a rebuke or a correction, but it is still love (cf. Hebrews 12:5-11). He does not give up on us.

We see it here–that God came to Elijah. There was no condemnation, simply a challenge and an opportunity to move on from this point. That is what we need to hear. Do not allow the past to define your future. Today, is a new day. Today is the day of salvation. Hear God’s voice, respond to it like Elijah did. God isn’t through with you.

Change Can Happen

This condition and state of depression will not last forever. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes we lose sight of the sovereignty of God in our lives. We can lose sight of the fact that everything is under God’s control. We may ask ourselves; can God use depression to further his cause? Can God use it as a tool to help conform us more into His image? Though the enemy may be assailing our souls like Job of old, though the enemy means it for our hurt, God uses it. Even as He used the cruelty of the cross, God can use our troubles and difficulties for His purpose and for our good. I can hear the words of Joseph saying to his brothers in chapter 50 of Genesis, ‘”…though you meant it for my hurt, God meant it for our good (cf. Genesis 50:20).”

God brought the physical strength necessary in order to bring Elijah through his season of depression. Verse 8 says that he went on the strength of that food 40 days and 40 nights. “So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8).”

God can give us what it takes to sustain us until the time of testing is complete. Depression will come to an end, just like it did for Elijah. When a believer suffers depression, God will be faithful to bring them through it. There are better days awaiting us at the end of such a time. There is a future hope. Over the years, people have shared with me their experience with depression and have come out of it with greater empathy and care for others.

What can we do in the dark hour? Embrace God’s promises. Receive them by faith. Stand on them. Embrace them as God’s message to us. Realize we are in a battle. Here is a promise given to Israel after she had sinned and were exiled; a dark time in her history. Here is the promise that sustained her for seventy years. It is a promise that can sustain us in our darkest hours. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).’” It is critical that we hold fast to God’s word and promises when we are experiencing life’s darkest moments.

Years ago, I read a book by a pastor by the name of Don Baker entitled, “Depression: Finding Hope and Meaning in Life’s Darkest Shadows. He confessed that he was so busy he had no time for God. He finally broke down. He battled depression for 4 years. It was so dark that he was institutionalized for much of that time, until God awakened him and released him to wholeness.  There came a new depth to him in his ministry, a new level of compassion and concern for others that he did not have before.

Change happens in us when perspective changes.

That is the nature of repentance. It means a change of mind. We now come into agreement with what God is saying and stop listening to the opposite messaging going on in our minds. What we believe about ourselves and others, has an incredible impact on our emotional state. As God challenged Elijah on what he was doing, where he was, and his attitude about others, he was able to bring him to a place where a new sense of direction could be given.

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

He replied, ‘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, and now they are trying to kill me too.’

The LORD said, ‘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.

When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’[iii]

Pain has a way of getting our attention in order for us to re-examine some things in our life.

It opens us up for a whole new way of seeing and doing things. The prophet of fire, the man who saw God work in such dramatic ways discovered that God also worked in less dramatic ways. Elijah had the presence of mind to notice that God was not in the powerful wind, the earthquake nor the fire. Elijah heard God in the whisper.   

We are always looking to God to work dramatically. I rejoice when God comes in the fire, but often He comes in a still small voice. In our pain we want to be fixed right away. We are always wanting healing and deliverance right away. Have you ever noticed that? I am not saying that is necessarily wrong, but there is always the desire in our hearts for immediate deliverance as soon as we are afflicted. Sometimes, we fail to realize that the process is significant to our spiritual well-being. We discover in the book of James to consider a different approach to our trials, our sorrows and difficulties.  He suggests that we ask God for wisdom to learn from these times (cf. James 1:2-5). What we discover is that Elijah was not healed instantaneously. God led him through a season where healing eventually came to his soul.

Discovering a Renewed Purpose in Life

God gave Elijah a new mandate, a new ministry emphasis, a renewed sense of purpose. He was called to go out and minister to others. Elijah’s focus of ministry changed challenging kings and crowds, to preparing others. When we are in pain, we focus on the pain. Yet, part of the process of healing, apart from a time of rest and a renewed meeting with God, is to rediscover a renewed focus in ministry (serving others). We also see this in the life of Job. After his meeting with God and being healed from his sickness, Job was told to pray for his friends who had been a real disappointment to him. When he prayed for them, God heard his cry and brought about restoration in their lives. 

Don Baker in his battle with depression wrote that he could not even function he was so paralyzed by it, but when he stopped focusing on himself and began to look around and saw that he could help others, healing gradually began in his own life. He eventually ended up being the chaplain for a group of alcoholics in the institution where he was hospitalized. God used him to heal others. He learned that even though he was depressed, that he still was valuable and had something of value to contribute to others. Often it is when we think we have the least to offer God can do His greatest work through us, because we come to realize that it is not us, but God who is at work in and through us. The apostle Paul explained it this way: ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians).’ God can use the pain and weakest moments of our lives to effectively minister to others. So we need to stop despising the fact that we are struggling. Often the most powerful ministry flows from those times. I remember an article as a young minister that gave me this wonderful spiritual equation: Struggling minster equals blessed congregation. God often uses our struggles and pains to deepen us and cause us to be more empathic and have a greater impact on others.

For effective ministry and new purpose to happen we need to gain God’s perspective, which is often a new perspective on our situation. We need to hear His voice refocusing in on what He wants us to do. When God once again asked Elijah what he was doing there, God challenged his understanding and changed his focus.

Here in our text we have God recommissioning Elijah.

The LORD said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.’

Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.

Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.[iv]

We see that Elijah certainly was not seeing things from God’s perspective. His was a darker picture. What can we learn from this? We don’t know all things. Often our reaction to our circumstances is based on our limited perspective. How often we allow our circumstances to pull us down when we don’t see the full picture. Only God knows everything. We are only react­ing on partial knowledge. 

What would God have us do in our darkest moments, moments even of depression? One spiritual response is found in the Psalms. David, who is probably the author, battled this inner giant in his life. Listen to his self-talk that brings hope that what he was currently experiencing would ultimately be addressed by God. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (cf. Psalm 42:6, 11 and 43:5).”

Isaiah also promises that God will transform our brokenness with grace. “God says that he will give to us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:3)”.

Despite our emotional state: we need to look up and begin to thank God for who He is and what he is about to do. We are called to rejoice in the Lord at all times (cf. Psalm 34:1).  Pain has a way of getting our attention, but to focus only on the pain serves only to paralyze us. Let’s move our focus upward, and find the joy that sustains even when we are experiencing emotional pain such as depression in our lives.   

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[i] Andrea Sachs, “Junk Culture,” Time magazine (10-04-04).

[ii] 1 Kings 19:7-9 New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii] 1 Kings 19:9-13 NIV.

[iv] 1 Kings 19:15-18 NIV.

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