Prophetic Depression - 1st Kings 19

We often have difficulties in dealing with psychological disorders. We are so used to thinking that we can be in control of ourselves, our actions, our speech, and our decisions that it is very hard to grasp that a psychological disorder is just as much an infirmity as appendicitis, cancer, pneumonia, or gout. It makes it harder for us to deal with something like clinical depression along the same lines as we deal with the flu, diabetes, or acid reflux. It is hard enough for us to understand dementia or Alzheimer's in a way that does not attribute shame or guilt on the victims of these conditions. With mental illnesses like depression, we tend to treat them as moral failures instead of health conditions which can be treated by a physician. Why is it so hard for us to treat people with love and acceptance instead of casting shame and condemnation for things beyond their control?
Of all psychological disorders, perhaps depression is one we are most ready to deal with as a moral failure. We look at depression as a failure of one's will, just as we do with addictions. In point of fact, the two are often medically related, as treating an addict with anti-depressants often allows the person to become much more successful in stepping away from their addictions. More often, however, we have tended to worsen cases of depression and addiction by adding shame to an individual's struggles. Rather than extending a hand of compassion, we more often condemn for what one cannot control.
That is not how God operates. It is not the pattern established for us in Scripture. There is more than one case of prophets in the Bible who rather clearly suffered from clinical depression, yet there is not divine word of condemnation for them. God's response is rather different than the standard human reaction to those who struggle.
In 1st Kings 19, we find the greatest of the prophets struggling with depression. Elijah was so deemed by the Jews because of the great standoff with Ahab and the prophets of Baal in the preceding chapter. Just after coming down from the obvious high or manic experience of that confrontation with 450 enemy prophets in which Elijah was justified in trusting Yahweh, we now find him fleeing Jezebel's threats on his life.
Elijah had just spent three years protected by Yahweh from Ahab's threats on his life. He had openly confronted Ahab for instituting idolatry in Israel and fled at Yahweh's direction for safety near a brook. Yahweh fed him by the action of ravens, then sent him out of the country to be cared for by a poor widow who had no apparent resources to meet his needs. Yahweh had provided in those three years in unexpected ways, culminating in the standoff with Baal's prophets. Now when the results of Elijah's encounter with Ahab had not played out according to his expectations, he fled in an emotional slump.
Laying down under a broom tree far from Jezebel, he asked Yahweh to go ahead and end his life. He had had enough. He could do no more. His experience under Yahweh's care had built up expectations that on confronting Ahab Israel would finally turn to Yahweh in repentance. He had believed Ahab would be forced to accept Yahweh and do away with the idolatry of Baal in the land.
It had all seemingly been for naught, and Elijah felt he just could not go on. He curled up to die, but Yahweh was not done. A messenger came with food and water for Elijah. Elijah ate and went back to sleep awaiting death. Yahweh sent a messenger again with food and water, this time also with a message: “Eat and drink, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”
Elijah felt he had come to a dead end where he could go no further. It all seemed for naught. God did not chastise him for feeling that way. God did not respond directly to how wrong Elijah was. Instead, God provided for his needs then sent him on his way.
Instead of dying under that broom tree, Elijah traveled about a month, finally arriving at what was considered “The Mountain of God.” He found a cave and set up camp there. That is when God started talking with him.
It had been a month's journey. He had survived curling himself into a ball to die. He had survived a month with virtually nothing to eat. He had survived Jezebel's death threats. All the while, Yahweh's communication had been, “Rise and eat.” Now in the cave on God's mountain, Yahweh speaks again to him. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God did not bother much speaking to him earlier. God waited until Elijah had been given some gentle support and had a full month of exercise behind him. Then God came to address the issue before Elijah. It would seem Elijah needed some treatment and time to recover from the depression that had fallen on him. Food, rest, encouragement, and exercise are some of the basics for treating depression. Now with a degree of treatment, Elijah was in a position to begin to hear what God had to say.
What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah then unloaded on Yahweh. He had been faithful. He had done all he was supposed to do. He was the only one doing the right thing. Everyone else had abandoned Yahweh for Baal. Ahab had murdered Yahweh's prophets, and only Elijah was left.”
Once Elijah had unloaded all his pent-up angst, the speech he had practiced over the course of his month-long trek across the wilderness, God responded. God did not respond directly to Elijah's speech. He did not tell him he was wrong to feel that way. He did not tell him how he needed to get back up, dust himself off, and correct the error of his ways. He sent him to the mouth of the cave to observe.
A strong wind passed by, but Yahweh was not in the wind. An earthquake occurred, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. A fire burst forth, but Yahweh was not in the fire. Then came a stillness of a voice. At this voice, Elijah recognized Yahweh's presence and covered his head. Yahweh asked again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah went back to the speech he had prepared. Yahweh did not correct him. He just allowed Elijah to reflect on how he had just recognized Yahweh in the stillness instead of in the demonstrations of power before him. Then Yahweh commissioned him to return to Israel with a task to accomplish. He would anoint a new king over Syria and a new king over Israel. Then he would anoint a new prophet to take up his own mantle. Then Yahweh gave him a promise about 7,000 left in Israel who had not bowed to Baal.
There was plenty Yahweh could have done in blaming Elijah for not acting out of faith. There was plenty to have been said regarding how Elijah did not need to feel so alone. There was plenty of material to use to shame this prophet, reminding him of the great things Yahweh had done in his life. God did none of that. He gave Elijah a gentle reminder of who God was and gave him a new mission.

We could learn a lot from how God dealt with Elijah. We could learn a lot about how ineffective our actions to shame and condemn are in redeeming and helping others. Unfortunately, we are too often consumed with feeling superior and cannot identify with another's needs. Rather than shame, we need to deal in support. Rather than condemnation, we need to offer opportunities. Rather than displaying our great knowledge, we need to lead others to discovery. We need to walk the journey with them.

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


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