Everyone in the Bible messes up. Absolutely everyone (except Jesus, of course). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Peter, John, Paul. That’s one reason I love this book so much. I can relate to these people. They lie. They cheat. They argue with God. And yet He loves them and He uses them to do mighty things.
One of those mighty things happened when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings chapter 18. Israel was following the lead of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and his wife, in worshipping an idol called Baal. Jezebel had killed many of God’s prophets. Ahab considered Elijah his enemy because Elijah confronted him with the truth.
In hopes of turning Israel back to the Lord, Elijah proposed a contest. All the people were invited to watch. Each side (Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal) would prepare a sacrifice, then ask their god to prove his existence and his power by sending down fire from heaven to consume it.
Baal’s prophets went first. They begged and pleaded, they shouted and danced and slashed themselves with swords and spears. Hours passed. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
Elijah’s turn came. He prepared his sacrifice, then drenched it with water. After a simple prayer, “The fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” Quite the victory. The people believed. But Ahab and his wife remained as firmly opposed to God and Elijah as ever.
In chapter 19, when Jezebel threatened to kill him within 24 hours, Elijah was understandably frightened. She’d murdered many other prophets. Besides, this wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d just demonstrated the reality of the God of Israel and the helplessness of Baal. How could the most powerful people in the country continue to defy the Lord?
Maybe it was the realization of the depth of the evil residing in Ahab and Jezebel that scared Elijah so much. He ran for his life. And he showed many of the symptoms of depression: anxiety, isolating himself, giving up, longing to die, self-pity.
I can relate to this. I’ve never experienced the same kind of spectacular public victory as Elijah witnessed at the top of Mount Carmel. But I’ve been with him in the pits of depression. Anxious. Alone. Apathetic. Suicidal. Feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing in guilt and shame. Unable to face a righteous and perfect God.
How could He ever want me, love me, welcome me into His arms? Surely He must be so disappointed and disgusted with me that He’d walk away and leave me to face my demons alone.
But how did God respond to Elijah’s depression? With judgment? With condemnation? Did He give up on him and choose someone more worthy to take his place?
No. He sent an angel to feed him, satisfying his hunger and giving him strength. Twice.
After Elijah had traveled for an additional 40 days, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah expressed his self-pity, his loneliness, his fear. Pretty bad. God’s followers aren’t supposed to act this way. Where was his faith? The Lord had done wonders in defeating Baal. Had Elijah already forgotten that? Shouldn’t God be good and mad at this point?
Maybe He should have been, but He wasn’t. Instead of abandoning a struggling servant, He provided a personal encounter. First there was a wind so powerful it shattered rocks. Second, an earthquake. Third, a fire. These are all symbols associated with judgment in the Bible. But God wasn’t in any of them. He wasn’t judging Elijah.
Last came a "gentle whisper.” Elijah knew that this whisper was from the Lord. He was emotionally exhausted, questioning God, and doubting himself. The Lord knew that what he needed more than anything else was compassionate understanding and encouragement. A gentle whisper, not a roaring flame.
This was how He responded to Elijah in his depressed state. This was how He responded to me when I was suffering from depression. No literal gentle whisper, but a vivid reassurance of His presence and His love.
God again asked Elijah what he was doing. Did he say, “I get it now. I’ve had this incredible encounter with You. Thanks for setting me straight”? No. Astonishingly, he repeated the exact same words that he’d used earlier to express his self-pity, loneliness, and fear. Just as I often turned back from a moment of experiencing His joy and peace to the relentless darkness of depression. Surely God would give up on him at this point.
But He didn’t. Instead, He entrusted Elijah with three tasks: anointing Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. Sometimes, when someone is depressed, having something constructive to do can help. But the timing has to be right. God had just given Elijah a taste of His compassion. That had to come first. Now His prophet had the spiritual strength to get back into the world of people and be more active again.
His words also reassured Elijah in several ways. The Lord made it clear that He is in control of all that exists, even the rulers of other nations. He reminded Elijah that evil King Ahab was mortal and would not always reign over Israel. He indicated that He would soon fulfill Elijah’s desire to be free of the burden of his role as a prophet. And He informed him that he was not alone—the Lord had thousands of faithful followers. With this encounter, Elijah was ready to go back to work.
Maybe it’s not so much that Elijah is my favorite prophet, but that God’s interaction with Elijah is my favorite biblical illustration of His response to depression. God did for Elijah all the things that helped me so much when I was depressed. No judgment. No rebuke. Instead, great tenderness and understanding and patience and encouragement.
That’s why I’m alive. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I didn’t become just another statistic. Just another young suicide.