James 5 describes Elijah as “a man with a nature like ours” who prayed for drought and prayed for rain and was heard by God both times. He is held up as the example for us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person accomplishes much.” But there’s more to Elijah’s story than just two prayers as bookends to a 3.5-year period culminating in a dramatic showdown between God’s prophet and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. As I recall one preacher putting it a few years ago, just as surely as there is 1 Kings 18, there’s also 1 Kings 19.
When the curtain rises on chapter 19, Elijah has shown that Yahweh is God instead of Baal. He had the prophets of Baal executed. Rain came back to the land of Israel. Everything is great, but then Jezebel gets word of what happened. She swears vengeance upon Elijah, so now Elijah must flee for his life. And so this man with a nature like ours who fervently prayed for rain is now fervently praying to die. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
Depression has tended to be one of those unmentionable topics among God’s people. Either we don’t feel like we can talk about it because we aren’t medical professionals, or we dismiss it as merely a lack of faith or a result of sin in one’s life. To be sure, there are times where the weight of sin brings depression as we figure out that sin didn’t get us quite where we want to be. There are times we have prolonged periods of depression because we let anxiety overwhelm and do not trust God enough. But as far as generally “feeling depressed,” life happens. There are bad circumstances in life, and those create feelings like life isn’t worth living, even for the most faithful of God’s servants.
What is interesting about Elijah’s situation is that God doesn’t immediately try to “fix” Elijah. There are two supernatural encounters in 1 Kings 19. The first comes in the form of an angel (twice) telling Elijah to eat something. “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” At this first encounter, Elijah is not physically in a position to be able to deal with the source of his depression. He needs to strengthen himself for what lay ahead. And what’s more, even once Elijah has eaten (again, twice), God doesn’t immediately swoop in and tell Elijah what to do. Instead, Elijah has 40 days ahead of him until God Himself enters the picture.
Depression—even acute depression—is not a “flip a switch” kind of thing. It’s not something someone just “gets over.” It’s not something that has a “take two asprin and call me in the morning” kind of fix. It’s a process. Sometimes the process is quick. Sometimes (perhaps most times) it isn’t. And the process isn’t just prayer, Bible study, and church attendance. There is some self care needed to get us to a point where we’re able to address the source of our depression.
Medication is sometimes part of that self care. I’m not going to weigh in on which medications or what circumstances. I’m not a doctor, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I think from a spiritual perspective, there are some principles we can apply. Medication tends to get a bad reputation (1) because we have a general sense that it is over-prescribed, (2) because of stories who medicated themselves to the point where they were just a shell with no connection with reality, and (3) because of people who have tried to drink their way through depression and only made it worse. God has given us scientific knowledge. He has given us the ability to make sense of this world and figure out things about it. The question is how we use it.
In the case of medication, here is what I look at. Based on what we see with Elijah eating, is the medication helping to get us to a point where we can deal with our depression, or is it helping us run away from it? That’s the problem with alcohol and other forms of substance abuse. It’s an attempt to escape the feeling, not to deal with the issues. Will medicine fix us? Possibly not. But medicine, therapy, and other forms of treatment (including even proper diet, exercise, and sleep) may help us get to a point where we can take definitive steps to address any underlying issues.
Is depression a spiritual issue? Yes, it can be. But that doesn’t mean it is only a spiritual issue. It is one that often needs a more comprehensive approach in order for us to rely on God’s grace to endure it.