The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Even prophets get the blues

Lessons on depression from Elijah's angelic visitor

But [Elijah] went a day's journey into the wilderness .... He asked that he might die ... (1 Kings 19:4).

At one point in his long career, the prophet Elijah displays all the symptoms of depression: he withdraws from other people; he is without energy or direction; he has lost any sense of purpose or meaning in his life; and he even asks to die.

If national statistics are at all accurate, many people reading this article have experienced all of these depressive symptoms — not just occasional sadness, but full-blown clinical depression that doesn't easily go away.

The writer Parker Palmer says that during his own depression friends would visit him and, like Job's three comforters, offer various bits of well-meaning (but ultimately empty) advice.

One visitor said, "It's a beautiful day, Parker. Why don't you go outside and enjoy the sunshine and look at the flowers. Surely that will make you feel better." Palmer writes: "Intellectually, I knew the day was beautiful, but I was unable to experience that beauty through my senses .... Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, but between one's mind and one's feelings."

Elijah feels this disconnection in spades. You might recall from 1 Kings 18:17-19:8 that the prophet received a death threat. Queen Jezebel, a notorious bad girl of the Bible, is furious with Elijah for showing up her band of prophets. She vows to have Elijah's head within 24 hours. Our hero flees into the wilderness and gives up, exhausted, under a "solitary broom tree." He is depressed, suicidal, alone and ready to die.

The story is a reminder that faithfulness to God will sometimes not make us many friends. But the story also provides clear guidance about how we might respond to a friend's depression — someone so seriously low that they have even contemplated taking their life.

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