*A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 9, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15a GNT
Many years ago, a 29-year-old man who was prone to periods of moodiness fell into a deep depression after breaking off his engagement with his fiancée. To express his feelings, the young man wrote a “suicide poem.” Though he did not actually follow through with committing suicide, he did suffer bouts of depression throughout his life, for which he was treated with the crude treatments they had to offer at that time. It might surprise you to know that the man was Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. Historians have long known that such a poem existed, but only a few years ago was it discovered by a presidential historian. If the poem was indeed penned by Lincoln, it gives additional insight into his sometimes troubled life.
A few years ago, Actress Brooke Shields made it known that following the birth of her daughter she suffered postpartum depression. Shields shared her story with the world in a book titled Down Came the Rain. “I . . . hope that by being honest about the fear, shock and shame I felt,” she wrote, “it will help others avoid the pitfall of postpartum depression and open up a community of support.”1 Shields is to be commended for her honesty.
Depression is no respecter of persons. Such is seen in our scripture reading this morning. Even the greatest prophet of God can have moments of profound darkness and deep depression. In fact, often extreme religious devotion and bouts with depression go hand in hand. Elijah, the great prophet of old, had a bout with depression following his victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. To give you a little background, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were worshippers of the fertility god Baal. After Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal in a showdown, the Queen vowed to take Elijah’s life. At this point Elijah began to exhibit some of the classic signs of depression. He was afraid. He felt backed into a corner. He felt that he had lost all control and that all hope was gone. He ran. He felt all-alone. He slept a lot. He was irritable. He had to be told to eat. His view of reality was distorted. He wanted to give up and call it quits, feeling he could no longer make it. He had low self-esteem. And he appears to have been suicidal. Elijah went off by himself into the wilderness, isolated himself, and sat down under a tree and asked that he might die. “It’s too much, Lord,” he cried. “Take away my life; I might as well be dead” (1 Kings 19:4). Clearly Elijah, the prophet of God, was exhibiting signs of depression.
I tell you these stories of Lincoln, Brooke Shields and Elijah to say this: no one—great men and women included—is exempt from the effects of depression. Depression can affect anyone, at any age. Depression of various causes is, without a doubt, one of the most common problems and greatest challenges for our generation, affecting an estimated 19 million Americans each year. Most of us are affected by depression in some way. If we have never suffered depression ourselves, we all have someone close to us—family member, co-worker or friend—who has. Persons with severe depression need the help of trained professionals. So when I speak of depression, I certainly do not want to minimize its seriousness in the least. I have seen too much. However, mild depression or moodiness can often be helped with some spiritual understanding.
As we attempt to battle mild depression, or support a loved one who struggles with depression, there are some spiritual helps we can keep in mind.
I. We need to realize that depression is not a sin to be ashamed of but a symptom. I remember when I was a boy at home, people in our church or neighborhood who had been treated for depression, especially those who had spent time in a mental health facility, were talked about in hushed tones. There was a certain amount of stigma attached to anyone who had been treated for severe mental illness. Thankfully, such is not the case today. We are much more enlightened. Every family is touched by mental illness in some way. Today we realize that depression can have many different causes. Depression has been compared to a warning light on our car’s dashboard. When a red or yellow warning light starts flashing on your dashboard, you do not smash the bulb. You search for the problem causing the light to flash. Depression is the flashing red light that tells us something is wrong, whether it be physical, environmental, emotional, relational, or spiritual. Depression is a symptom.
II. In battling mild depression we need to protect our physical health. At the point of Elijah’s depression he lay down under a broom tree and fell asleep. He was probably exhausted from running from Jezebel and needed the rest. “Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Wake up and eat'” (19:5). Elijah was run down. He needed to build up his strength. “Wake up and eat,” the angel said a second time, “or the trip will be too much for you” (19:7). “Elijah got up, ate and drank; and the food gave him enough strength to work forty days to Sinai, the holy mountain” (19:8).
A doctor was asked what she does when depressed people who have attempted suicide are brought into the emergency room. Her answer may surprise you. “Well, sometimes the first thing we do,” the doctor said, “is feed them—often a steak dinner. They are generally low in protein. We often discover that they have not eaten properly for two or three days. Their protein level is low; therefore, their energy level is low, and their depression level is high.”2 A first step toward recovery from depression is getting physically fit: get sufficient rest, eat a proper diet, and get the proper amount of exercise.
III. Also, in battling mild depression we can relate our feelings to someone who will listen. Elijah vented his fears and frustrations to God. He let off steam. Notice that in the story God did not condemn or criticize him. God let him get his innermost feelings off his chest. Regardless of how depressed we may feel or how bad the circumstances may seem, we should never stop talking—to a friend, relative, counselor, or even to God. We should continue to share our innermost feelings; our fears and frustrations; our doubts and concerns. If Elijah did it, and if Job did it, so can we. Relating how we feel can be a catharsis—an inner cleansing, a getting rid of those feelings that have been pushed deep inside us that may have helped cause our depression to begin with. Sometimes depression is rage or anger that has been pressed down.
IV. Furthermore, in battling mild depression we do well to find a place of spiritual rejuvenation. It was said to Elijah, “Go out and stand before me on the top of the mountain” (19:11). In the story, God’s spoke to Elijah in the silence of the cave. When we feel a bout of mild depression coming on, it may be helpful to find a quiet, private place—the mountains, a lake, or even the arboretum—somewhere where we can nourish our spirit. Such can give us new strength.
V. Finally, in battling mild depression we can redirect our life. Elijah was given a new assignment, a new task, a new purpose in life. He was to anoint Hazael as king of Syria (19:15). A good way to combat mild depression is to find something meaningful or worthwhile to do—find a new task, a new purpose, a new mission in life. As much as possible, we need to take our eyes off ourselves and look to the needs of others. We can find people who are less fortunate and invest some time and interest in them. Or maybe we need to find a new hobby, start a new project, join a new exercise club, enroll in a new course of study or fellowship group. In extreme cases, winning the battle over mild depression may mean finding a new job in a place where we can feel better about ourselves.
If you happen to be at a time in your life when you are feeling depressed, it is important for you to know that you are not alone. I will stand with you. And this church will stand with you. And I invite you to let us help you. There is hope. And the good news is when it comes to mild depression or moodiness that can affect many of us every now and then, taking steps to protect our physical health, sharing our true feelings with someone, finding a place of spiritual renewal, and redirecting our life are simple, spiritual principles that can help us. Amen.
1Albany Times Union, 4/27/04.
21995 Ministers Manual, 121.
*I am indebted to William Richard Ezell’s sermon, “The Cure for Depression,” (1995 Ministers Manual, pp. 120-22) for inspiring this sermon and for some of the ideas contained herein.