How to deal with depression
I was hurrying up the stairs of my home the other day with a full cup of water and ice. My intention was to put the finishing touches on a message that eventually became this column.
Being in a hurry probably wasn’t the best idea.
My toe caught the edge of the top stair, and I knew I was going down. Not wanting to drop the ice and the metal cup, I tried to regain my footing. But it was too late. Bam! I did a full face-plant against our built-in desk.
It was like a punch in the face. I opened my eyes and saw blood on the floor. For a minute or two, I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) move. I felt like the elderly lady on the TV commercial who falls down the basement stairs and says, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
My wife, Cathe, heard the crash and came running upstairs to see what kind of a disaster had happened. After examining my bleeding face, she loaded me into the car and drove to the ER, where received I received five stitches on the inside of my lip and two on the outside.
The apostle James reminds us that “we all stumble in many things” (James 3:2, NKJV). Sometimes it’s a real-life physical fall like mine. Sometimes we fall spiritually. At other times we find ourselves spiraling into an emotional funk — a depression we can’t seem to shake.
I’m not speaking here of clinical depression, which is a real medical issue and may require a doctor’s care. I am speaking of the day-to-day doldrums that even Christians can find themselves in from time to time. If you do find yourself there, you can take heart in this: You are in good company.
Moses became so blue he asked God to take his life.
Jonah, after the great revival of Nineveh, did the same thing.
Jeremiah, after witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians wrote these words in his journal:
He has made me chew on gravel.
He has rolled me in the dust.
Peace has been stripped away,
and I have forgotten what prosperity is.
I cry out, “… Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”
The great apostle Paul got so down “he despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8, NKJV).
Scripture reminds us that the famous prophet Elijah “was as human as we are, and yet…he prayed” (James 5:17, NLT). Elijah got down just like we do at times when our emotions get the best of us.
You might be surprised to know that many godly people have experienced deep seasons of depression. The trouble is that we tend to put spiritual leaders on pedestals. We imagine that they don’t experience the same ups and downs like everyone else. But that isn’t true. They (we) can get down, experience emotional pain, and sometimes slip into a trough of depression.
Going back to James 5:17, it’s a little hard for us to visualize Elijah as a normal person. You wouldn’t expect to see him at the DMV or in the express line at the market with chips and guacamole. Somehow, we imagine that his feet never really touched the ground — that he floated along about two inches above the dusty roads.
After all, this is the guy who called fire down from Heaven! This was the prophet who raised a little boy from the dead. This was a man of God who prayed and stopped the rain from falling — for three and a half years!
That’s all true. But he was also a man who became very depressed. Ironically, it happened after he had just experienced a pinnacle moment in his life and ministry. He had faced down 400 wicked false prophets of Baal on a mountaintop and called on God to send fire down from Heaven to consume a water-logged sacrifice on an altar.
At that moment, Elijah must have been elated with joy. He may have thought that the evil Queen Jezebel (the original Wicked Witch of the West) and her puppet-like but equally sinful husband, King Ahab, might finally come around and turn to the Lord at last.
But that was not to be. Instead, Queen Jezebel put out a contract on Elijah. The reaction of the prophet may surprise you. Scripture tells us that when Elijah got wind of this plot on his life, he was terrified! First Kings 19:3 (NLT) says that “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life.”
Why did he do that? Why was he so gripped with fear? Again, because “he was as human as we are.” Elijah then isolated himself and went off to a one-person pity party. The Bible tells us that “he went alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died’” (1 Kings 19:4, NLT).
Have you ever been that low? Are you surprised that some of the greatest men and women of the Bible have felt the same way at times?
Here are a few principles about dealing with depression.
1. Times of depression and vulnerability often come after great victories
Elijah had just experienced the greatest victory of his ministry, prevailing over hordes of false prophets while the nation watched in wonder. For three and a half years Elijah had been preparing for this very moment.
Then, BAM! Just like that, it was over.
Depression often follows a big disappointment. Perhaps this has happened to you as well. You obeyed God, He blessed you, and then — out of the blue — you were hit with a spiritual attack. You had a setback in your health. Your marriage started to unravel. Your kids turned from Christ instead of to Him. You felt like a failure as a parent and as a Christian, and you found yourself sliding into a depression.
Our ministry team has been holding large-scale events around the world for over 30 years that we call Harvest Crusades. The largest one was at AT&T stadium in Texas with over 100,000 in live attendance. And the day it was over, I felt emotionally drained — and even a bit down.
In our crusades through the years, however, I have learned to expect it — an emotional slump that follows ground-breaking, God-given success. In the early years, I didn’t know this and was surprised by it.
I finally learned how to deal with success from the late Billy Graham. I was with him in Portland, Oregon, years ago. On the last night of the crusade, he had preached to a huge throng of people with a revival-like response that followed. Hundreds responded to his invitation to stream down to the platform and receive Jesus as Savior.
When it was over and we were in the car, I said to him, “That was a great message, Billy.”
He responded with a little shrug. “It’s just the Gospel,” he said. I learned that Billy didn’t want to reflect on the past or even receive compliments. He went back to his hotel room and changed into his PJs. Then we ate cold roast beef sandwiches that someone had given us earlier that night.
So here is the takeaway truth: After spiritual great moments or victories, return to normal again. Don’t focus on your emotions, focus on God. You are never as good or as bad as people say you are. You are simply God’s servant. Give Him the glory and keep moving. Don’t live in the past, but instead prepare for the future.
A sign posted at the end of the road on an airport runway reads: “KEEP MOVING! If you stop you are in danger and a danger to those who are flying.”
Elijah stopped moving and became paralyzed by fear, discouragement, and depression. He wasn’t thinking clearly. He had made such a difference in his world — and here we are, thousands of years later, and we’re still talking about him! But at the moment, he didn’t see that what he had done was for time and eternity.
2: When you are depressed, don’t isolate yourself but surround yourself with friends
After Queen Jezebel threatened the prophet, the Bible tells us that he “went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day” (1 Kings 19:4, NLT). But that was probably a mistake. What Elijah should have done was find a trusted friend who could have encouraged him.
Often when we are down, we tend to separate from people. We should do the opposite. Even the Lord Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to simply sit with Him in Gethsemane. His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38, NIV) and He wanted His closest companions with Him.
Research reveals that three out of five Americans feel lonely. One source says: “Experts have long known that loneliness and isolation have long-ranging effects on the mind and body, ranging from anxiety and depression to vulnerability to illness. Yet having just one or two friendships can dramatically decrease loneliness.”
3: Don’t ignore the practical when you are feeling down
The Bible then tells us that after Elijah had crawled under the broom tree in the wilderness and asked for God to take his life, “he lay down and slept … But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, ‘Get up and eat!’ He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So, he ate and drank and lay down again. Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you” (1 Kings 19:5-7, NLT).
Sometimes when you are feeling down, you don’t need a sermon, you need a sandwich! You need a nap and some lunch. We sometimes forget the practical basics: Get some sleep and eat properly.
4: When you are feeling down, you need perspective from God’s Word
The Bible says of Elijah, “So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. There he came to a cave, where he spent the night. But the Lord said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:8, NLT).
When we are feeling down, we need to look up. We need to let God speak to us. Otherwise, we will keep sinking deeper into despair. And what does God speak to us from? He speaks through His Word, the Bible.
Jesus said, “Lo, I come in the volume of the book …” (Hebrews 10:7, KJV). Here is what transpired next between Elijah and his Lord:
“Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13, NLT)
We tend to look for the Lord in the big events of life, and He is there. But He is always working behind the scenes in our lives, attentive to every detail.
Sometimes we miss the Lord’s gentle whisper. The still, small voice.
Johnny Cash had a similar experience with a cave. He had become addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines. He was isolated from family and friends and felt useless to everyone. He said, “I never want to see another dawn!”
So, he went to Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River. This is a vast system of caves, some larger than two or three football stadiums. Several people had lost their lives in these caves, and Cash wanted to do the same. In later years, he recalled that complete darkness, and wrote: “The lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I had ever been.”
But the Lord spoke to Johnny, and asked, “What are you doing here?” It was there Johnny made a recommitment to Jesus Christ. He said of the experience, “God saved me from killing myself!”
Maybe you find yourself in a cave of sorts right now. You feel unloved, unappreciated, down, and depressed. Listen for the voice of God in your life.
The question God posed to both Elijah and Johnny Cash could be asked of many of us today. To Peter warming himself at the fire of his enemies, Jesus could have asked, “What are you doing here?”
To Sampson, with his head in the lap of Delilah — the same Delilah who had openly asked him for the secret of his strength so that she could betray him — the Lord could have asked, “What are you doing here?”
To the prodigal son, who had left the safety and security of his father’s house — and then found himself empty and alone with a bunch of pigs — Jesus could have asked, “What are you doing here?”
It’s time to leave that cave — or that pigpen — and find God’s purpose for your life. He had a plan for Elijah and He has a plan for you as well.
Greg Laurie is the Pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship and the speaker at the Harvest Crusades. He is also the author of Lennon, Dylan, Alice and Jesus: A Spiritual Biography of Rock And Roll.