One of the most prevalent psychological giants of our age is depression. Today, it is treated largely with medication; and in many cases, this is justified. Low levels of certain neurotransmitters can result in clinical depression, which so affects the brain that therapy is of limited use. However, in most cases, therapy is equally effective if it is began before a clinical level of depression has resulted. Research suggests that medication, in addition to counseling, is the most effective approach for significant levels of depression.
As we search the Bible, the most detailed model of depression (and maybe burnout) in the Bible is included in the life of Elijah. It is also possible that he was suffering from bipolar disorder since he seemed to have a very elevated mood and energy level shortly before becoming depressed. Our story begins in 1st Kings Chapters 18-19.
1. Depression many times follows periods of great accomplishment, failure, loss, or expenditure of energy. Elijah (Jehovah is God) was a prophet of God during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel (Baal exalts, Baal is my husband, unchaste) killed the prophets of God and promoted the fertility god, Baal. After a three-year famine, Elijah confronted Ahab and the prophets of Baal and proved to the people that Jehovah was God, by bringing down fire from heaven that consumed the sacrifice, stones, and even the water around the altar. He then killed 400 prophets of Baal, prayed for rain (which resulted in a deluge), and out-raced Ahab's chariot back to Jezreel. Elijah’s high energy level in facing all of Israel and then out-racing Ahab’s chariot could be explained either as God’s supernatural enablement or as the manic phase of a bipolar disorder.
2. When depression suddenly appears, it is important to determine what occurred or changed about that same time. When Ahab told Jezebel what had happened, she sent a message threatening Elijah’s life. He so feared Jezebel, that he ran for his life to Beersheba (the edge of Israel). Beersheba means “well of oath or well of seven.” Possibly this indicates that Elijah was struggling with the oath he took to serve God or that he was looking for God’s complete provision (this is the meaning of the number seven).
3. Depression is like living in a dried up wilderness, without water and food, and wanting to die. Elijah took a day's journey into the wilderness and sat under a juniper tree. Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types suggests that this type of dry bush represents, "a defeated spirit, a disappointed life, and a depressed soul." (p. 273) Depression made Elijah feel like dying. Today, depression is strongly correlated with suicidal intent.
4. Depression, as well as our other emotions, are usually determined by how we look at the events in our lives. 1st Kings 19:3 states, "And when he saw [that], he arose, and went for his life..." It was the way he "saw" what happened that motivated him to run for his life. It is important to investigate the depressed individual’s perception of the events just prior to the depression. These perceptions are usually one of the most important issues to be dealt with in therapy. It is also possible that the client is turning anger inward, which is causing the depression. In verse 4, Elijah clearly states how he sees things: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I [am] not better than my fathers." He had hoped that the great miracle of bringing down fire from heaven would turn the nation to God. All it accomplished was to have the queen seek his life. In his eyes, he had failed!
5. When the body is physically depleted, it is difficult to see life clearly. While Elijah slept an angel prepared a cake baked on coals for him to eat and gave him a container of water to drink. Sometimes taking care of physical needs is all that is required to snap out of depression. At least, caring for the client’s physical needs will help him to rationally evaluate his perceptions. Symbolically, this verse also suggests the need to be filled again with God’s Word and His Spirit.
6. The depressed person needs to exercise and then reevaluate his view of his life. After sleeping and eating again, Elijah traveled 40 (testing of human life) days and nights to Mount Horeb, the sight of most of God's Old Testament revelations to humanity. Studies have indicated that exercise can be as effective as medication in reducing depression. Elijah needed a new way of looking at his situation in the middle of his testing.
7. In their misery and circumstances, depressed individuals must be challenged to reevaluate their situation from God’s point of view. God asked Elijah how he got himself in this situation, because the perceptions of the depressed person are many times the cause of the depression. Since emotions are controlled by how the person perceives a situation, if he sees the situation as God sees it; he will be set free.
8. The depressed person is locked into his way of looking at life and feels alone. When questioned, Elijah repeats his litany, "I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, [even] I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." (1 Kings 19:14)
9. They need to be brought to the realization that God is not limited by, nor operates through man's circumstances or methods. There was a great wind on the mountain, then an earthquake, and finally a fire; but God was not in any of these. We expect God to accomplish His will in spectacular ways, but He usually chooses to operate behind the scenes in almost undetectable ways. In this case, God spoke in a still, small voice.
10. The depressed person's view of life must be challenged and shown to be incorrect. The suicidal person needs to be shown that there are other ways out of his situation rather than suicide. God showed him that he was not alone. God still had 7000 other people in Israel that had never worshipped Baal. (1 Kings 19:18)
11. What the depressed person needs is a rekindled faith in God and new direction for his life. God is the one to provide this, but the client, like Elijah, must meet with God.
12. The depressed person usually feels over-responsible for his situation and needs to recognize his true position in life. God told Elijah exactly what to do and God's solution did not rely on Elijah as much as he had thought. He was simply to anoint new kings for Syria and Israel, and a new prophet to replace himself. God would use these people to accomplish what Elijah could not do. Many times the client feels that his failures or successes are more important than they actually are. He needs to be reminded that the world is not dependent on him alone.
13. After a new vision for life, the depressed person must choose to act according to that direction. Elijah called Elisha as the next prophet, and anointed new kings over Syria and Israel who were to overthrow Ahab and Jezebel, the very thing Elijah had failed to do. Restoration is complete when the depressed person again has the energy to invest in a renewed life and vision. Elijah was set free as he acted according to God’s will and began to disciple Elisha.
Sometimes depression is caused by how the client is viewing the unresolved events of the past. Recently a Christian method for the healing of emotions called “Theophostic Ministry” was developed by Dr. Ed Smith. The basic theory of this method is that since emotions are determined by how a person views a life experience, emotions from the past can by modified by changing the incorrect view of the situation into truth. Past experiences are “stirred up” until the lie seems real. At that point, the Lord Jesus is called upon to reveal the truth about the event to the client. When Jesus is revealed in the experience, His presence is felt, or newfound truths are revealed, the perception of the event is changed. When the client sees the event from God’s point of view the emotions connected to the event are healed. The result is that current emotional problems, which are an echo of the past, no longer affect the client in the same way. (Beyond Tolerable Recovery, 1996)
Treatment of bipolar almost always requires medication to control the associated emotional swings. In addition, the manic phase must be challenged in counseling because if the client believes he is more worthwhile because of what he can do, he must also believe he is of less worth if he fails. As a resource for unipolar depression, I use The Freedom from Depression Workbook (1995) by Carter and Minirth, and concentrate primarily on the client's perceptions of life and faith in God for his future. Depression is also a primary symptom of the grief process, which I will discuss in more detail in the next Chapter.
Steps for Overcoming Depression
1. Depression many times follows periods of accomplishment, stress, failure, or loss. It may also be caused by anger turned inward.
2. All emotions, including depression, are determined by how the client perceives the events of his life. If past events are strongly involved, a healing of emotions may be required in order to deal with present circumstances.
3. The first step to recovery is to get adequate sleep, nourishment, and exerecise. If this is not possible, medication may be temporarily required. The client must also rebuild his spiritual life.
4. The depressed person must be challenged to reevaluate his view of his circumstances from God’s point of view.
5. The client must rekindle his faith and hope in God’s ability to work everything for good. He must learn to thank God that He will use even these circumstances for the client’s good.
6. He must realize that God loves him and is not limited by the methods or the circumstances of his life.
7. The client must obtain a new vision for his life from God and take action to fulfill it.