Under the Broom Tree with Elijah: Depression Among God’s Servants

November 10, 2017
Daniel McKinley

Are we being upfront and honest about depression in Christian circles? Can the godly suffer from depression or is it only something that afflicts the weak in faith? For many believers the idea of Christian depression is an oxymoron that negates some of the foundational elements of the Christian faith, such as the call to rest in the love of God or rejoice in His grace. In Christian circles depression often carries a double stigma, one of emotional instability and spiritual decline. As a result, Christians struggling with depression often fear reaching out for help, while for those in full-time ministry it is simply unthinkable. Alone in their struggle, they chide themselves for their perceived unbelief, only to fall deeper into despair. This erodes the effectual working of the body of Christ, intended to serve to the edification of one another in love. Fortunately most pull through. But not all. Too often we hear of Christians suffering emotional breakdowns, burnout, or leaving fruitful ministries for inexplicable reasons.

Depression is a life-threatening condition that is often muddled with troubling confusion. Many confuse mood and depression; it is not uncommon to hear people say, “I am feeling depressed” or “You look depressed” when one is merely sad or discouraged. Those suffering from depression may feel sad, but they are just as likely to feel irritable or emotionally drained. It would be better to characterize depression as a state of overwhelming hopelessness, aggravated by feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing and even guilt. Other common symptoms are a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, a general lack of energy and being overwhelmed by even simple tasks. Those suffering from depression will often display behavioral changes that are out of character: recurring bouts of anger, uncontrollable crying, or social withdrawal. They may have trouble making simple decisions and exercise poor judgment. Serious or prolonged depression can seriously affect one’s physical wellbeing and be accompanied with a longing for death or even suicidal thoughts.

In 1 Kings 19:4 we read: “But Elijah himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die….” While it would be foolish to begin making a medical diagnosis of any Biblical character, I think we can safely affirm that Elijah was not in a very healthy state of mind at this particular point in time. Physically exhausted, he collapses under the broom tree wishing only to die. Why? “For I am no better than my fathers!” is the reply Elijah gives us. In other words he is overwhelmed by a sense of personal failure and hopelessness. How could a man of such remarkable faith sink to such lows? We might expect this of others in this story, such as wicked King Ahab, but instead Ahab basks in his palace while the man of God weeps in the wilderness. We are left to wonder what happened to the man who boldly denounced the idolatry of Israel, who with unwavering faith endured three and a half years of famine, who fearlessly faced the 450 prophets of Baal. To find him in this wretched state of mind only days after the remarkable events of Mount Carmel is perplexing.

Surprisingly, Elijah is not alone. In 1857 the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, while preaching on Isaiah 41:14, shocked his audience with this confession:

“I have to speak today to myself and whilst I shall be endeavoring to encourage those who are distressed and downhearted, I shall be preaching, I trust to myself for I need something which shall cheer my heart—why I cannot tell, wherefore I do not know, but I have a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me; my soul is cast down within me; I feel as if I had rather die than live; all that God hath done by me seems to be forgotten, and my spirit flags and my courage breaks down… I need your prayers.”1

It turns out Spurgeon was subject to frequent bouts of the darkest depression, at times having lost the will to live. Even the apostle Paul appears to be in a terrible state of mind on more than one occasion. In 2 Corinthians 1:8 we read: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life.” Not only did these men of God feel hopelessly overwhelmed but they “despaired even of life.” More examples could be taken from the lows in David’s life, or from other Bible characters, such as Moses, Jeremiah, Rachel, or Hannah. While not all believers can identify with these experiences, many can.

In a sense it is comforting to know that others, who are admired for their devotion, have passed through similar experiences to our own. Spurgeon, in his Lectures to My Students, again offers an interesting insight:

“Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy.”2

Similarly, in writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us.” Sometimes being open about our own emotional struggles can be a source of encouragement and comfort to others.

Often we forget that the Lord’s servants are just people. As James aptly reminds us: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” (James 5:17) Should it surprise us then if he was afflicted by the same weakness of other men? Spurgeon writes:

“Fits of depression come over the most of us. Cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”3

There are no superheroes among believers, just men called to a work that far exceeds their own strength. The victories won are the triumph of God’s grace, but physically our bodies are still weak and earthly, susceptible to illness and exhaustion. Should it come as any surprise that the mind is subject to infirmities and exhaustion as well? Do we not all take on a little too much from time to time? Yet the Lord is gentle for He “knows our frame, and remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

God neither cast Elijah aside nor condemned him but instead sent an angel to care for his needs. He gave Elijah time to rest. He neither sermonized nor chided but quietly awaited till he had regained his strength. The Lord blessed him with a new vision of himself and listened quietly while Elijah replied to his query: “What are you doing here?” When he was ready, the Lord gave Elijah renewed direction and purpose (1 Kings 19:1–18).

Why do these fits come upon those who should be rejoicing in the grace of God? There are no simple answers. For some it may simply be a result of mental and physical exhaustion. Others may finally have succumbed to the constant pressures of their multiple responsibilities. Perhaps they have taken on too much. Some may simply be more prone to a melancholy of spirit. In other cases it may be providence keeping them from vainglory (2 Corinthians 12:7). Generally there are many contributing factors that have accumulated over time. Ultimately, though, it really makes little difference to those struggling with depression. Finding fault will do nothing to lift the spirits of those who likely already blame themselves, and trying to justify their condition will not convince them otherwise.

When it comes to Christian service, the fact is the work is too great for any of us. It can only be accomplished in the power of God’s Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). Christian leaders are virtually 24-hour ERs. In moments of dire need (death, terminal illness, financial ruin, family crisis, or spiritual infirmity) these simple men and women are suddenly expected to provide answers, counsel, comfort, and direction. Tirelessly, they are expected to care for the spiritual needs of entire congregations while they seek to spearhead a fruitful ministry. When there seem to be no tangible results or the lives of those under their care fall into chaos, they often blame themselves. Further, their lives, and those of their family, are under the scrutiny of the public eye. Every choice they make is subject to judgment, and criticism is never far. Silently they endure personal injury and hardship. They are but mortal men, who in the course of their service become only too painfully aware of their shortcomings. Is it really any surprise they become overwhelmed and disheartened?

Those who are responsible for our spiritual care need encouragement. They also need to get away and find time to renew their strength. The Lord knows His servants need rest; do we? (Mark 6:1) Even a mule must be put out to pasture. The commended worker needs time to rest, and those who commended them should be concerned they do. These men and women did not act independently when they went out to serve the Lord. They acted in unison with their commending assemblies, who confirmed their calling. The course of their lives, and those of their families, were affected by that decision. If they fail it is as much the responsibility of those who confirmed the Lord’s calling as that of the brother or sister who went. The opposite is also true. If their ministry is blessed, the joy is shared.

Depression can have profound consequences. It can destroy families and the productivity of one’s life. It is the leading contributor to drug and alcohol abuse. Prolonged depression increases the likelihood of developing a serious illness. It is by far the leading factor in the tens of thousands of suicides every year.4 The Canadian Mental Health Association distinguishes depression from “the blues.” They note its all-embracing nature on a person’s life: “Someone experiencing depression is grappling with feelings of severe despair over an extended period of time. Almost every aspect of their life can be affected, including their emotions, physical health, relationships and work.”5

The church needs to be proactive in preventing and dealing with depression, if for no other reason than Christian charity. It is not something she can afford to turn a blind eye to. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 18 million Americans suffer from depression every year, and yet almost half of them are afraid to reach out for help.6 This should never be the case among God’s people. Surely if anyone should be willing to listen with compassion, it should be those who are debtors to God’s grace. Hebrews 5 speaks of the High Priest being chosen from among men that he might have compassion on the wayward because he himself is subject to weakness. Everyone needs a sympathetic listener, someone they can trust. The commended worker needs someone in whom he or she can confide, and the leadership in their commending assembly needs to be proactive in ensuring that is the case, particularly when serving in an isolated area. Visits by the leadership, and especially two-way communication in a gracious, sympathetic spirit is essential. As a church we must look to emulate our Lord and His promise: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) May we also stand by one another in times of weakness and in times of joy.

1. Spurgeon, C. H. “Fear Not, Sermon 156.” The Spurgeon Archive. October 4, 1857. www.Spurgeon.org/sermons/0156.htm;
2. Spurgeon, C. H. Lectures to My Students: Complete & Unabridged. New ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954;
3. Ibid;
4. Murray, Bob, and Alicia Fortinberry. “Depression Facts and Stats.” Depression Fact Sheet: Depression Statistics and Depression Causes. January 15, 2005. www.UpliftProgram.com/depression_stats.html;
5. “Depression.” Canadian Mental Health Association. www.CMHA.ca/mental-health/understanding-mental-illness/depression;
6. Murray, Bob, and Alicia Fortinberry. “Depression Facts and Stats.” Depression Fact Sheet: Depression Statistics and Depression Causes. January 15, 2005. www.UpliftProgram.com/depression_stats.html.
Originally published in MISSIONS magazine and is published with permission.