Elijah Fed by an Angel, Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680)
(continued…) In I Kings 19 Elijah is depressed.
Elijah stood almost alone as a true prophet of the Lord during some of Israel’s worst times. The nation was ruled by the wicked King Ahab, and the temple was dominated by priests and prophets who worshiped the false god Baal. Israel was in a severe drought, without rain for three years. God told Elijah to proclaim to all that the drought was the judgement of God, punishment for their unfaithfulness. However, King Ahab, in his wickedness, blamed Elijah for the famine. So Elijah was a hunted man and had been hiding out in the wilderness.
I Kings 18 tells the story of Elijah’s most spectacular testimony to the power of God. He had come out of hiding to issue a challenge to King Ahab and all his priests. He would meet them on Mt. Carmel, and there, Elijah would single-handedly take on the false priests of Israel in a winner-take-all battle. It would be 400 to one, and all would pray to their own God to send fire down from heaven to ignite and burn the sacrifices each had prepared. All day long the 400 priests of Baal prayed– but there was no response from their god. Elijah then soaked his sacrifice with water and offered one brief prayer. Immediately a fire came down from heaven so intense that it burned up not only the sacrifice, but even the very stones of the altar and all the soil around it. Seeing the miracle, the people immediately returned to the true God. To further vindicate Elijah, it finally rained and the long drought ended. It should have been a time of great joy for Elijah.
However, in the very next chapter that we find Elijah so depressed that he prays to God that his life may be ended. One of the many things that can be said about depression is that it can come at the strangest times. In fact sometimes, like for Elijah, it comes at the times that should bring the greatest happiness. I recall the story of former football and baseball great Deion Sanders, and how he came to faith in Jesus Christ. An All-Star in both sports, Sanders helped lead his football team to the very pinnacle of success, a Super Bowl victory. But on the very night of that triumph, Sanders found himself in such a deep despair that he tried to commit suicide. As a young man he had already achieved everything he could have hoped for– money, fame, and success, and still it wasn’t enough to fill his life. Elijah, like Deion Sanders, seemed to do better when he was struggling than when he was succeeding. One cannot begin to figure all this out, but we can do what the Bible does, and say ‘this is what happened to that person at that time,’ and then see where it goes from there.
An angel of the Lord appeared and helped Elijah in some simple and basic ways. The angel allowed Elijah to rest, then brought him some food, and then he allowed him to rest some more. Finally, God spoke to Elijah. Elijah had come to the conclusion that he was all alone in his faithfulness, but God encouraged him with news of 7,000 other faithful people in the Israel. And then God gave him another job to do.
The New Testament reveals a deeper comfort, one based on an eternal hope. There are more examples of people in despair, but in the New Testament, this despair is always seen in the context of Jesus, who said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly,” and, “Whoever believes in the Son of God shall have eternal life.”
In II Corinthians (chapters one and four) the Apostle Paul gives a profound description of the move from despair to hope in his experience. Paul begins with a word of praise to God who has brought him through some rough times, both physically and spiritually: “Praise be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (1:3-4). Paul then goes on to describe the troubles he has been having: “We do not want you to uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life itself” (1:8). (He sounds like Elijah there– he has had enough, even of life). Going on, he tells the Corinthians, “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a peril, and he will deliver us again. On Him we have set out hope” (1:9-10)… “And so we are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body… And so with the spirit of faith we believe and we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (from 4:8-14).
“Therefore,” Paul concludes, “we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. And so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:16-18).
Knowing and believing in this hope does not guarantee that despair will never come over us. Despair came in the midst of faith for Elijah, Paul, Jeremiah, David, Habakkuk, and many more, including Jesus himself who wept over Jerusalem and despaired in the Garden of Gethsemane. Faith does not guarantee that despair will not come, but that it will not last; and that even in the midst of it, God will hold us in him arms, and will carry us through.
O Christ Jesus,
when all is darkness and we feel our weakness and helplessness,
give us the sense of Your presence, Your love, and Your strength.
Help us to trust in Your protecting love and strengthening power,
so that nothing may frighten or worry us,
for, living close to You, we shall see Your hand,
Your purpose, Your will through all things. Amen.
–Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)