Depression: Its Cause and Cure


Recorded January 11, 2009 DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Senior Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church

1 Kings 19:1-18

1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there,4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

The most requested subject I ever have as a pastor to preach on is depression. Without any exaggeration, people will always come to me and say, “Would you say something about depression?” They’ll never say, ‘‘I’m depressed.” They’ll usually say, “My husband is depressed and I want you to preach on it.” Every one of us at times has a depression that we deal with. It should be something that every individual, somehow or another, has been expecting in their own lives.

These numbers are a little out of date, but over 70,000 suicides per year happen and half of them are depressed. Sometimes more of them than half are depressed. Depends upon which statistics you read. Over 200,000 people a year are hospitalized because of depression and over 250,000 people are treated every year for depression. Psychologists have said that more human suffering results from depression than from any other disease.

Now somehow we get the idea that the people in the Bible were some kind of plaster of Paris things that never had any problems and the depression is something that’s ours and God doesn’t love us when we’re depressed. But you recall that Moses said in Numbers 11: 15, “Kill me, Lord.” He begs God to kill him right then. I went back and read that this week and it’s a devastating passage when he is so depressed.

Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? We somehow don’t go to Him with these ideas, but He began to feel sorrowful apart. What did He cry out on the cross? “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” What did they say of Job? He cursed God and wanted to die. The Greek word melancholia is the word that we somehow use for depression. It’s the feeling of a heavy, dark blood in the veins. You can’t move. It‘s a disturbed mood. It’s self-debasing behavior. It’s a wishing to die. It’s delusions of having committed the unpardonable sin.

No profession or no person is free of it. It has nothing to do with your IQ. It has very little to do with your social status or your place in life. And some notable people through the years have had serious depressions. One of my heroes, Charles Spurgeon the 19th-century preacher, has a long passage in one of his books about what he calls his thinking fits, how he goes into these depressions and he has to struggle to get himself out.

Winston Churchill the great leader of England during World War II said in some of his writings that he was pursued by The Black Dog. That was his code name for depression. Edgar Allen Poe was pressed with depression and if you don’t believe it read some of his poetry. Abraham Lincoln, I read a book recently about Abraham Lincoln. I read a book recently about Abraham Lincoln. I read several about Lincoln, but one had to do with Lincoln’s emotional status and it talked about Lincoln being so depressed when he was a lawyer trying cases going on the circuit that sometimes he would find himself tied up in a knot, unable to even plead the case before the court because of his depression that he had and it plagued him all through his presidency.

Stephen Foster, the great songwriter of the South, Van Gogh the Dutch painter, all of these people struggled with depression. When I was a young ministerial student at Stetson I was invited to go to the Central Baptist Church in Miami to preach a special weekend, a youth weekend. When I arrived there I met the pastor, the famed Dr. Theo Angel, I was looking forward to preaching in his pulpit and being in that famed pulpit. Don’t get depressed. I’m going to get my voice back. The deacons stopped me as I came in and we talked awhile and I said, “Where’s Dr. Angel?” They said, “Let me tell you. Sometimes Dr. Angel is so depressed on Sunday morning that we have to go back into the study,” now this was literal. I’m not exaggerating this. “We had to go back into the study and find Dr. Angel and escort him into the pulpit, he is so depressed and cannot face the people, but once he stands here it’s okay.”

I thought about that, but probably what happened to me, some of the deacons would say, “Let’s lock the door and leave him in there. We’ve got other preachers around here.” What causes depression? Well, we could go down a long list: disappointment, rejection, lack of self-esteem, feeling of inadequacy, biological misfunction, it’s the letdown after a big event, whatever it may be. I’m not talking about the clinical depressions where you have to be hospitalized. That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about really is what I call the common cold of mental health. I’m not talking about flu, I’m talking about the sniffles. I’m talking about what we all get. There are some people who need to have the kind of medical advice and medical attention that’s available in our culture. But a lot of us don’t ever get that far. We’re not like this in our mood swings. We’re just sort of like this and the like this is too much for our families to deal with.

Of course, someone said that if we’re like this all the time we would be very boring. I don't know about that, but I do know that we come to the place where we have a choice about depression. For the tools for dealing with depression are out in front of us. And we can stand before God and rail him and say take this away from me and God would say, the tools that I have put before you use the tools that are out there.

So I ask you now to look at some of the tools. First of all I want you to understand that I think that there is a lot of choice in the way we feel. I talked about that last week. You can act your way into a new way of feeling easier than you can feel your way into a new way of acting. But I think there’s something else going on also. I think sometimes we enjoy our depressions. We enjoy wallowing around in the feelings that we have. We enjoy reaching out and bringing others in with us. And wanting them to come and sort of get some of the mud on them, too.

It’s very vivid in my mind now, but one Friday I was leaving the office years ago in another church. It had not been a particularly good week and it had been a very lousy Friday. As I was going home I was feeling this cloud come through my head. Now I had made an appointment with the family. We were going to go get something to eat and go to a movie and that’s when our boys were little and it was going to be one of those happy family, home life magazine kind of experiences. I remember distinctly thinking as I drove home, “I don’t feel like going to that movie. I don’t want to do that. I just want to take this depression that I feel coming on me and enjoy it.” Have you ever had a feeling like that?

And the struggle went on inside, “Are you going to fight your way out of this or are you going to enjoy it.” And you know what won? I said, “I’m going to enjoy this.” So I got home and there were Carolyn and our two boys. They were about this high at the time, and I said, “Why are you all so cleaned and sprayed and polished and dressed and pressed and ready to go?” “Well, we’re going to the movie. You said we were. We’re going to get a little snack and go to the movie.” And I said, “No, no. I’m depressed.” “We’re going to go to the movie.” “I’m depressed.” You know how that conversation goes in a family. Back and forth, “I’m depressed.” “We’re going to go to the movie.”

I said, “Don’t you understand how bad I feel?” Carolyn turned to me, and in her wisdom — this was wisdom — she said, “You stay here and enjoy your depression. You stay here and have a good time, but we’re choosing not to stay here and enjoy our depression.” I said, “You can’t do this to me.” She said, “Watch.” They got in the car and backed out and the last thing I remember were two little blonde-headed boys leaning out of the car saying, “Goodbye, Daddy. Enjoy your depression.”

I am not exaggerating this. I was so upset. I thought I was depressed, then. I dropped 20 more degrees after that experience and I did what every good, depressed person does. Now I’m a Baptist preacher and can’t do what some of you would do in a case like that, but I went to the closet or the cupboard and I found the biggest, finest jar of peanut butter you’ve ever seen. It was a fresh jar of Jif, the big one you know — like that? Not a teaspoon, but a tablespoon, and I said, “I’m not going to eat supper. I’m just going to have this peanut butter.”

Now peanut butter is glorious. I recommend it if you really want to enjoy a depression. It gets down in your esophagus. It seals off at the bottom and the top. Your stomach acids can’t come up. Your saliva gets trapped, you’re choking, but it’s a delightful choking. I went to bed, now I’m not exaggerating. I went to bed and you know I finished off that jar of peanut butter. And then I went to bed and I was lying in bed, “Oh I feel so bad,” and, just like an alcoholic, I had strewn the bedroom with empty peanut butter jars everywhere.

In fact, there was one time I loved peanut butter so much I was hiding them around the house. I was putting jars of peanut butter in the tank of the toilet; you know where you know all that kind of stuff. And I was moaning and groaning and then finally, after a couple of hours of this, I heard the back door. They were coming in, so I went and made sure I was in bed and scattered that stuff around so they could see it, and pulled the covers up. Stomach was about this big at the time with all that peanut butter, moaning and groaning and my two boys came dancing down the hall into the bedroom, “Hi Daddy. Did you enjoy your depression?”

I said, “No.” I decided right then, all of us go up and down. I had those ups and downs. But I didn’t want to live like that for the rest of my life. I had to make a conscious decision and God has put the tools out in front of me to make a conscious decision not to live that way. Now I’m saying if you enjoy wallowing in it, go ahead and do it. But, don’t expect everybody to come and clean you up when you’ve wallowed in it. Don’t expect the world to come and get trapped sucked into it with you. Don’t expect the world to stand back and let you do it. Understand it’s a choice. How you feel and how you act is a choice. God had put the tools out in front of us.

Let’s look at the story quickly about Elijah. You know he would have never made it through any pulpit committee. He was about as direct as a buzz saw. He was as committed as a laser beam and he was as rough as a rock quarry. He could make you mad in 40 languages. He had that contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. You know how that goes. He won. Jezebel got upset, as I mentioned a moment ago, and in his greatest moment of triumph, he got out of Dodge.

Now if I had a map of Israel here I’d show you. This happened at Mount Carmel, way up at the northern part, sort of the little horn of Israel up there. And he was so afraid of this queen that he started running, and he ran and ran and ran to get away from her and he ran down to Beersheba, which is at the bottom at the beginning of the Negev Desert. He ran all the way and when he got there he was so tired he could hardly stand it, so he just collapsed. He was absolutely physically worn out.

In the night God came to him. God took care of him. God put some food and some water, he put the cake and some water. God said to him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” That’s the subject of another sermon. He said, “Now I want you to get up,” at this verse it says it very clearly; “I want you to get up. Arise and eat,” he said.

You find yourself going through some kind of difficulty with depression and you don’t know what to do with it, first of all, get up. Take care of yourself. Go to a doctor if necessary. See someone that could help you with it. Take care of your body. Exercise it. Determine that you’re not going to let it dominate you. Remember that there is a physical and emotional-spiritual connection. We are not cut up in little pieces.

The Greeks did that to us. The Greeks said that we’re body and soul and spirit. The Hebrew doesn’t do that. The Hebrew sees us as one. Remember, Jesus said if you’ve broken one commandment you’ve broken them all, meaning that it’s all a fabric. We are body, soul, we are people, we are not parts that have been assembled in some heavenly assembly plant. If one’s sick the other is affected. Take care of your body.

But this world’s a pretty dangerous place. We need to take care of ourselves not trying to be brave. God said to rise and eat. Physical and emotional depletion can do it to us. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

God intends for us to care for our bodies, not to abuse them, but to let our bodies heal, to respect our bodies and to care for them. Paul said to Timothy, “Stir up a gift that is within you. You have inner resources. Bring them up and use them.”

God said to him, “Arise and eat.” He said, “Cope. Don’t mope.” Are you going to enjoy your depression, Elijah? I’m not going to let you. Then the other thing. He got up, ate, went back to sleep, got up and ate again. Finally, when the energy came back, he began to heal a little bit inside. He went on down to the Sinai Desert. Now that’s a long way. It’s like first of all going from here to Valdosta eating. Then he decided to get up and go from Valdosta down to Orlando.

And he got down to Mt. Sinai--Mt. Horeb. When he got there there’s a cave and when we visited Sinai there’s a little chapel they’ve built there and the guide tried to tell us, “That’s the chapel that Elijah stayed in,” and I said, “No, no, no, it was a cave and he didn’t have a chapel there.” But you know that story the wind storm, the lightning, all the power things happened. God was not there but God was in the still small voice.

Now what I want you to know is that in the midst of your darkest hour, I mean when it’s so dark that it’s beyond dark, when there’s no glint of light in your mind at all, then God can begin to speak.

Clyde Fant, pastor, professor and now retired, told me that in his deepest, darkest depressions, when he felt like he was walking through the very bowels of hell, when it was so dark he could not see his way out, he said he could hear faintly the voice of God saying, “I love you. I’ll bring you out.”

I want you to hear me say this. We’ve been together a long time. I don’t say it just for oratorical flourish, but I’ve been down there. I’ve been in the bottom of that cave. I have been when it’s so dark you couldn’t move when you wondered if God lived, if you were anything worthwhile. He’s there. He’s there. Not a flash of light. He’s just a still, small voice. He’s there and he says, “You can trust me.” It is well with my soul. I’ll walk through this with you.

I don’t know how many of you are at that point now. I have a sense that some of you are. Listen to me. You have not been abandoned by God. You have not been abandoned by God. He is able to keep that which you’ve committed unto him against that day and in the midst of that dark cave, in that pit; you know the Bible talks a lot about people being in a pit. In that pit He’s there. You want to see Him like Cecil B DeMille was directing. You want blinding light. You want all of a sudden a miracle when the light flashes through. Occasionally that may happen with some of us, but with most of us it’s the still, small voice bringing us out, a step at a time. Step at a time. Rise and eat. Let’s get up.

The second thing God said was, “Look up. I’m still here. I’m still God of the universe.” I hate to say it, but I have learned more in the pit than I’ve learned in the sunshine. I have been with God more at my lowest than I ever have at my highest and I don’t say glibly that this means God is getting ready to do something, but it does. It sounds like I’m on television trying to get you to send in your cards and letters, but that’s been my experience. That is the darkness just before the light begins to come.

Now the third thing He said, He said, “By the way, you can’t do this alone.” He said, “Link up.” He said, “Back up,” and Damascus, that’s a long way from where he was. If you look at a biblical map Damascus from Sinai is Orlando to Ashville. He said, “I want you to get up there and there’s someone I want you to anoint as king and there are others I want you to anoint, and there are people of God up there and there are 7,000 other righteous people.

You see, he thought there was nobody else. That’s pretty typical of being depressed. You think you’re the only one, you’re the only one that stands for righteousness, you’re the only one that somehow has a sense that God is still alive. You’re the only one that’s good and right. You’re the only one that’s ever felt this way. He said, “That’s not true.” There are 7,000 people in Israel just waiting for you. Hook up. Get up. Look up. Hook up.

The thing that distresses me the most is I see so many people that the minute the dark cloud comes, the minute they get put in the pit, the minute they find that life is not all sunshine they retreat. They put themselves in a dark closet. They don’t want to be around anyone else and that just compounds it. People have said, “Well, I felt so bad I didn’t want to come to church.” I thought, “Where have we failed that we haven’t let them know that when you feel bad, that’s when you need to be with us.”

You may not get anything out of what I say. You’ll get something out of your Sunday school teacher, but you know what you’ll get the most out of? Seeing old John and Fred and Harry and Harriet and Joan and all the others, and they don’t look any worse than you do. In fact, they look a little worse. And you’ll find out their kids are as mean as yours. You’ll find out they lost their job, just like you did, and you‘ll go home and you’ll say, “You know, they gave me something," because when we come to church we borrow and give to each other.

Some of you come full. You’ve just had a bonus, or you’ve just kept your job, whatever the case may be, and you come full. But you meet in the hall Joe Depressed. You meet Elijah in the hall and Elijah is as dry as a desert. He is as empty as a water bucket that’s been used. Just seeing him you transfer, you transfer to him. That’s why I like to see us stand and sing. There’s something that transfers between you. All of a sudden it levels out in here. Those who have come full bring their contribution and those who have come empty bring their need. And next week it may be just the opposite. How in the world do people go through life not connected with a life-giving body. God never made us to be alone. God made us to be together and this lone ranger attitude that American Christians have is absolutely opposite from the New Testament. None of us are completed in of ourselves and God knows that and He said, “Elijah get up and go over there. There are 7,000 people that are going to fill you up.” I see you struggling. Some of you have this crazy idea this is a stadium event, you’ll come here and see what we have to say and if you don’t like it you’ll go somewhere else. But you don’t want any kind of commitment. You can’t get filled up that way. You have to be alive and with us and at the end we stand and sing we join hands. You know what happens we connect.

One lady told me, she said, “I go all week long and nobody ever hugs me or touches me.” We need each other. We are such needy people. The best of us are needy. The best of us need to understand that we need each other. We can’t make it through whatever this week has without each other. What did God say to Elijah? “Get up. Look up. Link up.” It’s kind of corny but you’ll remember this, say it with me. Get up. Look up. Link up. I don’t believe you. Get up. Look up. Link up. That’s what God wants you to do. And then you’ll find that God is able to take you through anything, anything that’s out there. Because you’re a part of the family of God.

Now I say this every week and I don’t want to take away from the sacredness of the hour, but some of you need to say yes to Jesus Christ. That’s your first, that’s your first way of linking up. You don’t know all but you’ll learn all. Others of you are wandering Christians. But I call the church alumni. You need to be anchored. Others of you, you’ve got some things in your soul and heart you’re struggling with. You’re so out of step. The civil war raging within your chest. You may wish to come and pray here, it’s between you and God, but it’s before the people of God and we’re praying for you as you pray.

Would you come? Take Christ as your Savior, come into His family or just come and pray. Don’t be reluctant. Come. Our ministers will be here to help you. Would you come as we stand and sing?

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)