November 8, 2009

On December 24 and 25 of 2008, 946 people in the United States took their lives. These people are among that perplexing number who commit or attempt to commit suicide within this forty-eight hour period. Many who suffer from depression call Christmas their "worse time of the year."  Statistics reveal that there have been a number of years in which over 1000 people were successful in their attempts to take their lives on this holy season.

Since we are fast approaching Christmas it is appropriate to ask this question: "What is it about this time of year that causes many to suffer from depression?" Some people I have spoken to recently are already "dreading" the season and have been since it has become a custom in the commercial world to advertise for Christmas as early as Labor Day weekend.

Speaking as a licensed professional counselor and a certified clinical pastoral counselor I have done some extensive research into this phenomenon and can conclude that in most cases "Christmas Depression" is not chemical (caused by nerve cells in the brain producing too much serotonin).  This type of depression is environmental, caused by dread.  This dread may be the result of seeing the prices rising and the number of gifts you "have to" buy for family, to the long lines at the department stores, to the hot tempers of those around you in Wal-Mart, to the pressing messages to spend money via TV commercials.

Strange as this many sound, it is at this time of year that I like to read the life story of Elijah.  Why? You ask.  Well consider the account of his momentous victory over the 400-plus prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  This was a tremendous witness of the power of God and a awe-inspiring conclusion of what could be considered one of the most powerful revival services in the history of God's people.  You would think Elijah would be proud, basking in the victory of God over his enemies! 

But Elijah went home that night and heard the news - as if he turned on the TV news and saw a reporter get an interview with the Queen of the land.  She noted that she was out to get him even if it cost her her own life. 

Normally, a man with the power that Elijah used wouldn't even wince, but not only did he wince but he ran. He took off to a non-extradition treaty country (Judah) and was told to keep going - down to the Sinai Peninsula, there to find refreshment and rest.  At least God understood that working as hard as Elijah did up to that point in his life was taxing on the nerves and demanding on the person.  Yet, he, despite his power, was depressed, and his depression was environmental - like ours on Christmas.  And most environmental depression is a spiritual war which rumbles within the soul of those who are in contention.

Depression can sneak up on people as insidiously as November fog, chilling the heart and even sapping the will to get out of bed in the morning. Christians are not immune to depression. However, many Christians feel guilty and ashamed to talk about this issue, thinking that spiritual people should never feel depressed. But spiritual depression is a recurrent theme throughout Scripture. Elijah is one example as he fell into depression, going from the mountain top to the valley.

On the mountain top, so to speak, Elijah had experienced one astonishing miracle after another. God had sent ravens to feed him. Elijah, a widow, and her son were miraculously provided for during drought and famine. Elijah even raised the widow's son from the dead! Then Elijah called down fire from heaven while confronting a group of antagonistic idol-worshippers. As a result, there was a sweeping revival in the nation.

Then into the valley, the last thing we would expect is for Elijah to fall into depression, but he did. He spiraled downward; even suicidal thoughts were part of his dark episode. "He prayed that he might die, and said, 'It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!'" (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah's situation reveals at least four problems that can bring us down.

  1. He presumed the outcome: Elijah presumed that everyone would repent. Things didn't turn out the way he planned. Can't you relate? Haven't you looked forward to something, believing you had everything mapped out when suddenly things changed? If so, you know how disheartening it can be. The lesson for us is to guard against unrealistic expectations by remembering that God is sovereign; we must never presume upon his perfect will.
  2. He focused on the problem: In the wilderness, at the widow's house, and on Mount Carmel Elijah focused on the power and greatness of his Lord. But Jezebel's murderous threats consumed him and overwhelmed his faith. In his panic, he focused on the enemy's power to destroy him rather than on the power of God to deliver him.
  3. He focused on himself: Elijah was in the depths of self-pity when he said, " … I am no better than my fathers!" (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah's focus had shifted from the Lord to his circumstances, and then from his circumstances to himself.
  4. He was physically exhausted: Another reason we succumb to depression may be overlooked — exhaustion. By the time Elijah got to Sinai he was weak from fatigue.

But God does provide the prescriptions to alleviate spiritual depression.

  1. Get some rest: "As he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, 'Arise and eat.' … So he ate and drank, and lay down again" (1 Kings 19:5-6). God's plan was simple: rest and refreshment. I find it sad that most pastors I know don't get enough rest, thinking that there is too much to do with church folks and ministries or thinking that his flock would look at him as lazy if he even took a day off a week. All spiritual warriors, great or small, need rest!
  2. Get a new focus: Elijah believed that he was the only one in Israel who was faithful and spiritual. Elijah was in touch with his feelings, but he wasn't in touch with reality. Things weren't as bad as he thought, so God came to give Elijah a strong dose of reality. You don't have to bear your burdens alone or think you are the only one with the problem(s) you are experiencing.  Others have been there before and more will go there too.  If you are a Christian things will never be as bad as you thought, but may be as bad as the world is trying to make you think it is.
  3. Have new expectations: Once God had Elijah's attention, he set out to readjust his expectations. He told Elijah to go outside "and behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice" (1 Kings 19:11-12). Elijah had unrealistic expectations — God wasn't in the wind or the earthquake. Instead, the Lord readjusted Elijah's expectations, coming to him as "a still small voice." Elijah learned that God's work is sometimes an inner work of the heart.
  4. Take obedient action: When Elijah was up against the wall, the Lord told him to get up and get moving: "Go, return on your way to the Wilderness … and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria" (1 Kings 19:15). God wanted him to make a choice of godly action based on obedience rather than inaction based on his emotions. When vacation and rest are over, God provides strength for you to do those things which are necessary to be done.

Many people believe that life's pressures lead to depression. However, it's how we handle those pressures that lead us either to depression or to victory. When the perceived demands of Christmas commercialization gets you down or threatens to tax your nerves to the limit, understand that it is ok to step back for a better perspective. The world is good at putting us on a guilt trip. But God never burdens us with guilt.

Instead, He gives us a way to get rid of it so we can function and rise above depression.

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