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Elijah the Prophet: What We Can Learn From His Mental Health

Elijah the Prophet and His Collapse and Restoration

In this case study, let’s take a closer look at how discouraged Elijah was and the condition that he found himself in while in full ministry (preaching from the pulpit).

  • He was suddenly gripped by fear and awakened. Fear is a dreadful thing, which we have all experienced in some measure of Christian devotion.
  • He went into a self-imposed isolation. He was unable to bear the presence of his servant. When we are over-strained, even the presence of friends and loved ones can irritate us.
  • He was overwhelmed with depression, despondency, and despair. Elijah the Prophet is now sitting under a broom tree! Have you been like that? Are you under the broom tree now? Look up Psalms 42:11 and 43:5.
  • He was presumptuous and unwise in his praying. He felt as the psalmist did in Psalm 55:3–8.
  • He was filled with self-pity. This is always a dangerous state to get into.
  • He had an unbalanced view of things. In times of overstrain and illness, everything gets out of perspective, and little problems become greatly exaggerated in our minds. This is called overload.
  • He temporarily lost his faith in God. He still believed in Him, but he could not trust Him in this emergency, so “he went to pieces.”

There is little doubt that Elijah the Prophet was experiencing a nervous breakdown and was even suicidal. As pastors and leaders, we are all subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to some or all the above-mentioned emotions or reactions. So how did Elijah fall into this depression that led to his breakdown?

  • He was mentally overworked. For those three and a half years, he had experienced terrific tension, culminating in the great victory on Mount Carmel and the slaughter of those false prophets.
  • He was physically exhausted. Not only had the experiences of the past years made heavy demands upon his body, but now he had just taken about a twenty-mile hike toward the Mediterranean Sea.
  • He was spiritually out of touch. “When he saw that his condition was depleted and began to cry out in his moment of despair.” We see a similar comparison in Matthew 14:30. Elijah the Prophet took his eyes off the Lord and looked at his circumstances and the threats of Jezebel. If you want to be depressed, fearful, filled with self-pity, etc., take your eyes off the Lord and look at your circumstances and the problems of this weary world. just take a good look at yourself!

So, the three basic reasons for Elijah’s collapse are that he was sick mentally, physically, and spiritually. These must be considered together, for the mental affects the spiritual, the physical affects the mental, and so forth. This leads to burn out, blow out, and cry out.

Now let’s look at what the Lord prescribed as a cure to set him back on the road to recovery. Consider that even today, God offers us the same support and help while serving in His kingdom.

Elijah the Prophet was physically exhausted, so the Lord attended to the needs of his body. Look up Psalm 103:14. God prescribed food, sleep, and plenty of fresh air. He gave His servant a month and a half off as a job recovery package! It is essential to pay attention to these three simple rules for bodily health: (1) daily nourishing food; (2) regular and sufficient sleep; (3) fresh air, exercise, and relaxation.

  1. Elijah was mentally overworked, so the Lord dealt with his mind. His mental outlook was distorted and unbalanced, so after a month and a half of rest and care, healthy food, and fresh air, the Lord came to him and repeated His question, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God’s objective was to cause Elijah to face realities, face his fears, and face his problems, even as we should do today.
  2. Elijah was out of touch spiritually, so the Lord dealt with his soul. He gave him a wonderful vision of His power, glory, and 1 Kings 19:11–12 run parallel to Psalm 46:10. Elijah needed physical restoration and mental renewal, but most of all, he needed a spiritual revival. Even today, ministry can be taxing and overwhelming, and it is necessary to take a few days off from time to time for spiritual restoration and renewal.

Sometimes we forget the faithfulness of our Lord. God seems remote and far removed from our struggles. We ask, “Where is God in all this?” The Lord knows when we need Him the most and will send a provision to restore our mental and emotional well-being.

Life often seems so relentless, and there is no exception for those in ministry. We can all feel somewhat hopeless at times, and there appears to be an erosion of our stamina and strength in the struggle to carry on day after day. There seems so much more pain than pleasure in our everyday lives.

Sometimes forgetting the unremitting faithfulness of God to us in the past, we focus only on the futility and frustrations of our present-day experiences. Yes, there are times when one can see no hope or cheering prospects for the future. Let us further consider how God deals with Elijah’s depression and emotional well-being. Everyone needs time out every now and then.

  1. God allowed Elijah the Prophet time to rest and receive refreshment.
  2. As he slept under a tree, suddenly an angel touched him and said, “Arise and eat.”
  3. Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So, he ate and drank and lay down again.
  4. The angel of the LORD came back the second time, touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” Elijah’s ministry was not over. God is not through with us yet.
  5. So, he arose, and ate and drank; and he was strengthened by the food that God had provided for him, sustaining him those forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
  6. The principle here is simple—to overcome stress, we need to rest our bodies. Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is not take on another project but kick back and rest. Delegate some work to your helpers; Elijah failed to take his helper with him.
  7. Elijah had spent a great deal of energy fighting for God and now he is physically and emotionally spent.

God provided for his physical needs; he provided food and water and allowed Elijah the Prophet to get much-needed rest. God did not even begin to deal with Elijah’s depression or wrong thinking until he was rested and refreshed. He confronted Elijah with truth.

Upon arriving on the mountain, Elijah took up residence in a cave. There, God began to deal with Elijah’s threefold need:

  1. He needed to face his fears. God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It was not that the Lord did not know. This question was not for God’s benefit, but for Elijah’s. The question is twofold: First, “Elijah, what are you doing?” Obviously, Elijah is in a self-imposed isolation, brooding and indulging in self-pity.
  2. The second time God asked the same question, “What are you doing here? Here is not the place I command for you. Here is not the place of blessing.” Elijah responds by saying, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” Note that Elijah completely missed the point here.
  3. God asked a present tense question, “What are you doing here?” Elijah answered with a past tense response. Everything he spoke about was in the past. Elijah the Prophet did have a tremendous past, but the question is, “What are you doing now?”

Sometimes we are so busy in the King’s business that we neglect the King. There are times life gets taxing with its stress, burdens, and pressures, and we lose our focus. We desperately need to refocus on God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” We must learn as Elijah did to look for God in the trivial things of this life.

If we pay attention, we will begin to see God in our everyday life, in a phone call of encouragement offered to someone, an unexpected kindness or a card in the mail, an answered prayer, or someone just calling or showing up at the right moment. God always speaks loudly enough for the willing ear to hear. Elijah the Prophet needed a fresh revelation from God at times, and we do as well. Just listen to the voice of God and hear His instructions for you.

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Author and Pastor Dr. Bill Reese’s extensive professional ministry pairs exhaustive theological studies with intensive community initiatives focused on behavioral health and disabilities. He has dedicated most of his time and energy to helping in behavioral health organizations and faith-based organizations. After attending Southwestern Baptist Seminary School of Theology earned his doctorate at Evangel Christian University. He is married with twelve children (nine adopted) and thirty-five grandchildren.