Practical biblical advice for despair

Elijah is one of the outstanding characters of the Old Testament. His epic contest with the false prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel is the high point of his career (see 1 Kings chapter 18). But Jezebel cuts short any celebration of victory, threatening Elijah with death when she catches him. So he runs for his life. I can understand that, I’d skip the country too.

He also becomes quite bummed out by the whole situation, seeing no hope for himself or the nation.

There is plenty of speculation that Elijah was depressed at this time. I’m wary of projecting 21st century psychological ideas onto a person who lived 2,800 years ago. We only have an outline of the highlights of Elijah’s life and that’s not enough information to base a diagnosis on.

Elijah goes from outstanding courage in chapter 18 to despair in chapter 19. Despair is a bad headspace to be in and one current tool used in combating it is summed up with the acronym HALT. This stands for:

  • Hungry
  • Angry (or afraid)
  • Lonely
  • Tired

I can see all of these in Elijah.

He was hungry, so an angel provided food for him. He was afraid to he ran 200km (120 miles) to get away from Jezebel (he was probably also angry at her). He was lonely, telling God he was the only prophet left. And he was tired, sleeping under a broom tree in the desert. He was so fed up that he asked God to take his life.

The idea behind this acronym is that when we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or any combination of the four, our actions, reactions, and choices can be coloured by how we are feeling. If I am feeling tired, angry or hungry, I am more likely to over react to irritations and inconveniences. By being aware of this I can try to address these things, making it easier to constructively cope with things I don’t have control over.

It seems that God did this for Elijah – he slept, then an angel woke him to eat some food, let him sleep some more and provided more food (1 Kings 19:5–7). Then Elijah took a long walk and was reassured that he was safe and would be given someone to take over the burden of being a prophet from him (1 Kings 19:15–17). God showed him that spectacular signs were not what he needed (1 Kings 19:12). The outworking of seemingly ordinary events under God’s control would fulfill God’s plans.

This is a good reminder to me when I am feeling down and just want a way out. The way out of my current situation is by living through it and God will answer my prayers within the bounds of the ‘ordinary’.

Sometimes when life sucks I just need to have some dinner and get an early night. Once I am fed, rested, and have connected with those I love, I’m better able to seek God.


Elijah-Daniele_da_Volterra
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Image: The Prophet Elijah by Daniele da Volterra, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scripture references:

Ref 1 Kings 19:1-14 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how qhe had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to sBeersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. tAnd he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food uforty days and forty nights to vHoreb, the mount of God. The Lord Speaks to Elijah There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, wthe word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very xjealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, ythrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, aand I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and ca great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind dan 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 the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, ehe wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, fthere came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (ESV)

Prepare now for your next spiritual drought

Farmer working in the fields with tractor.

Have you ever tried to read the Bible only to realise that after ten minutes you have not taken in a word? Or spent time with your eyes closed attempting to pray but really chasing anxious thoughts as if herding cats?

It is normal to go through seasons of spiritual dryness. Times when prayer and Bible reading become exercises in raw discipline or diminish to nothing. None of us want to remain in such a barren place, but how long we have to endure is God’s call, not ours.

I think it is good to always attempt to nurture your relationship with God, even when it feels as if you are just ‘going through the motions’. I also think it is valuable to accept the barren season for what it is and not heap guilt upon yourself when the going gets tough.

After many cycles of spiritual growth and dryness in my own life, I have learned the value of ‘banking’ spiritual graces. I now try to fill up with the disciplines of Bible reading, memorization, and prayer during my times of plenty. This gives me a reserve to draw upon when it is difficult to read the Bible and God seems distant.

In seasons of growth, make the most of it. Farmers use the growth seasons of spring and summer to make hay to feed their stock through the dark winter months. Be wise and use easy times (or even just ‘normal’ periods) to grow spiritually. Hard times will come again and once they arrive it is too late to start building spiritual condition.

When the fight is difficult, it is enough to stand (Ephesians 6:13).

If you are able to read the Bible today, do so. If you can pray even a little, take the opportunity to come into God’s presence. Go to church, or homegroup, even if it is tiresome or inconvenient. The day will come when you will wish you had done all this much more.


Scripture references:

Ephesians 6:13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (ESV)