Sermon 46




Fight Depression

1 Kings 19:4

August 23, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our reading from 1 Kings 19 we are ushered into a therapy session between Elijah, the famous prophet of Israel, and God himself. And we learn from this encounter that we must never give in to our despair – but fight against it with everything that’s in us.


Elijah’s Depression

In these verses God shows Elijah how to fight against his despair, darkness, sorrow, sadness and depression – without the aid of any drugs or medicines. That isn’t because the Bible opposes the use of medicines or psychotropic drugs. We know, after all, that leprosy, for instance, was healed by prayer – but also with the use of cedar wood, scarlet thread and hyssop (Leviticus 14:1-9) – which were the medicines of that day. And we know that Jesus not only healed by means of his Word – but also with the use of poultices or mudpacks, which he put on those blind eyes (John 9:6-7).

     No, the reason medicines weren’t used for Elijah was because another feature of depression was being treated – and that was anger. For unresolved anger can also make us depressed – for “depression can easily erupt as rage” [Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) p. 180]. And so “many depressed people have particular trouble with anger” [Richard O’Connor, Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You (1997) p. 92]. What happens is that we get upset because events or people cross us – and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we stew, and turn inward, and descend into despair. This is what Elijah did – he hid in a cave in the wilderness and wished he could die (1 Kings 19:4, 9).

     Elijah was mad because God had not blessed him for risking his life when standing up for the truth against King Ahab (1 Kings 18:18-40). Do you remember what Ahab did? He caved into his pagan wife, Jezebel (1 Kings 21:25), and advanced the evil ways of the false god, Ba’al, throughout all of Israel – thereby doing “more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel, who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). So Elijah, that “troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17), rightly took a stand against the king and warned that if a turnabout didn’t happen soon, God would strike him down, along with his wife – leaving them both to be eaten by dogs (1 Kings 21:24; 2 Kings 9:33-37). That threat enraged the king and his wayward wife – and so Jezebel set out to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). As a result, Elijah was on the run to save his life. And he despaired that he was alone, under threat, and with none to help, comfort or protect him.

     But rather than giving him drugs to lift his spirits, the angel of the Lord simply admonishes Elijah – “Get up and eat,” get busy, get to work (1 Kings 19:5, 15). The anger just isn’t worth it (James 1:20). And furthermore there’s a compatriot for him – Elisha, who will support and eventually will take over for him (1 Kings 19:21).


Lift Your Drooping Hands

The New Testament pursues this same sort of approach to depression. We’re told to follow Jesus in order to jump-start our fight against depression. Look to Jesus, we’re admonished,


who... endured the cross, despising the shame.... Consider him who endured... such hostility against himself so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.... Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees (Hebrews 12:2-4, 12).


These are striking words – accusing us of complaining long before we’ve shed any blood as our Lord did! (Matthew 10:24-25). So we’re just “softies” (Luther’s Works 14:49) – looking for the easy way out, instead of pursuing the hard truth of God (LW 11:58) and loving it (Romans 1:18; Galatians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12; 2 Timothy 1:13-14). There’s hardly a more condemning and upsetting verse in all the Bible! So against our sheepishness, we’re admonished simply to stand up and tough-it-out – “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” That’s it – there’s nothing more or less to the therapy given in the New Testament.


Luther’s Anfechtung

And Luther also fought against despair or Anfechtung, as he called it (LW 44:63). In spite of having the joy of Christ in his heart (LW 31:190), he knew very well about a troubling internal turmoil (LW 24:399-401). He knew life could be a “vale of tears” (LW 28:122). He knew that “the power of grief” can be so great that it can kill many and be “more penetrating than any sword” (LW 8:13). So it has been rightly said of Luther [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (1989) p. 324] that he was


haunted by anguish.... [since he knew that] the Gospel is not merely too complex to grasp; [but] is repugnant to everyone whose conscience seeks justification in works!... We can search for a psychological explanation for these dark days.... [But Luther] was a highly sensitive human being afflicted by living in two eras at once, a disorder that physicians or psychiatrists might be able to ameliorate but cannot cure.


Luther despaired because he was angry with the church – and because he knew there was little he could do about it. What was he, after all, against the whole Holy Roman Empire? He was running up against insurmountable odds! So he, like Elijah, wished he could crawl into a hole and hide. Anger and helplessness can lead to such darkness and despair. Fed up with his ineffectiveness, Luther cried out at the beginning of his Large Catechism (1529) [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) pp. 358-359]:


The common people take the Gospel altogether too lightly, and even our utmost exertions accomplish but little.... [And the pastors,] like pigs and dogs,... remember no more of the Gospel than this rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty.


And he could even despair, the following year, of preaching itself, a calling he usually loved. “Daily,” he says, “the people become more obdurate, mocking, and spiteful” (LW 23:362). And he goes on to say elsewhere:


I would rather hear no other news than that I had been deposed from the preaching office. I am so very tired of it, [because of] the great ingratitude of the people, but much more because of the unbearable hardships which the devil and the world deal... me (LW 34:50).


Then in a fit of rage, or so it seems, he says that “God appears to be the biggest fool of all” because he tries “to accomplish His purposes by means of... preaching.... But He gets nowhere. [And] he has this coming.... Why does he not change His tactics? If I were the Lord God I would use my fists” (LW 23:382)!

     Then three years later he sizes up the situation differently. Then he says (Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug, 2:131):


Sad to say, the godless world does not believe,.... and treats the... messengers like dirt under feet. That is not for the world’s good. But it is good for us who are proclaiming that Word, lest we become proud and arrogate to ourselves powers that are not ours to have. [This] fact.... keeps us... humble. Otherwise, if the worldlings did believe the Word and bestowed great honors on us,... we might become proud and damned.


Yet even this note of resignation has a despairing tone to it. So while he makes some gains, Luther continues to lament his lot.


Stop Brooding

But later that year, when writing on his beloved Psalm 118, his tone changes – becoming more triumphant in his admonitions:


Do not sit by yourself or lie on your couch, hanging and shaking your head. Do not destroy yourself with your own thoughts by worrying. Do not strive and struggle to free yourself, and do not brood on your wretchedness... and misery. Say to yourself: “Come on, you lazy bum; down on your knees, and lift your eyes and hands toward heaven!” Read a psalm or the Our Father, call on God, and tearfully lay your troubles before Him. Mourn and pray.... [For] praying, reciting your troubles, and lifting up your hands are sacrifices most pleasing to God. It is His desire... that you lay your troubles before Him. He does not want you to multiply your troubles by burdening and torturing yourself.... He wants you to grow strong in Him. By His strength He is glorified in you. Out of such experiences men become real Christians (LW 14:60-61).


This great passage from Luther’s pen tell us how to become true Christians. He hits us hard and then quickly comforts us with tender compassion. You lazy bums, he yells! Open up to God – for he will not turn away from you. Do that, rather than chewing at your souls like a frenzied dog with a bone. For being irascible isn’t our preferred mode of interaction (BC, pp. 445, 390). Do that, knowing that God will strengthen you when you submit to him. Do that, knowing that God himself is glorified when you are strengthened.


Greater Than Our Experience

But will this work? Can we bow down and pray as we should? It is so easy for us to slip back into the darkness – even when we’re trying to pull ourselves up and out of that despair. For if we stay with our experiences of sadness, in order to combat those feelings, it’s easy to fall back into them repeatedly. For while we’re fighting against the darkness and despair, depression continues to surround us. And though we fight diligently, we still remain in that sea of sadness – with no light shining at the end of the tunnel.

     But that doesn’t spell failure. That doesn’t mean we have no where to turn when we’re sad. No, we haven’t come to the end of our proverbial rope just yet. No, there is more than sheer darkness. Indeed, we still have the glorious words from Ephesians 5:2:


Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant sacrifice to God.


Here we have something beyond our experience of despair. Here we have something to keep us from slipping back again into the darkness. Rather than relying on ourselves to dig ourselves out of the hole of depression, we have another. Now we can look elsewhere and see what’s for us and irreversibly good. Now we can look to Christ who offered up his life as a sacrifice for sin, to God the Father. All of this is certain. Just as time cannot be reversed, so that the American Civil War, for instance, never happened, so the sacrifice of Christ is certain and sure. It can’t either be erased from history. But that doesn’t mean we can’t belittle it, forget it, neglect it, reject it, or disbelieve it. We can still do that to Christ’s sacrifice for us. But if we do, the sacrifice will still stand. And it also remains certain that God has not rejected the sacrifice of his Son, but accepted it as a fragrant offering, satisfying (Isaiah 53:11) the just requirements of the law with its legal demands (Romans 8:4; Colossians 2:14) that stood against us because of our disobedience, rebellion and sin.

     This is the good news that cannot be found anywhere else (John 6:68; Luke 10:42; Acts 4:12). Regardless if we believe in it or not, it still stands. It lasts forever – “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 9:26; 13:8). Because of this sacrifice of Jesus, and God’s ratification of it, the blood of Jesus saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). And if we believe in that message (John 3:36; Romans 3:25), and entrust our lives to Christ’s care (John 10:4, 9, 27-28), then we will no longer have to fear the threats and wrath of God (LW 13:376). Thanks be to God!


Being Drawn to Christ

But how shall we believe in Christ and entrust our lives to his care? We cannot push ourselves into belief. We cannot force ourselves to follow the Lord Jesus. That would be like trying to get a plant to grow up by pulling on it [Gerhard O. Forde, The Preached God (2007) p. 141] – something everyone knows is stupid.

     What has to happen is that God must draw us into Christ (John 6:44). That would be like Christ entering through the closed doors of our hearts, as he did through those closed doors when the disciples were in hiding long ago (John 20:19, 26; Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, §5:5313). Such drawing and entering – unlike our casual picking and choosing – is traumatic. Therefore it would be right to say that this new birth of faith comes “amid penitence” (BC, p. 164). That’s because penitence means admitting that we’re wrong and God is right (LW 51:318). So tribulation is our avenue into faith (Acts 14:22). Tough times don’t mean, then, that God has abandoned us – they instead mean that he is “pressing [us] to His heart” (LW 6:149)! So for us to have the ability to believe, we have to see that we are not “capable of faith” (LW 51:110). This miraculous shift (LW 33:98) from incapacity to ability, happens at the cross of Christ – for it is there that we’re drawn to him (John 12:32). For indeed, if you see in


the blood and wounds and death of Christ,.... that God is so kindly disposed toward you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart in turn must grow sweet and disposed toward God (LW 44:38).


This means that in our life of faith, “unimagined delights [sneak] in when brokenhearted” (see my memoir in “That’s All They Wrote,” Seattle P-I, March 24, 2008). From this sequence we see that we cannot believe on our own, but only when God “gathers” us to himself – and by himself (BC, p. 335).

     And while waiting for faith to spring up, we don’t have to sit on our hands. “You can fall down... and complain to God of your inability; and say,.... my flesh, alas, will not submit; therefore help my unbelief that I may honor thy name and hold thy Word to be true” (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker, 2:259).


Rely on the Supper

All of you, then, who have heard these words and believe in them, come to the Sacrament of the Altar in thanksgiving, and eat of the bread and drink of the cup – knowing that Christ is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine of this holy Supper, so that his abundant life might dwell in you (John 6:53, 10:10).

     Don’t miss out on this blessing. Come and receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is here that your faith “may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle but grow continually stronger” (BC, p. 449). Rely on this gift – and not on yourself. Rely on it rather than on the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and his influential essay on self-reliance. Don’t trust him when he says [Essays: First and Second Series (1993) pp. 26, 45, 48]:


Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.... Obey thy heart.... Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.


Don’t believe in these words. Rely instead on those sacred words in John 6:53 – “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”


Be Radiant

And when we leave worship today, do good works in the name of Christ, our Savior. Out of gratitude, let us serve him (BC, p. 413). Psalm 34:5 tells us to “look upon the Lord and be radiant,” נהר, or nahar. This is like unto Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” So shine brightly and be radiant – nahar. But what does this mean? We in the Lutheran Church are blessed to have Luther as our “most eminent teacher” (BC, p. 576) – so let us listen to what he says this verse is telling us:


What He calls “good works” here is the... teaching about Christ and faith, and the suffering for its sake. He is talking about works by which we “shine”; but shining is the real job of believing and teaching, by which we also help others believe.... [Here we have] the distinctly Christian work of teaching correctly, of stressing faith, and of showing how to strengthen and preserve it; this is how we testify that we really are Christians.... Thus the most reliable index to a true Christian is this: if from the way he praises and preaches Christ the people learn that they are nothing and that Christ is everything (LW 21:65-66).


So be radiant – and see to it that you are nothing and Christ is everything (John 3:30). Be radiant – and give God all the glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Be radiant – and work to strengthen and preserve the faith in Christ Jesus by fighting against depression. Call on God for help to get this done – for you’ll need it (John 15:5). Call on him for wisdom and compassion to be radiant in just the right ways. And he’ll answer you because he wants you to be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13), and to serve him in his kingdom (Luke 10:2). Rejoice in the Lord because of his power and goodness, wisdom and mercy (Revelation 5:12). For through his divine help we can serve him as we should – which today we’ve seen includes fighting against depression. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)