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Depression – When We Want to Die

For many of us, “Monday morning blues” simply refers to that mild sadness many of us feel when the weekend break is over. The prospect of a long week of the daily grind brings blue feelings. However, for many ministers, Monday means something different. Monday is often the beginning of our weekend. When I was at Stonebriar Community Church, Mondays were my day off. And they were dangerous days. Why? Well, the general principle goes like this: after great victories, there are great vulnerabilities. Having just completed my Sunday lessons which were bathed in prayer, hope, anticipation, and mental sweat (not to mention the acute pressure of the delivery), it was time to (ahem) let my hair down. Monday was my “free” day to relax and reflect. But, as with all relaxing, there was some risky business involved.

David Jeremiah (whose grace and transparency I am coming to appreciate more and more), on his program Turning Point, talked about depression today. He said that in his own ministry, he has learned to be careful after great times of success. He describes how, over the years, whenever his church successfully finished a grueling building campaign, he would get down and depressed. As he puts it, “the greater the wave, the greater the valley.” When we are riding the waves in our lives that call for great attention, bringing with them great pressure and anticipation, we have a remarkable ability to gird up our loins and run the race until it is complete. But it is during those times of rest after the race that we begin to pay our dues. Our muscles tighten, our arms go above our heads to allow the expansion of our lungs and, eventually, we collapse. This collapse, for many of us, is an open door to depression.

As many of you know, I am much more timid than I used to be about depression. I live with a greater degree of fear (respect?) for what our minds can do to us. I “collapsed” a few years ago. I think there was a marathon (or wave) in my life that lasted for many years. I got married, immediately went to seminary, finished my four-year trek in two and a half, had four children, went on pastoral staff at Stonebriar Community Church, and survived my sister’s depression and suicide in 2004 and my mother’s stroke in 2006. What I did not know at the time was that I was living on borrowed energy, emotion, and hope. Where was it borrowed from? The next five or six years. In exercise, there is a technical term for this. It is called “anaerobic” (without oxygen) exercise. It is where your body works at such an intensity that it has to perform without oxygen. We can have short bursts of strength that we pay for later. However, in exercise, we normally know when to quit. We know that “Monday” is coming when we won’t be able to move a muscle. We know that we will pay for it later. It is not so easy to sense this with our emotions. We project resiliency and stability during the “anaerobic” times of our lives, but telling ourselves that this is the way we are, we expect the resiliency and stability to last indefinitely. We believe we can handle it. This can be pride (especially for us men who often don’t have to deal with chronic emotional volatility the way women do), but it can also just be ignorance.

I see this in the life of Elijah. He had his greatest victory in ministry on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18. He comes out of hiding and places his life and reputation at stake, calling on Ahab, Jezebel, and 950 prophets of other gods to put his God to the test. When the game was on the line, his sermon was winsome, challenging, and definitive. His faith did not waver as he mocked the impotency of all the other gods. Sunday was good. The wave was high. The victory was sweet. Yet 1 Kings 18 turns into 1 Kings 19. There could hardly be a greater contrast. Even as the memory of the “Sunday” victory was fresh on his mind, he begins to feel the effect of the anaerobic exercise. That “Monday,” Elijah gets a simple message from Jezebel: “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them [the dead prophets of Baal] by tomorrow about this time” (1 Kings 19:2). Elijah’s response? RUN! (1 Kings 19:3). Not only this, but he wants to die! Listen to this:

“And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Here are his steps. 1. Run (3a). 2. Fire his servant since he believed the gig was up (3b). 3. Project his Monday morning emotions onto his entire life (4a). 4. Have suicidal thoughts (4b). 5 Compare his failures to the failures of evil men who had gone before him (4c).

I can relate. Irrational? Yes. Wings like eagles? No. But this situation is common to man. This is us. After the greatest victories, we can experience the greatest defeats which may bring us to thoughts of death. I have wanted to die a time or two in the last few years. I have wanted to “fire my servant,” cut all ties, project my current emotional well-being (or lack thereof) upon everything in my life, and then say, “I am no better than the most evil of all because I give up so easy. What am I worth to you, Lord?”

The solution? I don’t know that there is one. Yes, we have to pace ourselves. Yes, we should avoid getting too high on “Sundays.” But more than anything else, we have to accept the grace of God in our fallen condition. We often work “without oxygen.” But we cannot get down on ourselves for not being able to replenish ourselves. Spent spiritual energy can only be replenished by God. Looking to our own sufficiency will only make us want to die. The angels came and fed Elijah…twice (1 Kings 19:5-7). He eventually got over his exhaustion. He was able to hear the voice of God again. Depression can muffle everything, making truth and reality unrecognizable. It makes us unable to hear, see, smell, hope, plan, much less smile, laugh, or enjoy life. But I think the most important things we can realize are that 1) this is common to the Christian, and 2) God’s grace alone replenishes us, no questions asked.

If you are down and want to die right now, I am sorry. I know how you feel. But join me in being a beggar of God. You did not have a “Sunday” because you were worthy and you will not be replenished because of anything you deserve. You will have both only because you are loved of God.

14 Responses to “Depression – When We Want to Die”

  1. Thanks, Michael.

    In my own experience the depression has been demonic and I despair quite a bit. In a few instances, I have been mindful to ask Christ to rebuke Satan (Since Christ does have all authority in heaven and in earth). I don’t think I would say that it has to be demonic, but in my situation with how much I despair, as well as Christ’s willingness to help, I’d say it often is.

    The Lord has also given me reminders of the fact that he bought me, and that I belong to him. Those have been helpful in times when Satan tempts me to despair: one is a physical reminder, and it will stand out and I am reminded by the thought that “Christ bought me: I am his, and he is mine.”

  2. I have lived with PTSD over the years from my several tours of combat, my first was the Nam, attached as a Royal Marine to the American Marine 3rd Force Recon, my last was in Gulf War 1. But God is good, it seems more and more like another life ago.

  3. Michael, after the Sunday ‘high’ of preaching Monday’s are absolutely horrible to me. I often spend much of the day crying. And this has gone on for many, many years. I’m glad that there are those (like you) who understand this phenomenon.

  4. Michael,
    Thank you for sharing your spiritual gifts with so many people for so many years…may God bless you this day with eyes that really see what a blessing you have been to others….and may God strengthen you and lift you up so that you can continue to soar like an eagle.
    “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
    They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

  5. It’s a tough life. Sometimes I wish I were dead. But He does get us through it…somehow…and we persevere.

    Hang in there!

  6. I found the book “Breaking Through Depression: A Biblical and Medical Approach to Emotional Wholeness” by Donald Hall helpful. Do you have a bibliography you recommend?

    • No. I usually just sulk and blog when I am depressed. But the best thing I did listen to when this first hit my life was a video from Tommy Nelson when he he rock bottom. I think it is on this blog somewhere. Search “Tommy Nelson depression”. It should show up.

  7. Welcome to my world. I am sorry you were not spared. I am amazed that your faith remains intact. Mine did not fare so well. How can one who is conflicted tell if they actually believe or not?

  8. Thank you for your insight, it is very helpful. Sometimes I take myself too seriously and I always try to earn God’s favor by working hard and expecting great miracles. Then I get depressed when these things don’t happen. It’s kind of foolish I guess. It very interesting to think of us overspending our spiritual and emotional energies and having to recuperate and recharge for some time after great victories and blessings.

  9. I hope this is not considered inappropriate to mention here, but I was wondering if anyone here knows of a Christian support group/network for Christians (especially ministers) who are suffering from chronic depression. In my denomination, the general attitude is that being depressed is virtually a denial of faith. That, combined with the general competitiveness that exists between pastors and my fear that secular psychiatrist or counselor might try to have me committed, makes it to where I truly have no one I feel comfortable even talking to about my chronic depression. I suffer almost daily despair, often am tormented with thoughts that I will suffer an untimely death somehow, worthlessness, hopelessness, etc.

    Over the years I have also tried several antidepressant medications, but they often made me feel like a jerk, cocky and uncaring (which I absolutely hated, and which obviously wasn’t good since I’m supposed to be a caring shepherd/pastor). If they did help, the most they really did was make me feel emotionally numb more than anything else, and after a while their efficacy seemed to wear off significantly. Alcoholism (which by God’s grace I overcame 20 years ago), severe chronic depression, bipolar, and even some cases schizophrenia all run in my family, so the very fact that I’m worried I might be losing it give me even more cause for concern, thus adding to my stress. Oftentimes the only bright spots in my day are when I interact with my beautiful wife and kids. How I thank God for them. Even still, I often fear I will have a heart attack or stroke and leave them to fend for themselves. If there is a safe, private place for strugglers like me to meet others, even if only online and anonymous, I would sincerely be interested to know about it.

    Thanks.

  10. John: I wish I knew of a support group to empower you with but I do not. I can’t imagine the desperation you must feel as you go through your day ministering to others’ needs. I have no answers other than to say that as part of the body of Christ, your suffering is my suffering as well. I will pray God’s gracious healing in your struggle. It is sad that there are so few outlets for Christian leaders to seek brotherly counsel. Have you considered seeking fellowship with another minister outside of your denomination?

  11. John,

    I have not done much research for support groups but you might check out pastorburnout.com . There is a “Pastor care” link that may be helpful and the site itself can be uplifting but a downer too with some of the stories, so be careful.
    Michael this blog is excellent and it resonates heavily with me now as I am on the down swing of a huge push in ministry for several years with out a break 9dark night of the soul). Just being aware of this has helped me know I’m not alone.
    Nick

  12. I too struggle daily with this. Oh how I want to just die and leave my self behind. But I had a thought the other day, in a small group study, while thinking of how to help a father deal with a despairing child – I felt like it was a breakthrough in awareness, a paradigm shift, for me – permitting me to see the redemptive purpose of God in deep psychological/emotional struggle. It was the illustration of deep plowing – the carving out of deep paths in her heart and mind to make way for the planting of His own substance – that which could not possibly come in any other way. The words came screaming my mind “then why don’t you try to ‘consider it all joy’ because this testing of your faith, Tom, IS producing something far greater than the performance you want to see in your life” (a performance which I feel I cannot right now because the anguish is so disabling). The old illustration came to mind of God planting an acorn in a rock – then challenging it with wind, cold, and drought in order to build it into a mighty tree able to stand an proclaim His wisdom in choosing it and strength in protecting it. Hold on brother – the depth is the objective – do not turn from it – face it, embrace it and see how it makes you stand taller. The way up is down. Jesus stood reality on its head and he wants to do the same for us.

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