The Causes of Despondency
1 Kings 19:4 (NASB)
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree…
Human character is more complex than many imagine. Its elements are so diverse, and sometimes so contradictory, that only God can fairly judge it. The biographies of Scripture and the subtleties of our own hearts combine to enforce the lesson, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." We should have placed in the foremost rank the disciple who first acknowledged the divinity of our Lord, and we should have cast him out of the Church who denied his Lord with oaths and curses; yet both the one and the other were the outcome of the same character. Never was contradiction more complete than in Elijah. One day he leads a whole nation in penitence, the next he flees to save his life, as one who has thrown up all hope of Jehovah's cause. None but the pitiful and patient Father-God would have judged him aright; nor was Elijah the last to say, "Thy gentleness hath made me great." We are reminded that it is difficult to judge ourselves as well as others. On Carmel, Elijah might have thought himself invincible, and in Horeb an unmitigated coward, but he was neither. Varieties of mood must not he too much considered. They do not afford a fair index to character. We are not infidels because we pass through a phase of doubt, we are not reprobates because we are deeply conscious of sin, nor are we Christians because we enjoy a religious service. A sad and frequent experience of religious life, that of despondency, is set before us here, and we will seek to discover its causes.
I. REACTION AFTER EXCITEMENT. Great natures are peculiarly subject to this. The impulse which impels to a noble act has a rebound proportioned to its intensity. Peter and John the Baptist stand beside Elijah as exemplars of this fact. From it arises the special peril of revivalistic services. Excitement has its place and power in the advance of Christ's kingdom, but we must not substitute spasmodic feeling for steady growth.
II. EXHAUSTION OF PHYSICAL AND NERVOUS ENERGY. Even the gigantic strength of Elijah underwent a terrible strain on Carmel Anxiety, enthusiasm, burning zeal, exultation combined to agitate him, and these were doubtless preceded by many days and nights of passionate, agonizing prayer. God's provision for the prophet - the sleep that came over him, as over a tired child, the food prepared by angel hands - prove that this was recognized. Show the mutual dependence of body and mind. Neither the equable temperament of some Christians nor the excitability of others is due always to the presence or absence of Divine grace. Good food, fresh air, and change of scene would do more than religious exercises to restore tone to some who are despondent. The neglect of sanitary laws is a sin. There was far-reaching wisdom in Paul's declaration, "I keep the body under."
III. ABSENCE OF SYMPATHY. "I am left alone." "I only am left." Such was the burden of Elijah's cry. This is a special source of despondency to missionaries surrounded by the heathen. It affects also multitudes who are not so literally alone. They may have many Christians around them, but in their special work, in their peculiar difficulty, they can find none to help, or even to understand them. "Alone in a crowd" is a true description of many a disciple of Christ, who is thinking his own thoughts and fighting his own foes. Show from this the wisdom of the provision God has made in Church fellowship. Point out the causes which tend to make such communion unreal or unhelpful. Urge the cultivation of sympathy with young disciples, with obscure workers, etc.
IV. INFLUENCE OF DOUBT. The confidence of the prophet on Carmel had broken down. Jezebel had not been cowed by the sudden revulsion of popular feeling. She doubted its permanence, and at all events resolved that she would not lose heart, so Ahab and his courtiers were reassured when she swore to have revenge on Elijah. The prophet thought now that he had been too sanguine - that the one chance had come and gone without effect. Doubt paralyzed him. Doubt of God's willingness to forgive plunges the penitent into despondency. He would scarcely venture secretly into a crowd to touch the hem of Christ's garment. Doubt of God's readiness to hear and answer prayer keeps the Christian from the light of His countenance, etc.
V. INVISIBILITY OF ANTAGONISTS. Elijah could face his visible foes on Carmel without quailing - indeed, he dared to taunt them at the risk of being torn to pieces - but against this vague feeling of despair he could not hold his own. Moral battles are the hardest to fight. He who can grapple with what is tangible sometimes fails when called on to "wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities, and powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world." Some would rather run the risk of being condemned hereafter, as wicked and slothful servants, than have the certainty of being sneered at now as those who are "righteous overmuch."
VI. ENFORCED INACTIVITY. Elijah's opportunity for vigorous action seemed over. He was cast in upon his own thoughts. Few could bear it less patiently than he. The man who can dare and do anything finds it specially hard to wait and to suffer. Similar temptation to despondency comes to those who are laid aside by illness, or removed from a happy sphere of service. But that is the time to wait on the Lord, and so "renew our strength."
CONCLUSION. In all hours of despondency remember that He who knew the agony of Gethsemane and Calvary pities us, and feels for us. "We have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities," etc. - A.R.