Monday, 13 March 2017

Elijah’s mental meltdown and what it teaches us about God

I gave the following talk at the CMF Cambridge Day conference (an event for Christian doctors and lawyers) on Saturday 11 March 2017. The talk is based on the prophet Elijah’s mental meltdown as described in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

I wonder what some of your more stressful experiences have been -  for me a few stand out.

Being rescued by helicopter in the Scottish Highlands last summer attempting to scale a (relatively minor) Munro

Being rescued by police launch off the Coromandel coast in New Zealand after a capsize on a Scripture Union leaders canoe trip.

Rolling my mother’s car down a bank a few days later on the same trip with four people on board.

I’m not sure what was more stressful - anticipating major injury and/or death as the car turned or having to break the news about the state of the car to my mother afterwards.

Or maybe it was taking a young man with a ruptured spleen, following a renal biopsy that had gone wrong, over the Auckland Harbour Bridge in gridlocked rush-hour traffic as he slowly bled out in the back of an ambulance.

What made that one particularly stressful was that he was the son of one of my former bosses. Thankfully, he also was saved.

Well, I’m sure we can trade stories over coffee later.

But for me the common thread in all these experiences was that the stressful situation was completely beyond my control and power to rectify but also that I felt deeply responsible even if not all of these incidents were entirely my own fault.

We do have this expectation that Christians under great stress will sail through difficult circumstances without ruffling their feathers, and certainly without “losing it”.

We know that we are “not to be anxious about anything”, but rather experience “the peace of God that passes understanding” in all circumstances. And we can be very hard on ourselves when events push us beyond the limit.

I don’t know about you, but I derive huge comfort from the fact that some of the greatest heroes of faith were tested apparently way beyond their ability to endure and did actually “lose it”. And in those situations they said some quite extraordinary things about the Lord and even to the Lord.

Consider some of these:

‘We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8) – the apostle Paul

‘The word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach day-long... Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?’ (Jeremiah 20:8, 18) – the prophet Jeremiah

‘I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.’ (Numbers 11:14,15) – the prophet Moses

‘All was well with me, but he shattered me: he seized me by the neck and crushed me.’ (Job 16:12) – Job

‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, with there is no foothold.’ (Psalm 69:1,2) – King David

‘We were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within.’ (2 Corinthians 7:5) – the apostle Paul

‘I have laboured to no purpose; I’ve spent my strength and for nothing.’ (Isaiah 49:4) – the prophet Isaiah

The last of these is particularly striking as it comes from the first of Isaiah’s four ‘Servant Songs’ which look forward to the coming of Christ. So the very clear implication is that Jesus himself would feel this too.

So it shouldn’t surprise us to see that the Bible has quite a lot to say about stress.

We might attack this subject biblically in a variety of ways. But I want today to focus on one character who faced an unbelievable amount of stress and came through it with God’s help.

I’ve chosen Elijah for several reasons.

First, because he was a remarkable man of God who suffered extraordinary pressure. Alongside Moses, he was arguably the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. It’s telling that he appears with Moses at Christ’s transfiguration and that John the Baptist is described as “the Elijah who was to come”.

Second, because of the obvious similarities between the role of the Prophet and the role of a doctor or lawyer. Like a prophet, doctors and lawyers have privileged information, special powers and high accountability for the way that we use them.

Third, because the time Elijah lived was remarkably similar to ours. There was widespread unbelief, apostasy, immorality and very little tolerance of genuine believers.

Finally, James tells us that he was “a man just like us”.

The passage we have just heard read is set in one of the darkest times of Israel’s history. The northern kingdom is under the rule of King Ahab, the son of Omri, who had seized power in a military coup. 

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a Sidonian Princess who had introduced Baal worship and attempted to kill off all the Lord’s prophets. Obadiah, who was in charge of Ahab’s palace, had managed to hide a hundred prophets in caves. But Elijah had sought refuge in the wilderness.

Under God’s instruction, he had returned to confront Ahab and had called 450 prophets of Baal to meet him on Mount Carmel where he arranged a contest to demonstrate whose God was more powerful.

The prophets of Baal had sacrificed a bull, and in response to Elijah’s challenge had called on their God to answer with fire, but to no avail.

When Elijah sacrificed a bull on a second altar and called upon Jehovah, he answered with fire which not only burned up the sacrifice, the wood the stones and the soil, but also licked up water from a trench which Elijah had dug around it to make the task that much harder.

It was a stupendous result and Elijah had then taken the 450 prophets of Baal down to the Kishon River and slaughtered them there. His prayers then brought a three-year drought to a rapid end.

Jezebel, not surprisingly, was none too pleased and when she breathed death threats against Elijah he was afraid and ran for his life, as we have just read in the passage from 1 Kings 19.

In considering this passage I want to look at the specific stressors that Elijah faced, the clinical features of his meltdown, the positive aspects of his response and God’s prescription for his recovery.

So first, the specific stressors that Elijah faced:

The first stressor was internal: Elijah’s own determination to be faithful to the Lord. Had he chosen to escape, migrate, remain silent or otherwise just keep his head down he could have saved himself a huge amount of trouble. But as he says in verse 10 and 14, “I have been zealous for the Lord Almighty”. And he most certainly had been.

It was true that he had confronted the king on more than one occasion, obeyed the Lord in praying for drought, tended to the widow of Zarephath at a time when he himself was under attack, and finally taken on 450 prophets in a fight to the death. How often do we avoid potentially difficult or embarrassing situations through small compromises and subtle denials of Christ, perhaps by telling ourselves that this is neither the time nor the place to speak out. Elijah was determined to be faithful no matter what.

The second stressor was the rejection of God’s laws. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant”, he said. He confronts Ahab in 18:18: “you have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals”. The false religion that Elijah confronted had three major features: sexual immorality, the shedding of innocent blood and the undermining of civil liberties. These were the three characteristics of all Canaanite religion, but they are also the features of almost every ideology which seeks to dethrone the God of the Bible: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, paganism but also interestingly secular humanism: sexual immorality, the shedding of innocent blood (abortion on an industrial scale) and the undermining of Christian civil liberties.

The third stressor was the divorce of public worship from public life. They have “broken down your altars” says Elijah to the Lord. Those Israelites who had compromised with Baal worship had mixed in its idolatrous elements with their worship of Yahweh. In 2 Kings 17:40,41 we read God’s final verdict on the northern kingdom after its destruction by the Assyrians. “Even while these people were worshipping the Lord, they were serving their idols.”  They had, in Paul’s words to Timothy, “a form of godliness but denying its power”. Or in the words of Isaiah, they spread out their hands in prayer, but their hands were full of blood.

The fourth stressor was the suppression of truth. The prophets were put to death. They were silenced. Similarly, in our own society we are seeing an increasing level of hostility to Christian faith and values with Christian believers being gagged in the name of this suffocating political correctness. The recent case of Mike Overd, who was convicted simply for reading the Bible in the course of street preaching, is a case in point. Astounding that the Archdeacon of Oxford could call in response for a ban on street preaching. In Britain! Among Overd’s alleged indiscretions were claiming that Jesus was the only way to God and that sexual acts outside lifelong heterosexual marriage were morally wrong.

Next was the scarcity of obvious believers, such that Elijah could say “I am the only one left”. This was no delusion but simply what he experienced. He confronted Ahab alone and he met the prophets of Baal alone. He did not know about the hundred prophets of Jehovah that Obadiah had hidden, nor of the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Part of the cost of being faithful to God in a society such as ours, is that we will find ourselves not infrequently in a minority of one. And this pressure will be faced at all ages. A good friend was telling me the other day of his seven-year-old grandson coming home from school after a lesson on “transgender” and saying that he was the only Christian boy in his class of 30.

Finally, was the stressor of discrimination against practising believers: ostracism, misunderstanding, loss of reputation, job, career, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and ultimately loss of life.

So, these were some of the stressors that Elijah faced, all of which we face in some measure in post-Christian Britain today.

So what were the clinical features of Elijah’s meltdown?

Fear - He was afraid of what might happen to him and went into hiding.

Withdrawal - He sought to avoid any further confrontation.

Lack of energy - He was physically and emotionally exhausted.

Despite his great success, he entertained suicidal thoughts: “take my life; I’m no better than my ancestors”.

He was selective in his memory. We see him concentrating on all the things that have gone wrong: “they have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your profits to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

No apparent recollection here of God’s extraordinary faithfulness to him in so many ways over the previous few years: fed by ravens, manufacturing oil from nothing for a widow who couldn’t pay her debts, raising her child from the dead, causing and then dramatically ending a three-year drought, and then that amazing victory over the prophets of Baal.

Fear, withdrawal, physical and mental exhaustion, selective memory and desire for it all to end.

Psychiatrists will argue about whether this was a case of burnout or just an acute stress reaction, and I’ll leave that to the experts to unpack later. But certainly Elijah had been subject to heavy prolonged stress and this was a major meltdown.

So what were the strengths of Elijah’s response?

It is striking that through all of this he kept communicating with God. It wasn’t “I’ve had enough, I’m ending my life, goodbye cruel world”. It was rather “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I’m no better than my ancestors.” He even recognised that he could not commit suicide, that his only hope of death was if God intervened to take his life. We see this open, honest communication with God throughout Scripture in great men and women of God: the Psalms of David, Jeremiah’s self-destruct passage we quoted from earlier, Moses’ total meltdown in the face of overwhelming responsibility. None of them hide their feelings from God or toward God. Rather they are in constant communication with him through it all.

Note also that even in the midst of it Elijah is remembering God’s promises. It is striking that the two places he visits during his flight - Beersheba and Horeb - are places of God’s revelation. He wants to hear God’s voice. He is seeking a message and a refilling with God’s power. Beersheba was where God appeared to Isaac and declared “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bless you.” It was in exactly the same place, Beersheba, that God spoke to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt. I will go down with you.”

Horeb was of course where Moses received the then Commandments. Do we, and at times of greatest need return to God’s promises, remember his past faithfulness to us, and seek his voice afresh?

Note also, that Elijah willingly submits to God’s scrutiny: “what are you doing here, Elijah?” The Lord specialises in questions that cut right to the heart. From the earliest pages of Genesis we see this: “Who told you that you were naked?” “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” “Where is your brother?” He questions Job after his trials for three whole chapters? 

And of course Jesus did much of this teaching through asking searching questions. David submits to God’s Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is one thing to desire God’s help. It can be quite another actually to let him search us in order to help us.

Finally, what was God’s prescription for Elijah?

We don’t find any trace of rebuke, condemnation or instructions to pull himself together. God’s response is gentle, measured and sequential.

It is at first, entirely practical and simple: food, rest and solitude. He ministers to Elijah’s physical needs. Lack of food and rest can distort one’s perception of reality and impair one’s ability to cope. One of the first lessons I learnt as a junior doctor on call was to make sure, even on a busy take, that I made time to eat. One of the first statements in the Lord’s prayer is “give us this day our daily bread”. One of my favourite verses for busy doctors is Luke 5:16: “the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Food, rest and solitude.

Next, God urged reflection: he twice asks in different locations, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” (v9 and 13) The question on each occasion elicits the same response: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” In answering the questions, Elijah is prompted to remind himself that he’s in this situation precisely because he was trying to be faithful to God, and also to remind himself that he had, in fact, faced extraordinary trials. In so reminding himself he is beginning to understand the genuine reasons for his stress, good reasons. He comes to see that his stress is completely understandable and appropriate. God urged reflection.

Next, God reminds him of his power. Elijah had to some extent forgotten who he was working for and what he had already been used to do. These reminders are dramatic. We see a great and powerful wind tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks. Then an earthquake. Then the fire. Then a gentle whisper. Then more questions. Elijah is beginning to know again the peace that passes understanding. To be still and know that God is God.

But God is not finished with him yet. Next comes his recommissioning in verse 15: “go back the way you came, and go to the desert of Damascus. When you get there anoint Hazael king over Aram. Anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet”. It is striking that these tasks all involve the equipping of others, because although Elijah was used mightily to start the fightback against Baal-inspired apostasy it was a task that could only be fully accomplished with the help of others.

It’s somewhat ironic that Elijah only anointed the last of these three - Elisha. Perhaps, he already had an inkling of the extraordinary destruction against his own people that both Hazael and Jehu would unleash. We are not told but we do learn in the subsequent chapters that some of Elijah’s greatest work is yet to come. God had not finished with him. Rather, he was learning like the Apostle Paul that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness”, that God “comforts us in our distress so that we might in turn comfort others” and that “these things happen that we might rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”.

Every man and woman of God who is used mightily needs preparation in the crucible of trial. Even the Lord Jesus, we are told, “learned obedience through what he suffered”. Not that he was ever disobedient, but rather that his trials prepared him ultimately for the cross that won our salvation, and that in the midst of them he was sustained by that “joy that was set before him”. In small measure, Elijah’s suffering was to aid the salvation of a chosen remnant.

Which brings us to the next element of God’s prescription: reinforcements. Although Elijah had faced Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal alone, he was not actually alone. There were 7000 others who had not bowed the knee to Baal, who had not compromised and who would ultimately stand alongside him and be that faithful remnant who God would use in coming days.

It’s a reminder for us that however alone and isolated we may feel in the battles we face, that a multitude of Christian brothers and sisters too great for anyone to count is being kept similarly faithful in their small corners of the vineyard all around the world. And that one day we will stand with all of them drawn from throughout the ages before the throne of Christ.

Finally, Elijah is reminded of God’s sovereignty. It is the Lord who is in control of this great drama working it all out to a glorious conclusion. Because Elijah, one of the greatest prophets who ever lived, points forward to that “Elijah who was to come”, John the Baptist. Just as Elijah was to point out and introduce to the world Elisha who would follow him and surpass him, so John the Baptist would point Jesus out to his disciples and declare “I must decrease and he must increase “.

Because, Elijah would stand with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration witnessing to Peter, James and John just who Jesus was. And Elijah, like all of us, would ultimately join in Christ’s victory procession at the end of the age through the shedding of Christ’s blood and the power of his glorious resurrection.

So, I hope this short reflection on a life of faith once lived in the face of extraordinary pressure will serve as encouragement to us as we begin this day on “burnout or resilience”.

That we will bear in the mind, in the light of the stresses that we face as believers today, the need to keep communication open with God, to remember his promises and past faithfulness and to submit to his searching questions.

That we will seek wisely to ensure that our physical needs of food, sleep and solitude are met.

That we take time out regularly.

That we reflect on the reasons for our stress.

That we are reminded of God’s extraordinary power made perfect in weakness.

That we are ready to be recommissioned once filled afresh with his spirit.

That we seek to involve others and share our load.

And finally that we never forget that God is utterly sovereign, completely in control and working all things both for our good, and toward a glorious and certain conclusion.

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