Published 20th December 2020
Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that millions of people in London and the South East of England will not be allowed to see family on Christmas, and for the rest of the UK, household mixing will be restricted to just Christmas Day. Ending a year marked by pain and suffering, with essentially the cancellation of Christmas, has felt like a punch in the face. I am still processing the announcement, having not seen any of my immediate family in person since Christmas last year.
If 2020 has been marked by pain and suffering, I think Christmas this year is going to be sadly marked by loneliness- from the many to who have tragically lost loved ones this year, to those who cannot visit family, to the many spending Christmas in solitude.
I don’t pretend to have any particular cures or remedies for loneliness and isolation. Nor do I pretend to have any particularly wise insights. But over the past few months, I have found myself periodically going back to a particular passage from the bible. It is an unusual one, that never gets wheeled out at church Carol Services. But it has nonetheless helped me process and deal with the loneliness that I have struggled with during this pandemic year. As we enter this lonely Christmas week, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the passage. This is an unusual blog for me. I don’t have any philosophers to quote, or empirical studies to reference, or controversial topics to stick my foot into. This blog is simply my ponderings on 1 Kings 19:3-15.
Elijah in the Wilderness
3 Elijah was afraidand ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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.”
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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.”
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.
Elijah is on the run for his life. In the previous chapter, he has won a spectacular showdown against the pagan prophets of Baal, undermining the authority and religion of the powerful Queen Jezebel. Jezebel responds by vowing to kill Elijah, so fearful for his life, Elijah runs for the wilderness. Alone in the desert, he prays to God asking God to kill him, saying “I have had enough, Lord…Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (v4), and twice he reminds God “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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.” (v10, 14). Elijah is alone, isolated, frightened and depressed. So how does God respond?
1. Eat Up (v5-8)
Elijah’s pilgrimage into the wilderness doesn’t start with a vision, or revelation from God, or a miracle. It begins with a nap: “Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep” (v5). Elijah is then awoken by an angel, and when he awakes, he finds a meal of bread and water, with instructions to “Get up and eat”.
On a basic level, I think there is a lesson here about the simple value of sleeping and eating. I know that when I have gone through periods of emotional turmoil or life stress, my eating and sleeping patterns are quick to go out of the window. And yet healthy eating and regular sleep can be vital for maintaining one’s mental health, especially in times of isolation, when we lose the rhythms of work and social life.
These verses also show God’s kindness and care for Elijah’s physical needs. When Elijah cries out for God to end his life, God doesn’t give him a sermon; he gives him a supper. The God of the bible is a God who always provides for the needs of His children, in the midst of their loneliness.
2. Look Up (v9-13)
After his sleep and meal, God’s sends Elijah to Mount Horeb: “Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God… The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (v8, 11).
Elijah ascends the mountain and is instructed to stand on the mountain top, to watch the manifestation of the presence of God. God lifts Elijah’s eyes out from his own struggles and loneliness, to let him see the bigger world, and the bigger picture in which Elijah stands. This is what psychiatrists sometimes call the strategy of “de-centring”. De-centring involves encouraging patients to “step outside of one’s immediate experience”, and concentrate less on introspection and on their own struggles and problems, but instead to practise outward-looking attitudes such as gratitude, empathy, awe and perspective.
When I am lonely and isolated, I get trapped in my own thoughts, and my personal struggles become my entire world. I first learned about “de-centring” from my psychiatrist friend Glynn Harrison about a month ago; I have found it very helpful as I’ve struggled with isolation. Consciously concentrating on the good and wonderful gifts God has given me, from my friends, to my work, to my material possessions, to the lessons the pandemic has taught me, has helped me look outwards and upwards rather than inwards and downwards, as I try to not get consumed by my own feelings of loneliness.
3. Get Up (v15)
This little passage ends with God’s re-commissioning of Elijah for prophetic ministry: “The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.”
Following the sleep, meal, and mountaintop experience of His presence, God then concludes by reminding Elijah of the work that needs to be done. Elijah may be alone, but he is still part of God’s great work in the world. As I reflect on this year, I am quite stunned by the number of gospel opportunities God has given me through this pandemic, from appearing on Premier Christian Radio, to the Speak Life podcast, to being invited to speak at more Christian Union and church outreach events than ever before, all from the comfort of my own flat. And that is not even mentioning preaching at my friends’ wedding, which has been viewed nearly 700 times on youtube. I am convinced God is at work in this pandemic. And this fact should encourage us, spurring us on, through the isolation and darkness of lockdown, and toward the joys of serving Christ in this world.
At the start of December, I preached at the RVC Carol Service, where I said: “This year, of all years, doesn’t Christmas seem all the more precious? With the year we’ve all had, doesn’t it feel like we need Christmas more than ever?” It feels almost cruel to repeat it, now that Christmas for many including me, lies in tatters.
I still don’t know how I’m going to cope with the new Christmas restrictions. But I do believe in a God who cares for the lonely. And through the story of Elijah, God reminds us, in solitude, to care for our physical health, look up and out rather than being consumed by our own thoughts, and to remember the parts we play in God’s great work in the world. These truths have been balms to my aching soul this year. I hope and pray that they may be to yours as well.