Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The study of the whole of 1 Kings 19, as an example of a nervous breakdown, burnout and depression, is a fruitful area for pastoral preaching. Today sadly we get a mere snippet, which has, I would argue, to be seen in the larger context of Elijah’s collapse and restoration.
First there is the request for the relief of death, a not uncommon motif in the Bible among leaders who find themselves facing opposition, conflict and personal attack. Who knows how many of the people in our churches week by week have prayed, or have been tempted to pray, like this? God’s response is to give him three precious gifts: sleep, food and drink, and a new purpose. When I used to be an avid fan of EastEnders, back in the days before I got a life, I used to be amused at the instinctive response to any problem, however small or large: ‘I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea!’ God appears to understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as he cares first for Elijah’s physical state. Those who are deeply depressed can easily neglect the basics of life, and God knows that his gentle surgery is best done on a rested person with some food inside them.
Then God calls him on a journey, which is to prove to be a journey of recovery. God is going to listen to him (repeatedly), help him put things in perspective, and recommission him for further service, whilst giving him an apprentice with whom to share the load. This mixture of the practical, the logical and the emotional is the stuff of great counselling, and there is much to learn from this text about helping friends in need.
At a deeper level, though, this is a passage which gives permission and reassurance as well as practical guidance. In a church and indeed a nation where the standard response to ‘How are you doing?’ is ‘I’m fine!’ or ‘I’m good!’ depending on your age, we are allowed to see the depths of Elijah’s despair, as he asks God to do Jezebel’s work for her. Whilst continual miseries can get a bit pastorally wearing, everyone is allowed a rough patch, and even an extremely rough patch. It has always been my desire to lead church communities where reality is the name of the game, and where it is OK to admit weakness as well as strength.
Secondly God reassures him that his life and ministry are not yet over. Those who have been chased out of jobs or places like bullies like Jezebel, who use intimidation and fear to wear us down, will know the joy of hearing that God still has a role for us somewhere else, and some new companions to strengthen us along the way. When we have taken a dive, for a variety of reasons, it is good to know that there can be a way back, and that we have a God who is more concerned to keep us alive than we sometimes are ourselves.
Read the whole chapter – It’s fantastic stuff!