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Epic Meltdowns in the Bible: Elijah

Updated: Jan 12

I Kings 19:1-12

Public meltdowns have become the favorite meme of the day, especially on airplanes. Amanda Hess wrote the following in The New York Times:


The plane, in 2023, has become a stage for viral comedies of manners. In recent months, I’ve watched a woman extend both of her arms to block the seat in front of her from reclining. I read about a guy who grounded a plane because he didn’t get his first-choice meal. I saw an adult man lose it over a screaming baby — and scream back. There’s something about the airplane that makes even a minor dispute feel like a big deal. Tabloids regularly repackage anonymous Reddit threads about the quirks of seat switching, seat reclining, seat back grabbing, service animals or the choreography of deplaning. The New York Post will scrape a dispute directly from Reddit and give it a headline in the style of a personal essay, like: I left my wife behind at the airport and I’m not sorry — she needs to learn time management.'


Making a public spectacle of the meltdowns gives us a sense of superiority. We have it all together, or 'at least I am not as bad as that poor sap.'  Others’ weaknesses make us feel emotionally superior, but meltdowns can come to anyone.


There are some who see this trend as proof of a breakdown in our social fabric. Take the title of this article, Psychology Today: Kristen Lee (SSW’00) Explains the Psychology Behind Public Meltdowns… Why Are There So Many Adult Temper Tantrums?


Though they may seem more frequent they are nothing new.


They are the radical disclosure that each of us has limits, a finite amount of mental and physical strength. This is true of even, or perhaps especially, of the most powerful and strong of God’s servants, Moses, Elijah, Peter, and more. And for some it is precisely the meltdown in which they realize they need God more than anything. 


Since these meltdowns have plagued humanity, it is not unsurprising there are considerable references in scripture, listen to these laments. 


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


‘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) – David


And then there is Elijah. He served as God’s prophet during a crucial point in the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s history in the 9th century B.C. It was this time period in which Israel’s many wicked kings led them to the destruction by their enemies. Elijah’s ministry mitigated God’s wrath for a time, while advocating for the most vulnerable of society.


He is amongst the greatest of prophets in the history of God’s people. He certainly has an impressive list of miracles to his name. He parted the river Jordan, caused a drought, made it rain, and brought back someone from the dead! But his most impressive accomplishment was his steadfast righteousness when the world around him had plunged into idolatry, abuse, and sin. To cap off his unique career, rather than dying like the rest of us, he was simply whisked into heaven in a whirlwind.


Elijah is the prototypical prophet in the Old Testament, so much so that he is the forerunner of the messiah! And yet…and yet…even Elijah had his breaking point.


After the most spectacular feat of his prophetic career, smiting the prophets of Baal in a flash of fire and showmanship, King Ahaz’s wife, Jezebel, dispatches a message to Elijah for he has killed all of her prophets, 'You can be sure that I will kill you, just as I killed the other prophets. I’ll do it by this time tomorrow.'


His bold taunt against the Baalites, 'I am the only one,' have turned into a statement of dread, 'I am the only one.' And so, Elijah runs, and he runs, and he runs; takes a break and then flees for another forty days and holes up in a cave, hoping his life will come to an end.


Like very successful people here in New York, some hit a breaking point, and at that point, however strong and seemingly invincible they seemed, it can all crumble in a moment.


Meltdowns can be disturbing, especially if you are the one experiencing it; it is an unhinging of the rationale self; your control has evaporated; the fight or flight has triggered; it is disturbing because it reveals the thin delusion of control we think we have; and when someone like Elijah becomes unhinged we suddenly realize it can happen to any of us. We keep telling ourselves, 'I have to push harder faster stronger.' But everyone has limits. And at that moment we have a radical feeling of utter isolation. Nothing, and no one can help.


This perhaps is the most powerful factor behind the meltdown. Isolation. It was why King David, Moses, and Elijah had their moments. They were breaking under the burden of carrying the weight on their own. Moses says as much to God, ‘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) 


It is perhaps part of the great unwinding of the modern world. In the suburbs you could see it in home construction. Instead of front porches that made it easy to connect to your neighbors, they build decks in the back. Privacy can breed isolation and mistrust.


There are two scriptural connected paths to surviving or perhaps, Lord willing, avoiding these meltdowns. Have a trusted friend and time with God.


God listens to Moses’ rant and acts with compassion. He takes some of the spirit on Moses and puts it on seventy of the elders. Suddenly Moses has a lot of help and gives him the needed strength to take them to the Promised Land. 


It is critical in this church, this city, this world, that we help people know they are never alone, that others care, and that it is okay to be weak and vulnerable. Otherwise, what is the point of faith? What is the point of church? This is especially for teenagers and young adults. That is the gift of Pastor Adam and all those here who work with our youth. It is our sacred trust. As Paul wrote, 'Bear each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.'


And though there were feelings of great isolation, in the end these Biblical heroes were not alone. Moses had Aaron; Elijah had Elisha; and Paul had Timothy.


But there are times when a friend is not enough.


Elijah experienced this loneliness both literally and figuratively. His sense that there was no one left to aid his cause drove him to literal isolation in the wilderness. We are told he spent forty days there. Sound familiar? Our forty days of lent. Forty years of Israel in the desert. Forty days of Jesus in that same wilderness. It seems perhaps even Jesus had these moments of near despair. 


'I have labored to no purpose; I’ve spent my strength and for nothing.' (Isaiah 49:4) – The Prophet Isaiah


[This lament] 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. (Peter Saunders, Medical Christian Missionary)


We know He did. On the cross when He felt alone crying out to God for being forsaken. He did this so we would not have it.


Times of isolation can be terrifying and can strip our humanity. There are movements to ban its practice in prison except under very specific circumstances. It is deemed inhuman.  


But if we can scrape together even a mustard seed of faith, isolation can turn to solitude in which we can discover our true strength.


Thomas Merton, guru of the interior life boldly states:


Physical solitude, exterior silence, and real recollection are all morally necessary for anyone who wants to lead a contemplative life... truest solitude is not something outside you, not an absence of [people]; it is an abyss opening in the center of your own soul.  And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing...


Elijah retreated to a cave. In classic psychoanalysis, caves symbolize the hidden depths of the unconscious mind. It was a painful time of inner reflection in which he discovered his weakness more clearly than ever. God was not too quick to pull him out of it. For these times of quiet and isolation are essential for spiritual growth. 


Elijah retreated to that cave because his own fear and shame drove him to hide from the world. Whereas the world might abandon people in their shame, God would do no such thing.  God said, 'Go outside the cave for I am about to pass by.'


It is at this point that we encounter a prototypical scene in all of scripture where there is a fantastic display of power and pyrotechnics great earthquake rumbles the land. But God is not in the earthquake. A great wind, usually indicative of the Spirit of God, blows through, but God is not in the wind. A mighty fire appears, just as God followed the Israelites in a pillar of fire at night and appeared as a burning bush to Moses, but God is not in these flashy displays. Because in times of solitude God does not appear on the outside but in the depths of our soul where it takes the deepest root and then that wonderful evocative phrase it's still small voice and there is God.


After a little research the Hebrew rendered here as a still small voice actually refers to a quiet. A silence so profound that you can actually hear it. A silence that surrounds you. A stillness that is so pervasive you can hear your blood pounding through your veins, and you realize that pounding was there the whole time you were just to restless and busy to notice it before. That’s what Elijah discovered in that cave. God, as the beating of your heart, is always there. At times only in quiet stillness can we hear. Amen.

 


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