Greatness and the spirit of Elijah

1 Kings 17:19-21 NIV “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” 

We struggle with the apparent randomness of illness and death, which strike even those who are living in obedience to what they understand to be God’s will. I suppose the boy in this story could have been affected by any number of diseases, but an infectious disease seems the most likely, given the speed with which he worsened and died. Diagnosis is the first conundrum that faces us as doctors. Without a diagnosis treatment is only guesswork. But even with the right diagnosis treatment is not always possible, and we stand by helplessly watching as a person worsens and dies, as the boy’s mother, and Elijah himself, did on this occasion.

Elijah was not a doctor, and doctors of the day often had little to offer. We have far more resources at our disposal these days, but still we cannot cure everything. One of the struggles I face daily as a GP is the person who is unwell, but in whom there is no simple diagnosis; this is often true when the problem has a psychosocial basis even when the symptoms are largely physical. The absence of a diagnosis can bring a sense of helpless for both doctor and patient, just as the widow in our story felt. Incurable illnesses can bring the same feeling of impotence and such feelings have all sorts of effects. The widow was immobilised by bewilderment and fear and frustration, leading to anger, in this case anger directed at Elijah, the “man of God”. (She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son? – verse 18)

How does a man of God respond in such a situation? How do we as Christian doctors respond? We too face the challenge of angry patients who feel frustrated at the lack of solutions for their various problems. They often seem to want to hold us somehow responsible for their misery, as if we have the answer but are purposely withholding it for some devious reason. While we feel helpless and can easily respond in kind, with anger born of our own frustration.

How did Elijah respond? First, he took hold of the boy and carried him upstairs. He was not afraid of contact. He was in the midst of the widow’s suffering and tragedy. He did not withdraw, as is often easier to do. He got involved. Second, he prayed, with all the fear and sadness and bewilderment of someone who did not understand what was going on. He couldn’t understand, and he was helpless to fix things in his own knowledge and strength. He cried out to the Lord, “let this boy’s life return to him!” Third, he stretched himself out on the boy. He threw himself on this boy, who had already stopped breathing. This act speaks of desperation, of coming to the end of his own resources. He realised that without God he was nothing, he could do nothing. But he was convinced that God could do the impossible, and he pleaded with God to do just that in this situation.

This compassion, this involvement, this conviction of God’s power to intervene, this sharing in the pain and sadness of the people with whom we come into contact – these are the things that make a person great, these were integral aspects of the spirit of Elijah, and therefore also important characteristics of John the Baptist. There is a tendency these days to avoid involvement. Many doctors find it hard to work in the area in which they live because there is a risk of being too involved. Involvement involves loving and loving so often involves pain. As soon as we are involved with people there is a risk that we will be hurt, in any number of ways. As soon as we start crying out to God in public, there is a risk that he will not act, at least not in the way we want, and that can lead to ridicule. Persons who become great in the eyes of the Lord are people who take these risks, people who accept the possibility of hurt or failure and get involved anyway, people who accept the possibility of ridicule as they stand up for God and the suffering people around them.

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