Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK
COVID-19 has caused havoc in our lives, putting us under the constant threat and shadow of death. Being forced to stay at home without physical contact with the outside world is an entirely new experience for many of us. Those under quarantine may not be able to see their parents, spouse, or children. We have heard stories of dying patients calling their loved ones to say the last farewell. Those who remain healthy may be suffering from “lockdown loneliness” due to restrictions preventing them from meeting friends and family. A survey of 5,260 adults in the UK conducted between April to May 2020 showed that 50.8 percent of those aged sixteen to twenty-four were affected by “lockdown loneliness”—this equates to over seven million people across the UK. On top of this, the economic and social fallout has caused stress levels to rise. Anxiety and depression often isolate people socially, robbing them of the ability to lead meaningful lives. So, on top of the health risk that COVID-19 poses, we have a growing mental health crisis on our hands.
From the spiritual perspective, Christians are forced to stay away from church during the lockdown. There is no physical contact and fellowship with brethren outside our immediate household. Activities that we took for granted are no longer available. We have to stand on our own two feet, pray, and read the Bible alone. Despite the plethora of online services, interaction is minimal. The upside is that we have many choices in terms of sermons, training sessions, and service times. But all these advantages come with the temptation of skipping, or even pausing, services to do our own things.
There are different types of isolation: enforced isolation, imposed by external forces—legal or illegal—which we have no choice but to accept and endure; and self-imposed isolation, which we choose because we believe we are self-sufficient, or we feel rejected by the world. These two types of isolation can be interrelated—enforced isolation may cause someone to develop a habit of self-sufficiency, or bring out their innate tendency toward seclusion. Elijah went through many stages of isolation, more than most characters in the Bible. We can learn how he overcame, and succumbed to, the impact of isolation on his journey of faith.
THE ORDER OF DIVINE PURPOSE
Elijah is first mentioned in 1 Kings 17:1. The Bible does not provide much information about him—he was simply a sojourner who moved from place to place. His first task was to proclaim a prolonged drought (1 Kgs 17:1), which he did, as God had commanded him. But as an inhabitant of the land, he too was affected by the emerging calamity—drought would inevitably lead to poor crops, resulting in famine. God did not give a reason for the drought, and Elijah was, of course, not responsible for leading the whole country into it, just as we are not responsible for COVID-19 but are impacted by it nevertheless.
After Elijah completed this first task, God instructed him to go to the Brook Cherith that flows into the Jordan, to drink from it, and to be fed by ravens (1 Kgs 17:3–6). Eventually, the brook dried up, and God commanded him to go to Zarephath, where a widow would keep him (1 Kgs 17:7–9). The drought lasted for at least three years (1 Kgs 18:1), but God preserved Elijah’s life through two unexpected sources—the ravens and a desperate widow who was on her last meal (1 Kgs 17:12). At this point, we may wonder why Elijah and the widow, both faithful to God, had to suffer during this nationwide crisis, caused by factors beyond their control.
We can view events from two different perspectives: the order of causal sequence and the order of divine purpose. The former observes the physical world from the outside and views events as consequences of human action or the laws of nature. The latter is experienced from within and sees God’s purpose and intent behind everything. From global events such as climate change, war, and famine, to the most random-seeming incidents, God’s faithful will see that God has His plan.
The widow generously offered Elijah her last meal because she had lost all hope of surviving the famine. However, God had a higher purpose to keep Elijah and the widow’s family alive. He also preserved another seven thousand faithful believers in Israel during this trying time (1 Kgs 19:18). Elijah and his fellow servants may have experienced hardship, but God’s promises and care for His loyal believers never fail.
Through the ages, God’s chosen people have experienced adversity at various points in time, but God has never failed those who kept their faith in Him. When Sennacherib besieged Judah in 701 B.C.E., the people suffered, but Isaiah consoled them. Although they had to endure “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,” God guided, revived, and healed them (Isa 30:20–26). The apostle Paul was “burdened beyond measure” in Asia, but undergoing these troubles and the subsequent deliverance enabled him to comfort others in trouble later (2 Cor 1:8, 4, 10). When we face tribulation in life, whether great or small, we can be assured that there is a higher purpose behind every event and that God will be with His faithful ones.
A severe drought curtailed Elijah's sojourn. It is unclear whether he had any human contact at the Brook Cherith. His activities in Zarephath were confined to the widow’s household. We can assume that his social circle was small and that he did not interact with other servants of God. However, even in this enforced isolation, he continued to have a close relationship with God and trusted in Him. The words of God were not far from his mouth; he knew exactly how God would keep him and the widow’s family alive during the famine (1 Kgs 17:14). He trusted in God’s goodness, and his prayer was answered; the widow’s son came back to life, through which God was magnified (1 Kgs 17:24). Elijah did not shy away from meeting Ahab even though Ahab sought to have him killed (1 Kgs 18:10, 17). He single-handedly defeated Baal’s 450 prophets by trusting in God’s promise, faithfulness, and purpose toward His people (1 Kgs 18:24, 37–40).
We can see from Elijah’s words and actions that his faith and relationship with God were not diminished by the passage of time or amid isolation. God purposefully created situations—the great drought, the confrontation with false prophets, the fire from heaven, the torrential downpour (1 Kgs 18:45)—to revive the faith of His people (1 Kgs 18:37, 39). They were confused and could not decide whether Baal or the Lord was God (1 Kgs 18:21). God could have chosen another of His servants to carry out His work. But He chose Elijah, and Elijah responded to the calling and trusted in God wholeheartedly before the promised rain materialized.
Elijah and God’s people suffered tremendous hardship during these three years of drought, but they emerged from the adversity as better people (1 Pet 1:5–7). We may likewise experience severe hardship due to COVID-19—we may lose our wealth or our job, or be hit particularly hard by food shortages. We may be suffering physically or mentally. No matter what form of cross we are carrying, we should endeavor to emerge from this situation a better person.
We do not know what the future holds, but we should make the best use of the extra time we may have now to develop ourselves spiritually and improve our relationship with God. Elijah did not waste time in isolation, but emerged as an influential figure, ready to turn the tide and move the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen. What about us? Will we squander our time on Netflix or online shopping during the lockdown, or will we redeem our time through Bible reading, online services, prayer, and reflection?
After this, Elijah’s life took an unexpected turn. He was so scared by Jezebel’s threat that he ran for his life (1 Kgs 19:2–3). He traveled forty days and nights, far away from the land of Canaan, to Horeb, the mount of God, and hid in a cave, sulking (1 Kgs 19:8–10). After performing the great spectacle on Mount Carmel, the anti-climax was like falling off a steep cliff. Elijah had just experienced the most powerful manifestation of God’s power in his life, yet his heart melted at the threat of a mere human. God had kept him safe for three years. Fire and rain came down from heaven when he prayed, and God demonstrated that He was by his side. But nothing had changed: Ahab and his cohort still sought to kill him. Perhaps Elijah thought, I have given my all, yet the response was not what I expected. What else can I do to convince them to believe? Should they not be dumbfounded by fire from heaven, and the deluge after three years of drought?
We do not know what was in Elijah’s mind. But his answers to God’s repeated question, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kgs 19:9, 13) give us a clue. He focused on himself: “I have been very zealous. …I alone am left. …they seek to take my life” (1 Kgs 19:10, 14). He was the good guy, and everyone had deserted God except him. Yet, despite everything he had done, Ahab and Jezebel had rejected him and sought his life.
Previously, Elijah’s isolation was forced on him by the drought, but now he isolated himself out of his own choice. He had given up on everyone as he believed that everyone had given up on him. He forgot that when the people reject God’s servant, they are in fact rejecting God (1 Sam 8:7). So, Elijah decided to hide as far away as possible, somewhere no one could find him. Why did he claim that he was alone? Obadiah told him that he had hidden a hundred of God’s prophets to keep them from Jezebel’s murderous pursuit (1 Kgs 18:13). Perhaps Elijah was always reclusive and did not take note of others’ devotion to the Lord. He did not enquire about his fellow workers, and perhaps he did not realize they were serving God alongside him.
During his three years of isolation, Elijah strengthened his faith in God, but he neglected to change certain aspects of his character. His service to God remained self-focused. Our service to God should not be self-centered and task-oriented—it is about the pursuit of holiness and the denial of self. It should never be “our business,” but God’s business. In isolation, Elijah was self-focused and pursued perfection without taking an interest in others. He became like the first group of workers in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, who believed they should receive more because they had done the lion’s share of the work and were, therefore, more valuable than those who had only toiled for a short while (Mt 20:1–16). The workers’ attitude blinded them and made them see “evil” in the goodness of the housemaster (Mt 20:15). They had little interest in the other workers, who represent the church as a whole. Such workers do not love God or accept His goodness, although they claim otherwise. An evil eye makes the whole body full of darkness (Mt 6:23). Therefore, we should learn from Elijah’s mistake and not forget that we are just one worker among many. We should fulfill the wish of the Master with gratitude and humility, reminding ourselves that our work cannot come at the expense of other members.
Spiritual cultivation is not an end in itself; we pursue perfection not out of self-interest, but because this is the will of God for us. Our relationship with God is always intertwined with our relationship with our brethren. As stated in 1 John 4:20–21, our love for our brethren reflects how much we love God. In the same vein, our attitude toward God’s goodness to others reflects our relationship with God. So, as we seek to strengthen our faith during the lockdown, we should be mindful that we do not become solitary, self-centered, and in the habit of separating ourselves from our brethren.
Due to the current pandemic, we have been forced to isolate ourselves from society and our fellow church members. The Latin poet Decimus Juvenalis once wrote: propter vitam vivendi perdere causas, which means “to lose what makes life worth living for the sake of living” (Satire VIII). This phrase reminds us of Jesus’ words: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35; see also, Mt 16:25; Jn 12:25). The pandemic has changed our behavior; some people are so afraid that they will struggle to return to a normal life. If our fear of death deters us from engaging with God and our fellow believers after the lockdown is relaxed, we may preserve our physical life, but would it be a life worth living, from a human and divine perspective? The acid test is when the lockdown is lifted, and we can legally go back to church again. Will we be too scared to return? When we start attending church services in person, will we be spiritually energized and empowered by God’s Spirit and His words, having strengthened our relationship with Him during the lockdown?
The COVID-19 pandemic came out of the blue, and we do not know when it will end. In Elijah’s time, God abruptly called a drought and abruptly ended it after three years. We do not know the higher purpose of God, but the pandemic serves as a reminder that life is unpredictable, and we do not control our future. God preserved Elijah and His other servants during drought, famine, and Jezebel’s slaughter. We should, therefore, have faith in God’s providence and trust in His kindness, faithfulness, and mercy (Lam 3:22–23). Use our time during the lockdown wisely—refocus our priorities, reflect on our weaknesses, and cultivate and equip ourselves spiritually—so that we are ready and empowered to magnify His name and serve Him with the right heart and mind. Whilst we do this, let us not neglect fellowship in this lockdown but learn to care for the well-being of others, appreciating their company and contribution, to make our faith whole.
 Helen Pidd, “Study finds half of 16- to 24-year-olds hit by ‘lockdown loneliness,’ ” The Guardian, June 8, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/08/study-finds-half-of-16--to-24-year-olds-hit-by-lockdown-loneliness.