Thriving in Challenging Times

Posted Apr 26, 2022

Thriving in Challenging Times

Jon Dykeman & David Ritz

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of FOCUS.

Ministry Lead Jon Dykeman and Québec Associate Staff David Ritz delve into the story of Elijah from 1 Kings 19:1-18, using the narrative to discuss the importance of CMDA Canada’s campus ministry and seeing how this same message applies to us as Christian medical and dental students and graduates.

Renowned Christian counsellor Deborah Fileta, who writes in her blog on relationships, dating, and mental health, said, 

    Think of all the ways we perpetuate the cycle of pushing ourselves to the point of complete and total mental exhaustion, as though we have have no limitations. We say things like: “Losers quit when they’re tired, winners quit when they’ve won.” or “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”

Fileta likens these statements not to a motivational speech, but more like a shame speech. It is often the sort of thing we tell ourselves, ignoring our ‘whole being’; the needs of body, soul and mind.

Elijah the Prophet is known as a ‘heavy-weight’ prophet in eyes of Christians and Jews. As Rabbi Elliot Goldberg says, Elijah is the “herald of the Messianic Age” and “his legacy surpasses that of virtually all the other prophets of Israel.” Yet even with a title and reputation like his, Elijah struggled.

When we look closely at 1 Kings, we’ll see Elijah had a lot going on – he participated in a handful of miracles, including one in which he is fed by a raven, another where a poor, hopeless widow receives grain and another when he prays over her son, and he is revived from death. Just after that, Elijah participated in a great ‘showdown’ on Mt Carmel, where, by God’s grace, 900 false prophets are defeated. Chances are, Elijah was feeling as though he was on cloud nine, on top of the world – something medical and dental students can relate to as they participate in their first tooth extraction, first delivery of a baby, or first surgery. 

But after all that activity for Elijah, he was exhausted and feeling vulnerable. In was in this vulnerable, exhausted state, that evil Jezebel had some words for him. We read in 1 Kings 19:1-2:

“Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Jezebel was the wife of the wayward King Ahab of Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were leading God’s people into worship of false gods. Needless to say, it was damaging time in the life of Israel. Elijah was there to set things straight – much like the attitude of young and bright-eyed medical and dental students – but when Jezebel threatens to take Elijah’s life, because of the good he was doing, it was something Elijah could not shake off.

Theologian Eugene Peterson paraphrases Elijah’s response in 1 Kings 19:4 of The Message, “Elijah says: ‘Enough of this, God! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!’”

After the epic showdown between Yahweh and Baal, where God proved Himself in a mighty way, Elijah was largely ineffective in bringing societal change for Israel. Medical and dental students feel similar pressures. A recent article in La Presse released after the suicide of a fourth year medical student at Universite de Montréal, showed that nearly 25% of Quebec medical students have contemplated suicide. It is devastating to think that 1 in 4 students are thinking of ending their lives because the pressure of “earning their scars.”

Learning about a Gospel identity, worked out through the gift of community, is vital to move from surviving life to thriving in life, no matter what profession we find ourselves in. In every vocation, knowing that your worth is measured because of your identity in Christ and not in what you do, can help be a safeguard against all kinds of difficulties, heartaches, and pain.

Even the great Elijah, though, someone who obviously feared God and loved God, struggled, and felt overwhelmed.

Our story continues and in verse 5, a mad and afraid Elijah lays down and falls asleep.

In verses 6 – 8 we read:

    All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 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.
    The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat,” […] So he got up and ate and drank.

In the words of theologian Joy Clarkson’s viral tweet pertaining to this story, “Never underestimate the spiritual power of a nap [and] a snack.” When Elijah was at his low point – completely discouraged and ready to give up, wanting to die – he naps and then God’s angels attended to him with food.

One of the biggest components of student ministry is hospitality – much of how we have done hospitality over the last two years has had to be adjusted to ‘Skip the Dishes’ or omitted altogether – a noticeable loss. Gatherings around food have been a huge component of meeting needs for students. Thanks be to God, as restrictions ease across the country we are starting to hear more about these gatherings. Although Clarkson’s tweet is cute, let’s not forget the truth within what she says, and the transformational affect food can have on a weary soul. Slowing down for a wholesome meal can do wonders for a weary medical or dental student. Often, our most vibrant student groups are ones who gather frequently around meals. 

These sorts of gatherings satisfy a deep need we all have for fellowship – in Elijah’s case it was the act of being cared for by an angel. A community like the CMDA Canada is vital as it offers pastoral care and helps students form healthy habits. As we have begun to do events in French in Montréal, a frequent response is the surprise at meeting other Christian students and graduates in medicine and dentistry. A frequent objection to participating in community is “when things slow down, I’ll totally be willing to commit, life is just kind of crazy right now.” But the reality is that life never really slows down, but continues to get more complicated. So, learning healthy habits of community participation is important. Community with others in the same situation can be a big encouragement for students. 

Gathering for a meal also reminds us of our need for God. He is the one who supplies our needs – food – but He also is the one who gives us the grace we need to fulfill the calling He has for us as medical and dental students. Some of the best conversations, learning opportunities and friendships are formed in these sorts of environments. Slowing down for a meal with God’s people fulfils a counter-cultural need for a student’s weary soul.

In verse 11, our story of Elijah continues and God instructs Elijah to wait on the edge of the mountain. Elijah experiences a ferocious wind, an earthquake and then a fire. The Scriptures say God was not ‘in’ the wind, earthquake, or fire. 

We can only speculate why God would call Elijah to the edge of a mountain and then have him experience some extreme weather. These storms perhaps were a metaphor for his experience with Jezebel. Students in medicine and dentistry experience all sorts of ‘weather’ through their training – adjusting to new life in different city, away from family and friends, adjusting to life in the hospitals as a pre-clerk and then a clerk, juggling preparation for exams and other extra-curricular commitments and then new responsibilities as a resident. The circumstances of our lives sometimes are overwhelming like a strong wind, an earthquake, or a fire. We can lose sight of God’s voice.

Verse 12 says, “After the fire a gentle whisper,” or as some translations put it, ‘after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.’ Elijah went and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then God spoke to him. God was in the silence. 

In verses 13, God asked him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”, to which Elijah replied in the next verse,

    I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

I am sure it was therapeutic for Elijah to share all he was carrying with God. He expressed his zeal for God, his despair for Israel and all its wrong-doing and his fear of death. God allowed Elijah to get it all out. But Elijah needed to wait for the silence, for the presence of God. We all need to be with God’s people in CMDA Canada, but the discipline of silence and solitude, in a busy world, is a crucial component of becoming a mature disciple of Jesus.  

When Elijah was alone with God, God was not harsh with him. Before Elijah raises his complaints, God speaks to him in the gentle whisper of a breeze. After Elijah tells God why he is at the cave, God’s response was to call him out of hiding, and says in verse 18, “Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Elijah was never alone. Not only was God with him, but God had set aside nearly 7,000 Israelites that had not worshipped Baal. 

This passage is reminiscent of when Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God ministers this rest to Elijah through the truth of us not being alone. 

Knowing there is a group of like-minded followers of Jesus who gather regularly to study God’s Word and to see how the life of medical and dental student fits into a life with God is something every student needs. Student gatherings with other students and graduates provides support through the Holy Spirit working in and through one another. 

Elijah is much like a medical and dental student – a high-achieving, well respected influencer, enhancing other’s lives and doing God’s work. But like Elijah, medical and dental students can become overwhelmed and can struggle. CMDA Canada chapters seek to be the refuge every medical and dental student needs – whether it’s food and fellowship experienced in a larger gathering or the listening ear of one of our Associate Staff. Making CMDA Canada part of your medical and dental training prepares you to see how you fit into God’s plan for the world.