Elijah and the Whisper of God

DepressionIn my ministry to high school and college students, guys often confess to me when they are struggling with sexual sin. I’m sure I’ve said a lot that hasn’t helped at all. But one thing I often say that I think has been helpful to a few guys is that temptation is less about how strong your sex drive is, and more about the state of your heart. I encourage guys to look underneath to the emotions that are making the temptation particularly strong at that moment, and then trying to engage those emotions with the gospel, and in other healthy ways. One of the most common issues is plain old loneliness. Guys feel disconnected and isolated and unknown, and sexual sin offers a false sense of intimacy. We were made for community, for knowing and being known, and when we hide our true selves and never open up to others, I think it makes us more susceptible to temptation. I bet the porn industry would plummet downwards if most guys between the ages of 14 and 26 had one true friend, as the book of Proverbs defines a friend. Another issue is the lack of adventure in many younger guys’ lives. Many guys have nothing grand to aim for in their lives. They are drifting, cynical, bored – lacking in idealism and initiative, lacking in a sense of purpose and direction, lacking in a sense of transcendence and glory. Men are meant for adventure – to fight battles, to go on journeys, to explore, create, compete, dream, and dare. Guys living in their parents basement playing video games all the time and drifting aimlessly through life are, I think, extremely susceptible to temptation. The temptation is able to promise something that they are not really getting anywhere else – excitement, adventure, adrenaline. It reminds me of King David staying back from battle in II Samuel 11:1, where I think the real battle with Bathsheba was already lost.

Yesterday it occurred to me that its probably wise to approach other spiritual struggles in this way, looking at the larger context and deeper causes. I was taking some time off to pray and reflect and journal, and I thought about how lately I’ve been struggling a bit with ministry fatigue. So I took some time to ask: what are the emotions underneath my fatigue? Like temptation, its probably not merely a biological issue. Sure, I’ve had lots of late nights up with my 6-week-old son! And I have a busy schedule of ministry + studies. But yesterday, as I reflected, I came to conclude that the biggest cause of fatigue in my life is probably not busyness, but fear. At times I struggle with fears in ministry – fear of failure, fear of the exposure of my weaknesses, fear of letting people down, fear of telling people no, and – perhaps most of all – fear that what I’m doing isn’t having any real impact. And when I’m not walking in the Spirit, these fears can drive me to over-work and over-worry, which then leads to fatigue and exhaustion. Its funny, because I often don’t even realize the fears are there until the Spirit draws attention to them. But they can be powerful influences on me, even when I’m not conscious of them.

This is why the story of Elijah in I Kings 19 means so much to me. Elijah has one the greatest triumphs in the Bible in I Kings 18. He single-handedly cleanses the nation from idolatry. But then right afterwards, Elijah receives a threat from Jezebel and takes off running, all the way down to Beersheeba in the far south. It makes me think of a man getting attacked by a dozen or so gang members on the subway, and he successfully disarms all of them and leaves them tied up for the police – but then when he gets home, his teenage daughter’s friend says something mean, and he bursts into tears. You think, if he can handle the entire gang, why does one little comment set him off? And in the same way, if Elijah could stand up to the 450 false prophets and the entire nation they seduced, why does he flee from Jezebel? How can he be so stalwart in chapter 18 and then so flighty in chapter 19?

Verse 3 tells us what’s really going on inside Elijah: “he was afraid.” But afraid of what? It can’t be fear of Jezebel’s threat to kill him, because two verses later he prays, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” Elijah is not afraid to die; he wants to die. I used to think that Elijah was simply burnt out, and burn out can warp our perspective. But then my brother Eric sent me an article he wrote about this passage which drew attention to the reason for Elijah’s death wish: “for I am no better than my fathers.” He pointed out that throughout I and II Kings, prophets and their disciples are often depicted in father/son language (I Kings 13:11-12, II Kings 2:12, 6:21). So what Elijah is really saying is, “I am no better than any of the prophets and spiritual leaders who came before me.” He had hoped to turn the nation away from idolatry, but as so often happens after a great victory, reality soon sets back in and Elijah realizes that the royal house is still corrupt. Ahab has not gotten rid of Jezebel. He is thinking, “Nothing has changed around here! I won the battle but lost the war. I may have pulled up a few weeds, but they can just grow back tomorrow. Ahab can just raise up new false prophets. The nation is still corrupt. I haven’t gotten any farther than any of those who went before me.” Elijah is afraid he has failed. He is experiencing the kind of fear, not that he might die, but the kind of fear that makes a man want to die. It is the fear of despair, the fear of a crushed spirit, the fear of a defeated dream.

small-voice1What happens next in the story is not easy to interpret, and I’m skipping over a lot of detail, but basically God takes care of Elijah’s physical needs, and then manifests Himself to Elijah at the mouth of a cave on Mount Horeb. God sends a wind, earthquake, and fire, but the text says God is not in them, and then God sends a gentle whisper. The implication seems to be that God is communicating to Elijah specifically in this whisper. I wonder if the message God is sending Elijah is something like this: “Elijah, I’m not just in fire from heaven, and wind and earthquake. I’m also in a gentle whisper that is so faint you have to strain your ears for it. I don’t just work through nation-wide revival. I also work by preserving a remnant. I’m not just in I Kings 18 dynamic, thundering power. I’m also in I Kings 19 hold-on-by-your-knuckles survival. You’re measuring your ministry by your narrow expectations of what success looks like. You need to re-center yourself on me, and what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it. I alone am your criterion for success.” Sadly, Elijah doesn’t seem to get the message. But then, he didn’t know all that we know. He didn’t know that he didn’t need to be greater than his fathers, because there is only one true Savior of God’s people. He didn’t know that this Savior was still to come, and that the greatest victory and salvation would come through his failure and defeat.

I think there is a sense in which Jesus, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, experienced the ultimate “fear” of I Kings 19:3. And then in crucifixion, extreme defeatedness and failure. Obviously Jesus did not ultimately fail, but while hanging on the cross, he certainly entered the experience of failure – shame, helplessness, exposure, abandonment, ridicule, pain, choking death. And this is what I need to say to my ministry fatigue: because Jesus experienced failure for me, I don’t need to be afraid of failure. I don’t need to live in fear of everything crashing down, and realizing I’ve not had any impact on anyone. I respect Jesus. I admire Him. If even He went through failure, it takes away the shame of it. If He walked ahead of us into the path of failure and shame, it makes it bearable to follow down that same path, come what may. And the resurrection means that as long as we are following Jesus, that path cannot ultimately end in failure. Easter means that in Christ, failure is never the last word: if God can turn the greatest evil in the history of reality into the greatest good, surely he can turn any other lesser evil into good also. If the essence of our creed is victory through apparent defeat, surely this is a pattern we can expect to see repeated on smaller scales in our lives.

Lord, give us ears to hear you in that faint whisper. Let us see you, not just in the fire that falls from heaven, but in that quiet moment before God, when we are forced to measure life by You alone. Jesus, because you conquered failure for us, all we need to do is be faithful to you. Everything connected to You will one day be resurrected. Give us faith to believe in these things, whether they seem to us as obvious as lightning from heaven, or as faint as a gentle whisper.

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  1. I just read this story yesterday, but you helped me interpret it in the most encouraging way. I’m glad I just discovered your blog.