When considering the many heavy things that are being carried around in these days, I was reminded of a story in which a man of God felt completely overwhelmed and at the end of his rope.
Elijah was God's prophet. He heard from God and represented God before the people of Israel. Not everyone liked Elijah. Not everyone liked Yahweh - Israel's God. 1 Kings 18 tells a remarkable story in which Yahweh and Baal - a Canaanite deity - go head to head in a battle of power. Their battle is accomplished through their prophets. On one side, there were 450 prophets of Baal with the support of Israel's king who had turned his back on Yahweh. On the other side, there was 1 prophet of Yahweh. Elijah. You can read the story of the battle for yourselves, but Yahweh - through Elijah - achieved a significant and powerful victory.
The response from the throne was not to acknowledge Yahweh's supremacy. Rather, it was to threaten Elijah's life. In 1 Kings 19:3 we read this:
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, Lord," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.
I am quite sure that I am not the only one who has, at times, found myself resonating those feelings Elijah expressed - exhaustion, inadequacy, giving up, surrender, failure. In the shadow of a great victory, all he could feel was defeat.
In Elijah's story, a beautiful thing happened next. A messenger from God wakes Elijah and provides him with food and water to give him strength, then he lets him sleep again. A second time the messenger wakes him and provides him with food - food that will sustain him for a long journey that is to come. At the end of that journey, God shows himself to Elijah. But rather than being fully buoyed by the food and God's revelation of himself, Elijah is still broken. He shares his heart with God.
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
He doesn't see an end to his struggles. All he can see, despite his work for God, is a mess all around him, his loneliness, and his own imminent death. God speaks to him and offers him three things.
- A task to do. (In this case to travel and anoint two kings and a successor for himself.)
- The assurance that those who are doing wrong will eventually be dealt with.
- The knowledge that he is not alone.
I find it both disappointing and significant to consider what God didn't offer Elijah. God didn't open the door for Elijah to quit. I know there's lot's of times that it seems like it would be easier to quit - quit on God; quit on ministry; quit on the work necessary to maintain a relationship; quit on living with integrity; quit on the disciplines that keep you connected to God and others. Sometimes the burden of continuing just doesn't seem worth it. While there are times when God opens the door for us to say, "Enough!" and walk away, more often than not, God's instructions are simply to get up and do the next right thing. Offer forgiveness. Shovel the snow. Make another meal. Open your Bible. Go to work. Tuck the kids into bed. Go to church or to your small group gathering. Keep your eyes on what he's called you to, not those things that are trying to overwhelm you. Take the next step forward.
Another thing God didn't do was to say, "It's okay, everything will be fine for you if you just hold on." There is no promise at all that Elijah will be delivered from those who are trying to kill him. But there is assurance that someday God's justice will be done. But I want to know that my struggles will be over . . . and if you could kindly tell me when, God?!? Maybe you feel the same thing. God doesn't always offer that. Sometimes he simply asks us to believe that there is a bigger story at play than simply what I can see. He is a God of love. And he is also just. There is a consistent theme in the Bible - from beginning to end - that wrong will be dealt with and we can trust God to act with justice. The hard thing is accepting the invitation to, after we've done our part, to trust the judgment to God.
Instead of a way out, God gives food and a glimpse of himself to remind us that he is with us on the journey. Instead of a simple, "everything is going to be okay" response, God invites us to accept that we are only a part of a much bigger story and that he will bring things to the best possible loving and just end.
It gives me great comfort, when I read Elijah's story, to know that the messes we find ourselves in are often not because we've done anything wrong. It isn't our fault. I find encouragement to know that whatever is going to happen from this point forward, God gives me a role to play in it. We aren't passive observers in this story of love transforming the world. We are active participants. I find a sense of hope and, to be fully honest, vindication through holding on to the idea that God will judge evil and evil doers in this world. Romans 12 suggests that this may be one of the only ways we can let go of a desire to act out our anger and desire for revenge ourselves. I find affirmation in knowing that I am not on this journey alone. Rather we are in this together. When I feel like I can't keep going - you help me take the next step forward. I pray that when you can't keep going, I might be able to support you, too.
So when you and I get to the end of our rope, may we find Jesus there giving us, not necessarily what we want, but exactly what we need to continue on this journey - trusting that we have a part to play; that someday he will deal with injustice and the mess; that we can keep going through this life of faith together.