God is gracious to reveal Himself to His people.
I once had a good friend tell me, “My life isn’t what I expected at all. It is much more disappointing than I would have imagined. Over the years, I became angry with God for my situation. So I walked away from Him and from the church.”
Often in speaking with Christians and non-Christians, I have heard stories of exhaustion and disillusionment, stories that lead to a distorted perspective on life. What’s more, people often feel confused when they realize that many of their victorious moments with God, or “mountain-top experiences,” take place right next to some of the hardest and most painful experiences of life.
- What circumstances in your past have led you to periods of disappointment or disillusionment?
- What impact did these circumstances have on your relationship with God?
In this session, we see how the prophet Elijah succumbed to discouragement and despair. In response to Elijah’s circumstances, God revealed Himself. The God who sent down fire from heaven in a bold and spectacular display of His power is the same God who whispered to Elijah in a quiet moment of sustaining grace. God strengthens us in our despair, challenges the lies we believe, and then ministers to us through His Word and through His people. As the recipients of God’s grace, we, in turn, rely on His power to deliver His message of comfort.
Voices from Church History
“Faith in Christ is far from simple and easy because he is an astounding king, who, instead of defending his people, [seemingly] deserts them…He is a strange king who is nearest when he is [seemingly] far.” 1
–Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The God who whispers strengthens us in our despair (1 Kings 19:1-9a).
1 Ahab told Jezebel everything that Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “May the gods punish me and do so severely if I don’t make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow!”
3 Then Elijah became afraid and immediately ran for his life. When he came to Beer-sheba that belonged to Judah, he left his servant there, 4 but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my fathers.” 5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.
Suddenly, an angel touched him. The angel told him, “Get up and eat.” 6 Then he looked, and there at his head was a loaf of bread baked over hot stones, and a jug of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 Then the angel of the Lord returned for a second time and touched him. He said, “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.” 8 So he got up, ate, and drank. Then on the strength from that food, he walked 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 9a He entered a cave there and spent the night.
Life is often not as straightforward as we would like it to be. In the midst of such a period of life, Elijah forgot the truth of God’s power over Jezebel. Like many of us, he responded to his threatening circumstance by running away.
Note Elijah’s state of mind—utter despondency, despairing of life itself. He counted himself a failure. Elijah believed his work on Mount Carmel had no greater effect on turning the people back to the worship of God than did the work of any previous prophets of Israel. And so he desired not only to resign from his prophetic ministry but also to die. He hit what we call “rock bottom.” But in this moment of despair, the Lord sent Elijah food and let him rest. He provided the necessary strength to keep going.
- Can you remember a time in your past when God ministered to you and allowed you to rest? Describe the circumstances.
Depression can skew how we see truth, and we are extremely vulnerable to this when under duress and fatigue. I’ve found that it is good to allow myself room for disappointment but also not to forget to allow God room to minister to me. I need to remember what God has done for me: in large ways, such as offering the gift of salvation and giving me hope in Jesus Christ; in small ways, such as caring for and ministering to me daily.
Further, our churches can help us by not simply telling people to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “just read your Bible more.” Sound-bite statements and spiritual to-do lists do not overcome the depth of our disappointment. As the body of Christ, we must be available to minister to one another in these times. We must encourage people to draw closer to the body of Christ, but sometimes we must take time away in solitude with God and His Word, so the Lord Himself may minister to us. Our example here is Jesus, who frequently drew away from the crowds to pray and be alone with God.
Whether Elijah fled his situation out of fatigue, fear, lack of faith, or disappointment, he still ran. But even in his despair and running, God was still there, ministering in truth and love.
- What are some ways we may accidentally add to the pain of people around us who are suffering?
Voices from Church History
“Give to the winds thy fears, Hope and be undismayed, God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears, God shall lift up thy head.” 2
–Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
The God who whispers challenges our wrong assumptions (1 Kings 19:9b-14).
9b Then the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”
11 Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the Lord’s presence.”
At that moment, the Lord passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Suddenly, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts,” he replied, “but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they’re looking for me to take my life.”
Elijah responded to the Lord’s questioning by expressing his disappointment and hopelessness. His words indicate that he was considering only a narrow selection of Israel’s past events. In his accusations against Israel, he failed to mention what God had just done in sending fire from heaven or the repentant response of the people or the execution of the prophets of Baal. Simply put, Elijah’s vision was narrow and misinformed.
Hopelessness can make the light around us look dim. We can lose our way in the darkness of our clouded mind, unable to see the “light at the end of the tunnel,” unable to discern truth. Elijah, in his despair, rolled out accusations against the Israelites that were focused on the negative events. He saw only the very dim light of what he wanted to see, a self-centered view of the situation: Surely, if the people did not return to God after fire fell from heaven, they would never return.
Elijah’s disappointment and despair contributed to his inability to correct his wrong assumptions. Why do you think we get stuck in poor reasoning and wrong thinking?
- How can we correct wrong assumptions?
God’s reply to Elijah was extraordinary. Rather than argue with Elijah, God drew Elijah into an encounter with Himself. The encounter was an important moment for Elijah’s life because God showed Elijah a truth about His nature: God doesn’t always work in fantastic displays but also in small and subtle ways, even as subtle as a whisper.
Many churches tend to focus so much on doing the “big things” for God, such as musical and drama productions as well as mission trips or big evangelism events. But what if we are overlooking the small ways that God works in our daily lives? Here is an area of church life that is difficult for us—to learn to find God in the small things and the quiet of the world. We must learn to drown out the human noise, quieting our souls long enough for God’s Word to break through and change us. When we only expect “fire from heaven,” we miss the “still, small voice.”
When we do not have an informed or a growing knowledge of the nature of God, we get mired in our own erroneous assumptions. In verse 14, we can see that Elijah was stuck in his thinking. Although God engaged Elijah’s reasoning, Elijah held on to his mistaken assumptions.
- How does your church/group teach or demonstrate that God works in still, small ways?
- How can we help people struggling with belief in God to gain a better understanding of the evidence of God from His work in smaller ways, not just in spectacular or miraculous displays?
99 Essential Christian Doctrines
- God Is Immanent
When we say that God is immanent, we mean that God is personable and relatable to those made in His image, while remaining completely distinct and unique from all of His creation. It means that God is not a distant deity (as imagined by the deist) who only sits on His heavenly throne with no interaction, but instead, He is a personal God who created people in His image to be in personal relationship with Him.
The God who whispers reveals Himself through His faithful people (1 Kings 19:15-18).
15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go and return by the way you came to the Wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive, you are to anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 You are to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Then Jehu will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Jehu. 18 But I will leave 7,000 in Israel—every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Elijah’s new role was to prepare the way for others to do God’s work. Other men would complete the task that Elijah began. Once again, the Lord taught Elijah that He had other ways of working; it was not just through Elijah that this battle with idolatry would be won. A new order was to come to God’s people, but this time, it would not be Elijah to usher in the new order. God would use “the unlikely means of the combined efforts of a pagan king, a new dynasty in Israel, and his successor prophet, Elisha.” 3
Elijah was called into the fight against the worship of a false god. God wanted to use him even if it was not in the way that Elijah originally desired to be used. And what fantastic work to which Elijah was called!
Many of us may fall into the trap of thinking that because we are not currently on mission in a third-world country or currently serving in a homeless mission or a similar “big thing” that our lives are not having an impact in the kingdom of God. We tend to equate only certain kinds of activities with “having an impact.”
Jesus taught us to daily take up our cross—or die to ourselves—and follow Him as part of God’s redemptive mission. He has given us a daily battle plan of surrendering our lives to His authority. God can work through our quiet submission, even if we do not recognize His ministry in this way.
- What are some ways God currently uses your life to affect your community (family, friends, coworkers, church members, etc.)?
God reminded Elijah that He is not bound to working only in the ways of which Elijah could conceive. The Lord has many ways of working. We do not necessarily get or need to see the final result of His work through us in this life.
When our thinking becomes negatively self-centered, we can forget to acknowledge the goodness and light spread by God revealing Himself through us. We can also forget to acknowledge the goodness and light that has spread from the work of others. Yet God calls us to remember that we live in community with others who also desire to spread the truth of God’s love: “But I will leave 7,000 in Israel—every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
God still works through us even in our deepest agony—even while we suffer—to affect our world for His purposes and kingdom. Resist the temptation to think that our lives do not really matter! We can be tempted, like Elijah, in exhaustion and pain, to become narrow-minded and blind to God’s mission for humankind, saying, “If these big things didn’t change the hearts of men, then I give up! Nothing will work.” Yet God has shown us through the obedient suffering of Jesus Christ and His redeeming resurrection that there is hope, no matter how grim our current situation.
Voices from the Culture
“[Saruman] believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check; but…that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” 4
–Gandalf, from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Our work in the kingdom matters beyond just the big moments, and our purpose extends beyond just our lives. Because of the resurrection of Jesus—God’s messenger who, like Elijah, faced opposition and persecution—we know that all our labor for the Lord matters (see 1 Cor. 15:58). It will endure into eternity. God’s Word will not return void but will accomplish its purpose. Trusting in the God who whispers to us in our times of greatest need, we set our hearts forward and follow Jesus—our King of sacrifice and joy.
Christ Connection: Elijah was a prophet who faced persecution and opposition from those who rejected God. His example points forward to Jesus, the greatest prophet, who endured opposition for delivering God’s Word.
His Mission, Your Mission
Missional Application: God calls us to rely on Him for the strength we need to deliver His message.
- How can we, as Christians relying on God, minister to and strengthen one another in times of despair?
- What are some still, small ways in which we can demonstrate and proclaim the gospel of Jesus?
- What are some specific ways we can encourage and challenge one another toward faithfulness in sharing Christ with the lost world around us?
- Martin Luther, as summarized in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton (New York: Meridian, 1995), 171.
- Paul Gerhardt, “Give to the Winds Thy Fears,” Indelible Grace Hymn Book [online; cited 21 January 2016]. Available from the Internet: http://www.hymnbook.igracemusic.com.
- Gary Inrig, 1,2 Kings, vol. 7 in Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2009) [WORDsearch].
- Dane C. Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 95.