In I Kings 18, one of the most famous stories of Elijah is recorded. It presents the culmination of a great work God did in Israel through the prophet. During this time, the kingdom of Israel was ruled by the wicked King Ahab, whose strong-will wife, Jezebel, also exerted strong influence. As a punishment for the faithlessness of the nation, God withheld the rain from Israel for three-and-a-half years. During this time of spiritual wickedness, the prophets of the false god Baal were spreading their influence all across the nation. Elijah challenged these false prophets to prove the existence and power of their god. He summoned the nation to choose whom they would follow: Baal or the true LORD. The four hundred and fifty false prophets spent all morning calling upon Baal, but to no avail. Elijah prayed that the Lord would reveal Himself, and the Lord answered powerfully by sending fire from heaven! The false prophets were destroyed, and Israel began to see the error of their ways. Elijah concluded the event by fervently and effectually praying for rain, and once again God answered. What victory! What triumph! After years of sacrifice, Elijah’s faith was blessed and his confidence was rewarded in an amazing way – so amazing that we’re still talking about it today.
The series of decisions that happened next would cause Elijah to plummet into deep discouragement. We’ll see Elijah dive into discouragement, and rise to encouragement through God’s grace. We’ll see ourselves in his struggles, and hopefully we’ll determine to rise again to encouragement as well.
Elijah’s first dive into discouragement came at the hands of Jezebel
And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. – I Kings 19:1-3
The false prophets of Baal were instituted through Jezebel’s ungodly influence, and their death absolutely enraged her! In her wrath, she sent a messenger directly to Elijah stating that she was going to kill him. The threat shook him to the core, and he ran away to a place called Beer-sheba hoping to preserve his life. As a result of his haste, he left his assistant behind and was all alone in his journey into the wilderness.
Have you ever faced a problem by yourself? Some of the times of greatest discouragement in my life have come when I’ve felt all alone. When I was overseas, I remember many nights when I felt empty and alone. I faced medical concerns, homesickness, and often felt as though there was no purpose to my life. Though some tried to cheer me, I often left them behind and struck out into the wilderness on my own only to find that solitude brought more sorrow rather than solace.
In the Christian life, you can “cast all your care upon [Jesus], for he careth for you” (I Peter 5:7). In the story of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2), we are told that Hannah faced a time of ridicule and heartache in her family life. The desire of her heart was to have a son, yet she faced this struggle alone. Her friends derided her (I Samuel 1:6), and her husband didn’t understand her perspective (I Samuel 1:8). Her response? When she was of a “sorrowful spirit,” she went to the temple to “pour out my soul before the LORD.”(I Samuel 1:15). Have you poured out your heart to Christ in prayer? Has your sorrowful spirit driven you into the wilderness or into a time of prayer with the Lord? Elijah faced a terrible problem alone, yet he didn’t have to be alone. He turned away from prayer (despite seeing its power first hand in the previous chapter) and ran into a wilderness of discouragement.
Additionally, there are “burden bearers” who can help you carry your load. Other Christians can comfort and counsel you through your hardships. “Bear ye one another’s burdens” is Paul’s admonition to spiritual Christians in Galatians 6:2. God puts faithful people in our lives “for such a time as this.” Esther had Mordechai, David had Jonathan, Moses had Joshua, and the list goes on. In this case, Elijah had his faithful servant. A godly friend is one that “loveth at all times,” and is there for you in times of adversity (Proverbs 17:17). Do you have such friends? If so, turn to them during times of trouble. They will be a great source of encouragement and guidance. These people will be your greatest prayer partners and biggest cheerleaders. Don’t let pride fool you into thinking that you can do it all on your own. Allow the Lord to work through these faithful friends.
Elijah’s next dive into discouragement came in the wilderness
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. – I Kings 19:4
When you think of the biblical stories that took place in the wilderness, perhaps your thoughts go back to Moses as he lead Israel through the wilderness after their refusal to enter to Promised Land. The wilderness is always a reminder of wandering and aimlessness. Under normal circumstances, the hike from Egypt to the Promised Land would take 11 days, yet the nation wandered around the same patches of land for forty years! Elijah found himself without direction because he didn’t seek God’s guidance when he received the threats from Jezebel. He found himself in a place of solitude and sat down under a juniper tree. This detail is important in understanding the narrative of Elijah. The juniper tree is a plant with a bitter root which was eaten by those who were poor, destitute, and desperate for food. For Elijah a “root of bitterness” sprung up into his soul and troubled him (Hebrews 12:15). We know Elijah was bitter because he said he wanted to die (I Kings 19:4).
Have you ever felt that you wanted to die? I don’t mean that you’ve used that phrase as a dramatic figure of speech. Have you ever been so depressed that you felt empty, hopeless, and fragile? What brings on depression? It is a development that starts with thinking resentfully about the situation we’re facing. We develop anger at the person or entity that has inflicted us with the harm, and we can even wish evil things to happen to them in return. We convince ourselves that the situation is so bad or the person is so evil that there is no help or hope available to us. As this type of thinking endures, we can begin thinking seriously about ending our lives. “What is the purpose of living if I must be forced to live like this – with such feelings, with such betrayal, with such pain, with such anguish?” The pain is so vivid that it becomes a central focus. All of life becomes colored by the marker of pain. We feel poor and needy when our heart is wounded within us (Psalm 109:22). Who can bear the pain of that wounded heart? Only those who commit to hope in God, the great deliverer and savior “who is the health of my countenance” (Psalm 42:11). A healthy heart is an encouraged heart, but Elijah didn’t seek the Lord to repair his hurting heart. He sulked under the tree all day until he was exhausted and fell asleep in the wilderness.
Elijah’s third dive into discouragement came in a cave
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. – I Kings 19:9-10
Elijah’s ministry was centered on Judah, yet he continued to move farther away from the place God wanted him to be. The Lord even asks, What doest thou here, Elijah? The question was meant to reveal to Elijah his real motives behind his actions and to help him see that he had gone very far from where the Lord wanted him to be. Perhaps he had the same attitude that Jeremiah later expressed, “O that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people, and go from them, for they are all adulterers.” It is interesting that he chose to go to a cave on Mount Horeb, the mount of God where the Lord delivered the 10 Commandments to Moses. The mountain was a monument of God’s righteousness and His demands to His people to live righteously. From his perspective, Elijah was the only one living righteously (I Kings 19:10). This was foolish thinking, but in the pride of his heart he deemed his assessment to be accurate (Proverbs 12:15). As a result, he started the process to become a self-righteous recluse that would forsake all things – his God, his calling, and his nation. Elijah would dive so deeply into solitude and solace that his bitterness led to a broken spirit. As Solomon would say, “by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). Elijah struggled with the pain he felt, and it drove him into deeper struggles.
Our bitterness can quickly drive us into brokenness as well. If you have experienced any kind of pain in life, you can find plenty of reasons to avoid people. We develop generalizations and conjure fears that insist that because one person hurt us then all people will hurt us. We think that because one Christian acted foolishly then all of them will do so. We think that because one pastor abused his power then all of them will. We think because one man abused his wife than none of them can be trusted. While I do not justify any of these ungodly behaviors, we cannot superimpose the characteristics of the ungodly upon others who are legitimately seeking to serve God despite their unique faults or struggles. Elijah had to be reminded that there were many others in Israel who desired to worship God and to see revival in their nation (I King 19:18). His stereotypes were very damaging to him and caused him to withdraw from fellowship with God and others.
A bitter heart and a broken spirit will lead people to intensify their anger toward particular people as well as broaden their malice and resentment toward people in general. It is not uncommon to find people who won’t go back to church because of all the “hypocrites” that attend. True, there are those in church who are just pretending to live the Christian life (some folks may not even be saved – Judas wasn’t). Do you use these past hurts of the “hypocrites” to justify your reclusiveness and abstinence from church? Someone close to me once observed a leader in the church who abused his position, and it hurt people in the church. Certainly that type of abuse of power is wrong, yet it kept the Christian out of church for two years. I often hear people blame their father or mother for poor parenting. It is true that there are some parents that are uninvolved, inattentive, unapproachable, or unbearable. Have those actions of the past caused you to break communication with them or harbor resentment toward them?
Is there any pain that you’ve experienced that has not been shared by the Lord Jesus Christ? No! He was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Is the grace of God insufficient to meet your needs? No! God’s grace “is sufficient for thee” (II Corinthians 12:9). Our flesh will always cry out for justice against those who have committed the wrong! Yet, the admonition is to “avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath.” Whose place is it to execute judgment? The rest of the verse tells us, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Vengeance, or payback, belongs to the Lord, not you. And, believe me, He can take care of whatever wrongdoing in a far better way than we ever will.
So, where was God when Elijah was spiraling into brokenness? The answer to that question will be answered in the next post, “The Rise to Encouragement.”