Having depended on ravens for food, having raised the widow’s son back to life, having faced down 450 prophets of Baal and overcome, you would expect Elijah to ride on this series of miraculous victories and go from strength to strength, flush in the confidence that with God on his side, nothing and no one could stand in his way. An exemplar of victorious faith.
But right in the very next chapter, we see him desperate and defeated, pleading for God to take his life. There is no indication he is speaking metaphorically, either. Elijah the prophet who called down heavenly fire moments ago is now praying to God to grant him the release of death.
How can Elijah’s anti-climatic journey from the heights of Carmel to the depths of despair instruct our own Christian experience today?
There’s a classic stanza that most of us would have sung a hundred times over in the course of our Christian lives:
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.
While it may be true to a degree on a profound and theological level, this particular call to ‘Trust and Obey’ may convey the idea that doubt and depression somehow ought to have no place in the healthy Christian life. That they are symptoms of our failure to simply ‘trust and obey’.
It may conjure up an over-idealised and sanitised image of Christianity where everyone in church is always cheery, where youths raised rightly never raise questions about the faith, and no God-fearing Christian ever lives in fear of pain and persecution.
Is this not partly the reason why well-meaning, bible-believing churches suffer from inauthenticity? When every fear we share, every question we raise and and every tear we shed is evidence of either a lack of trust and/or disobedience, let’s get real — who would want to be real? But the bigger question is: is this really what the normal Christian life is expected to look like — no doubts, no fears, no sighs, no tears?
In 1 Kings 19, with the memory of Mt Carmel fresh in the reader’s mind, one can hardly accuse the mighty prophet of failing to trust and obey. God offers no such rebuke either.
So, at least on a real and human level, it’s not necessarily going to be the case that trust and obedience immunise us from doubts, fears, sighs, and tears this side of heaven. Why else would God promise the faithful that “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes”?
So, if you are facing discouragement, experiencing doubts and feeling guilty for these things in addition to them, may Elijah’s experience, and that of so many other faithful men and women throughout history, grant you encouragement that you are not alone in feeling them. Not all tears stem from faithlessness; not every doubt should (or can) be suppressed by “just believing” and not every cloud in our skies is hung there by God as a marker of our infidelity.
Sure, Elijah is not without fault in his suicidal ideation. In today’s chapter, the self-indulgent pity-party he throws is frankly cringeworthy. James reminds us that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas 5:17), beset, no doubt, with the same weaknesses of the human condition.
But lest we forget, this is the Elijah of Mt Carmel we’re talking about, the one in whose legacy John the Baptist ministered, and one of the two Old Testament saints who stood beside the Lord Jesus at his transfiguration. Is it reasonable to expect that we shall always soar victoriously on the wings of faith when even Elijah struggled with serious despair at times in his life?
I think Elijah’s experience can serve as a healthy corrective to our expectation of a what a normal, faithful, Christian life and ministry looks like. It’s not all spectacular miracles and mountain peak experiences. There are potholes and valleys to journey across, too. And we can be encouraged that rather than asking him to simply “trust and obey” more, God tenderly nurses Elijah and assures him of his presence. May we do the same for others when they stumble and struggle in the journey of discipleship. And let us thank God for being the God that He is:
“Father-like, he tends and spares us,
well our feeble frame he knows;
in his hands he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes”.
– Ps Luwin Wong