Often, when we think ‘destruction,’ God is thinking ‘construction.’
It was a red-letter day in my life when I realized that a complete personal, emotional breakdown was the very thing that saved both my life and ministry. It was a timely topple.
I Kings 18 portrays one of the most astounding divine interventions on behalf of a human being. It’s the story of Elijah’s overwhelming victory over the prophets of Baal. What an amazing, fiery spectacle!
But profound exhaustion often follows times of great exhilaration. The grid of our humanity bends beneath the supernatural power of God flowing through us.
In just a few hours, Elijah is miles away from the Mount Carmel event. He has fallen from the height of faith to the depth of depression. Yes, it is possible. I have been there. From anointed bravado to the shade of a broom tree in one day.
My emotional collapse came at a time when the ‘public ministry’ part of my life seemed to be flourishing. I was pleased with the way my life was headed. I felt that I had proven my worth to God, to the Church and to myself. I was in for an awakening.
The Apostle Paul has a stern warning for all believers in 1 Corinthians 10:12. “Take heed, when you think you are standing, lest you fall.”
On the surface, Elijah’s subsequent experience in 1 Kings 19 seems incongruent with the glorious events of the previous chapter. However his condition is neither surprising nor terminal.
God was as much in Elijah’s topple in 1 Kings 19 as he was in his triumph in 1 Kings 18. In this seeming reversal, God uses the opportunity to re-center and re-tool the prophet. There is a positive, productive next beyond the emotional unwellness of the moment.
We would like to perpetually live in the lines of the old hymns that declares, ‘from victory unto victory, His army shall He lead.’ The more typical progression is from ‘victory unto convalescence.’
Any army general worth his salt will not leave his best soldiers indefinitely at the front of the fray, unless, like David, he wants him to die. God’s plan for our life and ministry is to prosper us and not harm us. God is as present with the pensive Elijah in the wilderness as certainly as He was with the powerful prophet on the mountain of faith.
From this apparent meltdown in Elijah’s life, we can learn some important truths for survival in our own journey in ministry. There is a process here that brings equilibrium back to his disrupted life.
Here are some topple takeaways:
1. Relocation: Even though Elijah was running to hide from Jezebel and Ahab, there was divine purpose in his flight. It was in a geographically different place, a quieter place, that Elijah once more encountered a ‘nurturing’ God. Where is that place for you?
When everything seems to be pulling you down, it is helpful to physically remove yourself from the situation, flee to that quiet place away from the battle, for a day, a week, however long it takes.
Even Jesus had to structure His life in this way.
When my life cratered, I could not hear God’s voice in the clamor. I travelled to my sister’s place, 4000 kilometers from the din and spent hours alone in her greenhouses. There, in that moist, quiet, and aromatic environment, I began to once again hear the whisper of Father God.
2. Realization: “You shouldn’t feel that way.” This is a foolish thing to tell a person who is languishing. Denial of true feelings only prolongs the length of time they have power over you. There, under a broom tree, Elijah levels with himself. There is no more denying the depths of his emotions. “I feel alone, betrayed, abandoned and suicidal.” A key to receiving the grace necessary to deal with discouragement is to first-of-all honestly own it. God already knows our misgivings. Pretence is wasted on Him. Furthermore, through Jesus, God identifies fully with our feelings and does not condemn us because of them.
I can only heal to the level of my honesty with myself.
3. Reflection: Can you hear the question in Elijah’s musings. “What is this all about? I am the only one left supporting righteousness? Is this what my life amounts to?” I readily admit that there are times when I have questioned both the wisdom and validity of continuing in ministry. Those pivotal moments have always led me to reflect. I ask the question: “Has my life counted for anything lasting and significant?” Thank God there were always a sufficient number of ‘Ebenezer’ landmarks to reflect back on, testimonies of the visible work of God in my life. You have them too. They are historical benchmarks that anchor you into the future.
4. Response: Even in the depth of his negativity, you sense Elijah’s willingness and desire to hear God’s voice. He allows for that possibility, even while despairing of it happening. Often, when we are in the Gethsemane moments of our life, we put God’s grace on trial and blame Him for our condition. We begin to question the goodness of God rather than inquire as to his purpose in the circumstance we face. Even when He seems silent, it is wise to persevere in the attitude: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” He may not speak when you want or say what you wish to hear, but He will speak in the fulness of time and His words are always reassuring.
5. Refreshment: True to His promise, God provided a table for Elijah in the presence of his enemies. While the food replenished his physical body, there was something deeper transpiring. The food was offered, but Elijah had to rise and eat it. God offers refreshment to all who are weary, but He never force feeds His children. There is spiritual sustenance all around us, but it takes an intentional act on our part to receive it. An unopened Bible, an empty prayer closet, a dissociation with the people of God, will leave us spiritually malnourished. At a time, when I was not able to concentrate enough to read the Word of God, my wife daily declared it over me and prayed on my behalf. While I could not appreciate it then, I am certain this is what kept me from spiritual starvation.
6. Reaffirmation: In a gentle way, God began to dissect Elijah’s greatest arguments. “Son, you are not the only Prophet left. There are still 7000 left in Israel who have not compromised the truth.” In my moments of intense loneliness in ministry I need to be reminded that I am never really alone. I am surrounded by a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ cheering me on. I belong to a global family with millions of faith-filled members. I have the promise of a dependable God who has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ I have the Holy Spirit dwelling within me.
7. Re-enlistment: God does not replace us because we have doubts. He does not abandon us because we have accusations. He does not disqualify us because we suffer seasons of depression. Instead, He re-centers us, He reassures us, He refreshes us, and He re-enlists us. “Elijah, go anoint a new king. In your next season you will meet the young man who will pick up a double portion of your anointing and carry on your ministry. You will need to mentor him. Your most important assignment is still ahead of you.”
The moments of greatest growth in my personal life, have not happened amidst the cheers of the crowds on Mount Carmel, but rather in the wilderness-quiet, under the shade of a lonely broom tree, where I confront and accept the depth of my own human weakness and trade it for God’s strength.