I sat on the edge of a farm field overlooking the Sea of Galilee just south of the Mount of Beatitudes. We were given twenty minutes to ourselves, so I sat with my Bible in my lap and began reading in Matthew 5. As you might imagine, sitting on that slope was a spiritual mountaintop. Upon returning to the bus, I shared with my professor what an amazing experience that had been not knowing there would be many more in the days to come. His reply has stuck with me since, “be prepared, with every spiritual high follows a spiritual low.” I think he would admit there was some hyperbole in his statement, but as we walk with
Christ, we understand very well that our spiritual lives contain both the mountains and the valleys.
It was not long after returning from Israel that I experienced very difficult ministry challenges and spiritual battles. For two years the valleys far outnumbered the mountain tops. It was a hard season. I sought the counsel of many brothers and received encouragement in the most desperate times from many within our own fellowship of churches. There were times of prayerlessness and hopelessness over the circumstances. I humbly admit those trying times led to deep repentance over the anger and frustration I had felt. In the midst of much defeat were also beautiful times of the compassionate care of Jesus.
My story is not unique. We work in a fallen world with the ongoing realization of our own sinful hearts. Ministry is hard, and it has always been. The Lord encouraged me with the story of another minister who shared similar circumstances. The prophet Elijah knew the highs and lows of ministry. As he took on the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel he was on top of the world. His faith was in the living God. He saw victory, and he anticipated sweeping changes in the nation. As the long-awaited rain was falling, we can almost feel the anticipation in Elijah for a washing away of the idolatry that had overtaken Israel. Then comes 1 Kings 19. Queen Jezebel was furious and called for Elijah’s death. So, the great and mighty prophet who slayed the idolatrous servants of Baal fled. Not only did he flee Israel, but he hightailed it out of Judah, too, and found himself in the desert.
After a day, Elijah sat under a broom tree and he pleaded with the Lord to take away his life. Interestingly, he was not suicidal, he wanted God to kill him. What brought him to this point? It was like a semi-truck hitting the brick wall. Elijah fled and was wandering the desert alone thinking about what had happened. He was overcome with guilt. The mighty prophet was now outside of the country in which he had been sent to proclaim the Word of God. He was alone, afraid, and he realized that maybe he was not as bold as he had thought himself to be.
How do we expect God to respond? I wonder how many of us would expect God to respond in anger and frustration, throwing His hands in the air and giving up on Elijah. As we look closely at 1 Kings 19, how does he actually respond to Elijah? Not with frustration, not with anger, not distancing Himself. No, He responded in grace. His prophet is at his lowest, and God provided rest and food. As the prophet laid sleeping, God drew near. He sent an angel to Elijah to care for him. He gave rest, food, and water. Then, the angel returned because Elijah fell asleep once more. Grace upon grace and provision came to the prophet for the journey ahead to Horeb.
At Horeb, we learn Elijah is still suffering. He was hiding in the cave and with a question that reminds me a lot of God’s question to Adam in the garden, He asks, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” His answer sounded familiar to me as he rolled out the pity party, it sounded much like what I had said to the Lord. As the story continued, wind, earthquake, and fire do nothing to roust Elijah from his cave. He remained inside shut away in his self-loathing. God did not come in those great and mighty displays of power. Yet, God did come.
He came in a still small whisper. Elijah’s experience was raw and real, and we saw the man in all his flaws. God was not done with Elijah, but his ministry was not going to be as Elijah expected. After all, it was God’s work, not Elijah’s. That is an important lesson for any of us in a state like his; when things are crashing down around us, we tend to get very self-centered. God told him that all the ministry he thought he would be doing was going to instead be done by people he was sent to anoint. He also reminded him that there was a remnant, that His promises would endure. The redemptive plan of God did not rest squarely on the shoulders of Elijah. It does not rest on ours either.
In this chapter, Elijah was restless and rebellious, and after many ministry hurts, I was there too. As we see how God responded to His servant, we learn much about how the Lord Jesus ministers to us within our deep valleys of service to our King. God did not take Elijah to the proverbial woodshed. He ministered to him with food, water, rest, and gentleness. That still small whisper in its meekness reminds me of my Savior. As I think back on those words I read on that hillside in Galilee, Jesus lifts the drooping heads of the poor in spirit, the meek, the lowly. He is gentle with us.
While some want a Jesus that looks less like The Rock of the Scriptures and more like The Rock of Hollywood, in my distress I needed the gentleness and compassion that only Jesus Christ can give. He overcame my restless and rebellious heart in the same way He overcame Elijah’s. God conquers rebellious and restless hearts with the mercy, grace, kindness, and meekness of Jesus Christ. He can do the same for you.
Tim Nessler is a pastor at Calvary Bible Fellowship Church in Deptford, NJ.