How is it that we can have an amazing encounter with God, then apparently fall off the edge of a spiritual cliff? If it’s any encouragement, the same thing happened to one of my greatest heroes of faith, Elijah. Here’s why his story will inspire you anyway.
The story, contained in 1 Kings 18, of how Elijah vanquished the prophets of Baal is one of the great epics of the Bible. One man against 450! Even Bruce Willis couldn’t beat that.
At the day’s end, when the fire fell on Elijah’s offering and the prophets were slaughtered, it appeared that Elijah’s long battle against the wicked king Ahab had come to a triumphant conclusion. Even the three year drought, at the prophet’s word, had suddenly come to an end. But the story was not over. The very next day, Jezebel sent messengers to Elijah vowing to take his life in return for what he had done.
And Elijah fled.
Yes, fled! Hard to believe isn’t it? How can this invincible hero, who single-handedly destroyed the assembled powers of wickedness the previous day, have been in one moment so utterly vanquished?
God took him on a pilgrimage to find out why. Having arrived at Beersheba, God sent him on a 40 day journey to Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai). There, hidden in probably the same cleft of rock Moses found himself in many centuries before (Exodus 33), he witnessed three spectacular signs - a wind, an earthquake and a fire. Yet God was not in any of them. Then came what is usually translated as a still, small voice or a low whisper (1 Kings 19:12). The phrase in Hebrew is literally “a thin silence.”
God showed up, but not in the way Elijah had expected. And that was the point.
Elijah was expecting the triumph of God to arrive through manifestations of power, and when those manifestations did not stop Jezebel, his ultimate enemy, he gave up. Elijah’s identity worked in strength, but not in weakness.
Jesus understood this, even though his disciples did not. Surely his mission would overcome every obstacle through the performance of the most extraordinary miracles ever seen since since the days of Moses and Elijah. Every foe would bow in the face of such demonstrations of power! That’s why the disciples were asking for the seats of power at his right hand and his left when the new revolutionary government was established in Jerusalem. Yet Jesus knew victory would not come through the power of his miracles. No, victory would come and the redemptive purposes of God would be released only through a naked man hanging in utter humiliation and apparently total defeat on a Roman cross.
Or, as another of my heroes put it: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
God can come in ways we expect and pray for -- provision, promotion, things going right, churches growing. But what happens when he doesn’t? What happens when we faithfully serve him and yet things are still hard, things don’t happen as we hoped, things even go wrong? Do we run or give up when it doesn’t work out the way we hoped?
For me, Elijah remains a source of massive encouragement. His works of faith lead to him being pictured in Revelation 11, along with Moses, as representatives of everything the church should be as the people of God. And strangely enough, he’s encouraging to me even in his failures. When I fail, I’m in good company!
And failure, when placed in God’s hands, is never really failure. Elijah was commanded to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king over Israel and Elisha as prophet in his place. He lived to pronounce the doom of both Ahab and Jezebel, a task Jehu duly completed. Meanwhile, Elisha raised up a whole school of prophets to carry on Elijah’s work. And Elijah was transported to heaven in a whirlwind.
So here we have both triumph and failure and triumph, all in one package.
The secret to walking through it well is in finding God not in the whirlwind, but in the whisper. That’s where his presence is.
No matter what your circumstances, you will never fail to find him there.