Ravens and the Prophet

Confronted with God's Challenge - Chapter Seventeen

 

So (Elijah) got up and ate and drank.
Strengthened by that food,
he travelled for forty days and forty nights
until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him:
‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.
The Israelites have rejected Your covenant,
broken down Your altars,
and put Your prophets to death with the sword.
I am the only one left,
and now they are trying to kill me too.’
The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain
in the presence of the Lord,
for the Lord is about to pass by.’

(1 Kings 19:8-11)

God is looking for a people through whom He can challenge His enemies. In Elijah He had found such a man, but even this ‘giant of faith’ needed to be reminded that it was not by might, nor by power, that he could bring about any lasting change in the country.

Unlike most of us, who become seriously off-balance if we stray too far from the body of Christ, Elijah, like all true prophets, had to obtain his reassurance directly from the Lord. The food God had provided gave him the strength to make the journey to Mount Horeb, where he would experience a fresh encounter with his Lord. This was no ordinary walk on the wild side. This was to be a forty day pilgrimage to the mountain, and even, some say, to the very cave where God had revealed Himself to Moses.(1)

In those far-off days, no caravan tours wound their way through the desert to make Mount Horeb a shrine of pilgrimage. So far as we know, Elijah was the first visitor in centuries. There could be no place on earth more associated with the presence of God than Mount Horeb. This was where Moses had seen the burning bush, and had been given the Law after his epic sojourn alone with God.(2)

As he made his way through the wilderness, Moses must have constantly been in his mind. Had that great servant of the Lord ever been able to forgive himself his outburst of frustration, which had consigned the former prince to a forty year sojourn in the wilderness? Weaknesses exposed are not necessarily weaknesses overcome. It was to be another outburst of temper, forty years later, which deprived him forever of the chance of entering the Promised Land.(3)

Hope surged through him as the famous mountain loomed before his eyes. Surely it would be here, where Moses had struck the rock that yielded a miraculous supply of water, and where he had lifted up his hands and prayed while Amalek was defeated, that God would draw close and deal once and for all with the menace Ahab and Jezebel posed to the nation?(4)

The Lord was longing to blow away the doubts and sorrows that had filled His servant’s mind, but there were implications about the flight from Jezreel that Elijah still needed to face. That is why this most precious of encounters began, not with an embrace, but with a challenge. The Lord was determined to undo the damage striving was causing in Elijah’s life.

After a night in a cave, the Lord met with His servant – but not at all in the way he might have hoped for. The encounter came in the form of a searching question: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ If Elijah had been looking for a pat on the head, and to be told that he was doing a wonderful job, then the Lord’s question must have pierced him to the heart. What was he really doing here? Had he come all this way at God’s leading – or merely because he was running away from Jezebel?

We may well imagine that it had taken Elijah the full forty days for the despair in his heart to ease. If the Lord waited so long to put this question, then it was because He knew that it was only now that Elijah was ready to hear it. The Lord holds back until we are strong enough to face such a challenge. The way in which Elijah parried the Lord’s question (by insisting that he alone had been faithful) might indicate that Elijah was in danger of making an idol out of his faithfulness.(5) Given the sorry state of the nation, and the traumas he had been through, it is hardly surprising that Elijah had persuaded himself that this was the case. He was much mistaken, of course – just as we are when we begin to suppose that we are in any way special.

An Encounter of Holiness

Rather than assuming that Elijah had become a touch complacent in his role as Prophet Number One, there is an altogether kinder way to interpret this episode. Elijah’s heart-cry is strikingly similar to the despair Habakkuk would one day feel over the state of the nation. Like all true prophets, Elijah and Habakkuk spoke not only to the people on behalf of God, but to God on behalf of the people. Both shared a deep concern that the Lord did not appear to be doing anything. Both had to be shown that God was, in fact, doing a great deal.

Consider, too, those glorious moments when God met with Moses in the burning bush, and when Joshua encountered the leader of the Lord’s armies immediately before his decisive battle against Jericho.(6) These mighty encounters took place in solitude, for God takes advantage of such times to make us face challenges we would otherwise run from.(7) Elijah discovered, like Moses and Joshua before him, not that God was on his side, but that he must be on His.

There is a type of Christianity that never progresses beyond rejoicing in being forgiven. Good though it is to celebrate, endless celebration can, paradoxically, become an excuse for not facing God’s more searching challenges. Even our Christian service can then become a subtle form of evasion.5

When God probed Elijah’s motives, He found them sadly lacking. It is an unfortunate fact that our vices are more habit-forming than our virtues: they are easy to catch, but hard to break. No surprise, then, if the Lord has to use hammer and chisel to bring about that humility which enables us to inherit the kingdom of God.

There come times when the Lord puts His finger on actions and attitudes we might have been content to pass over in silence.

We are pulled up short, not only for the things we have done, but equally for matters we have failed to attend to.

Above all, the Lord convicts us of the lack of compassion and humility we have shown to virtually everyone we have been in contact with.

Just as wreckage that has long lain on the sea bed is exposed as the tide recedes, so these times of challenge expose wrong attitudes in our hearts. In a sense this is pure mercy. How will we know if we can face loss with equanimity, and misunderstanding with trust and graciousness unless we are put to the test?

In His loving wisdom, God has to puncture our self-delusions. He asks us questions that reveal the sins that lie half-buried in our self-centred hearts. It can be painful beyond words when these things are exposed. I, for one, usually find it easier to withstand purely external adversity, rather than to suffer in the full knowledge that it has come about through my own silly fault.

Grandiose plans that are undergirded by insufficient humility come to a sticky end. Errors of judgement entail consequences which cannot always be avoided. But God is continuously checking and monitoring our response, to see whether His chastisements are bringing about the necessary repentance in our hearts.

These are the critical junctures in our lives. The Lord sees the inherent pride that hinders many of us from being willing to retrace our steps, and that shrinks from having to accept the inevitable loss of face. Yet if we stubbornly try to hold on to the way things were, we risk losing all.

To realise that many of our motivations are depraved and distorted is a necessary stage in the process of sanctification. To dwell too long in this place of self-discovery, however, would be dangerous. We might find ourselves inadvertently agreeing with the Accuser of the Brethren that we really are worthless! Since we have a High Priest who sympathises with our weaknesses, we must be prepared to face our many failures and foibles – but then move on beyond them.

The ability to show mercy (to ourselves as well as towards others) is one of the fairest fruits of intimacy with God. If we pressurize ourselves, or others, into parroting platitudes of faith, the heart will remain unconvinced. Worse, it may become rebellious, and learn to perform for the approval of others. All this is far from the true freedom God has in mind for us.

It is comforting that even when we do fall into wildernesses of our own making, the Lord will still go out of His way to woo us back to the path of faith and duty. As the angel of the Lord found Hagar in the wilderness, so for Elijah too, there would be an encounter in the desert.(8)

Burnt out Burden-Bearer

Elijah’s difficult task had been to plough up the hardened soil of a spiritually deceived generation, and make the people aware of the imminence of God’s judgement. Perhaps he secretly nursed unrealistic expectations that the leaders of the nation would convert immediately back to the God of their fathers in the aftermath of the victory on Mount Carmel. No sooner did his thoughts return to the grievous state of affairs in Israel, than a feeling of gloom settled on him again.

As we have seen, God did not reproach Elijah for this. True, He did point out that there were still seven thousand faithful souls in the land who had not bowed the knee to Baal, but even then He did not rub Elijah’s nose in the fact. The Lord understands the peculiar pressures that burden-bearers face.

When a sensitive man or woman feels the pain of a hurting person, or society, but sees no way in which to discharge these feelings, it is hardly to be wondered at if they find themselves prone to illness, and susceptible to myriad addictions. Mind and body overload in the search for relief from a pain they are unable to express.

Such people often go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, smoothing over issues that needed facing up to. Alternatively, they adopt a martyr’s stance, heavily overlaid with self-pity. They become, in Loren Sandford’s memorable words, ‘peace-makers in the flesh.’

If we are not willing to share our inner hurts with those who are close to us, then we cause them to suffer doubly, not only because of we have a problem, but also because we are not sharing it with them. If we do not know where the real issue lies, the chances are that our wife, husband or friends already has a pretty good idea!

To coin a proverb, ‘Honesty solves problems, but touchiness repels’. We might not be inclined to rank over-sensitivity as one of the greater sins, but how can you work with a devious or an insecure person? It is exhausting! It is hard to love such people back to life, because as soon as you offer the slightest suggestion, no matter how lovingly, they retreat into their shell and begin to bristle. Lord, help us not to be so touchy!

Overcoming Satanic Strategies

The devil does not give in easily. Previously, he had been desperate to persuade Elijah that he had reached the end of the road. Now we find him adopting a new ploy. There are few more successful avenues for the powers of darkness to exploit than stirring up the bitter-sweet pangs of self-pity. Counterfeiting the tenderness of God, Satan would have been at pains to sympathise with Elijah. How awful that he, who had been so faithful to his God, should find himself so neglected now!(9)

The powers of darkness do not normally have much difficulty in making us critical. We are quick to find fault with others, easily mistaking our prejudices for maturity. More than ever we need to watch our tongues. Just as we stressed earlier, regarding the matter of God’s provision, how essential it is to avoid the ‘but-what-if’ syndrome, so we must also sound a warning against those endless ‘buts’ which gush from our mouths. We do it so automatically, qualifying our statements to the point where it sounds as though even our blessings are a problem! Worse, we add disclaimers to our simplest comments about people, all but ruining their reputation in their absence.

If criticism kills, then kind words, and appropriate actions, have the opposite effect. If we will seek the Lord, He will show us ways to love and serve those whom we are most tempted to criticise. After all, even if unjust accusations are coming our way, doesn’t God know many worse things about us than we are actually being accused of?

If our love for the Lord, and His Body, the Church, has become clouded with ambition, and our hearts filled with condescending and judgmental thoughts, it matters not that our mind teems with schemes and bright ideas. Our condition will not be helped by a diet of more blessings, for these might merely serve to confirm us in our deceitful contentment. Thus, those of us who claim to know so much about the Lord can still be riddled with pride and many other wrong desires. We can be sure of this: we are in line for the challenge of the Lord!

A few timely words of encouragement can go a long way to spur us on.(10) What we must not do, of course, is to try to derive all our security from other people. If we have programmed ourselves to believe that we are not acceptable, it is too much for any human person to convince us of the opposite. Better by far to ‘forgive’ God for making us the way that we are, and to expect right and realistic things from each other. Otherwise we will find ourselves withdrawing from people and becoming increasingly isolated and alienated.

If we find ourselves beginning to wonder whether the Lord could not have arranged this or that detail better on our behalf, we are embarking on a slippery slope. Once we mistrust His plan, we soon begin to entertain doubts about the Planner Himself.

Perfectionism: A Faulty Model

If some are eager to exercise power to satisfy their own desires, there are others (including many outwardly successful people) who are plagued by nagging feelings of inadequacy. Typically, these were children who grew up feeling they were not important, and that their parents had more important things to do than to be with them. Children who are praised flourish, whilst those who are constantly criticised and compared with others are easily crushed, unable to perform to the impossibly high standards expected of them.

Many apparently spiritual struggles aren’t really spiritual at all, but come from damaging feelings of low self-esteem. Condemnation hovers around such people like the smog over Athens – until the grace of God chases it away.

It is a flawed theology to say, ‘Well, I know God loves me, but I just can’t live with myself.’ We must be careful. We are speaking against someone whom God has cared for lovingly, provided for abundantly, and planned for perfectly, Is that honouring? Or fair?

For most of us, it is not a sudden experience that will right this imbalance, so much as a daily living out of the truth of God’s Word. To a large extent, how happy we will be depends on the depths of our gratitude, and the state of our inner thought life. ‘For as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.’(11)

This is not a position we will necessarily reach easily. We often spiritualize the process of self-belittling that goes on so laboriously in our mind, and give it some suitably pious name such as ‘The work of Sanctification,’ or ‘Self-crucifixion.’ It would often be nearer the truth to accept it is just a lack of basic trust.

It is hard to worship a God who, as we perceive it, is never satisfied with us. Inward guilt makes us feel we must always try hard to be acceptable – but we fear in our heart that we never will be. A sense of divine disapproval hovers over us, which, inevitably, we transmit to others. Even if we preach all the doctrine right, something comes across in our manner as being not quite right.

Perfectionism is a counterfeit of intimacy with God, because it makes us focus more on what we feel we ‘ought’ to be doing, instead of getting on with what we actually can do. It deceives us into supposing that if only we were to do this or that, then God will accept me, and everything will fall into place. It is a striving after the wind.

The worst thing about perfectionism is the anger that lies just below the surface. Apparently holy (or placid) people finally rebel against the ‘oughts’ they feel God has imposed on them, and resent their failure to be the kind of person they thought they ought to be. Such anger is not objective reality of course; it is directed against the caricature of a disapproving God their own perfectionism has concocted.

God is passionately concerned about justice, but perfectionists become obsessed with it. We must learn to face this anger, and so come free of its pernicious influence. Otherwise we fall into denial, denying that we are angry, because ‘a good Christian would never lose his temper.’

Perfectionists are hard to live with, because the model they are following is a faulty one. You can normally recognise those who are caught up in it by their violent mood swings. These are disconcerting precisely because you never know what to expect when you meet them. If these less readily acknowledged sins are not faced, our children risk growing up subconsciously believing that God is as unpredictable, irrational and unreliable as we have been.

The desire to be a ‘Super-Christian’ dies hard, and perfectionists become easily dispirited through apparent failures. For the truth is that some issues we care about deeply will not resolve in the way that we had hoped. Even Paul and Barnabas ‘agreed to disagree,’ and found themselves unable to work together for a season.

Sometimes we may have to battle against the dark cloud of depression. Most Christians have little understanding about depression, partly, perhaps, because they suppose it is something no Christian ought to suffer from. It is easy to assume that we are doing well if we do not happen to suffer from it ourselves – but this may be more a reflection on our temperament and constitution than any real indication of our spiritual maturity. The Psalms are much more realistic about our times of despair than most Christians are – and they have been a great comfort for sufferers through the centuries.

The first thing to stress is that depression does not always root back to a specific sin. It may have a lot more to do with our personality structure, emotional history or simple body chemistry. Neither is it necessarily a sign of spiritual failure. Sometimes, as for Elijah, it is ‘kickback’ following some great spiritual success.

Since it is the grace of God which puts an end to the perfectionist’s perpetual sense of guilt, let us pray for the Lord to set us free of the cancer of perfectionism, so that we can enter in and enjoy His grace. His tailor-made yoke will suit both our personality and our particular calling.

God loves to achieve great things through weak people – so let us give Him the opportunity to do so! William Carey, the first Protestant missionary to India, wrote, ‘Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.’ Why deny the gifts the Lord has given us? Why go back on the vision He has given us? Don’t let the desires that God has placed within us be wrecked by Satan’s propaganda machine. Jam his wavelengths, believe the opposite, and refuse all fears and doubts!

David Seamans suggests that we should ask God to check us every time we begin to belittle ourselves.(12) Since this process may occur far more often than we realise, it will take serious resolve to put this exercise into practice. It will involve learning to receive the utterly undeserved, but freely given, grace of the Lord.

Reflections

In the course of the average day, over 12,000 thoughts pass through our mind. I wish more of mine were of any eternal value! It is well worthwhile examining the subjects (and the objects) to which our imagination returns again and again. Do they glorify the Lord, or do they merely lead to insatiable cravings which reduce our capacity to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Amy Carmichael wrote, ‘Beware what you set your heart on, for it shall be yours.’ Are not so many of our words likewise designed merely to impress others?

Pray and meditate on these words of the Psalmist:

‘Set a guard over my mouth,
O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips;
Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.’ (13)

Listen, too, to the heartfelt appeal of the writer of the book of Ecclesiasticus.(14)

‘O for a sentry to guard my mouth, and a seal of discretion to close my lips, to keep them from being my downfall, and to keep my tongue from causing my ruin! Lord,

Father and Ruler of my life, do not abandon me to the tongue’s control or allow me to fall down on its account.
O for wisdom’s lash to curb my thoughts and to discipline my mind without overlooking my mistakes or condoning my sins! . . .

Many people have been killed by the sword, but not so many as by the tongue.’

Selah

Thank You, Father, for being so long-suffering with us. Lord, we welcome Your challenge.

Forgive us when we mistrust You, and lash out at people who would do us good. Forgive us that we are so intolerant, and so quick to defend ourselves. Show us those attitudes which need to change – and grant us strength to overcome them. Help us to speak words that build people up, and which release Your blessing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Previous chapter – Angelic Restoration
Next Chapter – Symbols of His Power

References

1 Exodus 33:22
2 This too had lasted forty days and nights. See Exodus 3:1-4, Deuteronomy 4:15
3 Deuteronomy 1:37
4 Cf Exodus 3:12, 19:3
5 Elijah must have held this belief strongly, because he repeats it on no fewer than three separate occasions: 1 Kings 18:22; 19:10, 14
6 Exodus 3:2-4, Joshua 5:13-15, cf Isaiah 6
7 Eg Genesis 32:24-28
8 Genesis 16:13
9 Hannah Hurnard’s marvellous allegory of the Christian life, ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ (Kingsway Publications) graphically illustrates this process. Foremost among the enemies Much Afraid meets as she makes her pilgrimage to the high places is Self-Pity. We would heartily commend this book.
10 Hebrews 10:24
11 Proverbs 23:7 (KJV)
12 David Seamans, Healing Damaged Emotions (Scripture Press Foundation)
13 Psalm 141:3-4;
14 Sirach 22: 27-23:2, 28:18, cf James 3:6-11. The book of Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach, is included in Catholic versions of the Bible.

Chapter Index