Ravens and the Prophet

Shock and Shame - Chapter Fourteen

 

May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely,
if by this time tomorrow
I do not make your life like that of one of them.’
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.
(1 Kings 19:2-3)

In his public and prophetic life, Elijah appears such a giant of a man that it is easy to forget he was a man of like passions to ourselves, and therefore every bit as susceptible to discouragement as we are. Accustomed as he was to the silence of a withdrawn lifestyle, it had cost Elijah a great deal of emotional energy to spend a whole day defying the crazed and demented prophets of Baal. Now, like a weary kangaroo, he was ‘out of bounds,’ and ready to give in.

Knox translates potently what happened next. ‘Elijah took fright and set out upon a journey of his own devising.’ During his stay by the brook Cherith, and again in Zarephath, Elijah had at least been able to comfort himself with the thought that it had been God who had placed him there. It is a hundred times more humbling to find ourselves in a wilderness of our own making!

Jezebel’s challenge had shaken Elijah to the core of his being. One woman’s threats achieved what the combined might of the prophets of Baal had failed to do: to remove him from the stage. It is a tragic sequel to a day that had begun outstandingly well – and a powerful reminder of how surprise can lead to shock, which in turn can lead to flight.

The Neurosis of Faith

Those who have never experienced any real shock, let alone the pangs of anxiety, may have difficulty relating to this episode in Elijah’s life. But whether or not Elijah’s extreme weakness at this time has any immediate application in our own life, I believe we can learn valuable lessons about the way shock works by studying his brief collapse of trust.

To be on the front line for the Lord means receiving many blows and woundings from the rulers of this present world. When we lose loved ones, or our health, work or ministry take a turn for the worse, it is no wonder if our mind races as we struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable.

Neither does it necessarily take anything so radical as the loss of a partner, or a job, for our mind to cross over the boundaries into shock. Any form of loss or change may cause this to happen, especially if a number of different pressures come our way at the same time.

Perhaps if we were more aware of the multitudes who lie awake at night in prey to anxious thoughts, then our hearts would be more compassionate. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the future, fear even of what God Himself will ask of us . . . These are giants that only grace can assuage and faith finally slay.

Unpleasant though the outward symptoms of anxiety are – the shallow breathing, heart palpitations, stomach aches, sudden bursts of cold sweat and shaking – they are ultimately less pernicious than the way in which shock can paralyse our trust. Just as the body takes time to heal after an injury, so we must give ourselves, and others, the grace and space in which to adjust and recover.

Coping with Shock

The first and all-important step is to realise when we are at risk. To live with unacknowledged shock in our system (or repressed grief for that matter) is as potentially dangerous as holding unexploded gelignite in our hands. If we are not bringing our wounded emotions into the healing love-light of Jesus, there is a constant risk that circumstances may cause us either to explode, spiting others in the process, or to implode, pushing us deeper into ourselves. Honesty, with ourselves and with the Lord, can cure anything. The second thing to hold on to, therefore, is our confidence that He can handle our problems!

Satan had played his master stroke, and it had hurt Elijah deeply. But as another prophet cried out, ‘Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.’(1)

The Lord is not angry with us if we feel disheartened, or when our confidence collapses. The apostle commands us to ‘Be merciful to those who doubt.’ (2) We must apply this principle to our own lives too, and be gentle as we would wish others to be with us. If we are too hard on ourselves, we will merely intensify our feelings of alienation, and effectively condemn ourselves to respond in the same way again when a similar set of circumstances comes our way.

Even though our background and spiritual sense of responsibility may make it hard for us to admit how we are really feeling, this is no time to adopt the stiff upper lip. What we pray at such times may sound as hopelessly untheological as Elijah’s cry to be allowed to die, but the fact that we are pouring out our heart to God is important. At the end of the day, God honoured Job, who protested loudly that human sinfulness is not the only reason for our suffering, rather than his pious companions, who set out to comfort their friend, but who ended up wounding him with wrongful accusations.(3)

If the line between self-pity and a genuine heart cry is sometimes a fine one, the Lord errs on the side of generosity. Just as we encourage our children to share their hurts and troubles with us, so it is good for us to pour out our heartfelt feelings to the Lord. We are not backsliding, we are hurting, and God understands hurt. If we need to tell the Lord the same thing over and over again, then let us not be afraid to do so. This is not idle repetition: it is a necessary stage in taking the healing process from head to heart. The Lord is with us, and He will not get tired of hearing our cries.

It pays to learn from experience which attitudes and actions help the recovery process, and which hinder it. For while certain types of company, and activity, may help to draw us closer to the Lord, others will distract and distance us from Him.

We are not backsliding if we need to concentrate on less demanding pursuits and engagements for a while. To add the strain of additional responsibilities at a time when we are already emotionally overstretched is rarely wise. We are better off taking plenty of rest, and steadying ourselves with soothing truths and undemanding friends. Books and music that will comfort and restore our spirits will also help, as will plenty of fresh air, and busying ourselves with practical tasks.

Be assured that your experience is not unique. Countless Christians have been through the sort of crisis that Elijah experienced, and can testify how the Lord has used these times of surprise and shock as a means of leading them to know the Lord in a deeper way.

While we are in that first stage of heart-pounding shock, however, it is all too easy to press the panic button, and to make impulsive statements and decisions that we will later rue. Our first reactions are rarely mature ones, any more than Elijah’s were in this instance. We do well to bear in mind that ‘He that believes shall not make haste.’(4)

If at all possible, avoid taking irreversible steps; now is rarely the best moment to make life-changing decisions. At all costs beware that festering over-introspection, which tries too hard to pin-point the reasons for what we are experiencing. Since these may only become clearer to us with hindsight – at all – peace will come more through yielding than by demanding answers. His presence will not fail to be with us day by day while we wait for clarity to come.

Riding the Waves

In earthquake zones the danger of aftershocks are well-known. It is much the same with human and spiritual shakings, as shock waves return again and again, threatening to engulf us. Let me share something I have found helpful in combating the onset of these horrible emotions. When I am aware of the first stirrings of shock and anxiety rising in my heart, I try to convert their strongly negative power into a fervent prayer that affirms the opposite of whatever it is that is being suggested.

The secret is to catch the thoughts, rather like a surfer, who needs to ride just ahead of the crest of the wave. If the surfer gets the timing wrong, the waves will roll over and submerge him, just as these emotions threaten to swamp us. But if we ride the waves, we can harness their power in prayer to accomplish more than if they had never come our way.

I hate shocks every bit as much as anyone else. Yet I am forced to recognise that my own life, like that of the wider Church, has grown as a result of pressure. The Lord works in mysterious ways to transform our griefs and disappointments into His ‘appointments’ as we cry out to Him. He knew exactly what he was doing when He brought us into His Kingdom, and He knows where He is leading us! Like the Psalmist, we will be able to testify, ‘When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought joy to my soul.’(5)

Reflections

Take to heart these words Sir Thomas More penned, as coming from the Lord: ‘Pluck up thy courage, faint heart . . . for I myself have vanquished the whole world, and yet felt I far more fear, sorrow, weariness, and much more inward anguish too, when I considered My most bitter passion.
But thou, now, O timorous and weak silly sheep, think it sufficient for thee only to walk after Me, which am thy Shepherd and Governor, and so mistrust thyself and put thy trust in Me. Take hold of the hem of My garment, therefore.’

Selah (6)

Thank You, Lord, that You understand when we are knocked off-balance.

I ask You to help all who are suffering today from the after-effects of any kind of shock: from accident or disappointment, from bereavement or bewilderment.

Be with each one, dear Lord, and send them Your comfort in the way that will best minister to them.

Free them from the after-effects of all their shocks. Restore their heart to love and trust, their mind to think and act creatively, and their will to serve.

Lead our steps to those who are thus suffering, and make us a source of refreshment to the bruised and weary. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

References

1 Micah 7:8
2 Jude 22
3 Job 5:10-16, 12:13-25
4 Isaiah 28:16 KJV
5 Psalm 94:29, cf Psalm 62:5-8; 27:1-2; 2 Corinthians 10:5. It has also been said that though we may often be hurt in the service of the Kingdom, we will rarely be seriously harmed.
6 You may find it helpful to substitute ‘me’ for ‘all,’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’ for ‘them’ and ‘their’ to make this prayer applicable to your own situation.

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