Ravens and the ProphetTemptation to Despair - Chapter Fifteen
‘Elijah . . . went a day’s journey into the desert.
He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
‘I have had enough, Lord’, he said.
‘Take my life.
I am no better than my ancestors.’
(1 Kings 19:4)
How alone Elijah felt as he pursued his headlong flight into the desert. We find him, slumped beneath a tree in the desert, a despairing prayer on his lips.
Behind his cry, a fierce spiritual battle was raging.
The powers of darkness were closing in, assailing the battered prophet with lies and self-accusations, until he succumbed to the hammer blows of Satan’s attacks and ended up believing something that was not true: namely, that he was worse than he really was.
What was behind Elijah’s desire to run away?
It was certainly not being on his own that was the problem, for we have seen already how wonderfully at home Elijah could be in the presence of the Lord. No, it was his motivation that had collapsed.
Elijah was suffering from a combination of exhaustion, despair and condemnation – that terrible condition which plagues the majority of Christians at some time or another, and which makes us feel an outsider to God’s goodness.
So long as Elijah had looked at the Lord, he had triumphed over impossible situations and fearsome odds. As soon as he looked at his own peril, however, he found himself unable to respond to this latest threat against his life.
The Cost of Taking a Stand
The love of God had constrained Elijah to go and confront Ahab, but there is a price to pay once we begin challenging vested interests and evil strongholds. To plead for causes that are too righteous to be popular, to tell a compromised Church that it is corrupt, and to strive to awaken slumbering consciences has always been the prophet’s arduous task. Anyone whose duty has led him to challenge prevailing opinion will know the anguish of such isolation – but they also know that it would be quite wrong not to take such a stand.(1)
What breakthroughs of God’s Spirit might never have occurred if the apostles had not withstood the Sanhedrin, if John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had not pursued God’s plan to translate the Bible into English, if Martin Luther had not defied the Pope, and if John Wesley had not ‘consented to be more vile’ and preach the gospel in the open air?
It is not uncommon for pioneers of faith to feel forsaken at their time of greatest need. Our Lord Himself was treated thus. One plus God is still a majority, but we may still face times when we feel overwhelmed by circumstances. Even Moses lost his cool at one point and smashed the stone tablets of the law. So too did David, when, in a moment of rank despair, he ran away to join the Philistine army.(2)
The Prophet’s Despair
Despite the victory on Mount Carmel, it felt to Elijah as though nothing had changed. The people may have witnessed the power of God, but they were by no means converted. As for Jezebel, she still sat securely on her throne. Why had God hinted at so much, but accomplished so little? The powers of darkness crowded in, eager to convince the exhausted prophet that all his efforts had been in vain.
As all hope of accomplishing anything useful withered in Elijah’s heart, it seemed to him that he was no better than his ancestors. For one terrible moment he found himself forced to consider the unthinkable: that he had been mistaken all along in believing that he had been chosen for the task of drawing the nation back to God. In the agony of that tortured awareness, a dark cloud of despair settled on him, in which the past appeared to have been wasted, the present unbearable, and the future too bleak to contemplate. Elijah cried out that he might be allowed to die.
It is not so unusual as one might imagine to come across a Jeremiah cursing the day that he was born, or an Elijah asking to be allowed to die. Extreme pressure often has the effect of making burden-bearers to want to quit. We must be careful. If we do not resist the temptation to despair, we risk opening our hearts to negative forces, which will sweep in and plunge the soul into bitterness, and even cynicism. (A simple test of our heart’s condition is to see whether our spirits still kindle at the sight of others being blessed. If they do not, there is something seriously wrong).
Hope is such a psychological necessity that, without it, the best of us are vulnerable to the scourges of fear and anxiety. Georges Bernanos and other Catholic writers claim that despair is the most insidious of all temptations. This is because the powers of darkness try hard to hide the fact that it is a temptation at all. How clever they are at making our despondency appear a natural response to the dilemmas that we face. How diligent they are in masking the ways in which God has led and blessed us in the past. How easily they shift our focus from the vision God has given to our own lamentable condition. How important it is to remember that we worship a God of hope, and that hope does not disappoint us!(3)
Overcoming the Sense of Failure
As we have seen, behind Elijah’s despair lay a crippling sense of failure. To feel that we have failed is one of the most disorientating of all emotions. Fear of failure stalks our nation, hinders creativity and pressurizes people into ways of living that are at variance with all they really want to do. But the man who has made no mistakes, however, has in all probability, done nothing worthwhile.
There is another sense in which the Lord can only truly use those who have come to thoroughly mistrust themselves. A Spanish proverb reminds us, ‘He is always right who suspects that he makes mistakes.’ Oliver Cromwell put the same point yet more strongly when he said: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible you may be mistaken.‘ Such humility leads us away from despair, and into patterns of godly repentance. It also represents an important counterbalance to the more strident forms of triumphalism.
The Battle is the Lord’s
Perhaps it is only those who have shared the same spiritual burdens as Elijah who can understand the weight of the dejection he felt at this time. Certain types of despondency are more difficult for the saint to bear than the sinner. Whereas those whose hearts have been touched by the Lord feel acutely the pain of individuals, nations or churches which are going astray, the vain occupy and torment themselves with many matters of no consequence.(4)
We must be careful not to make glib judgements about those who have borne much greater strains than ourselves. As an old Red Indian proverb puts it, ‘Help me never to judge another until I have walked for two weeks in his moccasins!‘
Given the circumstances, it is easy to identify with Elijah’s prayer. It is only fanatics, and the untested, who have never had to wrestle with a sense of their own dejection, as they measure the size of the task ahead with their pathetically inadequate resources.
Nevertheless, it can never be a proper response, for it is tantamount to accepting Satan’s assessment of the situation that we face. Surely the Lord, who had provided for His servant time and again in the past, could find a new way to do so now?
The battle is the Lord’s, but we still need a heart for the fight. If there is one thing certain, it is that when we set out in faith to fulfil a mission for the Lord, there will always be a host of inner doubts to overcome, and people to tell us that we are attempting the impossible!
Again and again we will have to resist the pressure that fear places us under. Courage has nothing to do with not being afraid, but everything to do with being willing to go forward in spite of our fear. Courage is thus almost a contradiction in terms. It is, as G.K. Chesterton put it, ‘a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die.’ Lord, fill us with Your courage, and help us to keep our eyes stayed on You!
Overcoming Giant Despair
There was a time when the entire Israelite army was reduced to paralysis by the sound of Goliath’s challenge and the size of the giant’s shoulders. Similar temptations to despair afflict many in the body of Christ today. Many of us will know what it is like to experience a particular ‘giant’ stepping forward every time we seek to take a step of faith for the Lord. Its taunts are deep and threatening. ‘You’ll never be able to do that; you’ll be left high and dry . . . Who do you think you are?‘
Fuelled by a low self-esteem, and reinforced by outward setbacks and disappointments, the temptation to despair becomes embedded in our minds, as tedious refrains torment us. ‘If people knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t love me . . . God can’t use me, I’m not even sure that He hears my prayers . . .’ These are immensely private battles, and ones which nobody else can initiate for us. But they must be fought and won.
It would have been tragic beyond words if the Lord had granted Elijah’s impetuous request and allowed him to perish in the desert in an unmarked grave. After all, much of his most far-reaching ministry still lay ahead of him – not to mention his friendship with Elisha, and all that came from that.
There will always be temptations to retreat from our calling. Satan is forever angling for us to yield to a sort of pact of non-aggression. His unstated offer – I won’t hurt you, if you won’t hurt me – designed to make us feel that the cost of our pilgrimage is too high, and hence to make us willing to settle for a less vigorous discipleship.
Our task is to respond with faith, and so disappoint his expectations.
For while the negatively-minded see the potential for disaster in each difficulty that they face, the creatively courageous press in to see the Lord bring about new triumphs from the very same circumstances.
Like a rose among thorns, fresh opportunities to prove the Lord’s faithfulness lie hidden within every one of our dilemmas.
As always, our perspective is crucial. A tightrope walker fixes his gaze on some object far ahead to keep him steady. What he never does is to look down, or around. The Greek of Hebrews 12:2 provides the clue when it speaks of ‘looking away unto Jesus.’
Mourning into Joy
It takes courage to keep trusting and praising the Lord when some longed-for door closes in our face. Not every legitimate hope that we harbour will come to fruition, or, at least, not immediately. Neither will we be spared the pain of having to contend with unexpected and painful disappointments along the way. Yet God can turn around for good even the attacks which men and Satan intended for evil as we continue to trust Him.
How else can we interpret the shocking decision Joseph’s brothers made to rid themselves of their boastful brother? Yet God used even this act of callous treachery in the long run to save the nation. Joseph was later able to recognise that it had been God, and not his brothers, who had delivered him to Egypt – and for the all-important reason of preparing for the forthcoming famine.(5) Is not this dramatic change of fortunes a foreshadowing of the greatest reversal of all time, when the finest man who has ever lived was put to death on a Cross?
If God was able to turn the ultimate injustice round to be the final victory of all, is He not able to handle our relatively trifling setbacks?
Don’t Give Up!
Could we but discern it, our temptations to despair are often only wounded vanity. We feel dejected less because we have hurt the Lord than because we have failed to live up to our mistakenly high standards of what we thought we could do (or be) for Him.
While it is right to have a deep horror of sin, it is better to have a still greater love of good. The Lord admires us more for having tried to do something for Him, and perhaps having failed in the attempt, than if we had attempted nothing through fear of getting it wrong.
That is not to say we will necessarily be spared all the consequences of our sins and stupidities. Many of us may still have to live with the after-effects of the rash things we have said or done. Yet we can take heart from the example of Elijah. There would still be much fruitful service ahead for him, just as there was for David after his lapse with Bathsheba.
God is merciful but not indulgent. The baby Bathsheba bore died at birth. Had David been let off more lightly, the lesson would not have been scored deeply enough into his heart. As it was, the severity of his chastisement deterred him from ever again abusing his exalted position. But how futile it would have been if David had ended his days in endless remorse because of what he had done!
More people fail because they give up trying, than as the result of some actual failure. If we nurse a sense of guilt and failure, it not only makes it impossible for us to accept God’s loving forgiveness: we are effectively implying that our wretchedness is greater than His never-ending love!
As Selwyn Hughes puts it, ‘The Lord Jesus is not against us for our sins, He is for us against our sins‘. It is dishonouring if we believe anything less. We are well on the way to being truly humble if we can repent of our stupidity, but still enjoy boundless confidence in God’s forgiveness. Christ does not love us grudgingly, as if with gritted teeth. He is our Companion, who longs to show us the best path to follow. Every day is a fresh page that is waiting to be written – a brand new opportunity to live with God. We never know what He is going to do next!
The Antidote to Despair
Winning battles of faith against despair not only brings to nought the gloomy predictions of Giant Despair, but also opens up whole new horizons for us. That does not mean that we may not lose some rounds on the way. Elijah himself had been fighting too many battles on too many fronts, and was, in consequence, physically and spiritually drained. Perhaps he was also suffering the haunting fear of being let down by God. His feelings can be summed up in an agonised question: ‘What’s the use of going on, Lord, if You’re not with me?’
Superficially, Elijah’s plight appears to resemble that of Jonah, who also sat down under a broom tree and wished aloud that he might die. But there the similarities between the two prophets end. Elijah fled when his life really was in danger, having completed the greater part of the work God had called him to do. By contrast, Jonah did his utmost to avoid even starting on his mission.
Moses once prayed in a time of great despair,
‘If Your presence does not go up with us,
do not send us up from here.
How will anyone know
that You are pleased with me
and with Your people
unless You go with us?‘
It was genuine anguish, not whingeing selfishness, that had made Moses cry out to God. Like Elijah, Moses had travailed too long in the heat of the day. Both had felt acutely that their mission was beyond their powers to accomplish. To Moses, God had shown Himself supremely merciful, giving him a wonderful promise: ‘My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest.’ (6) Then, as hope rekindled in Moses’ heart, he became still bolder, even going so far as to ask to be allowed to see the glory of God. This too the Lord permitted.(7)
Most people have heard of the Hebrew word ‘ruach’ (the ‘breath, wind or Spirit’ of God). Fewer will be familiar with ‘nu’ach,’ a verb that occurs on more than twenty occasions in the Bible. It means to rest or settle down, to be soothed or quieted; to be secure, to be still, and to dwell peacefully. God was promising to soothe and comfort His troubled servant with the restfulness of His presence. The Spirit of God delights to draw us closer to our heavenly homeland as we pray for His ‘ruach’ to ‘nuach’ (settle deeply) on us.
Elijah had been through a painful and protracted time of turmoil, and the Lord, in His kindness, granted Elijah a further period in the wilderness to help him recover from his intense ordeal. In Isaiah 28:12 the Lord presents His people with a wonderful offer: ‘This is the resting-place, let the weary rest,’ and ‘This is the place of repose.’
The word used here, menuchah, is a derivative of nuach. It is the word used in Psalm 23:2: ‘He leads me by the waters of menuchah.’ It is a yet stronger exhortation to come to a place of quietness and consolation.
The Lord’s Refreshing
When the battery of our camcorder runs out, it needs to be fully discharged, a stage known as ‘refreshing’. Only when this process is complete does the actual process of recharging begin.
There are parallels here in the way the Lord refreshes us beside still waters. At the end of the forty days, however, Elijah was ‘discharged’ rather than ‘recharged’.
We find him curling up in a cave – a fitting place, one feels, for a man who had wanted to escape from everything and everyone.
For us, too, the Lord may permit all manner of obstacles to come our way before His work of refreshing is complete. When He resolves them, in His own inimitable way, we have the joy of knowing that only the Lord could have brought about the victory.
We can be at peace, therefore, concerning our many present difficulties. The Lord will solve each one in its turn, provided we do not allow the terror of Jezebel to fill our minds and quench our faith. We are so quick to assume the worst, and to suppose that the Lord has deserted us. The reality is quite different: our labour is far from being in vain.
We shall have more to say on overcoming despair in the chapter ‘Confronted with God’s Challenge.’ In the meantime, the answer to our feelings of despair lies in what has been called ‘The Sacrament of The Present’. If we can leave the past to God’s infinite mercy, commit the present to His grace, and entrust the future to His boundless providence, there will be far fewer landing strips for discouragement.
The more we give thanks to the Lord in all circumstances, the more we will experience His joy flooding in to refresh our soul.
The Lord had asked Elijah a searching question. ‘What are you doing here?’ The implication is clear. ‘Why are you so far from your post?’ The question may be a relevant one for us, too, when despair seizes hold of us. Let us spend a few moments with Him now and ask Him if there is anything the Lord would say to us concerning the way we handle our times of crisis.
Have we responded to our own difficulties with faith, or been dominated by our fears? Were we really called to be involved with that particular situation which so wore us out? Have we learnt to recognise the danger signals that indicate when our energy levels are depleted, and taken quality time off to compensate?
Lord, I recognise the devil’s tactics for what they are – a desperate attempt to make me give up before Your victory comes. I acknowledge that my work would be unfulfilled were it to end right now, and I declare that You will yet fulfil all You have in mind for me to do.
Heal my hurts and confusions, increase my determination to trust You, and overcome my tendency to despair. I ask that the wind of Your Ruach-Spirit may blow now through my life, to bring me to a deeper place of nu’ach-rest, so that I may serve You from a place of peace. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Previous chapter – Shock and Shame
Next Chapter – Angelic Restoration
1 Acts 4:19-20
2 Exodus 32:19, 1 Samuel 27:1
3 Romans 4:18, 5:5, 8:24-25; 15:13; Psalm 25:3-7f
4 Cf Paul’s heart-longing for the Jews to be saved, and his daily concern for the well-being of the churches he had founded. See Romans 9:1-3; 2 Corinthians 11:28, Galatians 4:19-20
5 Genesis 45:5, cf 50:20
6 Exodus 33:14-15. The word ‘rest’ comes from the Hebrew nu’ach.
7 Exodus 33:17,21
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Chapter One - The Courts of the Lord
Chapter Two - The Hidden Life
Chapter Three - By the Brook Cherith
Chapter Four - The Shrinking Brook
Chapter Five - Strange Guidance
Chapter Six - The Provision of the Lord
Chapter Seven - In the Power of the Spirit
Chapter Eight - The Stature of Waiting
Chapter Nine - Interfacing with the World
Chapter Ten - Fire on Mount Carmel
Chapter Eleven - The Ministry of Heaven
Chapter Twelve - The Importance of Rest
Chapter Thirteen - Strategic Retreat or Headlong Flight
Chapter Fourteen - Shock and Shame
Chapter Fifteen - The Temptation to Despair
Chapter Sixteen - Angelic Restoration
Chapter Seventeen - Confronted with God's Challenge
Chapter Eighteen - Symbols of His Power
Chapter Nineteen - The Dark Speech of God
Chapter Twenty - The Judgements of God
Chapter Twenty One - When My People are one
Chapter Twenty Two - A Heart of Mourning
Chapter Twenty Three - Three pdfs
The Prophetic Ministry
Part One - May our Hearts be free from idols
Part Two - The Prophetic Calling
Part Three - Prophets and Pastors
Chapter Twenty Four - The Challenging Counterfeit
Chapter Twenty Five - The Schools of the Prophets
Chapter Twenty Six - Translated to Eternity