How did it come to this? How did it get so bad?
What goes up must come down, as they say. But sometimes the fall seems so far and so unbearably long.
When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal.
2 So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”
3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. 4 Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.
But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” 6 He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.
7 Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”
8 So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. 9 There he came to a cave, where he spent the night.
But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:1-9)
God’s question must be one we’ve all asked ourselves from time to time. What am I doing here? How did it come to this?
For most of our series, we’ve looked at Godly figures whose drift from the faith came about through personal sin and greed. Elijah’s story is very different—yet very, very human.
Christianity doesn’t always do well with suffering. We usually greet it with a host of trite platitudes that never rise above the wisdom of a bumper sticker. “You know, Elijah,” I can imagine someone saying, “God never closes a door without opening a window.” Such statements, however well intended, fall flat in the face of those whose pain—like still waters—runs so deep no tears can seem to breach the surface.
We will explore more of what Elijah is going through in the days ahead. For now I want us to sit and reflect on this story in all its rawness. Live long enough, and you will bleed. You will experience seasons in which you will wish you’d never been born. You may even experience seasons where—like Elijah—death seems your only escape.
Suffering rips away the rose-colored lenses we wear and confronts us with the brute reality of the world. Eljiah was at what seemed to be the losing end of a culture war. He was despised, he was hunted. His success—of which he’d had a lot—could sustain him no further.
In other words, Elijah is a lot like Jesus.
The story of the cross is, indeed, a story of God’s victory over sin, just as the story of the resurrection is a story of God’s victory over death. But there, on the hillside known as Golgotha, we find the God of the universe hanging there in what the ancients knew to be the most wretched and shameful of deaths. It is there that the relationship between Father and Son is strained past the point of breaking as Jesus cries, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” On the cross, Jesus experiences more than just death. He experiences rejection. He experiences ridicule. He experiences shame. Through the cross, Jesus becomes the ultimate paradox: the God-forsaken Son of God.
Look at the story of Elijah again. What do you notice? For me, one of the things I notice is the absence of any sort of condemnation. We might be tempted to respond to suffering by saying—to others or even ourselves—Don’t feel that way. Cheer up. It’ll get better tomorrow. We might even be expecting God to give Elijah a hard time, as though he’d given up so easily. But he doesn’t. He feeds him—twice, as a matter of fact, sustenance for a forty-day journey ahead.
The gospel doesn’t attempt to wrest suffering away from us. It reminds us that we have been provided for in the best way possible. God provides blessings, he provides nourishment. And most of all, he provides himself.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote extensively on more topics than we might care to count. But one theme that surfaces in his writings again and again is what we would call his “theology of the cross.” For Luther, to “carry the cross” means something more than mere escapism or denial of life’s truest pains. In fact, Luther would regard suffering as inevitable—but bearable, because of what Christ has already done for us.
In his famous “Sermon at Colberg,” Luther wrote:
“What makes this cross more agreeable and bearable for us is the fact that our dear God is ready to pour so many refreshing aromatics and cordials into our hearts that we are able to bear all our afflictions and tribulations….When the suffering and affliction is at its worst, it bears and presses down so grievously that one thinks he can endure no more and must surely perish. But then, if you can think of Christ, the faithful God will come and will help you, as he has always helped his own from the beginning of the world; for he is the same God as he has always been.”
In the wilderness of our pain, God is indeed “the same God…he has always been.” Jesus is enough for us—yesterday, today, and forever.
If you are in deep pain right now, take heart. Cling to Jesus. Participate in Christian community. Worship—even if all you can sing is the blues. And for those who might even be in a place of considering suicide I say only this: there’s not a soul on earth that would be better off without you.
God is good. God provides. And through the cross God also teaches us to suffer well.