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Friday, December 27, 2019

My Favorite Prophet

Elijah's victory

    Everyone in the Bible messes up. Absolutely everyone (except Jesus, of course). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Peter, John, Paul. That’s one reason I love this book so much. I can relate to these people. They lie. They cheat. They argue with God. And yet He loves them and He uses them to do mighty things.

    One of those mighty things happened when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings chapter 18. Israel was following the lead of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and his wife, in worshipping an idol called Baal. Jezebel had killed many of God’s prophets. Ahab considered Elijah his enemy because Elijah confronted him with the truth.

    In hopes of turning Israel back to the Lord, Elijah proposed a contest. All the people were invited to watch. Each side (Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal) would prepare a sacrifice, then ask their god to prove his existence and his power by sending down fire from heaven to consume it.

    Baal’s prophets went first. They begged and pleaded, they shouted and danced and slashed themselves with swords and spears. Hours passed. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

    Elijah’s turn came. He prepared his sacrifice, then drenched it with water. After a simple prayer, “The fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” Quite the victory. The people believed. But Ahab and his wife remained as firmly opposed to God and Elijah as ever.

Elijah's depression

    In chapter 19, when Jezebel threatened to kill him within 24 hours, Elijah was understandably frightened. She’d murdered many other prophets. Besides, this wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d just demonstrated the reality of the God of Israel and the helplessness of Baal. How could the most powerful people in the country continue to defy the Lord?

    Maybe it was the realization of the depth of the evil residing in Ahab and Jezebel that scared Elijah so much. He ran for his life. And he showed many of the symptoms of depression: anxiety, isolating himself, giving up, longing to die, self-pity.

    I can relate to this. I’ve never experienced the same kind of spectacular public victory as Elijah witnessed at the top of Mount Carmel. But I’ve been with him in the pits of depression. Anxious. Alone. Apathetic. Suicidal. Feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing in guilt and shame. Unable to face a righteous and perfect God.

    How could He ever want me, love me, welcome me into His arms? Surely He must be so disappointed and disgusted with me that He’d walk away and leave me to face my demons alone.

    But how did God respond to Elijah’s depression? With judgment? With condemnation? Did He give up on him and choose someone more worthy to take his place?

    No. He sent an angel to feed him, satisfying his hunger and giving him strength. Twice.

    After Elijah had traveled for an additional 40 days, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah expressed his self-pity, his loneliness, his fear. Pretty bad. God’s followers aren’t supposed to act this way. Where was his faith? The Lord had done wonders in defeating Baal. Had Elijah already forgotten that? Shouldn’t God be good and mad at this point?

God's response

    Maybe He should have been, but He wasn’t. Instead of abandoning a struggling servant, He provided a personal encounter. First there was a wind so powerful it shattered rocks. Second, an earthquake. Third, a fire. These are all symbols associated with judgment in the Bible. But God wasn’t in any of them. He wasn’t judging Elijah.

    Last came a "gentle whisper.” Elijah knew that this whisper was from the Lord. He was emotionally exhausted, questioning God, and doubting himself. The Lord knew that what he needed more than anything else was compassionate understanding and encouragement. A gentle whisper, not a roaring flame.

    This was how He responded to Elijah in his depressed state. This was how He responded to me when I was suffering from depression. No literal gentle whisper, but a vivid reassurance of His presence and His love.

    God again asked Elijah what he was doing. Did he say, “I get it now. I’ve had this incredible encounter with You. Thanks for setting me straight”? No. Astonishingly, he repeated the exact same words that he’d used earlier to express his self-pity, loneliness, and fear. Just as I often turned back from a moment of experiencing His joy and peace to the relentless darkness of depression. Surely God would give up on him at this point.

    But He didn’t. Instead, He entrusted Elijah with three tasks: anointing Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. Sometimes, when someone is depressed, having something constructive to do can help. But the timing has to be right. God had just given Elijah a taste of His compassion. That had to come first. Now His prophet had the spiritual strength to get back into the world of people and be more active again.

    His words also reassured Elijah in several ways. The Lord made it clear that He is in control of all that exists, even the rulers of other nations. He reminded Elijah that evil King Ahab was mortal and would not always reign over Israel. He indicated that He would soon fulfill Elijah’s desire to be free of the burden of his role as a prophet. And He informed him that he was not alone—the Lord had thousands of faithful followers. With this encounter, Elijah was ready to go back to work.

    Maybe it’s not so much that Elijah is my favorite prophet, but that God’s interaction with Elijah is my favorite biblical illustration of His response to depression. God did for Elijah all the things that helped me so much when I was depressed. No judgment. No rebuke. Instead, great tenderness and understanding and patience and encouragement.

    That’s why I’m alive. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I didn’t become just another statistic. Just another young suicide.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christmas Joy

The shallowness of my thinking

    Jesus suffered. He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He went through intense pain on the cross. He was forsaken by God as He hung there, bearing the full weight of all the sins of the entire world (Matthew 26:36-46, 27:46; Psalm 22:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:21). I get that.

    But I tend to minimize any other difficulties in His life up to that point. I know that He wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35). It hurt. Jesus felt it and He showed it. Was this the only time that He cried in front of others? My inclination is to think that it was a unique event. But why do I assume that? Maybe there were other examples of His expressing Himself in tears that aren’t recorded in the Bible.

    I imagine that the rejection Jesus experienced in His life on this earth also caused Him some anguish, although I tend to minimize that, too. He’s God. People have been rebelling against Him ever since Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Doesn’t He get used to it? Doesn’t He have a thick enough skin by now?

    On the rare occasions when I really think about it, I have to admit that that’s probably not the case. God describes His relationship with His people as a marriage, in both the Old and New Testaments. He offers and desires an intimate connection with His creatures. If He didn’t have some kind of emotional investment in us, if it didn’t hurt Him to be rejected, wouldn’t He use a different, less personal, analogy?

The depth of Jesus' suffering

    So I’ve looked at Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 and appreciated His pain to some extent. But as Christmas approaches, I’ve been thinking about the daily distress He must have experienced simply by becoming human.

    There He was in heaven from eternity past. No unmet needs. Total freedom. Living in glory. Being worshipped by the angels. In perfect fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Joy beyond my imagination. Inexpressible peace.

    Then suddenly, in one irreversible moment, conceived as a human being in the womb of the virgin Mary. Susceptible to heat and cold, and restricted to a confined area. Unable (or unwilling) to exert control over His own environment.

    The first Christmas arrived, and Jesus entered this world as a baby boy. Born in a stable amid the stench of the animals, lying on a bed of scratchy hay. He experienced the sensations of hunger and thirst and dirty diapers. His actions were constrained by time and space and by a body that had to learn how to walk and talk and feed Himself. He most likely suffered from the usual forms of illness and injury.

    He was probably teased by the other children, since everyone in the neighborhood knew that His parents hadn’t been married yet when He was conceived. He was hampered by all the human limitations and hardships, but with a major difference—He knew what it was like to live without them in the perfection of heaven.

    Most of our religious Christmas displays glamorize His birth. Everything was calm and peaceful. Mary and Joseph were relaxed and smiling. The animals stood around quietly, gazing at the baby in wonder. I enjoy the idealized imagery that I’ve come to associate with Jesus’ first days as much as anyone. But doesn’t this miss the whole point?

    The point is that the Son “being in very nature God, . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7, italics added). This was a greater sacrifice than I will ever be able to understand. Simply being human involved ongoing suffering every minute of every day, compared to the glories of heaven.

    In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two young boys, one the heir to the throne, the other extremely poor, discover that they look a lot alike. Just for fun, they exchange clothes. But at that moment, the prince’s servant walks into the room and kicks the child dressed in rags out into the street. Much of the book is spent showing how difficult it would be for one living in royal luxury to adjust to sudden poverty and disgrace.

    Sort of a taste of what Jesus went through.

    Twain’s prince had a tough time adapting. He wanted to assert his control over everyone he met. He expected them to bow down to their future king. He grew angry when they didn’t believe his story. Unlike Jesus, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but “humbled himself and became obedient” (Philippians 2:6, 8).

The source of our joy

    Descending from heaven voluntarily, Jesus’ life on this earth was one continual living sacrifice, thirty years of ceaseless suffering. Just because He did it with grace and peace and joy and compassion and contentment doesn’t mean it was easy or pain-free. But He did it to demonstrate the unfathomable depth of God’s love for His creatures. He did it as the necessary prelude to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

    That’s what makes the Christmas season one of joy. Not the sentimental glamorizing of the birth of an adorable little baby. Not the wonder Mary and Joseph felt in becoming new parents. Not the appearance of the angels and the wise men.

    What makes Christmas a time of joy is the incredible depth of God’s love for fallen mankind, as seen in the Son’s willingness to take on decades of suffering for our sake. The beautiful scenes of Christmas morning will pass. The baby will grow up. The shepherds will go back to their sheep. Jesus’ family will return to the daily grind in Nazareth. But the sacrificial love of God, as proclaimed and demonstrated on this one glorious night, will endure forever.