image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Recently I attended the annual combined youth camp that my church participates in with other Reformed churches from different countries. It is always a good chance to step outside of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons, be encouraged when sharing and hearing about the wider work of God across various churches, countries, and cultures.
This year, one of the speakers did a short series on Elijah--which just happened to be the same passage I had chosen to do with my Sunday School kids. Ah, I thought. I'm very familiar with this.
However, as we studied the passages in 1 Kings chp 17-19, I felt for the first time a personal connection with Elijah and what he went through. Elijah has one of the most exciting narratives in the Bible. It's the stuff of any epic action movie. A national crisis. An evil king egged on by a bloodthirsty evil queen. The one man fighting for what is right despite being the underdog, being hunted for his life. Multiple life-and-death situations. Incredible supernatural miracles in every chapter, and equally incredible courage that enabled Elijah to defy the king and queen, the entire idolatrous nation, and basically everything against him. Heck, Netflix be calling to make a series of this soon.
Naturally, though it made for a cool story, I never really connected with Elijah's character. His bravery-to-the-point-of-recklessness, incredible faith in God, macho toughness in the face of impossible odds, and general badassery (is that even a term?) made him seem like some swashbuckling superhero who had very little in common with someone ordinary like me. Come on, I struggled to have faith for my exam grades. Elijah had faith that God would rescue him from Jezebel when he was standing before her and surrounded by her guards.
So studying this passage again made me suddenly sensitive to the chronology of events, and the peculiar insight into Elijah's character which transformed him, hero though he be in so many aspects, into a human no different from us, who struggled with fears, lack of faith, and self-pity.
At the dramatic contest of Mt Carmel, Elijah was at his peak. God used him in the most fantastic and epic way imaginable, with all the spotlight on him, to prove that the God of Israel was real. He was outnumbered by the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger at every moment, and yet God's power coursed through him, in the miracle that he performed, and the fearlessness he displayed. This is the Elijah we remember, the tough guy who sneers at the prophets of Baal, the guy who isn't scared of Jezebel, the guy who calls down fire from Heaven.
One would have thought that after this amazing display of God's power over Baal, over man, Elijah's faith would be even stronger than before. However, after the contest at Mt Carmel concludes, we see Elijah fold to pieces almost instantly, after receiving Jezebel's death threat in chp 19. Like any of us, despite the obvious proof of God's power which he had just witnessed--just conducted--he fell to the fear of man. Terror gripped him. All of a sudden, he did not believe that God could protect him now, when God had protected him all along. He turned to his own devices and fled, following what his scared human reasoning told him was the smart thing to do: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." He ran from his fears, trying to deal with them as he thought best, overwhelmed by the humanly impossible odds against him.
So often we too, after God answers our prayers, or demonstrates His power in our lives, fail to grow in faith, and instead fall again so easily into the pit of our fears--fear of what we can't control; fear of man; but ultimately, fear that God is not good, that we cannot rely on God to protect and provide for us. He was clearly disappointed that even after the miracle they had witnessed at Carmel, the Israelites were still too cowardly to come to his support, and that the victory God had given him at Carmel was not going to work out as he had expected, the turning point for Israel to recognize their sin and repent immediately. Elijah had put his hope in man instead of God. Now he was overwhelmed--with fear of Jezebel, and disappointment in the Israelites. A crushing sense of failure and disillusionment, probably bitterness as well, added to the fear of being killed.
It seems so obvious in Elijah's case, that the God Who sent ravens to feed him, Who raised the widow's son from the dead, Who kept him safe from Jezebel all these years, Who sent blazing fire down from heaven, would definitely be able to protect him. But it doesn't seem so obvious to us, blinded by our fears, in our own situations we face today.
When Elijah collapsed in the wilderness, unable to go any further on his own, at his wit's end, at the limit of his own human devices, he fell into despair and depression. Wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, he turned suicidal, questioned the meaning of his life, and told God he couldn't take any more. "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.' "
When was the last time we felt this way?
Suddenly I saw myself in Elijah.
What I love most is how God responded at this point. God had let him try his own solutions, God had waited till Elijah realized it was no use, and when Elijah gave up in despair and wished to die, God stepped in.
Without rebuking him for his lack of faith. Without scolding him for his ungratefulness or short-sightedness. "I just used you so powerfully at Mt Carmel, did you get amnesia already? Do you think, if I sent fire down from heaven at your request, I can't rescue you from Jezebel? As ifffffff"
God knew Elijah's fears and struggles, and He had compassion on him. He first of all cared for his physical needs, letting him sleep soundly, sending him food and water, all of which Elijah had neglected in his fear-crazed escape plan (and which clearly also contributed to his emotional and psychological collapse.)
After Elijah had rested, been fed, hydrated, God spoke to him. Gently. God asked him simply, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" One question, to make him stop in his tracks, to think and examine his motivations.
Elijah hadn't gotten over his self-pity yet. He ranted to God about his loneliness and suffering and generally had a good bawl that also managed to be as paegro as he dared.
And still, God didn't scold him, God didn't tell him off for being needy or weak or faithless.
God simply told him, feel My presence.
After the dramatic demonstrations of power and strength, Elijah was shaken, yet reminded that God, Who could do all this, was nevertheless was not just the fire on Mt Carmel, some impersonal supernatural power like The Force.
God was in the gentle whisper after all that, the still small voice. Personal. Compassionate. And once again, without telling him off, God asked him again to examine himself. "What are you dong here, Elijah?"
Still clinging defensively to his rant, Elijah delivered it again, weakly.
And God's response was to give him clear directions which reinforced the meaning for his life which he had been looking for. You are important to Me. I have important work for you to do, which will affect not only the nation of Israel but even the neighbouring pagan nations as well. You will anoint kings, directly subverting the power of Ahab and Jezebel from within and without.
In addition to that, God acknowledged his weariness, and comforted him--God told him He had already chosen and prepared a successor. Retirement was in sight, when Elijah had thought that it would never end. And finally, God reminded him-so gently!--that he was not alone. He might have suffered, but all God's true people were making the same, often difficult decisions, to stay faithful in each day when surrounded by an ungodly and idolatrous culture. In Elijah's (very) limited perspective, everything seemed hopeless, his efforts seemed pointless, and his life meaningless. But in God's plan, as we can clearly see when we read these chapters, it was anything but so. In fact, at the point when Elijah felt he couldn't go on anymore, God had already prepared his "exit strategy."
God knew him, on a deeply personal, deeply compassionate and loving way. God knew his fears and weariness and struggles, and God did not resent him for them or punish him for them, even when he behaved foolishly or weakly. God was not a relentless taskmaster who didn't care what the emotional state of this tool was as long as it got His job done. Far from it. God was gentle with Elijah at his lowest, most broken point--a great man, but still a man like us.
to be continued
image by Arif Riyanto from Unsplash
Sometimes life seems too much to bear.
We want to give up. Hide. Escape. A great weariness fills us--weary of struggling, persevering, labouring on.
I dreaded these times because that weariness itself often made me feel worse about myself. Was this proof that I was a wimp, that I was weak, fragile, and incapable of dealing with life like everyone else seemed to be? Proof that I was a feeble Christian, lacking the peace and assurance that we ought to have in Christ. That my faith was a flimsy thing, wilting at the first breath of trouble. Why was I so easily plunged into despair?
In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul talks about this exact same feeling: "burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life." However, he goes on to identify what this feeling is--the "sentence of death," or sin, in us: "Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us." (verse 9-10)
Times like these remind us that this body--and this earth--are mortal ones. Sickness. Damaged relationships. Failures. Disappointments, in ourselves or others. They make us see the pervasive effects of sin everywhere, and teach us to long for things as they should be; for Heaven.
But more than that, they teach us not to trust in ourselves, not to think that the outcome of our lives depends wholly on ourselves. Which leads to enormous pressure to ensure that every decision is the right one and that no mistakes can be afforded, feeling that failure is always lurking around the corner; a crippling and intimidating mindset to approach life with. Instead, we learn to trust in God, Who in sending Christ delivered us from the ultimate death, and since then ceaselessly, tirelessly, continues to deliver us daily from the power of sin, from the sentence of death that continues to plague us in the old man. Since His power over sin and death was proven once and for all in Christ, we are enabled to hope that this is not a losing battle, as much as it may feel like it at times.
image by Christian Erfurt from Unsplash
(continued from part 1)
What then, are possible reasons why we find it so hard to rest?
Smith discusses a few insightful possibilities:
1. Are we functional atheists--living in fear and anxiety due to a lack of faith in God's sovereignty and control? Often, the fear and anxiety that makes us feel unable to rest stems from a sense that without our direct, constant involvement/labour, our world will come crashing down around us. That the church will collapse if we don't shoulder every burden (this, of course, with qualifications; not to be taken out of context.) Though this might be successful at driving us to constantly work harder and better, it's neither healthy nor godly. Needless to say, this is a huge self-imposed burden of responsibility on our own shoulders, as well as a toxic sense of guilt and insecurity whenever we try to rest. Like the typical rat-race, we're ceaselessly toiling, afraid to lose out.
Without mincing any words about it, Smith identifies "if I don't do it, who will?" as a prideful claim of self-sufficiency which is unhealthy. It reflects a lack of understanding that in God's providence, His will is accomplished without needing us. Whether He chooses to do so through us, or not, it is part of His plan. We tend to place too much emphasis on the contribution our hands make, forgetting that all things are in His hands; those "hands that flung stars into space" are not depending on us to achieve His purposes.
2. People-pleasing. We may think that we're concerned for others, that we serve out of love for them, but if we do so because we want to make them like us, or we want them to think well of us, it's really just a perverted form of self-love. We do not manipulate people by doing things for them, or labour under the delusion that we can only love them if we constantly give them whatever they ask of us or whatever makes them happy. "Decisions based on love are about the welfare of the other person, not what they think of you."
So we shouldn't say yes merely because we want to make the person asking us happy. This is something I struggled massively with as a teenager; I couldn't bear to disappoint anyone, be it taking on a new task, helping them out with wedding prep, or joining them for dinner. Even if I knew it was not a wise decision based on my schedule. At that moment, I just really wanted to please them, not to spoil the mood with a refusal.
Similarly, Smith notes that constantly leaping to shoulder every need that arises may also deprive others of opportunities to grow. Do we encourage them to trust us instead of God?
3. Motivated by insecurity, do we keep ourselves busy to distract ourselves from a unhealthy shame and inadequacy?
Perhaps there are areas in our life that we know we need to face, yet--like productive procrastinators--we distract ourselves instead with busyness.
Or perhaps we rely desperately on the fleeting sense of achievement, success, or praise from others for our work, to boost our sense of self-worth and identity.
"How much of our busyness is really an effort to prove our worth and escape from the sense that there is something very wrong with us?"
In contrast, Christ is the only way to acknowledge our sinfulness and flaws, with truth and yet also with hope and empowerment. As Smith points out, Christ is "our Sabbath rest;" having attributed to us His perfection and holiness, and taken the full punishment for our sins, we can experience true freedom from the otherwise relentless drive to prove our worth, to make up for our failures.
(continued in part 3)
image by Abbie Bernet from Unsplash
Recently, I facilitated a study on a small booklet titled Burned Out? by Winston T. Smith. The topic immediately caught my attention because burn-out seems to be one of the increasingly relevant challenges we face in this period of our lives. At a time when we're struggling to juggle new responsibilities and commitments in multiple different areas in life, when our energy and time is always in short supply, burn-out is never too far away. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed out to the brink of tears? When was the last time you wanted to just throw everything aside and sleep for days?
This booklet was short, refreshingly simple, and probingly insightful with some of its questions. I felt it helped me examine myself and discover some realizations, convictions, and applications.
The 4th Commandment to keep the Sabbath is also understood as God's command to us on the importance of rest, a concept most Christians are already familiar with. However, Smith probes further into the greater consequences of this commandment. Realizing that God's creation of the world was not a exertion that He needed the Sabbath to physically recover from, but rather an effortless display of His power, meant that the first Sabbath functioned more as a dedicated day of appreciating and declaring the sovereignty and power of God. "And God saw that it was good." As such, when we keep the Sabbath--or when we rest as God intended us to--we are living out an active trust in God, demonstrating our belief that He is in control of our lives and our world. Rest is not just a necessary but regrettable concession to our human frailty. When we rest, we are not just taking care of our bodies; we are proclaiming His sovereignty.
Secondly, rest also works (pun unintended) as a means for us to experience God's providence, abundant blessings, and the freedom He gives to us. Smith quotes the sabbatical year in Leviticus, where the Israelites were commanded not to plant anything every seventh year, letting the ground rest. God promised to provide for His people through this year by blessing their fields abundantly in the sixth year, so that they would harvest enough food to last them through three years: the sixth year, the seventh of rest, and the eighth year when they resumed planting, before the harvest was ready. Without the seventh year of rest, the Israelites would not have the chance to experience how abundantly--even miraculously--God could provide for them; to witness His power. It also helped to disrupt an increasingly blind devotion to their work or materialism, creating a sense of balance and perspective.
Here, Smith again draws from the laws in Leviticus. The Jubilee year, every 50th year, was another example of rest imposed by God in which slaves were freed, property was restored, and debts were cancelled. Smith foregrounds the correlation between rest and freedom in the Jubilee year. God's command for us to rest has also to do with the freedom we are given to enjoy in Him: "the focus and purpose of all of our labour, ultimately, is to serve Him. No other person or institution may own our allegiance; any other allegiance is ultimately slavery."
And though this may sound strong, think about it. If we're giving almost 24/7 of our time to our job, making decisions based on fear, insecurity, guilt, and pressure, feeling helpless about our inability to have more time for church, for others, for ourselves--it is a kind of slavery, isn't it? Feeling like we don't have much say in how we spend our time, or how we live our life, because work? (or exams etc)
According to Smith, how we observe God's command to rest--or whether we keep it at all--reflects our allegiance: what controls our world, who we serve, and whether we live as a slave or in God's freedom.
part 1; to be continued
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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