Space for Sorrow

As a young girl, one of my favorite bible stories was the epic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. With David meets Goliath odds, Elijah faces off against 450 prophets of Baal in a contest pitting the God of Israel against the Canaanite god Baal. Which deity would answer the prayers of the respective prophets to consume the altar sacrifice?

This is an incident filled with dramatic tension and awesome displays of power. The Lord answers Elijah with fire from heaven that not only consumes the sacrifice, but also licks up every last drop of water poured out from not one, but four pitchers of water. The story ends with the destruction of the prophets of Baal and the peoples’ declaration that the Lord is God.

Now, as a grownup, I still love this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but not for the reasons I loved it as a young girl. Instead, I love what seems to be an anti-climactic postscript to the story. Despite seeing the glory and power of God on display in such dramatic fashion, and winning a great victory, Elijah falls into what could likely be called depression. Threatened by Queen Jezebel, he runs for his life into the wilderness. There, under a lone broom tree, he prays to God to take his life, not once but two times. As one commentator notes, “Those who have suffered mental anguish in their lives know all too well the depths to which Elijah has descended. He (and they) has entered the deep spots in the psychological ocean, and then has found a narrow slit in the ocean floor, a Marianas Trench of the soul, where he descends further still into the inky abyss. All he can think of is his desire to die.”(2)

As one reading this story, this is a surprising turn of events. How could Elijah feel this way? After all, didn’t he just see God mightily answer his prayer? One might expect a God who would reproach Elijah for feeling so badly, for his lack of faith, for his despair. And yet, the narrative offers no exhortation or chastening. Instead, an angelic messenger is touching Elijah, urging him to eat bread and water prepared for him by a heavenly servant. Indeed, the angel comes again and feeds Elijah a second time urging him: “Arise, eat for the journey is too great for you.”

Given God’s firey display from heaven in the encounter with the prophets of Baal, the reader might expect another dramatic display from God. And indeed, as Elijah waits on Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God, he experiences a strong wind, and a mighty earthquake, and then a consuming fire. But with each of these cataclysms the narrator repeats a refrain: The Lord was not in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, the Lord comes to Elijah in a gentle blowing. God meets Elijah at the very place of his despair, not with correction or reprimand, not with a “buck up and get going” or a “keep your chin up” but with a grace as gentle as a soft breeze.

Like Elijah, there may be days when we feel at the height of heights, assured of all answers, victorious in our daily battles, maybe even confident of God’s saving activity all around. But there are also days when we need permission to feel badly. Despair is our only friend and the obstacles and challenges of life conspire against faith, hope, and love. It is deeply encouraging to see that, even in this place, God draws near with gentleness.

The gentleness of God on display in Elijah’s dark depression is the same God sung about in one of Israel’s ancient psalms:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I make my bed in the nether world,
behold you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
even there your hand will lead me and your right hand will lay hold of me.

If I say, ‘surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night’
Even the darkness is not dark to you, and the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to you.”(3)

The comforting news of these narratives is that God is not only available to us when we feel good, but makes his dwelling with us even in the darkness of despair. We often feel in our distress that we simply have to avoid the problem, to “get out” of feeling badly. But, in fact, what is happening is that even in sorrow, even in our despair we have the hope that we are still being drawn by the gracious arms of God into closer communion. As one author notes, “What God wants is not so much our victories, but our life in the wilderness.”(4) As the story of Elijah bears witness, even in our wilderness God will prepare a meal, provide shelter, and speak gently into our fears.

Margaret Manning is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) See 1 Kings 18-19:18.
(2) Bill Long, “Man on the Run,” June 9, 2007, www.drbilllong.com, accessed October 10, 2011.
(3) Psalm 139:7-12
(4) Bill Long, “Man on the Run,” June 9, 2007, www.dr.billong, accessed October 10, 2011..

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