The Discouraged Saint

I think there is an important phrase that we all need to remember; it is this: “Even the best of men, are only men at best.”  Even the people we put on the highest pedestal, are, after all, only human.

This is one of the things you should appreciate about the Bible.  In the Bible we read accounts of people with incredible faith, wonderful miracles, and staggering courage.  Yet at the same time we will read about some of these same people falling into sinful behavior or having times of grave doubt.  The Bible is a balanced book.  It tells the truth about people.

This morning we are going to see a different view of Elijah.  We have seen him as a courageous miracle-worker who had deep faith, incredible courage and a powerful prayer life.  This morning we are going to look at a prophet who is worn-out and discouraged.

We have all known times of discouragement.

  • Someone died
  • A job fell through
  • You worked hard but no one seemed to notice or appreciate the work
  • Someone you thought was your friend attacked you
  • It seems like all you hear are complaints
  • You were hurting and felt no one cared
  • You work hard but it never seems to be enough

This account in 1 Kings 19 is not an embarrassment.  It is the truth.  I hope this passage will help us to confront some of our own discouraging times.

The Causes of Discouragement

If you remember our last episode, Israel was in a deep drought because of the idolatry that had been encouraged by Ahab and Jezebel. After three years of drought conditions Elijah proposed a contest between the priests of Baal and Asherah and himself as the prophet of God.  The final score of the contest: God 1  Baal (– 450).  After the contest Elijah prayed for the drought to end and he told Ahab to head for home because the rain was coming.  Elijah ran ahead of the chariot all the way to Jezreel (20 miles or more).  Elijah was winded, but exhilarated at the great victory.  Suddenly Elijah is discouraged and wants to die.  Why?

A real threat.  First, Elijah was discouraged because of a real threat.  Jezebel apparently was waiting for Ahab in Jezreel.  She was anxious to hear about the contest and was hopeful that the priests of Baal had shut Elijah up once and for all.  What Jezebel heard did not make her happy. Our text tells us,

“Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”” (19:1-2)

This may have been the same evening as the contest on Mt. Carmel.  Jezebel would have asked the King what happened as soon as he arrived.  It may be still been raining.  Elijah may have still been out in the parking lot catching his breath from his run.

Notice that Ahab talked about all the things ELIJAH did.  There is not mention of God.  Ahab is still unwilling to give the Lord credit . . . at least to his wife.

Jezebel, of course, is furious.  She sent a messenger to Elijah and told him that she would kill him by the next day. It’s odd, isn’t it?  If Jezebel really wanted to kill Elijah, why didn’t she just send someone to do it? Why warn him?  Was it a word spoken in haste?  Did she just want to scare him? We don’t know.

Elijah didn’t hang around to find out if Jezebel was serious or not.  She had killed prophets before and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  Elijah wasted no time in getting out of town.  There is no record he consulted the Lord.  He just ran.

What you need to see is the fact that Elijah had a valid reason to be discouraged.  The situation looked bad. Discouragement often comes because of very valid reasons.  Our health declines, opponents multiply, bills accumulate, the plant closes, a spouse announces that they no longer love you, or your child makes a bad choice.  These are all things that can discourage and depress.  They are real issues.

Emotional and Physical Exhaustion The second factor in Elijah’s discouragement is his emotional and his physical exhaustion.  Elijah had just gone through a very intense period.  Mountaintop experiences (like Elijah on Mt. Carmel) are great, but they are also very draining. Don’t forget that Elijah also had just run 20+ miles in front of Ahab’s chariot!  He was emotionally and physically exhausted.

Pastor’s understand this very well (not the running 20 miles part).  Monday mornings are often a very “down” time.  A day of teaching, preaching, and interacting with others in very personal ways, leads to an emotional, physical and spiritual exhaustion.

This is not just true for Pastors.

  • The week after church camp kids often feel farther from God than ever.  They have come off the mountain and the valley seems depressing.
  • A couple has a grand second honeymoon and when they come home there is often a feeling of greater isolation because the contrast between great energy of intimacy and the mundane reality of everyday life is more stark.
  • After the push of the harvest season farmers often find themselves discouraged and depressed because they are emotionally and physically depleted.
  • You finish work on a great project and don’t understand why you now feel discouraged and depressed.  You are emotionally exhausted.

Unrealistic Expectations.  There is a second possible reason for Elijah’s discouragement.  Elijah may have had unrealistic expectations. It is certainly possible that Elijah thought that after this great contest on Mt. Carmel the people of Israel and also Ahab and Jezebel were going to return to the Lord.  After all, the contest was a “slam dunk”.  The people had a spurt of godly fervor as they went after the false prophets.  Elijah may have thought that it was going to last.  When it didn’t, he was deeply discouraged.

I’m sure you see this same kind of thing in your life.

  • Your marriage is only months old and the passion seems to be waning.
  • The team you work with at work doesn’t embrace your vision for growth.
  • The banker is not willing to lend you money to start your new business.
  • The beautiful girl or handsome boy doesn’t even notice you.
  • You share the gospel with someone but they don’t seem to be interested.

We expect things to work a certain way and when they don’t, we get discouraged.  We seldom stop to ask, “Was this a reasonable expectation?”

Loss of Focus or Self-Pity.  Notice a fourth contributor to Elijah’s discouragement.  Elijah loses focus and starts to feel like a martyr. Elijah went to Beersheba, told his servant to stay and went another day into the dessert.  Listen to what he says to the Lord.

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.” (v.4)

Later, after he had been ministered to by the Lord and traveled 40 days into the desert to Mt. Horeb, God asked him, “What are you doing here?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (19:10)

Elijah suffered from “poor me” syndrome.  He felt like a failure and believed he was the only one who still remained faithful to the Lord.  Neither was true.

Elijah hadn’t failed.  He did exactly what God told him to do.  He also wasn’t the only believer still standing.  He had left his faithful servant in Beersheba, Obadiah (the household manager of Ahab) was a faithful and courageous servant of God. We know there were100 prophets of the Lord who had been protected by Obadiah.  In verse 19 we learn that there were over 7000 people in Israel who hadn’t “bowed the knee to Baal” (v 18) Discouraged people often lose perspective.

Medicine for a Discouraged Heart

Notice how God dealt with his exhausted and faithful servant.

Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. (6-9)

Renewal. The first thing the Lord did was let Elijah get some sleep.  Twice Elijah was awakened so that the Angel of the Lord could give him something to eat and then he was allowed to go back to sleep.  The Lord knew that a rested servant is a healthy servant. Elijah was run down.  He needed time to rest and the Lord provided it for him.  This was not the time for discussion…it was the time for rest.

What wisdom!  Sometimes the thing we need most is some time off.  When we are burning the candle at both ends, we will wear down. The more depleted we become, the easier it is to lose perspective.

Not only did God provide Elijah with food and drink . . . he let him take a vacation!  There is nothing that tells us that God sent Elijah 40 days into the desert to Mt. Horeb.  All God said was that he needed more rest and nourishment before his trip.  This was probably 150 mile trip (and remember he was on foot!).

Mt. Horeb was a special place.  It is also sometimes called Mt. Sinai.  It was where Moses first saw the burning bush and where Moses met with God and was given the Law (included the 10 Commandments). Mt. Horeb was a holy place.  I wonder if Elijah thought he would be closer to God if he went to Horeb.

Let’s face it, sometimes, when you are discouraged it helps to go to the chapel of the hospital, the sanctuary of the church, or out into nature.  These are places where we have met God before.

Refocus. The next thing God did was help Elijah refocus by a series of events.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  (19:11-13)

Picture the situation.  The Lord told Elijah to stand on the mountain near the mouth of the cave and wait for God to arrive.  First there was a great tornado force wind that came and tore up the mountain and shattered rocks.  Next there was an earthquake.  Finally, there was a fire (We don’t know what was burning) but Elijah did not meet God in any of these things.

Understand that Elijah may have actually gone to Mt. Horeb because he hoped to experience God in a dramatic way like Moses had.  When Moses met God on Mt. Horeb there was fire, smoke, earthquakes and more.  Not this time.

We are told that after the wind, earthquake and the fire there is a gentle whisper.  I love the King James translation of “a still small voice”.  This “voice” caused Elijah to come out of the cave.  I don’t know what was whispered, whatever it was, Elijah knew that it was the Lord.

Do you see the point?  God wanted Elijah to realize that faithfulness was not about dramatic events, as much as it is an everyday sensitivity to the whispers of God’s Spirit.  The dramatic was the exception rather than the rule.  God’s normal course is to work quietly in the human heart.

I wonder if the reason we don’t hear from God more often is because there is too much noise in our lives. Sometimes in life we have to “be still and know that He is God.”  Sometimes when we are discouraged, we need to stop looking for the superficial and get refocused on the substantive.  There are times when we need to get alone with God and hear the gentle and sure assurance of His grace.

Redistributed the Load. The last thing God did to help Elijah is to give him a heaper. He told him to begin training a successor. Elijah was to find Elisha. The Load had gotten too heavy for Elijah to carry by himself. So god gave him a friend and a colleague to help him. there is nothing like a friend to help us in discouraging times. We’ll talk more about this relationship in weeks to come.

Conclusions for the Discouraging Times of Life

First, discouragement comes to all people on occasion.  Remember the adage: even the best of men (or women) are only men (or human) at best.  If you get discouraged it doesn’t mean you are deficient.

Second, in times of discouragement we must battle some natural tendencies,

  • Withdrawing from people altogether.  It is good to get alone with God.  It is not good to isolate yourself (it only feeds the depression)
  • Engaging in “stinking thinking”.  We tend to look only at the negative rather than seeing things clearly.
    • What we can’t do rather than what we can do
    • What we don’t know rather than what we do know
    • What hasn’t happened rather than what has happened
    • Who didn’t respond rather than on who did respond
  • Not eating or sleeping well.  If you aren’t eating or sleeping well you need to take some time to rest and renew.
  • Being Impatient.  Remember Elijah didn’t get refocused until 40-45 days later. We need to give ourselves time. It’s tempting to give up and walk away from that which discourages.  You may be tempted to walk away from your job, your marriage, your education, your team, your church, your friends, or even your faith.  Rather than give up, hang on.  Rather than quitting, seek to refocus and renew your heart in the Lord so that you can dig in.  It is best to make no life-changing decisions when you are discouraged.  Take the time to refocus.

If we had the chance to talk to Elijah after he returned from Horeb and asked him about his experience, I suspect he would tell us that this all happened because he took his eyes off the Lord.  He focused on the mountain rather than the Mountain Mover. That can happen to us as well.  In these times we must reflect and listen.  We must remember that in this ever-changing world there is one constant . . . that constant is the Lord.  He is always present.  He is unwavering in His love.  He always has a plan and always knows the way home.

You and I will get discouraged in life.  People will disappoint us.  Circumstances will sometimes overwhelm us.   What I hope we have learned today is that in those times we don’t need to run away, we need not despair.  What we need to do is rest, refocus and listen carefully for the assuring whispers of His grace.

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