Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fighting Discouragement

Every year about this time I fight an after-Christmas slump. The days are dark and chilly. There’s usually a cold or flu epidemic going around, and I get the incredible urge to curl up on the couch in a thick blanket and hibernate until spring. This year it’s been even worse.
We’ve had an onslaught from every corner, it seems. Finances have been precarious, I’ve suffered through pain and surgery, we’re braving kid and computer issues, plus glorious menopause. To top it off, my husband’s work trailer was robbed a couple of weeks ago. Tools he has collected for over thirty years in construction vanished into the night. More than anything, though, what has dragged me down is the haunting suspicion that I’m not really doing any good, that I’m flawed and insignificant.

Do you ever feel that way? So many reasons to rejoice, yet wrestling against despair that threatens to suck you down? If you do, don’t beat yourself up. You’ll be glad to know you’re not alone. Suffering occasional blues or even depression is nothing new – even for God-followers. And God knows exactly how to encourage people like us.

Elijah was a powerful prophet, miracle worker, preacher, and prayer warrior, but he had his moments too. His greatest downer immediately followed his greatest win. He triumphed in a “my God’s bigger than your God” demonstration against 450 prophets of Baal, then prayed the prayer that ended a three-and-a-half year drought. However, Elijah sank into despair. One threat from the queen sent him running into the desert with a death wish. Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, 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’ ” (1 Kings 19:4).

I love the triumph and excitement of what God did through just one man in first Kings eighteen. But I think I like chapter nineteen even more, because I occasionally find myself under the broom bush. God has cared for me there, just as He did Elijah, and He’ll do the same for you.

Physical Refreshment

God didn’t chew Elijah out for being down on himself. No, the first thing He did was let him take a nap and sent an angel with food and water (1 Kings 19:5-8). Actually, it must have been angel cake, because empowered by this meal, Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights. That’s some energy food!

I’ve heard it said that sometimes the holiest thing we can do is take a nap. Why am I so reluctant to rest when I’m feeling down? Another helpful tip I’ve heard is the acronym H.A.L.T. Stop and ask yourself if you’re feeling out of sorts because you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Then take care of that need, before you try to do anything else. Our bodies and emotions are intricately connected, so when our emotions get out of whack, the first place to check is diet, exercise, and rest.

A Chance to Vent

The second thing God did for His despairing child is let him vent his frustrations. He already knew exactly what the problem and solution were, but Elijah needed to get it out of his system. So God gave him an opening, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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” (1 Kings 19:10).

That’s prayer - laying it out before God. Yes, I know worship and praise and thanksgiving are necessary parts of the mix. But you have to admit, when you’re really upset about something, a lot more venting goes on before you make it to praise and worship. God understands that. Once we’ve talked it out, we’re in a better place to listen.

An Awesome Display and a Gentle Whisper

Next, God reminded Elijah who He is. He told Elijah to stand in a safe spot. “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” (1 Kings 19:11-12).

There’s nothing like an earthquake, hurricane, and raging fire to make you feel small and attentive. That’s just exactly where God wants us; that’s when we’re ready to listen. When we’re in a place of quiet humility, He doesn’t have to yell to be heard. All He has to do is whisper.

Direction and Help

Finally, when Elijah is focused on God’s magnificent power and sovereignty instead of his own frailty, God asks him to explain his problem again. Elijah says he’s discouraged because he’s the only God-follower left and now they’re after him too. God encourages him with the names of three specific men He has prepared to join Elijah in the work: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. Then He tosses out a tidbit of information that must have both elated and embarrassed Elijah, “Actually, I still have seven thousand faithful followers in Israel” (paraphrase and emphasis mine). After these assurances that he’s not alone, God tells him to go to it.

I’ve been there, when I thought I was the only one doing the work, and nobody wanted me around. Along the way God has revealed others with a heart for Him, who are ready for active duty. He has also, I think with a bit of a smirk, let me know there are plenty of others who still love Him and refuse to give in to the enemy.

I hope Elijah’s story encourages you like it does me. Whenever dark clouds close in again, I re-read these chapters from First Kings. Elijah was a real life hero who sometimes stumbled just like us, but God didn’t give up on him. He won’t give up on us either. The key is to take our discouragement to God like Elijah did, so He can build us up again. When we’re ready, He’ll send us back into the fray with renewed vigor.

Beth Vice (c) 2011