What Are You Doing Here? Back to all sermons

Date: March 8, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Elijah

Category: Elijah

Scripture: 1 Kings 19

Tags: Elijah, discouragement, depression, despair

Synopsis: “I’ve had enough!” Have you ever felt that way? That’s what Elijah told God as he lay down to sleep under a tree in the desert. Discouragement, depression and despair; we’ve all felt them. Elijah, a man “subject to like passions as we are…” felt them too. In this message from 1 Kings 19 (What Are You Doing Here?), we examine the contributing causes to Elijah’s feelings as well as how God responded to his hurting servant.

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In James 5:17 we are told that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” The King James Version translates that verse, “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…”

I am sure that as James wrote those words, he had the story in 1 Kings 19 in mind. It is in this account (which we read in our Scripture reading) that we are allowed an intimate look into Elijah’s emotions and discover how very human he was.

Last week we looked at a story of incredible victory in the Battle on the Mountain. God demonstrated his power before the nation. His prophet Elijah was clearly vindicated as the prophet of the true and living God. Then, in answer to Elijah’s prayers, God sent the rain, breaking the grip of a terrible 3 year drought over the land. We walk away from that chapter thinking, “What an awesome God we serve! Let the revival begin!”

That is why 1 Kings 19 gives us such a jolt. When Queen Jezebel hears what happens, she does not respond with repentance. She gets angry. She is furious. She sends a message to Elijah that she is going to kill him, just as she has killed so many of God’s prophets. Rather than being hailed as a hero and leader of a growing revival in the nation, Elijah becomes a fugitive and flees for his life.

He runs south into the nation of Judah – actually to the very southern border of Judah, to the city of Beersheba. Even there he doesn’t stop. He leaves his servant behind and runs another day’s journey out into the desert. Finally, when he can run no more, he sits down under a tree and he gives up. He prays, but it is not a prayer of faith. It is a prayer of despair. He asks God to let him die.

“It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

It goes by different names: discouragement, depression, despair, loss of hope. Whatever its label, it is the dark cloud of gloom that blots out the sun in our lives. It can last for a day, a week, a month. Or it can become an almost constant companion. Some are more prone to it than others. But all of us have felt it and we will all no doubt feel it again. Some of you are feeling it now, even as I speak.

Before I continue with my message, I want to quickly make a disclaimer. Depression comes in many degrees and has different causes. There is something called “clinical depression”. It is actually labeled as a mental illness or a mental disorder. It is the most common diagnosis made by mental health professionals, and antidepressants are among the most commonly prescribed drugs on the market. Depression is a deeply complex issue. If you are suffering from clinical depression, I do hope and pray that something I say today will prove helpful to you. But let’s not pretend that a single sermon on this subject will be all you need.

What I am addressing, and what I think Elijah was experiencing was something we might call “situational depression.” It is the temporary loss of hope that we experience as a response to a circumstance or set of circumstances in life. But the fact that it is temporary does not make it any less painful or traumatic when we are in the midst of it.

Let’s start by addressing the question: Why was Elijah discouraged/depressed? I have deliberately used both words to cover a wider range of emotional intensity. Some of you may not be ready to admit that you are depressed, but you will admit to being discouraged. As I said, our problem does come in many degrees. It can be very intense. Elijah, at least temporarily, wanted to die. Why? What led him into this state of despair?

As I thought through the different clues in the text, I came up with a list of four contributing factors.

1. Physical fatigue

Elijah has been through a very vigorous and intense period physically. It was not only the intensity of the battle on the mountain, but this was followed by an intense period of prayer, and then a 25 mile run from Mount Carmel to Jezreel. Now he has traveled many miles to Beersheba and another day’s trek into the wilderness. Even though the Spirit of God empowered him, at least for the run to Jezreel, it still took a toll on him physically. Physical fatigue can make us prone to depression.

2. Emotional letdown after a “high”

This is a kind of emotional fatigue. Even very happy times and mountain top experiences can deplete our emotional reserves. Elijah had literally had a mountain top experience on Mount Carmel. He had stood alone and by the power of God seen a mighty miracle. But such an emotional high or peak is often followed by a low. I have learned this as a pastor. Friday is usually a favorite day for me. I love to preach and to interact with you all as the family of God. But I have learned over the years not to expect too much from myself the day after. That’s why I try to take that as a day off. I have learned that my emotions are often flat the next day. For others it might come after closing a successful sale, or signing a big contract, or getting an award or a promotion or raise, or getting a high mark on a test. Or it can be a spiritually uplifting experience at a conference or a retreat. These are good things. Celebrate them. Enjoy them. But be on guard of the potential letdown which sometimes follows.

3. Unfulfilled expectations and hopes

This is another, very common source of discouragement and despair. How does this apply to the story of Elijah? What do you think he might have expected after the great demonstration of God’s power on Mount Carmel? I know what I would have been expecting. Revival! They should have been carrying Elijah through the streets on their shoulders, shouting “Yahweh is God and Elijah is his prophet!” I don’t think this was a selfish desire on Elijah’s part. He deeply wanted his nation to return to the worship of the one true God. Instead, what happened? His life is threatened by the queen, and no troop of soldiers was sent to provide him protection. The nation, at least its leaders, seem as far from turning to God as ever.

I think that is what Elijah is referring to when he says, “I am no better than my fathers.” “I have been no more successful than they in turning the people back to God.” That was deeply disappointing and discouraging to him.

For us it may come in many forms. A broken marriage; rebellious children; a failed exam; an unfavorable medical test result; inability to find a job; no promotion or raises at work; broken trust on the part of a friend. Need I go on? The list is endless. With our disappointment comes discouragement and even depression.

4. A loss of spiritual focus or connection

I am not sure whether to list this as a cause or a result of depression. All I know is it’s a powerful factor at the heart of the matter. We no longer feel connected or cared for by God. We take our eyes off him and focus on the problems and the circumstances. This leads us to feel isolated and alone, not only from God but from others. One of the things that comes through clearly in Elijah’s words in this chapter is that sense of isolation. “I am all alone.”

In the two years before we moved to Abu Dhabi, in the late 1980’s, I worked in a counseling center for pastors and missionaries in California. One young woman stands out in my memory, because she symbolized so many of the others who came through the center. She came into my office one day and said, “I can’t stand to be inside today. Can we walk around outside as we talk?” So we went out and walked around our little campus. As we did, she began to weep; deep, wracking sobs. In between her sobs she kept repeating this one question, over and over: “Where is God? Where is God? Doesn’t he care?” Many of these Christian workers who came to our center were asking that same question in one way or another. They had lost their sense of connection with God. “Where is God? Doesn’t he care?”

Maybe you are asking that question today.

In addressing that question, I want to step back from the text in 1 Kings 19 briefly and look at it for its one, clear overarching message. It is the one thing I cannot escape as I read this chapter. It is a simple message. Just two words, but it is a message that we all need to hear and that we all need to be reminded of again and again.

That message is: GOD CARES!

Did you hear that? Can I say it again? God cares! Say it with me: God cares!

Everything God does and says in this chapter proclaims this truth. God cared about Elijah and he cared for Elijah. I did a bit of browsing in commentaries and other men’s sermons on this chapter. I was amazed how many referred to Elijah’s failure and Elijah’s sin, and spoke of God “confronting Elijah.” Honestly, I just don’t see that here. I don’t see one word of rebuke, one gesture of reproach, one harsh act. I see only gentleness and care as God reaches out to his discouraged and weary servant.

Elijah may have felt disconnected and alone. And his feelings were real. But they were not true. God never stopped caring. And that is one message I want you to take away from this sermon. No matter what you’re going through and no matter what you’re feeling, this truth remains. God cares. God cares for you as his child and as his servant. God cares!

How did God care for his prophet, Elijah? I see seven ways that God ministered to Elijah.

1. He addressed his physical needs.

Remember, we said that one of the common causes of discouragement and depression is physical fatigue. This is the first need that God met. He let Elijah sleep. Then he sent an angel. While he still slept, the angel started a fire and baked a cake or bread over the hot stones. Then the angel woke Elijah up and told him to eat and to drink from the jar of water he provided. After Elijah ate and drank, he lay down and went to sleep again. We don’t know how long he slept. Once again, he was awakened by the angel and told to eat and drink again to give him strength for his journey.

I would just point out that there were no words recorded from this interaction, other than the angel’s instructions to rise and eat. Elijah’s pressing need was physical – sleep and food. Until that need was addressed, there was no attempt to address the deeper, underlying needs. Some of life’s needs are relatively simple to address. It only makes sense to address those needs first.

This was another lesson I learned while working at the counseling center. Many of the people who came to us were simply worn out physically. They needed rest. Some needed a medical check-up. They simply needed to sit by the swimming pool and read a book for awhile – and preferably a novel rather than another Christian “how to” book.

2. He sent Elijah on a spiritual journey.

This is a little more abstract, and frankly, I am speculating a bit here, but bear with me. When the angel says to Elijah that “the journey is too great for you,” it is not clear if Elijah has chosen the destination, or whether God has chosen it. I rather suspect it was God’s choice. But in either case, the destination is significant. It is “Horeb, the mount of God.” Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai where Moses met with God, while the nation of Israel camped out at the foot of the mountain. The symbolism of the destination is important. We are told that it took Elijah 40 days and nights to make the journey. It is a kind of rewinding of the story of Israel’s history. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. It is also worth noting that Moses remained on the mountain for 40 days in the presence of God.

Here is my speculation kicking in, but in light of Elijah having lost his connection with God, God invites him on a journey back to where it all began, where God appeared to Moses and first appeared to the nation of Israel at the sealing of the covenant, when God came down upon the mountain with a trumpet call, and dark clouds and lightning, and the glory of God descended as a fire upon the mountain, and the ground shook before him.

Maybe we need to go on an occasional spiritual journey, to rekindle our own spiritual fire; to revisit our own spiritual roots, or be refreshed by sharing the spiritual experiences of other saints of God, to reconnect with the God of the covenant; the God who called us and the God who cares for us.

3. He invited Elijah to put his feelings of despair into words.

God puts this in the form of a question: What are you doing here, Elijah? Elijah was in a cave at that time. But this is not a question of geography or physical space so much as a question of spiritual and emotional place. We might think of the cave as a “cave of despair” where Elijah was hiding. I believe God’s question is vital to the story, because it is repeated. The question is repeated as well as Elijah’s answer. God didn’t ask because he needed information. He asked because Elijah needed to put his feelings into words. Oftentimes, by bottling everything up, the feelings grow more monstrous than the reality that gave rise to them. But even when the circumstances are unspeakably horrible, putting our feelings into words, especially in prayer to God, is an important step toward dealing with them.

“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

Elijah’s answer is full of pathos and passion. He reveals his own unfulfilled expectations that the miracle on the mountain should have produced a revival, but had not. He is grieved for the sake of God himself; his covenant and his right to the heart worship of his people. Mixed in with his passion for God and his reputation, there is also a rather heavy dollop of self-pity. And that’s OK. That’s what Elijah was feeling. There was no point in pretending otherwise. God listened and did not rebuke him. In fact he asks the question again, giving Elijah another chance to vent and put his feelings into words.

4. He revealed himself to Elijah in a new and intimate way.

Based on the grammatical constructions of the chapter, this is really at the heart of the whole story. I cannot escape the parallels with Moses and his experience with God on this same mountain. Moses, too, was in a cave. He asked to see God’s glory, and God allowed him to see his glory from behind. But this is also a little different. We are told that God passed by and first there was a great wind that literally tore and shook the mountain, tearing off pieces of stone. But then we are told, rather surprisingly, that God was not in the wind.

Then a great earthquake shook the mountain. But God was not in the earthquake.

Then, finally, a fire. Surely God was in the fire. After all, had he not revealed himself in fire in the Book of Exodus, when he descended on the mountain before the nation of Israel? And had he not revealed himself by sending the fire to consume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel? But we are told again, “The Lord was not in the fire.”

But then there came a quiet whisper. We are told that it was the quiet whisper that drew Elijah out of the cave where he had retreated to hide from the wind, the earthquake and the fire. That quiet whisper was the voice God, repeating his question: What are you doing here, Elijah?

What is the point of this story? What is the point of the wind and the earthquake and the fire? I think God is showing Elijah that while he has the power to shake the earth, his presence does not depend on such dramatic displays of power. After his experience on Mount Carmel, Elijah was preconditioned to the dramatic and overt displays of God’s power. He needed to recover his sense of the presence and intimacy of God in the quiet, everyday, still whispers.

It was often so with the missionaries who came to our counseling center. Some had seen great achievements on the mission field, only to crash and burn. Others had never seen any great display of God’s power, and came to us broken and disillusioned because of their sense of failure. But in either case, they were often equating God’s presence with the visible manifestation of his power. They needed to retune their ears to hear the quiet whisper of God’s voice and to experience his presence in a quiet sunset or the beauty of a rose, or the gentle snuggle of a little child, or a remembered verse of Scripture.

5. He gave Elijah a new assignment.

We see this in verses 15-16.

And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

With these instructions, God is accomplishing a couple things. First, these tasks needed to be done. But they also communicated to Elijah that he still had a purpose. He needed to get up and get back in the game. He wasn’t washed up and useless. God still had a job for him to do.

It is good to take a break from service for a time when we are burned out and weary. But restoration is not complete until we get up and get back in the game. I saw this often at the counseling center. Healing would happen and vital spiritual and emotional lessons would be learned. But I knew real restoration had taken place when the missionaries began to correspond with their agency and begin to focus on the question of “What next?”

One thing I have sometimes heard from people coming to ECC is a version of this: I was over-involved and burned out in my previous church. I just want to sit and rest and recharge my spiritual batteries for a while before I start to serve again. I understand that. Take your time. But don’t make the sidelines your permanent home. There comes a time to ask God, “What’s next?”

6. He gave Elijah a larger perspective.

One of the common causes and symptoms of discouragement and depression is a shrinking of our view of the world. We lose hope because we can’t see beyond the length of our own arm. One of the ways God restores hope is by giving us a bigger view, not only of himself, but also of his kingdom and of what he is doing in the world.

There were two ways that God expanded Elijah’s view in this chapter. The first is found in verse 17:  And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.

Why is God telling Elijah this? If we go back to Elijah’s complaint in the earlier verses, it boils down to one basic point: “The bad guys are winning!” Elijah is concerned about God’s honor. “I stuck up for you, God. I upheld your honor, but everyone else has turned away – they have neglected your covenant, they have torn down your altars, they have killed your prophets – and you’re letting them get away with it!”

God’s answer here is clear. “They haven’t gotten away with anything. Their judgment is coming. I will enforce my covenant. The rebels will get what is coming to them.” In some rather bloody scenes in the following chapters, we shall see how God’s wrath was poured out on the nation for their rebellion and especially on Ahab and Jezebel and their house. So God points out his sovereignty to Elijah. “Justice will be done,” God reassures his prophet.

The second way God expanded Elijah’s perspective is found in verse 18: Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Elijah thought he was all alone. At least he felt like he was all alone. Depression and discouragement will create that impression in us, and leave us whimpering in our loneliness. God reassures the prophet that he is not alone – there is a remnant of other faithful worshipers of the true God still alive and well in Israel.
7. He gave Elijah an assistant.

This is found in the final paragraph of the chapter. We don’t have time to go into the details of the account, but Elijah found the young man Elisha plowing in his father’s field and cast his mantle on him. Elisha immediately leaves all to follow Elijah and we are told that he “went after Elijah and assisted him.”
He brought Elijah not only assistance but also companionship. After many lonely years, Elijah now had another man, a prophet in training, to keep him company in the rigors of his ministry. God, in a very practical and tangible way reached out to meet the prophet’s needs.

Well, that’s 7 points. 7 things God did to care for Elijah and to lead him through and out of his depression.

I am going to be honest with you. I don’t really care for the kind of sermon that reduces everything to a formula: 6 steps to a happy marriage, 7 steps to financial freedom, 8 steps to Christian maturity. That kind of teaching too often leads us to trusting in the formula and the steps and we leave God out. In the process we create a new form of legalism. I do hope you won’t respond to this sermon in this way. These aren’t steps to anything. There is no formula here. I have simply tried to articulate what I have observed in this chapter in the hopes that at least one of these points might prove helpful to you. But in the laying out of these points, I do not want any of us to lose sight of the one central point of this chapter.

God cares! No matter what you’re feeling right now, however hopeless things appear, however dark the clouds that are blocking out your sun, please remember this. If you never remember anything else I’ve said today, take this home with you: God cares!

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  1. Tell about a time in your life when you felt discouraged, depressed and all alone.
  2. In this sermon, Pastor Cam lists four factors that may have contributed to Elijah’s despair. Do you remember what they are? Which of these may have played a part in your own experience? Are there other common contributors not mentioned in this sermon or seen in this chapter?
  3. As you watch God actively caring for Elijah, how does it make you feel?
  4. Go over each of the ways God showed his care for the prophet, and discuss its relevance to your own experiences with discouragement and/or depression.
  5. What insights does this chapter provide us into ways we can help others who are discouraged?