Elijah: Paralyzing Fear vs Powerful Faith
“Ahab reported to Jezebel everything that Elijah had done, including the massacre of the prophets. Jezebel immediately sent a messenger to Elijah with her threat: ‘The gods will get you for this and I’ll get even with you! By this time tomorrow you’ll be as dead as any one of those prophets.’ When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba, far in the south of Judah. He left his young servant there and then went on into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die.” 1 Kings 19:1-4 (THE MESSAGE)
Following Jesus is not an easy task. There is one distinct block that is particularly important to explore. If you recall Peter’s experience in the courtyard, you’ll remember that it was a very frightening time. Peter had experienced not a few dramatic events, all crammed into a short period. The Gospels record that Jesus had turned the Passover supper on its head with a foot-washing and predictions of betrayal and death. Judas had walked out on the entire project. Peter and the rest of the disciples had fallen asleep in the garden while Jesus was praying, which had led to yet another rebuke. Then Judas led a band of soldiers into the garden, confronting Jesus. Peter attacked the high priest’s servant with his sword, cutting off the man’s ear and prompting Jesus to heal one last time before they led him away. Finally Peter found himself standing in the courtyard, most likely scared to death.
It is no wonder that he lurked in the shadows, away from the fire; fear is an incredible obstacle to faith. (See Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13–18.) Fear undermines. It blocks faith and achievement. It disrupts our life direction, hinders us from seeing God’s picture of our lives and discovering our life mission. Peter was sidetracked by fear that night in the courtyard.
So was Elijah when he fled the wrath of Jezebel. Elijah was one of God’s mighty prophets in the days of the Old Testament. In a time when the people of God were following at a comfortable distance, Elijah was following up close and in the thick of things. He stood with integrity and spoke with courage and boldness. Elijah knew how to depend on God. God led him into hiding in the wilderness for his safety, fed him for an entire year with food carried by ravens, and then showed him the way to a widow who was able to provide him shelter from his enemies.
Elijah understood that God was in control. He had experienced the power of God working through him to resurrect a widow’s son and bring fire to the altar when the priests of Baal were unable. Elijah was faithful, focused, and obedient. And that is where fear enters the picture. (See 1 Kings 16:29—18:45.)
When we follow in the Jesus way, we will always encounter resistance. The fire can get very hot, and there will always be disruptive events that challenge our commitment to follow. That is what happened to Elijah. He had experienced great prophetic success; but even as he sought to be faithful to God, forces of resistance challenged him, bringing him to the end of his rope. Queen Jezebel had been systematically murdering the spiritual leaders of Israel, and now she set her sights directly on Elijah. He was terrified and ran for his life. (See 1 Kings 19:1-3.) His life direction was disrupted. He was sidetracked by fear.
I believe this is an experience common to all of us. We undergo spiritual growth and gain maturity in our devotion and success in our faith. We believe we are living out of our God picture, our life mission. But then the world throws resistance or disruption at us, or we experience a spiritual plateau, and suddenly we’re paralyzed. The forward movement of our spiritual journey is halted.
I have a friend who is a wellspring of faith and encouragement. She has been a significant source of spiritual mentoring for many people. One day, however, she stopped coming. I e-mailed her, wondering what was wrong. She would e-mail back occasionally, but she did not return to church. Over the course of several months, I lost contact with her altogether. Finally, she contacted me, wanting to talk. We met; and as her story unfolded, it was clear that she was experiencing an overarching spiritual paralysis. Despite the depth of her faith and the significance of her ministry in our church and our community, she doubted her place in the Kingdom. Her faith had been disrupted, and now she feared she wasn’t “spiritual enough.” Living in spiritual fear, she retreated from the community of faith— the very people who could support her and carry her through. The further she retreated, the greater the paralysis became. My friend experienced spiritual fear and paralysis and dealt with it by retreating from the community of faith; Elijah experienced fear and paralysis and dealt with it by running away to a broom bush, and then to the dark depths of a cave on Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:4-9a).
Humans have developed many tools to deal with fear. One of the first tools we make use of is control. When something bad happens to us, we exercise our feeling of control and do everything in our power to keep this bad thing from happening again. My friend exercised her feeling of control by retreating. Elijah exercised his feeling of control by running away. It’s a basic human instinct.
That is exactly what Elijah discovers. He had experienced great victories in his life, but now he finds himself in a state of fear and paralysis; he can’t control the events unfolding around him. He’s under the broom bush; he can’t eat; he can’t sleep; he is so fearful that he even asks God to end his life. When you get to this point, it’s hard to hear God anymore.
This was the case with my friend. She couldn’t discern God’s direction. She was filled with isolation and doubt. Committing ourselves to the Jesus way does not mean that we will be spared moments of crisis like these—moments when we are filled with fear and paralysis. However, if we are to continue to follow, we must be prepared and make use of the spiritual resources that God has provided. Elijah’s experience helps us understand those resources.
Elijah has traveled from the broom bush to the depths of a cave on Mount Sinai. God finds him there and asks a very important question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9b, NLT). It is as though God is asking, “Why would you come to this place after all I’ve done? Don’t you remember my power? Don’t you remember my love and care? What are you doing here so full of fear and doubt?”
God asks, but then God directs; and these directions provide us with insight.
God offers Elijah, and us, three specific spiritual resources: visioning, speaking, and acting.
We’ll continue to explore God’s response to followers paralyzed by fear, but for now consider these questions:
What disruptions have you experienced in your faith walk where your forward motion of faith was stalled? How have you attempted to exercise control in your life?
You don’t have to live in paralysis.