I was reading the story the other day, in a children’s Bible of all things, when suddenly a question stopped me dead in my tracks: Seriously, why her?
It’s recorded in 1 Kings 17. A famine has struck the region. In famines, people die.
Particularly people who never had much to start with. The prophet Elijah, who lives on God’s goodwill, is hungry.
“No problem,” God says. “I’ve ordered someone to feed you.”
Then God sends Elijah to Zarephath, a city outside Israel, to the home of an impoverished single mother.
This woman isn’t just running low — she’s literally down to her last meal. She was likely awake all night last night, staring at the shelf containing only one handful of flour, contemplating her own starvation and the starvation of her son. And this is the day a stranger, a foreigner, approaches and, casual as anything, asks her for a snack.
Here’s the thing — there are plenty people back in Israel, where Elijah is a famous prophet, who would surely be glad to spare him a meal. And Zarephath is a commercial center. There are certainly merchants with a bit of extra in the bank who could afford to put Elijah up.
For heaven’s sake, just a few verses earlier, God had birds delivering Uber Eats for Elijah.
There are clearly a whole lot of options here, and every single one of them seems better than draining a widow of her last mouthful. It’s almost cruel. Seriously, why her?
Imagine this: Imagine God considering how to feed God’s valued servant, Elijah. And God looks down and sees a single mother, a young woman alone in a foreign city, staring at her empty cupboard. God hears her cries of despair go up, and God thinks, “Him and her. I’ll bring them together. And in that way, both will be provided for.”
This past year, I’ve been researching and writing on the subject of loneliness. According to AARP, 35% of Americans over 45 report being chronically lonely. Across all ages, one in five report personal isolation as a cause of significant unhappiness.
To be clear, in the U.S. this amounts to more than 60 million people. For many, these statistics raise obvious questions — why can’t all these lonely people simply connect with each other and not be lonely anymore?
The answer turns out to be more complex than it might first appear. Chronic loneliness is physically and psychically taxing. It decreases capacity for self-regulation, wears on the internal organs, lowers self-esteem and compromises sleep. Physically tired and soul-weary, many end up saying, “I’ll reach out, I’ll offer something to others. But first, before I do, I need someone to fill me.” And thus begins a stalemate.
It’s a perfectly understandable sentiment. But the modern self-help movement, with its emphasis on self-care first, can often miss a critical truth of human existence that the spiritual masters have always known: Sometimes it is only in feeding others that you yourself are fed.
Sometimes the Spirit calls to us, “Here is someone who needs food.” And our instinctive response is to say, “This call to provision must belong to someone else. Because look at me — I’m already on empty.”
We say “empty,” but what we actually mean is that we’re down to our last cup of flour and we need it for ourselves. We don’t have any extra to spare for anybody else.
To be clear, God will never ask us for something we don’t have to give. But it’s also true that, paradoxically, sometimes God’s answer to our deep hunger is launched first by feeding rather than eating.
This is divine logic, the logic of love — sometimes two hungry people, brought together, can add up to three full ones. The miracle happens as we risk leading with the gift.
I know you’re tired. I know you’re hungry. God knows it too, and God cares. But if an opportunity comes to share your loaf with a stranger, I pray you have the faith and courage of the widow of Zarephath. May you discover God’s power to multiply a handful of flour, given away.