I bumped into a guy I knew from the community in the back hallway of the doctor’s office. “What are you doing here?” I chirped by way of greeting.
In the awkward hem-hawing and shoegazing that followed, I quickly realized my faux pas. We both mumbled something noncommittal and shuffled by.
Most of us don’t like to reveal our wounds and weaknesses. We’ve experienced the toxicity of pity. We’ve heard the dull assurances that everything will be all right. We want to be known — and to see ourselves — as those who are strong, smart, resourceful and resilient.
How ya doin’? Fine.
But weakness goes with the territory of planet human, and sometimes it’s in the back hallways of our weakest moments that we bump into God.
That’s what happened to the prophet Elijah. Elijah the Tishbite comes on the scene in 1 Kings 17 and quickly stirs the pot in the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab is on the throne — powerful, flawed and under the thumb of his Phoenician wife Jezebel.
Jezebel imported her national deities into Israelite territory. And, while Ahab maybe imagined that Yahweh and Asherah and Baal could all be one big, happy pantheon, Elijah could not. God would not.
“The Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24).
Elijah’s inspired plan is straight-forward: summon king and country to a showdown on Mount Carmel, and -after the sparks from heaven have flown, the people of Israel will return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel (1 Kings 18:36). It works!
Sort of. The bread-and-circuses fervor of the people of Israel evaporates quickly. Before the 12 stones of Elijah’s altar have cooled, Jezebel is after the prophet.
Elijah ran for his life and crashed in the desert under a broom tree. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said (1 Kings 19:3-4, NIV).
That’s when God fed Elijah in the desert and drew him back to Mount Horeb — the mountain whose other name is “Sinai,” the place of the original encounter and covenant with God.
It’s there on the mountain that God meets Elijah. At his weakest moment, God doesn’t tell the prophet to buck up. Nobody’s getting pep-talked. God doesn’t fix the situation.
Instead, God twice asks Elijah a pivotal question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verses 9 and 13).
That’s the question we need in our weakest moments. Our weak places, the places where we hurt, reveal something about us. They can tell us something about our hopes and dreams, who we consider ourselves to be, even how we understand God.
It’s like when Jesus asked the guy who had been perched by the healing pool for 38 years: “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6). The question leads somewhere.
It’s in those moments of weakness, the ones when it seems like everything’s gone pear-shaped, that I find myself sitting with the question: What am I doing here? And then: Who do I want to become? What might God be calling me to?
My calling to ministry crystallized out of a time in my life when things were not going to plan. I was disappointed, disillusioned and questioning, and that welter led me to consider something new.
I’ve discovered that’s how it often works. Weakness springs a trapdoor. What am I doing here? Really.
For Elijah, the question opened into a future bigger, more tangled and more morally ambiguous than he might have imagined. A future that included Hazael rising in Syria and Jehu wresting the throne from Ahab and — especially — anointing Elisha: a faithful successor, a prophet like a son with a double portion of his spirit (1 Kings 19:15-18; 2 Kings 2:12, 2:9). The bottom became the top.
What else? The Lord summons us onward by cruciform grace.