I have always hated roller coasters. Driving up great hills, only to be thrust down at “breakneck speeds” (I think rollercoaster rides are where that phrase was invented!), can in no way, be deemed fun in my book! I’ll never forget the time my husband talked me into riding the newly finished Disney ride, “California Screamin.”
Once I was safely off the ride with my feet on the ground, I honestly had to resist the urge to punch him hard for talking me into going on that ride! Surely, he knew better! Strangely enough though, too often, my life in ministry has felt like that ride. I never seem to know if I am coming or going. I take comfort in the fact that Jesus honestly warned us that a life lived following Him would not be an easy one. He said, “Take up your cross [a form of Roman punishment] and follow me.” Jesus is a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). But Jesus also said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Even in this, we can see the “highs and lows” of a life following Christ.
There is great joy in Him, but there is also sorrow and challenges.
Jesus is always our ultimate example. If Jesus had highs and lows in His ministry on earth, then so will you and I! As I consider this, I am reminded of another who has gone before us, and who’s highs and lows are put plainly before us in the pages of scripture. James 5:17 tells us that Elijah was a man with great faith in prayer, and yet he was also “a man with a nature like ours.” That means he was a normal human being with ups and downs just like us. Like Jesus, he knew what it was like to have times of great ministry “success” and times of great sorrow too!
The caption in my Bible above 1 Kings 18:20 reads, “Elijah’s Mount Carmel Victory.” What follows is the record of Elijah’s major confrontation of Israel’s idol worship and the prophets of Baal. As you read this account, you will see that Baal’s prophets are powerless, and our God is very powerful. After years of idolatry in Israel, this moment brought Israel to a place of repentance, and the people recognized, “The LORD He is God! The LORD He is God!” (1Kings 18:39). Israel’s repentance from idolatry was something for which Elijah had been praying and seeking God fervently for years. The glorious time on Mount Carmel was the climax of Elijah’s ministry. He had been willing to put his whole life on the line for this one thing. He had confronted the wicked king Ahab at risk of his life, of whom he had spent over three years in hiding, in lonely solitude as God’s provision sustained him. Then, at God’s command, he came out of hiding to boldly confront Ahab and the overwhelming idolatry of the land. At last, there was victory!! God’s people repented, and the false prophets were no more. Praise God!
Surprisingly, what followed this tremendous victory of faith for Elijah is a bout of major depression.
Sometimes discouragement takes us by surprise!
One would think this would be a time of great relief and joy for Elijah, but the opposite proved true. Elijah ended up running for his life for fear of Jezebel as she had a renewed death warrant on him. Elijah had stood boldly for years, with fear of no man. Now the isolation, physical and spiritual exhaustion had taken a real toll on his body and spirit. When Elijah heard Jezebel’s proclamation of his impending doom (1Kings 19:3), “...He arose and ran for his life.” That moment marked a real low for this giant of faith. It became worse before it got better as we find him running even further and sitting under a broom tree saying, “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life! (1Kings 19:4). This was the first time we find Elijah giving God the instructions rather than the other way around. Depression warps our perspective.
But God is very gracious! He sent an angel to Elijah with a baked cake (angel food cake!) and water to refresh him! How good is our God? Just when we are at our lowest, God sends us the encouragement we need. Elijah woke up (after twice being provided for by this angel of God) and journeyed 40 days to Mount Horeb. Here God drew near and spoke to Elijah. Elijah revealed the loneliness and isolation in his heart as he said, “...I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (1Kings 19:10). Whether he is right or wrong, in all his experiences, Elijah came to feel quite alone.
Often, we too feel alone in our sufferings, but God lets us know, as he did Elijah, that we are not alone!
God says to Elijah, “I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1Kings 19:18). Basically, “Elijah, you are not alone!”
When God spoke to Elijah, He first straightened out His warped perspective. Then He gave him a new ministry assignment and a kindred new friend in ministry. God gave Elijah some very specific next steps – a job to do! Sometimes we just need to know what God-given task to put our hands to! And next, Elijah anointed Elisha, his successor. The commentary of FB Meyer is insightful regarding this passage. He writes, “Remember there is company which is not companionship.”¹ Elijah had the company of ravens, a Sidonian widow and that of a servant, but he did not know close companionship. At this point in his life, he needed a good friend, and God blessed him with Elisha.
Have you known the highs and lows of Christian ministry?
Did you start out with a kick in your step and excitement in your heart, only to find trials getting you down? Know that our God is, “Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5).
Jesus did not ask us to do anything that He didn’t do to an even greater extent. Hebrews says that it pleased God to make “the captain of [our] salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10). He went before us as our captain to show us the way through this life and into His arms. We walked the lonely road ahead of us and experienced firsthand the “highs and lows of ministry.” He had times when great crowds followed Him and listened to His teaching. A week before Jesus’ crucifixion, prophecy was fulfilled (see Zechariah 9:9) as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the multitude cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' "Hosanna in the highest!'” (Matthew 21:5). But very shortly after, the same crowd was crying out, “crucify Him, … crucify Him” (Mark 15:13)! And they did. Yet, death could not keep Him, and He rose from the grave, never to be defeated.
No matter what you are going through, know that God is not done yet. He is still working in your life to bring everything to completion (Philippians 1:6). The ups and downs are part of His plan to mature and perfect us. Sometimes brokenness, loneliness and hard times are part of what it takes to bring this human imperfection into glory. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
¹Rev F.B. Meyer, Elijah and the Secret of his Power. Morgan and Scott: London, p. 104.