“Elijah was a man just like us.” James 5:17
In my experience many Christians consider Christlikeness impossible in this life, yet expect an almost magical transformation of their character and faith immediately upon entry into the next life. I wonder: why would God, who shows the utmost respect for our freedom of choice and personality while we live on earth suddenly take control of our faith and choices in heaven? Does that sound like the Father’s way?
Monday’s Meditation challenged us to consider James’ suggestion that if becoming conformed to the image of Jesus is unimaginable, perhaps we could set our sights lower--on someone like Elijah. The same Elijah whose voice and piety intimidated kings and queens, whose trust in God manifested in his personal control of the weather for three years, and whose appetite for the power of God called down fire from heaven. That Elijah.
Why would the scripture include such incredible stories of people like Elijah? How can his narrative impact our lives? One of my younger friends replied that we should not expect the same miracles as the life of Elijah, but he is included in the Bible so we might imitate his faith. For me, the message of Elijah is precisely the opposite--faith for miracles may be easier than faith to believe that God cares for us, or faith to hear his voice. Here’s what I make of Elijah’s example:
“Seize the prophets of Baal! Don’t let anyone get away!” (1 Kings 18: 40) Elijah used the astonishing manifestation of fire from heaven as authority to order the execution of 400 men. Wouldn’t that have been the perfect moment to invite the pagan prophets to abandon their false gods in favor of the one True God? Yahweh was a demonstrably better choice. Instead, Elijah appealed to an impressionable crowd of people--themselves wavering in faith--to execute a humiliated foe. Could the tacit lesson be that miracle-working faith does not guarantee we have God’s heart? Jesus suggested that very thing in Matthew 7: 21-23.
“I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19: 10) Even after winning a spiritual showdown of Olympian proportions, Elijah felt isolated and alone. This rings true in our day: internationally-known preachers and musicians display a public image of confidence and power but are privately ravaged by their relational poverty. Having become rich in faith--the currency of the Kingdom--they discover their Kingdom riches do not guarantee intimacy with the Father. I have no idea why this is true, but I have seen it time and again.
“After the fire came a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19: 12) The Father’s voice is not a matter of power, but of intimacy. Elijah, the prophet of the grand gesture, gravitated to the fire, the earthquake, and the windstorm. Yet the Lord was present in the stillness, not the tumult. E. Stanley Jones described the authority of God’s voice in this way: “the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.” Another way of saying this is, “the entrance of your word brings light.” (Psalm 119:130)
I believe James when he says Elijah was a man just like us. I am capable of mistaking the grand gesture for his voice and missing the stillness of his presence. I am capable of misinterpreting God’s display of power as justification for violent actions. I am capable of making God’s work "all about me," foolishly thinking I’m the only one when in fact there are thousands close by.
Yet Elijah’s example needn’t be a cautionary tale: his life is also a picture of how God comes close to the depressed and broken, choosing them to represent him. His life is a picture of how God provides for us even when we run from our problems and simply would prefer to quit. His life is a picture of God’s desire to work through men to accomplish His ends, and in the process shape and transform those men in their weakest moments. His life is a picture of an older man who chooses and trains another to take his place--choosing to share freely what was purchased dearly.
Elijah’s life gives me hope not only for the miracles, but for the friendship of God. It assures me that I do not have to choose between the two.