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Facing anguish after the mountaintop victory

June 3, 2024

You’re in the stands watching the last few minutes of a heated football match. Both teams are tied and the clocking seems to be ticking faster as you near the 90th minute. At minute 89, your team shoots and scores. 

It’s hard to explain the joy that explodes from you when your team wins. Team chants resume with new intensity and you don’t notice your hands tire from applause. Competing with the cheers are equally loud boos directed toward the stands where fans of the losing team are making their way out of the stadium. There are noticeably fewer smiles on their side and their hands aren’t nearly as tired.

I’d like to think the elation of this kind of win is what Elijah felt the moment he encountered the fire of the Lord “flash down from heaven” and burn up the sacrifice he set up on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18: 38). The “losing team” of Baal’s prophets whose god did not consume the sacrifice his prophets set before him, likely had fewer smiles on their faces. 

Apart from the incredible win in this proverbial “stadium”, Elijah’s joy is likely compounded by his prayer being unequivocally answered, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant…Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.”  (1 Kings 18: 16).

And he witnesses perhaps one of the most gratifying responses that a tired prophet who’s been preaching repentance can. The people repent.

When Elijah’s sacrifice on the altar was consumed, all of Israel who gathered at Mount Carmel to witness this “grand match”, “fell face down on the ground and cried out, “The Lord – he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18: 39).

It’s hard to think anything can shake Elijah from this mountaintop experience. God has sent a literal fire down from heaven as a result of his prayer, the prophets of the false god have been publicly defeated, and the people have been convinced that the God of Israel is the true God. But in the next chapter, we find him so far away from his attitude on Mount Carmel.

Our mighty prophet makes a very real confession: I’m tired and I’ve had enough.

After receiving a death threat from the leaders of the land, his response is: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said, and he continues his complaint to the Lord, “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died…I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:4, 10). Elijah is suicidal and disillusioned about both his identity and his life’s work. Someone who was once so sure of both is now in such a drastically unexpected state of mind? I’m struck by Elijah’s next step in the midst of this anguish. 

He took himself to a solitary place and prayed (1 Kings 19:4). It reminded me of another prayer prayed at a similar point of anguish. In Matthew 26: 39, “[Jesus] went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 

The response then that both Elijah and Jesus model to us in times of grave difficulty and struggle is prayer. There are 3 things that we can learn from these prayers:

An honest prayer invites God’s participation in our struggle

Both Elijah and Jesus offer prayers that lay out the good, bad, and ugly before God. They make no apologies for the emotions they’re experiencing and they don’t downplay their feelings, but rather bring a brutal honesty before the Lord. Our honest conversation with the Lord allows Him the opportunity to participate and respond to the suffering we may be experiencing. In Elijah’s instance, it resulted in clear guidance on what the next steps in his mission should be. Jesus’ prayer also invites God’s participation in His struggle. His posture shows us that even if we have a clear understanding of the Lord’s will for our lives, we can nonetheless express our real feelings and desires before Him and invite His participation in our struggles;

Prayer brings us comfort and allows us to comfort others

Both Elijah and Jesus’ decision to pray comes from a recognition that they are not alone in their struggle and that they can bring their pain before a God who has a desire to hear and comfort them. After Elijah’s prayer, he has a supernatural encounter with an angel of the Lord (1 Kings 19:5) who encourages him to eat and sleep, and then again a supernatural encounter where the Lord responds to his anguish about his purpose and identity by revealing his presence to Elijah at Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19: 12-13). Jesus’ anguish brings Him to pray to the Father three times. As He keeps returning to the Father for some solace, His time in prayer also allows Him to offer comfort to his disciples as they themselves struggle to offer Jesus support in His hour of need (Matthew 26:45); and,

Prayer gives us the conviction and capacity to accept God’s will for our lives

Through prayer, both Elijah and Jesus accept God’s will for their respective lives and continue on the specific paths that God had set before them. Both were called (as we all are) to reveal God’s heart for His people to repent and return to Him, but their time in prayer renewed the conviction and capacity they needed to continue when their overwhelming suffering made them falter. “So Elijah went” is what we read in 1 Kings 19:19. After his encounter with the Lord, Elijah continues his mission to appoint new kings for the land and appoint a prophet, Elisha, to succeed him. “Let’s be going”, Jesus says in Matthew 26: 46. Through His prayer, Jesus continues on the journey to be eventually sacrificed on the cross. 

When our valley moments inevitably follow those on the mountaintop, let us take encouragement from the examples of both Elijah and Jesus who brought their honest anguish, suffering, and pain before the Lord. As we offer Him our most authentic selves, let us receive from Him in turn new comfort, capacity, and conviction to press on in the call He has upon our lives.

– Kripa Koshy

Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. - Psalm 62:8

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