Slaying the Dragon of Self-Pity

We all have experienced them…lousy days, unexpected difficulties, a silver cloud with a black lining, times when life just seems to unfairly dump on us.  The road ahead may have seemed clear and smooth and then, BAM!, a blowout messes with all our best laid plans and hopeful expectations.  At those times, we can almost feel the hot breath on our neck and hear the whispers in our ear, “Life is unfair!”, “God can’t really be trusted!”, “You’re all alone with this!”, “Just throw in the towel because no one really cares!”  Eeyore’s thundercloud with its perpetual rain seems to have relocated itself over our head and wallowing in self-pity seems like the most attractive option before us.  How do we handle these times?  How does God respond to our descent into self-pity and how do we slay this Smaug-like enemy?  Fortunately, we are not alone in this struggle – some of God’s choicest servants have had to engage in the same struggle.  In I Kings 18&19, we find Israel’s most famous prophet wrestling with this very dragon!

Elijah was a Duck Dynasty type of guy…coming out of the backwoods of Israel, sporting an inside-out sheepskin coat, and mincing no words as he confronted the most morally depraved and wicked royal pair ever to sit on the throne in Israel.

Ahab, the monarch during Elijah’s era, sought to consolidate power through a political alliance with Phoenicia by marrying Jezebel.  When Jezebel moved into Jezreel, Israel’s capital city, she brought several moving vans full of her Phoenician gods and goddesses – the Baalim and the Ashteroth.  These deities were some of the most corrupt ever devised and their worship was so evil – involving sexual orgies and child sacrifice – that even the Romans, who were not known for their pure religious virtues, were repulsed by it and declared it evil when they encountered it in Carthage.

As you read the story in I Kings 17-22, there is no doubt about who wore the pants in the royal family.  Jezebel made Baalism the state religion of Israel and this culminated in a huge confrontation on Mount Carmel where, despite outrageous odds against him, Elijah singlehandedly brought down 450 prophets of Baal.

You can almost see the thrill of victory in Elijah’s gate as he ran ahead of the king’s chariot all the way to Jezreel, only about a mile short of a full marathon!  He may have imagined moving into a parsonage next to the palace! Finally, Baalism had been soundly defeated and surely now the leadership of the nation would return to the true God of Israel.  He may have anticipated the removal of Jezebel or even her conversion.  Who knows what wonderful changes lay ahead!

Then, all of a sudden, with the road ahead  looking clear and smooth, BAM! – unanticipated bad news hits.  Not only did Ahab fail to kick Jezebel out of the royal palace but when he reported to her what had happened she sent a short but not so sweet note to Elijah, “May the gods get me, if I don’t kill you by tomorrow!”  So, Elijah laced up his running shoes once again but this time he wasn’t running fueled by the adrenalin of victory but by life threatening fear.  After running the equivalent of an ultra-marathon, which led him past Beersheba (70 miles from Jezreel), he collapsed in the wilderness under a broom tree and prayed to die! “Enough is enough,” he said!

I think most of us can relate.  Life, which was going just wonderfully, all of a sudden turns in an unexpected and unwanted direction.  The doctor calls and the news isn’t good.  Our kids call and the news isn’t good.  Our wife or husband calls and the news isn’t good.  Our boss calls and the news isn’t good.  Our parents call and the news isn’t good.  Discouragement and depression are ubiquitous – drug companies wouldn’t invest millions searching for pharmacological solutions for depression if they didn’t think there was a huge market!  We understand Elijah’s blue mood but my prayer is that we will understand and learn even more from how our Great Physician helps his bummed out prophet battle this dragon.

The Lord begins with few words – just allowing his road-worn servant to sleep and eat.  There is wisdom here.  Fatigue can factor heavily into our bouts with discouragement.  Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is rest.  Our world runs at red-line most of the time and God never designed our bodies to function without regular times of rest and recuperation.  So if you are feeling like “enough is enough” then what you may need to do is cancel a few appointments on your calendar, skip Leno or Fallon, turn off Netflix, skip the 11th Christmas party of the season and get some R&R.  The Lord did this twice with Elijah – ministering to his physical needs before leading him to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai) to deal with some deeper issues of his soul and his relationship with God.

Fortified by cake fed to him by an angel (I Kings 19:6), Elijah began the 40 day journey to Mount Horeb – the place of God’s revelation.  Alone and walking for forty days gives a person plenty of time to think.  In Elijah’s case this just seemed to sink him deeper into self-pity and disillusionment because when the Lord finally spoke to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he responded with, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too!”  I Kings 19:10  His words just dripping with self-pity!

Discouragement is often the result of unrealistic expectations.  In Elijah’s case his expectation was likely that after the prophets of Baal were defeated God would continue to show his power over evil by nullifying Jezebel’s influence (maybe through a well-aimed lightning bolt!).  He expected God to work in Jezebel’s life in the same way he worked in the lives of the prophets of Baal – with an awesome display of his mighty power.  Yet, when God failed to work in the way he desired, Elijah’s brooded over his disappointment which led ultimately to a massive case of self-pity and the blues.

It’s easy to get down – focus on unmet expectations, disappointments, failures of others, failures of God to act in a way that you wanted.  The hard part is to dig your heels in and stop the descent down that slippery slope of self-pity.  Elijah didn’t seem to have the will to fight so God graciously led him out to the side of the mountain to reveal something about himself to Elijah (I Kings 19:11).  There the Lord gave Elijah a lesson in His ways.

What did Elijah expect when God told him He was going to pass by?  I don’t know about you, but I would expect something pretty impressive.  Indeed, it started in very dramatic way – tornado winds sending rocks tumbling down the mountainside, then a ground shaking earthquake making even more rocks tumble, then bolts of lightning striking all around – yet, God was conspicuously absent in these potent displays of wonder working power.  “The Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire.”  Then came a “gentle breeze” (NIV) or a “still, small voice” (NKJV) in which the Lord was present and speaking to Elijah.

It’s hard to predict what God will do.  When we finally think we have his ways figured out, He then goes and does something totally unexpected.  His ways are not our ways.  Vance Havner states, “Anyone who thinks he has the ways of God conveniently tabulated analyzed and correlated with convenient glib answers…(for) aching hearts has not gone far in this maze of mystery we call life and death…He has no stereotyped way of doing what he does.  I accept what he does, how he does it.”

God powerfully crushed the Baal worshippers on Carmel with a lightning bolt and thunder punctuated display of his awesome power.  Yet, he chose to deal with Jezebel in a different manner.  He delivered Peter from prison with an earthquake but allowed Stephen to be stoned to death.  He administered supernatural anti-venom when Paul was bit by a viper but allowed the nails of Calvary to kill his own Son in order to deliver us all.  God doesn’t always tip his hand.  His ways seem mysterious at times and if we think we can and we must find out what He is doing we are destined for disappointment and the blues.

There are no guarantees that life with God will be smooth and carefree.  At times we will look foolish and weak.  We will be opposed and evil will seem to have the upper hand.  Our best-made and best-laid plans will fizzle out and turn to a pile of ash.  We will want God to show up in power – to lay low the Jezebels in our lives with a dramatic display of his unmistakable power.  But He refuses to live life by our playbook.  Yet, there is a gentle wind blowing…a still, small voice speaking.  He is moving to accomplish his purposes and plans in his way – whether we perceive it or not.

Elijah still didn’t get the point, even after God vividly demonstrated his point and his ways on the mountainside. We know this because his discouraged prophet gave the same whiny answer as before. (I Kings 19:14)  So, God in his patient grace, firmly called Elijah back into the game.  “Go back the way you came…anoint Hazael…anoint Jehu…anoint Elisha.”  These actions would bring an end to the despicable reign of Ahab and Jezebel.  He also reminded Elijah he wasn’t alone in the fight – there were 7,000 in Israel who had not followed the ways of Jezebel in bowing to Baal.  God bluntly called Elijah to get back in the struggle and to recognize that he had a whole bunch of teammates on his side!

Elijah couldn’t choose to throw his blues away – feelings rarely respond to direct commands!  However, he could choose to obey his Lord.  He could choose to stop wallowing in self-pity.  He could choose to focus on the truth that God’s ways are not our ways, that he still had a purpose and calling, and that there are others around him who shared his heart for the Lord.  Elijah’s emotions may have been unresponsive to his commands but his will was still free!

Elijah did what God called him to do, “So Elijah went from there….”  His action and obedience was the beginning of his healing.  He chose to get up off the sidelines of self-pity and get back in the game.  He didn’t belong there.  That’s why God kept asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  I don’t know when his blues turned to yellows.  I don’t know when his emotions decided to come on board but I know they did eventually come around.

You may be disappointed and discouraged by the ways God is (and is not) working in your life.  You may feel like you have just had “enough” and, truth be told, the thought of just checking out of life sounds appealing.  Remember, you are not alone.  God’s most renowned and respected prophet went through the same thing.  If you are still here, God still has a purpose for you.  Choose to act by loving those around you.  Choose to stop wallowing in self-pity.  Choose to be encouraged by your brothers and sisters who are in the struggle with you.  Choose to remember that God does work in mysterious and unpredictable ways…and it will be that way until we are home with Him…or at least start by choosing to get a good night’s sleep!

I can just hear the laughter and see the smile on Elijah’s face when, after finally having figured out that God is “gentle breeze” type of God, he rides up to his eternal home in the midst of a tornado! II Kings 2:11

My thanks to Dave Roper, one of my mentors in Boise, whose teaching and insights on this passage have often helped me move from the blues to the yellows!