Alas, Discouragement

Alas, Discouragement

Walking through a period of discouragement is like traversing a dark valley coated in tar. Wrapped in darkness, you’re unable to see where you’re going. Neither can you so much as lift a single foot without some serious sweat. The muck of the valley is tightfisted, a jealous demon of sorts; your feet, its helpless prisoner. Life, no doubt, is full of curveballs (to switch metaphors). But that is not the same as discouragement—an altogether different thing. You can hit curveballs, after all. Discouragement, on the other hand, often paralyzes you such that you can’t even swing the bat.

To make matters worse, discouragement has a concomitant associate, namely, depression. Together, these two dragons are enemies of the soul—Twin Beasts of the Shadowlands, if you will.

There’s a story in the Bible about a discouraged—nay, depressed—prophet named Elijah. Having just experienced a rather impressive display of God’s power, Elijah ran for the hills when he got word that his enemy, Jezebel, put a hit out on his head (1 Kings 19:1-3). When he got wind of her threats, the text says, “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life” (19:3).

What’s interesting is that, in the chapter immediately before this episode, Elijah showed no fear at all. In fact, he was so confident that he could directly challenge a cohort of false prophets (450 of them, to be precise). There in that scene, Elijah orchestrated, as it were, a war of the gods—a contest between Baal and Yahweh. The challenge was to see which god could answer a prayer to send fire down from heaven upon an altar (18:22-24). Says Elijah: “You call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of Yahweh, and the god who answers by fire, he is God” (v.24).

And so it went. Both deities squared off in a battle that, as it turned out, ended up being no battle at all. The pagan god, Baal, turned out to be an imposter. Even after his prophets cried out to him for a miracle, Baal remained silent. Elijah, bold as ever, offered a mocking explanation as to why, perhaps, Baal wasn’t answering prayers that particular morning: “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (18:27).

But then there is Yahweh. He is no fraud, nor is he an obscure figment of the prophet’s imagination. He is God. When Elijah cried out to him, fire poured down from heaven (v.38). Consequently, the bystanders who witnessed this had nothing left to say, except for this confession: “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!” (v.39).

Emboldened, Elijah takes it on himself to slaughter the pagan prophets—all of them (18:40). Whatever one makes of this act, one thing is evident: Elijah’s confidence was unflinching throughout this entire episode.

But then, not a few verses later, Jezebel got word of what Elijah did and promptly sent the latter a message. “I’m going to kill you,” she boasted. It was at this point that Elijah’s confidence left him; he feared and “ran for his life” (19:3).

Elijah, despondent as ever, retreated to the wilderness. Finding some shade, the text says he prayed to his God, saying, “It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (v.4). In other words, Elijah viewed himself to be nothing more than a massive failure.

His prophetic calling, his uncompromising faith, indeed, his entire identity—everything, in that moment, was called into question. For Elijah, all the memories of victory had been exiled into the Abyss of The Forgotten. Now, Elijah wanted to die. Nothing mattered anymore. His soul, his confidence, his courage were all emptied the moment he heard Jezebel, that other dragon, roar as she swore to the gods. And, sadly, Elijah took it all to heart. Like a dagger, that roar knifed its way through his heart, paralyzing the prophet. The terror of darkness would quickly settle way down deep into his bones—alas, discouragement.

Understandably exhausted, Elijah collapsed into a deep sleep. An angel, according to the text, brought food and water to him—necessary sustenance for a stay in the desert. After another nap, the “angel of the Lord” came for a second time, encouraging him to “arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (19:7). The food and rest both served him well, refreshing his anxious, fear-filled body. But it wasn’t just his body that needed nourishment; his soul, too, was depleted. The deepest part of his soul required revitalization, rehabilitation, and care. Elijah, having forgotten the power and supremacy of Yahweh, needed a holy confrontation with his God. He needed a reminder of God’s godness. Fortunately, that’s exactly what he would get.

The text says the prophet soon found a cave and “lodged in it” (v.9). One can imagine the solitude of that particular location. From the whistle of the wind as it passed over the cave’s opening to the eerie caws of the hooded crows flying nearby. These are the tunes of exile.

But without any warning, those tunes were interrupted by a voice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This was the voice of his God, the “word of Yahweh” himself (v.9).

By asking Elijah a simple question, Yahweh invited Elijah to open up. It was an invitation to transparency and introspection. Full transparency before God about his fears and wounds would prove to be therapeutic for his soul, a true sacred moment.

And so, Elijah laments:

“I have been very jealous for Yahweh, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I—even I only—am left, and they seek my life, to take it away”

(1 Kings 19:10)

One can almost hear the tone of his anger-laced, disheartening cry when he answers God’s question. Elijah complains above that he had been “all-in,” a fully-invested minister—indeed, “very jealous” for the one true God. But for what? Nothing. God’s own people have trashed God’s name, tore down the holy places, killing off one-by-one all of Elijah’s colleagues. To boot, Elijah feels alone in this business. And he believes that his own assassination is right around the corner. Feeling that his ministry has been a waste of time—he’s angry, he’s sad, he’s depressed. These are the reasons why he’s in the cave.

What happens next is gold. Elijah is told to “Go out and stand on the mount before Yahweh” (v.11). And when he does, we read that,

“…Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (vv.11-12).

What is intriguing about this part of the story is that, after being told to take his place “before Yahweh,” Elijah learns a thing or two about how Yahweh will not reveal himself. Elijah, for instance, sees a “great and strong wind” ripping through the mountains, decimating the rocks into pieces. But Yahweh was not present in this chaotic upheaval.

Then Elijah experiences an earthquake and then a fire. Yet, in neither of these tumultuous events was Yahweh revealing himself. One might well wonder if, in experiencing the frenzied commotions of the natural world—the hurricane-like winds, an earthquake, a burning fire—if Elijah was not able, in these moments, to catch a glimpse of the inside of his own frenzied soul.

But it was after the commotion that a “low whisper” was heard. The King James renders this as “a still small voice.” The idea here with “still” (demamah) is to convey a sense of tranquility and peace to Elijah. The word also appears, for example, in Psalm 107 to speak of Yahweh’s ability to bring calm to a storm:

“Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper (demamah); the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.”

(Ps 107:28-30)

If you know the story of Elijah and his encounter with the “still small voice,” you know that this experience proved to be a catalyst of sorts for the prophet. He was able to pick up where he left off and resume his ministry. In his moment of desperation, he needed to know—actually, he needed to personally experience—the truth that Yahweh is the anti-dragon.

Elijah learned something that day that we all need to learn: Whereas dragons can roar us into discouragement and depression, Yahweh can whisper us into his love and tranquil care. In other words, Elijah, that zealous and fierce prophet, experienced the gentleness of God. In his chaos, this was what he needed most. I suspect this is what every discouraged, downtrodden soul needs.

Perhaps you need it.

Perhaps you find yourself in a season of despair, a time when you’ve bought into the lies of the enemy, that enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Pt 5:8). His roar can be luridly shocking, completely debilitating, soul-paralyzing.

As ghastly as the snarl of the enemy is, please be convinced of this: It is no match for the gentle whisper of Yahweh. The “still small voice” is life-giving; it is your sustenance in your wilderness. It is soul-calming.

Here’s the thing. The soul is the “you” that makes you you. That’s why when your soul is wounded, the core of your being is wounded. Hence, that’s why your entire self feels paralyzed and unable to do anything. You’ve experienced the chaos and ravages of life, and it’s left you in shambles.

What I’ve discovered (and, to be honest, I am still discovering this) is that, in order to find revitalization in times of my deep discouragement, I have to run to the Creator of my soul. Specifically, I have to immerse in his gentleness. As I wade through the mess of life, the roars are everywhere. I need them to be hushed. And my God is able to hush every one of them—all with a gentle whisper.

Like Elijah, we’re often scared. Subsequently, we find ourselves tucked away in a lonely cave, tired, and completely exhausted. In these moments, let us always remember: God is gentle and compassionate; he understands us, and he loves us (Ps 103:6-14).

Perhaps after a warm meal and a long nap, though, we might consider taking a deep breath and then rising up to “go out and stand on the mount before Yahweh” so that we, too, might hear his gentle, life-giving whisper.  

Then, perhaps, we could learn how to sing that old Jewish psalm with fresh awareness of the divine goodness:

Yahweh is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.

Yes, Lord. Restore us! Amen.

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