Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. Some of us (at least some of the time) would like for the answers to be spelled out clearly, with the handwriting on the wall. Life would be so much easier if God would just thunder out His guidance to us so that it would be clear as day, right?
But instead we have to look for the presence and guidance of God as it’s woven through the tapestry of life. Plain, ordinary events can be the workings of divine providence. The truth of our faith isn’t always made apparent by demonstrable fact or overwhelmingly clear proofs, which is probably why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen”.
Sometimes God does manifest His presence with great power. This happened at the Pentecost experience described in Acts 2. Some churches today (often dubbed “Pentecostal”) base a lot of their worship practices on that event. Usually there’s quite a bit of volume with people speaking in tongues, and maybe even some shouting. The services I’ve been to in Kenya are very loud and very vocal. They have their excesses but I don’t worry too much about that. I remember a Baptist pastor who said, “You can cool down a fanatic more easily than you can warm up a corpse.”
And I don’t deny the validity of these kinds of expressions either. I just don’t see them as the exclusive or normative way that the Holy Spirit manifests Himself. God works in other ways – as was the case with Elijah the prophet on Mount Horeb (a.k.a. Mount Sinai) almost 900 years before Christ. He heard these words of promise: “…the Lord is about to pass by” (I Kings 19:11a). But unlike with the theophanies of Moses years before, God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. God’s presence instead was manifested in a still, small voice – or a gentle whisper (vv. 11-13).
My own experience has been that when I’m feeling very willful and insistent, that’s when it’s easy to crowd out the voice of God. Maybe that’s why Paul wrote not to quench the Spirit (in I Thessalonians 5:19). Practicing discernment means being willing to hear and follow through on whatever it is that God would reveal – even if it’s the last thing you’d want, even if it means going to a violent cross instead of having your fondest wishes come true.
For Elijah, this encounter led him back into some intense prayer-conversations with God. The fact that he repeated the same lament to God before and after the theophany (in I Kings 19:10 and 14) suggests that he didn’t really learn anything from the experience. And sometimes that happens. God is flashing signs and sending signals all over the place, and yet people refuse to learn.
Maybe that was true for Elijah? Or maybe instead it meant that he was learning slowly. Often learning comes with reflection over the course of time. The result isn’t always immediate.
But if it’s authentic guidance from God with a healthy response, it will bear the good fruit that Jesus talked about (John 15:5). For Elijah this meant a ministry of empowerment (I Kings 19:15-17). Think of what that might mean for us: How are we impacting and empowering others? How can we bless the generations that follow us for their place in God’s kingdom?
For Elijah it meant anointing political figures and a successor prophet. Some of the events that God foretold wouldn’t happen for many years – long beyond Elijah’s worldly lifetime. But that’s how we need to think of things; we expect the kingdom of God to play out in the long haul. Personally, I’m convinced that if not for the prayers of people in my great-grandparents’ generation, I might well be in prison. I certainly wouldn’t be a pastor. All of these people are long gone from this side of eternity, but their impact is still felt – and that’s how it is in life: We probably won’t live to see many of the fruits of our labors.
What we can do is trust God for the future even when it seems scary. Elijah lived in an age where the faithful were badly outnumbered, surrounded by a pagan and wicked culture. But God promised continuity (I Kings 19:18). And it’s true for us today as well. God is never up a creek without a paddle. The church is not going to die. Even when they killed Jesus, He rose up from the grave. The church may be changed over the ensuing decades, but it won’t disappear. In a multitude of ways, God will guide and provide. And Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church He has built (Matthew 16:18).
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor – First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.