I believe the greatest threat to Christian leaders in this season is not disease, division, or disunity— it is discouragement.
The events of 2020 have been difficult on everyone, and particularly difficult on those called to lead. We have been forced to make countless decisions, and have faced criticism as we have attempted to navigate the harrowing circumstances placed before us. I’m not sure that any of us felt equipped and ready to lead through the simultaneous crises of a global pandemic, economic collapse, and racial injustice. These feelings of inadequacy and frustration can discourage even the strongest of us.
The prophet Elijah shows that even the strongest, most spiritual people deal with discouragement, disappointment, and despair in difficult seasons. 1 Kings 18 details Elijah’s courageous defeat of the prophets of Baal. God’s prophet challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel. Both parties would cry out to God, and the God who replied by fire would be validated as the true Divine being. Baal was associated with lightning, so creating fire should be in his wheelhouse. However, the cries of Baal’s prophets fall on deaf ears while Elijah teases and mocks their useless entreaties to their impotent god. When Elijah’s turn comes, he first drenches the sacrifice with water. This is a bold move for at least two reasons. First of all and most obvious, water isn’t exactly flammable. Second, the land has experienced three years of drought. I can imagine that many people weren’t happy to see Elijah dump the precious little water remaining on the altar. Elijah took a bold stand— the boasting, the teasing, the soaking of the sacrifice. He went all in with his belief that God would respond. And, God responded! He sent fire and established Himself as the one true God. Elijah slaughtered the prophets of Baal, and declared the end of the drought. Israel would finally see rain after three dry and barren years. What an incredible victory! Though Elijah had many mighty moments, I would argue that this was the pinnacle of his ministry. It was a huge win, by anyone’s standards. Not only had the miracle validated God as the true God, it also served to validate Elijah as God’s chosen prophet. However, mountaintop experiences do not last forever. If 1 Kings 18 presents Elijah at his highest, 1 Kings 19 shows the prophet at his lowest:
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:1- 4 NIV)
Elijah was reminded that he won the battle, but Jezebel still had the power to win the war. He thought the victory on Mt. Carmel would be the culmination of his ministry and that his enemies were defeated once-and-for-all. The disappointment drove him to despair. He travelled to the southernmost part of the region, in an attempt to get as far away as possible from Jezebel. Once there, he left the only person with him- his servant- and went another day’s journey. This is the danger of discouragement and despair- it often drives us to isolation. When we feel discouraged, we actually need people in our lives who speak into us and to stick with us. However, our tendency is to isolate. A pity party is usually a party of one.
Once he is all alone, he begins to pray. We often think about the powerful prayers of Elijah. He prayed and the sky was shut for three years. He prayed and the heavens were opened and the drought ended. The powerful man of prayer now utters another prayer, but thankfully this one was not answered. “Take my life,” he cries out. Unfortunately, the journey from “I’m having the time of my life” to “Take my life” is not always a long one.
Elijah’s discouragement and despair was fueled by three factors, and I believe these factors also contribute to our seasons of discouragement and despair.
1. FEAR- He feared for his life, and ran to escape Jezebel. He had spent most of his life with faith in the driver’s seat. Fear was nowhere to be found during his bold actions of Mt. Carmel. However, fear has now supplanted faith. He is operating from the assumption that the worse is going to happen. Fear is often irrational. If God can defeat 450 prophets of Baal, when does one Jezebel present an insurmountable problem? We all have fears- fear of criticism, fear of rejection, fear that we aren’t enough. Fear is natural, and some level of fear is even healthy (you should be afraid to play in traffic). However, discouragement sets in when fear supplants faith as the primary driver in our lives.
2. FAILURE- Notice what Elijah says immediately after he requests God to take his life- “I am no better than my ancestors.” He tried to defeat Baal, gave it his best shot, but he failed just like those who came before him. Many leaders are task-driven and find their value in what they are able to accomplish. Elijah had confused his role and God’s role. God’s role was to defeat Baal; Elijah’s role was to be faithful and obedient to God. When you are truly following God, you can take failure a little less personal. We plant. We sow. God gives the increase. Our primary task is faithfulness, not fruitfulness. We become discouraged when we think that moments of perceived failure makes us failures. Some things you do are going to fail, but you are never a failure as long as you are faithful.
3. FATIGUE- In the next few verses, we discover that Elijah quickly fell asleep. The intense pace of ministry had taken a physical toll on the prophet. Discouragement is often exacerbated by our physical condition. When we don’t keep Sabbath, sleep well, and take care of ourselves in general, our mental and spiritual condition suffers.
Elijah eventually recovered from his season of despair. The text records four steps that are necessary to overcome discouragement.
1. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF PHYSICALLY.
Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. (1 Kings 19:5-9a)
God did not rebuke him, but replenished him. He slept, ate, slept, ate, went for a long walk, and slept again. Sometimes, the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap. Before God could speak to him in a still, small voice, He needed him to be well-nourished and well-slept. Elijah, you just aren’t you when you’re hungry and sleepy. When you feel overwhelmed by life and ministry, audit your daily habits and routines to make sure that you are allowing proper time for rest and self-care. Your spiritual funk may be more physical than you think.
2. OPEN UP TO GOD AND OTHERS.
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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.” (1 Kings 19:9b-10)
Elijah was honest about his feeling of inadequacy before God. He did not downplay his despair or sugarcoat his issues. There is a special power that comes with being honest before God. God can’t heal what we won’t reveal. So often, we just try to “suck it up” when we are feeling down and discouraged. We give ourselves pep talks about how others have it worse, and refuse ourselves the opportunity to grapple with our grief. An important step to overcoming discouragement is admitting that you are feeling discouraged. Be honest with God and with others.
3. GET IN GOD’S PRESENCE TO GAIN PERSPECTIVE.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 9:11-13a)
He learns that God is working not just in the big miracles but also in the small moments…that the God who showed His power by fire is the same God who whispers in times of discouragement. God is not just a God of wonders but a God of whispers. And just because He is quiet, doesn’t mean He is absent. In seasons of discouragement, we tend to think that God is far away. We often confine His presence to our big moments, but we must remember that God is speaking to us even when He is just whispering. A little later in the passage, we are told that God promises to leave 7000 who will never bow to Baal. Elijah feels like He is the only one left, but in fact, he is not alone. When we get in God’s presence and hear His voice, we usually discover that things aren’t as bad as it seems and that we aren’t as alone as we feel.
4. GET BACK TO WORK.
The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him. (1 Kings 9:15-19)
God was patient with Elijah during this time of discouragement. He fed him, and allowed him to rest. God spoke to him in a still, small voice, and encouraged him that he wasn’t alone. However, every season of discouragement must eventually come to an end. At some point, you must get up and get back to work. Elijah still had a lot to accomplish in his life. He had kings to anoint and prophets to train. He still had fruitful years of ministry ahead, and he had a responsibility to set the next generation up for success. Don’t let one of life’s seasons become your life story. After taking some time to rest and to be refreshed in God’s presence, shake off the dust and go to the next village. There is still work to be done, and I know that your best days are still ahead of you.
Landon Galloway is Director of Education at Destiny Ministries and oversees Destiny Leadership Institute. Landon also serves as campus pastor of Grace Church in Tomball, TX. Landon is married to Sarada and they have two daughters, Vanna and Zarra.