For the week of July 19, 2008 / 16 Tammuz 5768
Torah: Bemidbar / Numbers 25:10 - 30:1
Haftarah: 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 18:46 - 19:21
Knowing God in the Darkest Times
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers." (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 19:4; ESV)
I have the impression that many people equate true spirituality with serenity. To know God therefore would include not only a deep sense of contentment, but also intellectual peace and emotional stability. This kind of spirituality values statements such as "Nothing bothers me anymore." People who say this are either dishonest or spiritually dead - at least according to the Bible's understanding of spirituality.
This week's Haftarah includes a most difficult period in the life of the great prophet Eliyahu (Elijah). Coming off of a dramatic encounter with the forces of evil in the society of his day, he was exhausted and depressed to the point of wanting to die. Thankfully God meets him in that place, provides refreshment, rest, and gets him going again.
There are two ways that we can look at Eliyahu's depression. Some may say that he was losing touch with the reality he had known earlier. Call it a lapse of faith perhaps. The greater his faith, the nearer he was to God and the more genuine his spirituality.
If this is true, then the story doesn't make sense. God actually was never as intimate with Eliyahu as in his darkest time. Yes, prior to this he proclaimed God's Word, pronouncing both the beginning and the end of an extended drought and calling down fire from heaven. God's power was very present in those times, but it was in his depression that God's intimacy was most evident.
The other way to look at Eliyahu's depression, (and no surprise that this is what I think is the correct way) is to see that it is a normal experience for those who truly know God.
The book of Job deals with the issue of why the righteous suffer. Serenity was not part of Job's experience during his intense suffering. Some people like to sing Job's words, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21; ESV). While this is an exemplary response to the loss he experienced, to think of this in terms of "Nothing bothers me anymore," is to mock Job's suffering. Job struggled greatly and rightly so. He didn't deserve it. It was confusing - more than that - it was unjust and he told God so. It wasn't until God himself responded to Job's complaining that Job found a place of resolve. Are we going to say that if Job had been truly spiritual he would have silently accepted his suffering? I don't think Eliyahu thought so.
And neither would the Messiah. Prior to his arrest, as Yeshua went to pray, he said to his disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Mark 14:34; ESV). Serenity? I think not.
In the same letter that Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4; ESV), he also speaks of how the preservation of the life of one of his friends prevented him from having "sorrow upon sorrow" (Philippians 2:27). Elsewhere he writes of being "perplexed" (2 Corinthians 4:8). Perplexed is not serene. Being perplexed is a sign of honest grappling with the realities of life.
Intense inner struggles are normal for people who truly know God. Knowing God in the midst of a world in rebellion against him will break your heart. This is not to say that following God doesn't include joy, gladness, and peace. Of course it does, but at the same time, we find ourselves being challenged by his reality in a world that by and large denies him. Sometimes this tension overwhelms us as it did for Eliyahu. But it is at these times that we need God the most. It is in these times that God often draws most closely to us. Thinking that depression is necessarily a sign of a lack in our relationship with God may prevent us from the kind of intimacy he longs for us to have with him in our darkest times.
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