A turbulent storm shred a tree branch from the trunk of a large tree in my neighborhood one night. Looking up, a huge expanse of raw wood seemed to cry out, “I’m exposed. I’m broken. Can you see what’s happened here?” The rest of the tree stood unmoved, still and strong. The roots were solid. The trunk was true. The tree would live. Still, though, I shook my head sadly at the fallen branch, and I wondered if there was meaning in the tearing.
Unable to shake the image, I sat down to a morning devotion in I Kings 19, and realized something about brokenness, crying out, fear, and God. Elijah had been doing his job, proclaiming the power of God, debunking the idolatry and destroying the idolaters that ran rampant around him. Though God had shown His power, Elijah was fearful of the wrath of Jezebel, and to save his life, he ran away from civilization. He left his servant. Alone, Elijah wandered into the wilderness and sat underneath a broom tree.
There, he asked the Lord to end his life.
“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.’ And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.” I Kings 19:4
Elijah was not the first, nor the last, person on earth to believe that it was too much, that he could no longer endure the suffering, the torment, or for even one more moment walk forward in a call God placed upon his life. I don’t know what suffering you’ve endured in life. I know that everyone suffers, and everyone’s story is different. Giving up on life can look a lot of different ways—for Elijah, it meant collapsing at the foot of a broom tree in the wilderness, asking the Lord to take his life, believing he didn’t measure up and couldn’t be of any further use to anyone, much less his God.
But while Elijah found himself at the end of his rope, I can see at least two things he did right. He didn’t take his own earthly life. And he fell asleep.
I think Elijah had seen enough of death. He didn’t want to suffer anymore. He asked God to end it all. Yet by placing his request at the foot of God’s throne, he was also surrendering to God’s decision about what to do with that plea. I wonder what he thought as he fell asleep under the branches of the broom tree.
“God, are you ashamed of me? Do you even want me in your presence? Do you hear me? Do you understand how DONE I am with this work You want me to do that is hard and terrifying and just simply too much? I can’t. I can’t. I can’t…”
While we can’t know Elijah’s thoughts, we know that even as he slept, his body was being restored. Many times, when I’ve felt simply done with the jobs I am called to do, I realize that I am not properly resting my body or my soul. I lose perspective on what is important, or even manageable, because my body has limitations and gets overwhelmed. Elijah had been pushing himself to the brink, and his body needed rest. And so, after he brought his desire to God, unable to do anything more, he slept.
“And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat.’ And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.” I Kings 19:5-8
When Elijah was physically done, the Lord provided him food and drink. Sleep and rest. Rejecting Elijah’s request that the Lord should take his life, the Lord gave him rest and nourishment. God gave Elijah the strength to reach Him.
Sometimes we can’t even see what we need. It’s why women bring new mothers meals—because they will forget to eat , or shower, or know what it’s like to have personal space. It’s why we bring meals to the grieving—because their bodies have been through too much for the journey and they need help sustaining energy to make it to the next step. God made us to need nourishment and rest. Any trainer you will ever meet will talk about how food is fuel. (Personally, I am sure that Elijah’s “cake” didn’t include icing, but I like to think maybe it did.) So often, these simple ways of caring for ourselves and each other is the first step in our healing or our strengthening.
Only when Elijah has been fed and found shelter in a cave near the mount of God does the Lord speak to him.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks, even though He already knows.
I love Elijah’s response because it is so raw and honest, and I imagine him declaring it with a tad bit of annoyance. Essentially he tells God, “I’ve been doing everything you told me to and now they are trying to kill me!”
God tells Elijah to stand on the mount. Then it happens.
The Lord passes by and a great, strong wind tears up the mountains and breaks the rocks. The wind itself breaks rocks. Was it a tornado? What kind of wind tears a mountain and breaks rock?
But the Lord was not in the wind.
Then there is an earthquake, in case the wind wasn’t enough to bring Elijah to his knees and literally fear for his life.
But the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And then, after the earth is literally shaking beneath Elijah’s feet, amidst the felled branches and shattered rocks, there is fire. What it burned, how it smelled, how close it came to Elijah we do not know.
But the Lord was not in the fire.
“And after the fire, a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” I Kings 19:12-13
I like to explain things, and I love that I serve a God who gives us a chance to explain to Him things He already knows, even things we may have already mentioned. Isn’t it always nice when anyone, much less God Almighty, asks you a question and then listens to your answer? We give someone dignity when we listen. God dignifies Elijah, even though Elijah fled a person in fear, even though he wanted his life to end, even though he didn’t want to have anything more to do with these missions from God to a hostile world, even though he saw himself as a failure. Elijah wasn’t the picture-perfect prophet but God still cared for him, met with him, listened to him, and spoke to him. Our Father is good and gracious, and He loves to listen to His children.
He will listen to you, too.
After listening, God gives Elijah instructions.
“And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria…’” I Kings 19:15
God helps Elijah understand that he will not do this job forever. God names Elijah’s replacement: Elisha. And God assures Elijah that those who die will be the ones who worship Baal. Elijah takes courage from the words God speaks, and he obeys.
Couldn’t God have just told Elijah to do all those things without a fire, an earthquake, and mountain-shattering wind? Couldn’t God have let Elijah in on the plan of a replacement prophet BEFORE Elijah fled in terror and came to the end of himself physically and spiritually?
Maybe so. I wonder, though, if Elijah would have met with God on the mount if he hadn’t suffered. Sometimes God allows the storms. He is not in them. He is not a destructive force that tears apart our branches, leaving us raw and exposed. No, that is not where the Lord lives.
He is the one who sends the angels. He is there to give us rest, to give us nourishment, to quench our thirst. He saves our lives for His sake. He sustains us for the journey ahead. And even in the tasks He tells us to do, He gives us hope. Nothing is too much for God to handle—the earth literally quakes at the coming of His presence.
After reading through Elijah’s most sorrowful moment, and after reading of his obedience to the whisper of God’s voice, the picture of the broken tree meant more to me. I’ve had branches torn from me in painful ways. I’ve been raw and exposed. I’ve been pummeled in my soul and spirit. I’ve been deceived. I’ve been abandoned. I’ve been hurt. I’ve had people mad at me. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel in countless ways. And others have suffered far more than I could ever imagine.
I’ve learned that when the storms of life shake me to bits, that is the time to get real still, like hunkering in the hall closet during a tornado warning. When the storms pulsate through the earth and into my body, it’s time to start listening. Many times, the storms of life have preceded an intense closeness with God Himself. An angel hasn’t woken me up to serve me cake (yet), but I’ve found the voice of God, presented uniquely in a way I can’t mistake, reminding me that I’m not too far gone for His use, that His love for me hasn’t failed, that even in my fear He has work for me to do, and that He won’t have me go it alone.
So now I see that picture of a tree, torn, with hope. God is not in the tearing, but He sees our brokenness. He satisfies our every need, whether we need rest, food, to feel like we measure up, to believe we are loved, needed, and significant. However desperate we may be to flee, God is desperate to redeem.
Jesus died to make sure we would never forget how loved, cherished, and valuable we are to God. He sacrificed His life that so that God could spend eternity with us. There is so much hope to be had. A felled branch does not mean the tree must die. Our survival is not dependent on the gravity of our brokenness but on the immeasurable capacity of our Healer.
Today I say a prayer for those weathering a storm or healing from the pain of a fallen branch. To you I say: God is near. He will give you everything you need.
Note: If you are truly in pain and need help, please find a local church, hotline, or hospital. There are people who want to help you because your life is incredibly valuable.