“Why are you here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:9b and 13b (Common English Bible)
I sometimes hear this from people I speak with, “I’m working harder than ever before with fewer results.” In that statement, I hear an undertone of discouragement, frustration, resignation, despair, regret for not having chosen a different life path or a hint of nostalgia that yearns for the good ole’ days. If the conversation goes a little further along those lines, I hear things such as, “Maybe this is not my calling.” “I just don’t know what else to do.” “I’m burned out.” Or, “I’m tired of pushing a lethargic ‘wet noodle.'”
In 1 Kings 19, we find the prophet Elijah is weary, burned out, angry, and bemoaning his lack of success at leading the Israelites to be faithful to God. His single-minded faithfulness to God has brought troubles upon him. He is on the run and fearful for his life. His life and ministry have been for too long steeping in the boiling waters of social tensions, withering opposition, interpersonal clashes, and constant threats. He has had enough of it all and is fleeing from his ministry. He is holed up in a cave and ready to give up, but God will not let him quit.
God encounters Elijah at the cave and twice asks him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah responds with snarky pessimism and an exaggerated claim of self-importance. He blames God for the predicament he’s in and in essence says, “I am the only one in all of Israel that is faithful to your divine cause in the world! I’m here because of you!” Elijah need not be so discouraged or take himself so seriously because he is far from being the only person committed to the divine cause. There are 7,000 more faithful Israelites that are also carrying on God’s divine purpose.
After upheaving winds, earthquakes, and fire, God speaks to Elijah, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel interprets, in a voice without sound. No birds sing. No trees rustle in the wind. No insects buzz. No crickets chirp. No creeks gurgle. No coyote howls. Nothing. No audible noise. Nature stands still and silent. It’s just Elijah and God’s quiet presence.
God reminds Elijah that a prophet does not belong out in the desert atop a mountain, hiding in a cave, separated from the troubles of life but in the world, carrying out God’s work, no matter how difficult it may be. Elijah is renewed through his encounter with God and returns back into the world’s arena as an agent of God’s divine purposes.
Like Elijah, we can find ourselves in some lonely caves during life from time to time, fleeing from life’s pressures, wallowing in self-pity, and self-righteousness. Sometimes we even come to blame God for our predicaments. But God meets us where we are at, in the stillness of crucial moments. God asks us the same question asked of Elijah, “Why are you here?” We realize it’s not a question asking about the circumstances that led us to retreat into the lonely deserts and caves of our own making. Instead, it is a question of life purpose accompanied by God’s affirmation. That is, “Why are you here when there is so much left to do in the world? You’re needed in the world to carry out my divine cause. And, I’m with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).
Prayer: Merciful God, overflowing with a redemptive purpose for our fractured world, enable us by your Spirit to have one foot on the ground, and the other raised to proceed on the journey your Son Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, leads us in. Prayer adapted from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s reflections, in Thoughts of St. Ignatius.