There are times when everything seems to be going against you; you feel overwhelmed. You feel that even though you have tried your best, it just does not seem worth it.
Help can be found in an OT account of a widow who lives in a town named Zarephath who felt like that. There are enough details to help us see things from her perspective. She had given the prophet Elijah her last bit of food, a great act of faith, especially for a Gentile in a famine! She also had provided Elijah with a place to live, doing for him all that she was able.
And now, after all that she has done for the LORD and his prophet, her son became ill – severely ill. Finally, he died. Imagine her saying, “I do not deserve this. I have done all that I possibly could for the LORD and look what it gets me! It’s hardly worth following the LORD.”
Perhaps she did not think these words. But I have felt this way and I imagine that you have too. When you face a great crisis, it sometimes seems like serving God is not worth it.
1 Kings 17 reports how God was preparing his prophet Elijah for future ministry by working in his private life before he used him in great public displays of faith and commitment. Elijah was learning to trust the LORD no matter what.
Now we come to this important lesson. Faithful service to the LORD does not exempt one from hard times.
Now, this seems contrary to good reason. It only makes sense that if we do our best for the LORD, that he would show his appreciation and be nice to us in return. You know, a kind of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We must learn the same lesson that Elijah, and indeed, the widow needed to learn.
Faithful service to The LORD does not exempt us from harsh providence.
Let me explain.
Providence is not the name of a medical insurance company or bank. It refers to the mysterious and far-reaching governing of the universe by God. The term “harsh providence” refers to hard times, difficulties disappointments, catastrophes – some would call it “bad luck.”
In discussing God’s providence, one writer, well summarized the teaching of the Bible: The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place. Next, he will have no doubt that a special providence is awake for his preservation and will not suffer anything to happen that will not turn to his good and safety. 1
You see, even what we might think of as bad luck is really God at work. As Joseph said to his brothers, who had mistreated him, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good… (Genesis 50.19 – 20)
Now, let’s glean some practical principles from 1 Kings 17.17, 18:
17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.
18 And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”
From these verses, let me suggest four temptations to avoid. (In the next post, will notice four positive principles to practice.)
1. Beware of thinking that God’s blessings depend on your goodness rather than his.
Think about this woman’s circumstances and her words. The widow has fed and sheltered Elijah. For a while, things went along fine. Suddenly, her son became very ill, so sick that he died. Although a son is precious to any parent, the only son of a widow in her culture could only hope for his provision and protection. She now loses hope. Hospitality to the man of God seemed to be for nothing. And everyone knows that if you do good for God, he should be really impressed and return the favor!
Friends, this is not the way God works. Sometimes we look at our circumstances or those of others, and we cannot see the good God intends. Regardless, this idea that God should bless me if I try to please him is both prevalent and wrong.
So, beware of thinking that blessings, spring from your goodness; they come from our heavenly Father, who is himself the source of all good things. Rather than pouting, recognize the true source and thank God for his kindness to you.
2. Beware of thinking that God is punishing you.
When the widow’s son became sick and suddenly died, the widow’s first reaction was to think that Elijah, the man of God, had caused this tragedy as punishment for her sins (“What have you against me, O man of God?). It was a common assumption that suffering and sin are directly connected in this way. For example, Jesus’ disciples leaped to the same conclusion that a man’s blindness was the result of his sin.
The sufferer of today asks the question: ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ This expresses the same ideas as the widow’s words in v 18. Just as Jesus rejected the logic of his disciples, the widow was mistaken.
The Bible does not teach an inevitable cause-and-effect connection between sin and suffering (or as we have seen, between righteousness and blessing). The scripture leaves room for suffering which is undeserved and, from the human point of view, unexplained.
Believer, thank God that he punished Jesus instead of you. Make the proper distinction between punishment and discipline. Your sins have been covered, but God is still working with you and in you. When you sin, he will often discipline you to make you share in his godliness. When you face difficulties, resist the thought that God is punishing you. Thank him for your Savior who was punished in your place.
3. Beware of forgetting God’s past blessings. V. 17, 18.
“What have you against me, O man of God?”
The widow was focused on the sudden, unexpected death of her son. But she has forgotten her situation before she met Elijah. If in God’s providence she had not met Elijah and had been left to her own to provide for her son, he would have surely died a slow agonizing death of starvation. But God did provide! The boy was spared that excruciating and painful suffering. Now at least his death was apparently quick.
When we suffer a great loss or are deeply hurt, it is all too easy to ignore or forget the many previous blessing we have received from our heavenly Father.
And so, when the tragedy strikes, resist the tendency to forget God’s past blessings. Stop and thank God for the specific benefits he has given to you.
4. Beware of speaking based on your emotions alone.
The widow spoke out of her grief and loss…
This is contrasted with the way she expresses herself previously. Now she says, “what have you against me, O man of God?” Remember how calmly she had spoken of her own and her child’s death when she expected to die for lack of food (v. 12). She intended to “prepare her last meal —that we may eat and die!”
But once her child died, although not as wretchedly as by the famine, she is extremely upset. Matthew Henry’s observation is to the point: We may speak lightly of an affliction at a distance, but when it touches us we are troubled.
Like the widow, it is hard for us to think properly when sudden and unexpected troubles come, especially in times of peace and prosperity.
The widow calls him a man of God, and yet she grumbles about him as if he had caused the death of her child. She forgets the past blessings and miracles of God. She says: “What have I done against you?’’ Or, “How have I offended you, or shirked my duty? So, show me why you have caused the death of my son.’’
Avoid speaking based on your emotions, especially when you are hurt, disappointed or in grief. Self- control is a fruit of the Spirit; consciously focus on the committed love of God, your Savior.
Review these 4 temptations to avoid. Next time: four positive practices.
In the meantime, don’t blame God, trust him!
1. Calvin: Institutes: 1.17.6