The gift in loneliness
Elijah was “a man just like us,” according to James 5:17. Yet, when I think of Elijah, I typically think of his daring feats atop Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. He won a great victory over the prophets of Baal by calling fire from heaven to consume the offering he made to his God, quickly followed by calling forth rain from heaven to end a three-year drought! He was just an average person, this prophet?
Personally, I find it hard to identify with Elijah – at least, until I give the next chapter a closer look. Here, the narrative paints a much bleaker picture of Elijah, showing him to be a prophet who was weak, depressed, and, most of all, lonely.
This Elijah is much easier to identify with. How often have I felt lonely, even while serving among many brothers and sisters in the church? More times than I care to remember, I’ve felt weak and broken, incapable of accomplishing anything meaningful for God.
Author Henri Nouwen characterizes Christians as “wounded healers,” and finds that the word loneliness best summarize this condition. Nouwen suggests that, contrary to our desires, “the Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness”; instead, it “protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.” How could this be? What good gift could possibly come from our loneliness?
From Elijah’s example we can see that we may feel most dejected and alone after our greatest victories; but we also observe that in these moments God refreshes us by his gracious touch. I have come to know God’s loving presence much more deeply during these times of loneliness, and this presence is what sustains me through joy or sorrow.
After Elijah’s great victory, he is threatened by queen Jezebel, so he runs in fear for his life. Extremely confident in God’s power only moments before, he now realizes his own weakness and inability to do anything, and cowers in shame. One immense, though painful, gift of loneliness and isolation is the destruction of pride. When alone, we are finally able to honestly evaluate ourselves and see who we really are. This unexpected humbling provides space in our hearts for a rekindling of faith, even as we cry out with Elijah that all we want to do is quit – “I can’t do this anymore!”
God responds to Elijah’s humble state by sending him rest and refreshment through an angel. Instead of judging Elijah for running, God first restores the prophet to health. Here lies another incredible gift that loneliness provides: we learn to stop and rest long enough to turn our eyes from ourselves and back onto Jesus. If we do not voluntarily remove ourselves to remote places to spend time with God in prayer, God might himself remove the good of human fellowship from us in order to bring us back into his loving arms.
Finally, loneliness is a great gift because it helps Christians identify with Jesus, who was despised and rejected by everyone (Isaiah 53:3). Like Elijah, Jesus felt utterly forsaken and abandoned; he even cried out to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” as he died on the cross.
The forsakenness we all deserve in our pride Jesus took upon himself on Calvary. His answer to our lonely cries is “I know. I have been there before! Immanuel: I am with you!” The answers, comfort, and restoration to fellowship for which we search are found in identifying with the cross. Those who follow Jesus must take up their cross and follow in Jesus’ lonely footsteps.
Those of us who are leaders, let us give those we love and serve a taste of heavenly fellowship even as we take upon ourselves the “death” of isolation. Those of us who are single, let us thank the Lord for the opportunity to grow closer to him and hear the still small voice of our Father in heaven. For those of us who have retired and are suddenly feeling lost without the workplace community we’ve built up over many years, rejoice in the presence of God who has never left nor forsaken us, and who will remain faithful to sustain us until our life mission is finished and he calls us home.
Elijah was lonely and his pride was wounded, but it was precisely in this painful condition that he was filled with the most precious gift he could receive: intimate fellowship with God. Not long after, God spared him from death and called him home in a spectacular whirlwind. His spirit was so infused with the presence of God that Elisha, Elijah’s successor, longed for it to be passed on to him. A spirit developed by loneliness in the presence of God was the greatest gift Elisha could think to ask for.
Be encouraged, even thankful, in your loneliness. God knows my pain, and he knows yours, too. He has been there before, and we are all on this journey together!
—Ryan Giesbrecht is a member of Northview Community (MB) Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and a student at MBBS-ACTS, Langley, B.C.