Recovering from a spiritual ambush

One of the most outstanding characters in the whole of the Bible is Elijah. The man who called down fire from heaven. The prophet who raised the dead. Elijah never died, instead he was caught up into heaven in a whirlwind. And of course he appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration along with Moses.

No-one could ever doubt Elijah’s godliness, his courage or his faith. But in the words of the King James version of James 5.17, “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are”. Behind the towering faith and stellar spirituality of this prophetic giant lay the same humanity that is common to us all, the kind of humanity which is vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy.

1 Kings 19 records an event in Elijah’s life when the weakness of his flesh was painfully exposed. In the previous chapter the prophet had confronted and eventually killed four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, called down fire from heaven and brought an end to drought by praying until it rained on Israel. Yet it is just after these events that we find him running scared of queen Jezebel.

Elijah had been ambushed. The whole story of 1 Kings 19 is totally unexpected after Elijah’s great victory over the pagan religion that had begun to prevail in Israel. You would never expect Elijah to run away from anyone or anything. But he did. Elijah was ambushed. It was that element of surprise that perhaps sent him into what we might call a depression. When he had expected a complete turn around in the nation and perhaps even a different stance from the palace, he found his life at greater risk than ever.

Satan is the master of surprise. He is the master of the spiritual ambush. Small wonder he is characterised in the Bible as a snake. He attacks often when least expected and sometimes in the immediate aftermath of a great spiritual triumph or experience: Jesus was tempted by Satan immediately after His baptism.

One of the things that emerges from even a cursory reading of 1 Kings 19 is that Satan hits Elijah at an emotional level, and this ends up affecting him physically as well. Fear causes him to run away and he ends up emotionally and physically exhausted in Beersheba and then latterly in Horeb. An enemy attack hits us emotionally and can affect us physically too.

How can we recover? How can we help others to find their way again after they’ve been ambushed? How did Elijah recover?

Look at how God helped Elijah to find his way again after his ambush.

Firstly, notice that God treats Elijah throughout this episode with great gentleness. Even His question “What are you doing here?” (9, 11) is designed to help Elijah articulate what is going on in his heart rather than merely a rhetorical question with an implicit hint of criticism.

Secondly, He sent an angel to provide food and water and allowed him to rest (9). Addressing basic physical needs can be the first step towards recovery. Sometimes we are too quick to try to address spiritual needs when there are more basic needs that require attention. God cares about our basic needs as much as our spiritual needs.

Thirdly, God reasons with Elijah and helps to correct his perspective (11-17). Elijah is not the only good man left. There are seven thousand who have remained loyal to God.

Someone who has been ambushed spiritually, has usually lost perspective. And they often end up isolating themselves. Elijah had done just that. God helps us regain perspective.

Finally, God gives Elijah a new commission. He doesn’t pick over the past. He doesn’t even mention Jezebel (15-18).

Someone who has been the victim of one of the devil’s ambushes can find it hard to believe that God has any sort of future purpose for them.They can waste a lot of time and nervous energy revisiting the past in their own minds and trying to make sense of it all. God does not call us to reshape the past, He calls us to shape the future.

Despite his pain, despite all that had happened, Elijah still had a big part to play in the future of Israel. A stealth attack from Satan did not change the plans God had for Elijah. And if we handle them properly, stealth attacks from Satan are not enough to alter God’s plans for us or for His people today.

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What’s going on within us is more important than what is going on around us

For a good while now, Christians in the Western world have been able to practise their faith with relatively little interference from the state. We have even enjoyed the luxury of society in general accepting the validity of Judaeo-Christian values.

However, you don’t have to look too far or search too hard to discover that the moral consensus between church and society is beginning to tear apart. In fact, it broke down a long time ago, and we are now feeling the tension created by church and society taking different moral directions.

Of course, the church in the East has had to live with far greater state interference and intolerance than we could ever imagine. And the church throughout its history has often found itself the target of hostile authorities.

The church at Pergamos (Revelation 2.12-17) was no stranger to conflict and persecution. Pergamos was the place where Satan had his throne (Revelation 2.13) – possibly a reference to the imperial cult. Revelation 2 records that it had stood faithful to Christ in the midst of severe opposition. At one point the opposition was so great that a man named Antipas lost his life.

A church that is able to withstand such hostility would appear to be in good spiritual health, so you might think. That, however, was not the case. This church had allowed false teaching to creep in and that teaching was undermining its faithfulness to Christ. The doctrine of the Nicolaitans was, it seems, a bigger threat to the church’s future than the external pressure applied by the Roman authorities and the demonic atmosphere that surrounded the city’s pagan religious traditions combined with its commitment to emperor worship.

What was happening within the church was more of a threat to the church’s future than what was happening around it.

Although the present circumstances of the Western church might not exactly mirror those of Pergamos, the principle holds true for us: what is going on within us and amongst us  is far more crucial than what is going on around us. That doesn’t mean to say we should not respond to the challenges of our day. Or that we should not challenge those who seek to detract from our faith. But it does mean that successfully handling the external pressures on our faith is no substitute for a church that has good internal health.

The same applies to us as individuals: what is going on within me is actually of greater long term consequence than what is going on around me.

When Jesus challenged the church at Pergamos about its health, He did so in order that it might become healthy again. He wanted Pergamos along with the other six churches he addressed to become overcoming churches. He still wants the same for His church today. And He wants individual believers to live the overcoming life. Thankfully, as the same John who wrote Revelation said elsewhere, we have the assurance that He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4.4).

Moral failure: the backstory

I was listening to a Christian radio talk show the other day. The topic under discussion was how to affair proof your marriage and thereby avoid the kind of moral tragedy that has become all too common.

The moral failure of GODTV co-founder, Rory Alec, had been the trigger for the discussion..

Stories of both pain and deliverance were told as listeners phoned in with their advice and their accounts both of marriage breakdown and also of marriages mended.

Advice went along the lines of boundaries, accountabilty and, of course, the need to pray and do battle on a spiritual level.

What seemed to be missing, I say seemed, as I wasn’t able to listen to the whole programme, was the emotional health dimension.

Sadly, society’s discomfort with issues of mental and emotional health is often reflected in the church. However, having pastored for years, I am convinced that the kind of meltdowns that we have seen amongst Christian leaders and that happen no less destructively, if less publicly, every day, are often catalysed by a backstory of poor emotional health.

And I am convinced that there are some good biblical grounds for believing a pattern of emotional unhealth can lead to poor moral choices. Yielding to temptation isn’t just a choice. it is a choice made in a particular context. The trouble is that temptation often presents itself in a context which makes giving in to it very attractive.

A simple illustration might perhaps help to explain.

If someone were to ask you “Would you like an ice cream?” You have a simple choice. You can say “Yes” or “No”. However if the offer is made on a July day in thirty degrees of heat, you might be more like to say “Yes” than if the offer is made on a freezing cold day in mid January.

In both contexts you have a choice, but one context makes accepting the offer more likely. (I do appreciate that for some people it is never too cold to have ice cream).

Emotional health is a bit like the climate in the above illustration. When you are emotionally healthy – in a good place, as we might say – you are less likely to make decisions that have the potential to damage you and or your family or ministry or church.

For example, Satan did not tempt Peter to deny the Lord immediately after the transfiguration, he waited until the night on which Jesus was betrayed. Satan knew a backstory of pressure and uncertainty would yield a better result than a backstory of glory.

At least three major biblical leaders experienced spiritual meltdown at one point in their ministries: Moses, David and Elijah. The meltdown occurred in each case in an unhealthy emotional climate.

In Moses’ case the meltdown occurred against a backdrop of bereavement and loss. Numbers 20 records how the people complained about a lack of water. God told Moses to speak to the rock. Moses struck it instead. And in consequence lost his inheritance.

What is often overlooked, is that a few verses earlier Moses is having to cope with the death of his sister Miriam. It is hard to believe that Miriam’s death left Moses unaffected. She was his sister. She had effectively saved his life when he was a baby.

Handling a crisis is not ideal at a time when you are grieving. When you are trying to deal with your own pain, it is hard to deal with the needs of others. The pain of loss is not necessarily restricted to the death of a loved one. Any loss in life cause us to grieve.

A climate of boredom can also set us up for trouble. In 2 Samuel 11, David should have been at war, but instead he was at home. He was at a “loose end”. It was then that he noticed Bathsheba. And you know the rest of the story.

It is hard to believe that this was the first time Bathsheba had bathed in this location. Perhaps it was just that this time David noticed her. Why? Because he had lost focus on what was really important? He had done it all. Won battles. Conquered kingdoms. What was left to achieve?

Oddly enough, success can leave us bored or even depressed. Success can become addictive and leave us chasing a higher high. And that can set us up for meltdown.

Finally, the results of burnout can result in choices we would never otherwise make. Elijah’s flight into the wilderness in 1 Kings 19 reveals a weak, fearful prophet who wants to quit. If you read 1 Kings 18 and had never read 1 Kings 19, you would never predict the kind of deep depression into which Elijah sinks.

After winning a massive victory on Mount Carmel and opening the heavens once again, he is emotionally drained. His human frame just cannot cope. God understood and one cannot help but be moved at the tenderness and kindness of God as He nurses his prophet back to health.

Emotional health in no way explains completely why we make bad, even sinful, choices. And it certainly does not excuse our sinful decisions.  However, emotional health is a dimension in the battle that rages for our souls that we cannot afford to ignore. If we paid more attention to it, we might spare ourselves and others much pain.

Making stuff happen

In the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an American academic argued that we had reached the end of history. Communism had been defeated and liberal democracy and the free market had triumphed. All the big battles had been fought and the western way had won.

It’s hard now to believe in a post-9/11 world that anyone should have been so audacious has to think for a moment that the world had finally “made it”. The world of today seems in many ways far more dangerous than that of the days of the so called Cold War. In fairness to Fukuyama, he has since modified his position.

And the developments of recent times have impacted upon the church. Perhaps we had forgotten that governments in the communist bloc systematically persecuted the church. Torture and show trials were not unusual and having a meeting broken up by secret police officers and the leader arrested was a threat that went with the territory of praying or worshipping together.

Persecution has revisited the church, especially in the Middle East, with a vengeance. Not of course that it ever went away, it’s simply that it has come into focus again partly because of its connection to the so-called war on terror.

Persecution was part and parcel of following Jesus for Christians in the first century. Their rights were limited. If you were a Roman citizen like Paul, you had a trump card that you could play in some situations. Even so, the political weight of the early church did not count for much. So it’s main weapon was prayer – which counted for everything.

Acts 12 gives us some insight into the prayer life of a church under pressure.

James had been arrested and executed by Herod. Herod then arrested Peter and planned to have him executed. So the church turned to prayer. We are not told how intense their prayer had been when James was arrested. When Peter was arrested, however, we are told that the church prayed earnestly (v.5). The NIV translates earnestly as constant. Ongoing, relentless prayer.

The outcome was that the constant prayer produced a sudden answer (v.7). Peter is asleep and an angel appears to him. And before he knows it he is out of prison. He goes to Mary’s house and no-one seems able to believe that their prayers have been answered so dramatically.

On one level the constant prayer has been effective. The church received the answer for which it prayed. However, the chapter goes on to record that sometime later Herod met his end after accepting the kind of honour that belonged only to God. It’s hard believe that somehow through this whole event God has drawn an era to a close. Herod is gone.

Right at the end of the chapter, we are told that Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch after they had finished their mission to Jerusalem (v.25). This is the Saul who eventually became known as Paul. In a letter to the church at Thessalonica he wrote: “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5.17NIV) and to the church at Colosse: “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4.2, NIV).

For Paul, constant prayer became more than a response to a crisis; it was a strategy for advancing the kingdom, a whole way of life for the church. Where did he get the idea? We know ultimately it was from the Holy Spirit. But was the seed sown during this visit to the Jerusalem church? Perhaps. If not, the importance of continual prayer must have been reinforced by Peter’s miraculous jail break.

Prison doors opened. An era of tyranny brought to an end. An apostle who would one day plant churches in the heart of the pagan world and impress on them the importance of continual prayer. And all because the church prayer constantly.

People say “Stuff happens”. Constant prayer makes stuff happen.