If you had to pick one story in the Bible as a model of “ministry success,” which would you choose? Personally, I can't think of anything more dynamic than Elijah's victory over the false prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. In the space of one chapter, the prophet singlehandedly purifies the nation of idolatry, sparks a grassroots revival among God's people, and brings the three-and-a-half year drought to an end. Not a bad day!
But we often forget Elijah's ministry didn't begin that day. Before he could summon fire from heaven at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18, he had to pass through a painful season out in the wilderness in 1 Kings 17. In most of our ministries, as in Elijah's, there will be no 1 Kings 18 power without 1 Kings 17 preparation. Of course, it'd be nice if ministry meant 1 Kings 18 fire-from-heaven power from start to finish! But most of our ministries can likely relate better to the metaphors of 1 Kings 17: hanging on until the ravens come again, trusting the jug and jar won't run out tomorrow, scraping by until the drought finally ends, wondering why God hasn't removed corrupt Ahab, and, all the while, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Wilderness seasons are brutal. But God is powerfully at work in the 1 Kings 17 seasons of our lives. The only question is, do we have eyes to see it?
In 1 Kings 17:1-6, God sends Elijah to the wilderness to be fed by the ravens. The Lord is sending a drought over the land—an act of judgment on the idolatry Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel, have introduced to the nation (1 Kgs. 16:30-33). God gives Elijah power over the rain clouds, but then sends him east of the Jordan to the wilderness where he must drink from a brook. Imagine how humbling this move would have been! From the heights of “it won't rain except by my word” (v. 1) to the depths of “go hide yourself in the wilderness and drink from a brook” (vv. 2-5). One who has power over the highest clouds in the sky has to stoop down to a brook when he's thirsty. The most powerful man in the nation lives in total obscurity and almost barbaric conditions.
But as the months dragged on, I bet even worse was the season's crushing loneliness. “It's not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18)—yet Elijah's all alone, day after day, month after month. I picture him out there, sitting on a rock or hiding in a cave. He has no idea what's happening in the outside world (no newspaper delivery at the Cherith brook, I'm guessing). He must've felt forgotten, insignificant, like life had passed him by. It must've been like moving to rural Wyoming when you're a city person, or posting the biggest news of your life on Facebook and not getting a single “like.”
Beyond the humiliation and loneliness, though, this season must have also been deadeningly boring. Elijah—the mighty, thundering prophet, unafraid to challenge kings and nations—has nothing to do but wait. He can't even work for his food! Further, he's geographically confined, since he has to stay near the brook. So Elijah faces the scorching sun, day after day. He memorizes what the surrounding trees and sand look like as the months slowly drag on. He eats the same food (bread and meat), meal after meal after raven-brought meal.
No one to talk to, nothing to do, and nowhere to go. By the end of this ordeal I picture him looking a bit like Tom Hanks on the island in Cast Away—bleached hair, bushy beard, cracked skin, and a wild look in his eyes.
And then, one day, the brook dries up and God sends Elijah elsewhere. But there's no book contract and conference-speaking circuit after the wilderness. God moves him into another season of waiting and hiding as he lives with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17:7-24). His ministry is limited to two people, some of the least esteemed in that culture—a Gentile widow and her son. And even then Elijah isn't allowed to stockpile resources. In fact, the widow has only a handful of flour and a tiny jar of oil. Elijah must live by continual faith that the jug and the jar won't run out.
Protecting, Providing, Preparing
The hope that sustains us in wilderness seasons reminds us that God is there, doing some of his most powerful work. He's at work in Elijah's life in 1 Kings 17 in at least three ways: protection, provision, and preparation.
God was protecting Elijah since Ahab had dispatched spies to kill him (1 Kgs. 18:10); seclusion in the wilderness, then, was the only way he could be safe during this drought. God was providing for Elijah through the ravens, then through the continual supply of flour and oil at the widow's house. The ravens came daily, and the jug and jar never ran out. It may have been monotonous, but it was also a miracle. It may have felt like dying, but it wasn't death. God sustained him.
And perhaps most of all, God was preparing him. Where did Elijah get the faith and courage he needed to stand against all the false prophets of Baal in chapter 18? Those years waiting on God, experiencing his faithful care amid difficulty, must have solidified Elijah's faith and resolve like a diamond.
When we're in a wilderness season, it's easy to lose sight of God's protection, provision, and preparation. We might even wonder, How can I trust God's goodness when I'm in this desolate place? But remember Jesus! He went through the ultimate wilderness—the desolation and humiliation of dying under the curse of God. If that is the measure of God's love and commitment to us, we can trust him in our own wilderness seasons.
God-Centered Ministry Perspective
This chapter, 1 Kings 17, prods us toward God-centeredness in our evaluation as well as our execution of ministry—in both our perspective and also our performance. It reminds us “ministry success” is ultimately defined as faithfulness to God's calling, whether the calling involves harnessing 1 Kings 18 power or doggedly hanging on until 1 Kings 17 ends.
To be sure, we want our lives to be maximally fruitful for kingdom work. We feel urgently that “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37). But God knows better than we do. What if Elijah had concluded that waiting for the ravens wasn't bearing enough fruit, and walked away from God's call? He'd likely have never survived to see Mount Carmel.
Faithfully executing God's calling in modest ministry contexts isn't selling out. If God's calling has led you there, then the wilderness is the surest route to real kingdom work. It may feel random, but each moment is God's design. It may seem like the end of your story, but it's really the only way the story goes forward. It may taste like death, but it's actually the path of life.
If God has called you into a wilderness season, don't give up. In that dry, choking place, in that season of barely hanging on, remember God is watching over you. Look for ravens. Trust the jug and the jar won't run out. And know he's using this difficult season to prepare for you things ahead—things sometimes far greater than you could ever achieve without the pain you're now walking through.