The Prophet Elijah and Discerning God

Some of these thoughts I had posted about five years ago, and as they touch our commemoration of Elias (Elijah) the Prophet, I thought I would repost them tonight as we begin his feast. This is also timely in light of my last post on discerning Balrogs. (I had actually thought about titling the post “Discerning Balrogs” but then someone might have wondered “what type of discretion do Balrogs exercise?” So I went with “Discovering Balrogs.”) Discernment is one of the most difficult things in the Christian life, and I think we often make it much harder than it needs to be, for we go about trying to find God not in the mundane, but in the spectacular. I think this afflicts much of modern, enthusiastic evangelicalism, and to a large extent progressive Protestantism, which has sold the gospel for immanentizing the eschaton.

When we face life-altering situations, or the situations that leave us crying “O that Thou would rend the Heavens and come down!” we often find ourselves traveling a path we believe God would want us on to find our way clear of the dilemma, and then when things turn out horribly otherwise than what we had thought, it shakes our faith. Also, we can have before us a decision of real moment, one which will alter our life for years to come, yet we suddenly don’t discern the presence of God. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of blessed memory speaks about the absence of God in his wonderful Learning to Pray. He says that the presence of God in the existential present is so overwhelming that the default position, a sort of divine neglect, is what we actually experience. Now, of course Metropolitan Anthony is not denying God’s omnipresence, for he would have prayed the Troparia of Pentecost several times a day, that He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” What he is talking about is how God comes to us at certain times in our life with such overwhelming force, such power, that we find ourselves staggered. We are left like the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who started his “memoriam” with the word “Feu (fire)”. To read this single page that Pascal drew up the night of his conversion, and then kept sown into his jacket so that he would always have it with him, is a testimony to what the confrontation with God is.

But when we think that these confrontations, these visitations, are normal, and thus should provide us a constant source of strength and guidance, we can tip over into the enthusiastic, into a life that bends its efforts into living a life with these as normal. It is a version of what is called the Stoic fallacy, wherein we think that a state obtained once can be obtained all the time. We have all heard stories about someone who comes upon an accident and finds the mishap’s victim pinned under a car. The passerby then beyond expectations moves or picks up the car, freeing the trapped soul. This naturally could not be done at any other time. This is the same with morals and virtues. Situations occur that call for courage we had no idea we possessed, or we find ourselves with a moral determination that withstands incredible temptations, even in a desperate situation. Yet this is not the norm of life, for the norm of life is excruciatingly boring.

We see this in the life of the prophet Elias in I Kings (III Kings) 18-19. Following the spectacular appearance of God’s presence and power on Mt. Caramel, where Elijah demonstrated so well his ecumenical bona fides, entering into dialogue with the prophets of Baal, after which he had them all killed (take care whom you debate), the prophet sunk into a horrible funk. The Israelites sure liked the fire and spectacular holocaust of the prophets offering, and they were quite quick to kill all those prophets of Baal, but they seemed completely uninterested in really following the Lord. To top that off, Jezebel was a bit miffed with Elijah for offing all her prophets. So what does Elijah do? He runs. He runs, in fact, on the strength of the food of angels, for forty days till he gets to Mt. Sinai. When God comes to him and asks him “Elijah, why are you here?” the prophet didn’t respond with “Lord, that was a great show you put on up there on top of Caramel, thanks for letting me see it.” No, instead he complains that Israel has killed all the prophets of God, torn down all His altars, and that only he, Elijah, was left. He protests his zeal. Doubtless seeing fire fall from the sky would make anyone zealous, but this was not enough, and now Elijah asserts that he is ready to die (of course, had he stayed in Samaria, Jezebel would have accommodated him).

Then something wonderful occurs. There is an earthquake, a fire storm, and a whirlwind. All pass by Elijah, but God was not in any of them. Where was God? In the small quiet voice. The Lord then tells Elijah that there is a remnant left to him who have not worshipped Baal. Interestingly, this is the first place where the word remnant is used of the godly. Its previous uses had been of the remnant left in Canaan of the Amorites or other defeated peoples. But now it is used of those who seek to keep God’s covenant. In other words, in the midst of apostasy, there are still a few, even if but a few, who do not go along with the crowds, who remain faithful to God. Further, it doesn’t matter so much about the spectacular, for this is not how God normally comes to us: not in earthquakes or firestorms or whirlwinds, but in the voice of a gentle breeze, as the Septuagint puts it.

This caught my attention at tonight’s Vespers, for the how the Septuagint puts this, (φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς), is somewhat mirrored in the story of the three Hebrew children when cast into the furnace, that the angel made the fire as it were a dewy breeze (ὡσεὶ πνεῦμα δρόσου διασυρίζον). God does not act as we always think He should, and Elijah had hoped that the fireworks on Carmel would bring repentance, but it did not. The three Hebrew children, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael seemed to have learned this lesson, for they were ready to be executed even while trusting that God could save.

Miracles, even those in the Bible, happen rather infrequently. If you take note, they occur in set periods: The exodus, the conquest, around the lives of Elijah and Elisha, at the Nativity, in the ministry of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus, covering the vast bulk of the Bible’s narrative, some eighteen centuries (from the call of Abraham till the end of the Acts of the Apostles), miracles occurred rarely. I do not doubt they still occur. I have known of missionaries who have confronted the demonic and performed acts which only the local witch doctors had done, namely walking barefoot slowly across burning coals. Much closer to my own experience, I have observed weeping icons, and have in my desk myrrh from an icon here in eastern Pennsylvania. And I am not counting out God’s providential healings of people, or the noted instances of clairvoyance with monks. What I am saying is that we should not live our lives based on what happened on Mt. Carmel, thinking this is the norm. It is the norm, in the age to come, but for now, we need to recognize such visitations as the promises of grace that they are, and more importantly, seek to overcome the boredom of existence which leads us into thinking that this is what the normal spiritual life is.

Discerning God’s will, then, means being steeped in Holy Scripture, and in the lives of the Saints. We should also realize that while we often can make wrong, and even wicked decisions, decisions taken with the sincere hope to honor God should be done with boldness and not timidity, knowing you have done all you can do to achieve God’s will. Frequently, there are neither right, nor wrong courses of action.

I’ll end with Pascal’s memorial

The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight.

FIRE (feu).

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know Thee, the one true God, and the one that Thou sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced and crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my confessor.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget Thy words. Amen.


About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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1 Response to The Prophet Elijah and Discerning God

  1. Athanasia says:

    I Kings 19:10ff is one of my favorites (among so many others). During a time of great depression and sorrow this passage was one I read multiple times finding great comfort in the “whisper” – hanging on to that hope. God did not fail me, nor has He ever, nor will He ever.

    Since coming into the Orthodox Church it seems miraculous each time I read or hear Scripture and something jumps out at me as an “Ah HA!” moment. I believe there is more of the miraculous around us than we realize. If we were, we’d be overwhelmed. We see through a glass darkly. Imagine what it will be like if we are blessed to see through the glass clearly! Or have the glass entirely removed!

    Thank you for your thoughts. They are always appreciated.

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