God Whispers to a Restless and Grief-Stricken Heart


Think about Mount Tabor for a moment. Remember the blinding light of Jesus’ glory and the stunning presence of Elijah and Moses, the weight of that moment and what it meant in the mind and heart of Peter, and what it confirmed about the dream that had taken up residence in his heart and his spiritual imagination. The brilliance of this dream—how incredibly close it felt on Mount Tabor—creates the unbearable cognitive dissonance with the reality of Jesus, arrested, mocked, beaten, scorned, flayed, and executed. Dead in a tomb.

These visions didn’t fit together: the bleach-white light of the Transfiguration, the ashen linen that now wrapped Jesus’ dead body, and the stony blackness of the tomb as the stone rolled shut against it. Peter had expected Elijah: fire from heaven, a land cleansed of evil. What he’d gotten instead—I don’t think he had a name for it. I don’t know him.

But maybe Peter didn’t know Elijah either.

Sometimes our expectations are the source of our pain.

Peter looked at Elijah and saw a conquering hero. But he was only paying attention to part of the story.

When Elijah humiliated the prophets of Baal, the crowd of onlookers fell to the ground and cried out, “The Lord—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39). They then slaughtered the prophets, cleansing the land of their oppression. Elijah then prayed for rain, and it came. Ahab fled to Jezreel, unable to deny what he’d seen with his own eyes. Mission accomplished.

And yet it wasn’t. Jezebel responded to all Ahab told her by promising to kill Elijah, and the menace of humiliation and death overwhelmed him. He fled to the desert, collapsed under a broom tree, and prayed for death. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). I give up. I turned and ran. I failed. And I wish I were dead. It’s the cry of disillusionment and despair.

God gave Elijah the gift of sleep under the broom tree, woke him to feed him, and let him sleep again. When Elijah woke the second time, God fed him again to strengthen him for the long journey ahead to Mount Sinai.

Elijah’s journey from the broom tree to Sinai took 40 days and 40 nights—the same length of time Goliath taunted the armies of Israel, the great flood covered every living thing on earth, and, later, Jesus fasted in the wilderness. Elijah’s long-suffering wasn’t without purpose. There’s an intersection with God at the other end of 40 days and 40 nights, and Elijah would soon have his.

The question God asks Elijah in the cave at Mount Sinai is one he asks all of us who find ourselves disillusioned and disoriented. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 9).

It’s not unlike the question Jesus asks almost everyone he encounters in the Gospels: “What do you want?”

The answer isn’t easily found. It’s hard to say “I want to go back” because you know that the homeland you miss was built, to some degree, on illusions. Disillusionment, in this way, is a gift, albeit an unpleasant one. But naming something better is difficult too.

Elijah’s answer is illuminating, not because he provides us with the right response (as if there were one) but because he shows a way forward: he complains. Loudly. Unapologetically. “I’ve given everything to you, God. But now I’m alone. I have no place to belong. No sacred spaces. Every memory is haunted. Everyone I loved and trusted has either turned on me or been crushed just like me.”

I was raised not to complain, to see it as unvirtuous. I was also taught much about the holiness of God and what we were and weren’t allowed to say or do before him. But there’s a funny tension between my modern ideas and the attitudes of many of the fathers and mothers of our faith in the Hebrew Bible. They have an audacity, a willingness to argue, complain, or speak out of naked self-interest. Maybe that’s one aspect of what it means to have a childlike faith: having the audacity to speak your mind in a relationship where the asymmetry of authority and control couldn’t be starker.

God tells Elijah to walk out onto the mountain. It appears, from the text, that he doesn’t, instead watching from within the cave as a violent wind kicks up enough to tear the mountain apart and shatter rocks. But God isn’t in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, and still no God. Then comes fire, but again, God isn’t in the fire (1 Kings 19:11–12).

The account of God’s absence in the wind, quake, and fire is less about God and more about Elijah. He’s a veteran of God’s glory at Mount Carmel. He stands on what is maybe the holiest ground outside of Jerusalem, a mountain where God once before appeared spectacularly and renewed his covenant with Abraham’s children. But Elijah can’t see God in the spectacular anymore. The wind doesn’t move him. The earthquake doesn’t make him shiver. The fire leaves him cold.

As the final traces of wind quiet and the last of the flames turn to embers, a deep silence settles over the mountain. There, like a whisper, Elijah hears the voice of God. There’s something different here, though, than the voice of God Elijah has been wrestling with up until now. He’s aware of the divine presence in a new way and is at last drawn to it, walking to the mouth of the cave as if to get a better listen.

I read this story as descriptive of a journey of the heart. It’s a picture of the transformation that happens on the other side of grief. Perhaps it’s not simply that God wasn’t in the wind. (What would it mean that he was “in the wind” anyway?) Rather, it’s that Elijah had lost the ability to find him in the wind. The spectacles had grown too complicated, too haunted with loss. Elijah’s restless and grief-stricken heart needed silence on the other side of the storms of wind and fire to hear and recognize the voice of God.

Elijah came to Sinai despairing that his life and his dreams had come to an end. He left aware that the best parts of that dream—the hope of a renewed and restored Israel—were in God’s hands and always had been. Seven thousand people Elijah had no idea existed remained faithful. The deeper awareness was that he needn’t cling to the outcomes of whatever followed. The old cliché “God is in control” turns out to be true, but it may be something we only truly learn and that only liberates us after things fall apart.

Like disillusionment, despair is a disease only for true believers—dreamers and lovers. It hits when life falls apart, our sense of meaning and purpose fades when the people closest to us become incomprehensible or those we love disappear because of lies, brokenness, or death. Despair afflicts the lonely and forgotten, those whose prayers echo against a sky of concrete gray.

Those who’ve never known it themselves often encounter this deep darkness in others and are often mystified by it. The temptation to moralize it is powerful. “Put your hope in God,” the cry of the psalmist, can quickly become, “Cheer up already,” a sentiment likely to only deepen despair by intensifying a person’s sense that something is wrong with them, their pain is invisible, and they are ultimately alone.

What we see at Sinai is both sobering and hopeful for both those who have suffered in spiritual darkness and those who love and want to support those suffering now. It simultaneously reveals that there is something solitary about that darkness and that, like Elijah’s journey first into the wilderness and ultimately to the cave on Sinai, the journey is taken alone.

Dante’s Inferno has long been understood as the greatest literary expression of this kind of encounter with disillusionment and despair. No one chooses exile and no one chooses spiritual disillusionment. You simply awaken to find yourself there, wondering where the light has gone and where to turn next. In Inferno, Dante finds himself trapped between ravenous creatures and the gates of hell, discovering that the only way out of darkness is through it.

So it is with disillusionment. As much as we might run from it or distract ourselves, it lurks like the she-wolf and the leopard that hunted that great Italian poet. Our way out is into a place we fear, a journey that for Dante meant bearing witness to the great evils of the world on his way to redemption in paradise.

For Elijah it meant finding solitude under the broom tree and on the fiery face of Mount Sinai. There he found out what we all can discover on the other side of grief—that he wasn’t alone. That under the noise of storms and the heat of fires was the whisper of God, and that in the distance beyond us is always a remnant. We are never truly alone.

Mike Cosper is the director of CT Media.

Adapted from Land of My Sojourn by Mike Cosper. ©2024 by Michael D. Cosper. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.





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