Elijah in the Desert, 1818 - Washington Allston (American, 1779–1843)
We travelled 5,000 miles to marvel at the Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona. We queued with our tickets. But a standing wait of 2 hours in 50 degrees’ heat was beyond our bearing and we turned back through burning sand and sky to the car. A bitter disappointment! You have known it too. Of course, our miss was nothing compared with the life-impacting disappointments that many face. Yet, whether massive or minor in the grand scheme of things, the unfathomable sadness that is ‘disappointment’ is a taste we all know. Such a common, universal experience, yet you will not find an adequate synonym for the essence of the word ‘disappointment’. Evangelist, Oswald Chambers, caught its depths more than one century ago.
Elijah was an average man of extraordinary courage and faith. He lived in dark days, under a weak, depraved king who was married to an extremely dangerous woman. The prosperous nation had turned its back on God. Shocking things passed for normality. Finally Elijah convinced Ahab of his rebellion against God and, sensing the mood of the nation change too, he was, finally, hoping that a miraculous transformation in Israel was imminent. He had lived unflinchingly with the daily threat of death, so Jezebel’s renewed vow to kill him should not have destabilized him. But it did. Uncharacteristically he fled, crying out to God: ‘I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.’ He felt alone against an unstoppable tide of evil which he had failed to stem. His faith and courage failed him at the final hurdle. He had done everything God had asked of him… Perhaps he felt, as countless others have done through the pages of history, that God was not playing his part. The Bible is full of disappointed people. And some of them express disappointment with God. He does not hear. He does not rescue. He does not bless. He does not punish the evil in our world. He does nothing!
Why does God permit himself to be challenged in this way in the pages of his Book? We see human failure to understand God’s ways and his timescale. Ahab, the worst of Israel’s kings, would ultimately – not immediately – be replaced by Jehoshaphat (one of the best), but for many of the challenges to God’s sense of justice and his ability to deliver, the Biblical timescale is much greater, so he appears silent and unresponsive.
But what of our disappointment? Elijah was invited by God to pour out his heart – his bitter, unfathomable sadness – to him. Then he was told that there were 7,000 others who had refused to bow under Jezebel’s yoke. So Elijah was not alone after all. There were 7,000 others, but most important, a patient, compassionate God who understands disappointment himself and who is tender with those who pour out their anguish, their “unfathomable sadness of the ‘might have been’”, as they beat on his chest with their fist.