June 2, 2015

On the Mountain Or In The Valley?


For me, 2014 was a year of miracles. Not big, sun-stands-still-in-the-sky miracles, but little occurrences here and there that were too well orchestrated to be coincidences. These were divine appointments.

Last year was also a year filled with doubt, questioning, wondering if God really had a plan, and if so, why He wouldn’t let me in on it. Interestingly, most of these doubts came just after a miracle.

Many of the stories in Scripture leave us scratching our heads. For example, the children of Israel, who saw some of the greatest miracles in the Bible, seemed to continue to mess up. How, we wonder, after beholding such power and favor, could they have had any doubt? Time and again their faith wavered, or failed completely. Sometimes we look back and judge their obtuseness.

But are these instances any different from say, a Week of Prayer spiritual high? Or hearing a sermon that moved us so deeply that it caused us to say “I’ll never be the same again,” only to return to our old habits the next day or even that night? Is it any different when we turn our backs on God after He delivers us again and again?

Christians are no strangers to the phenomenon of mountaintop and valley experiences. When those closest to Jesus—Peter, James, and John—were taken to the Mount of Transfiguration, they experienced the ultimate mountaintop experience (Matt. 17:2). When they descended the mountain and were in the valley, they argued about who was the greatest among them.

The Climb

Another example can be found in 1 Kings 17-19. Elijah’s story begins with a declaration God had ordered him to make. “Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word’ ” (1 Kings 17:1). Ahab was a wicked king who spent much of his reign displeasing God. (1 Kings 16:33).

First, Elijah was directed by God to spend some time “by the river Cherith,” where ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and evening. This experience by itself is an amazing miracle. But God didn’t stop there.

Next He told Elijah, “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food” (1 Kings 17:9). This time God rewards Elijah’s faithfulness by replenishing the woman’s supply of flour and oil each day, enough to feed her, her son, and Elijah. Not only did God take care of their physical needs—but He also heard Elijah’s prayer and brought the woman’s son back to life when the boy became sick and died.

In 1 Kings 18, during Israel’s third year without rain, God instructed Elijah to present himself before King Ahab. During the time Elijah was gone, Jezebel had begun to kill God’s prophets and replace them with prophets of Baal. Elijah sent Obadiah to gather the prophets the royal officer had hidden along with the prophets of Baal to Mount Carmel. Two altars were constructed, and a bull placed on each. Elijah asked for water to be poured over the altars; then he commanded that they not be lit. He told the 450 prophets of Baal to “call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:24).

For hours the Baal priests danced around their altar, shouting the name of their god, waiting for him to answer. Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (verse 27). Baal’s followers received no reply.

Finally it was Elijah’s turn to showcase the power of the true God. He had his altar doused with even more water, until “the water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench” (verse 35). With a simple prayer he asked God to reveal His power, and to turn the people’s hearts to God again (verse 37). Fire descended from heaven and consumed more than the offering; it “burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench” (verse 38). Thousands recognized the Lord as God and worshipped Him.

Would there be any doubt or fear after such events? We’d like to think that nobody could witness such things and distrust God’s power. The Bible and Elijah’s story, however, show us that no matter how earnest we are in these experiences, the devil is waiting for us when we descend into the valley.

The Descent

After seeing God’s consuming fire on Mount Carmel, after raising someone from the dead, after being fed by birds, one would think Elijah would simply laugh in the face of the heathen queen threatening his life! Did Jezebel not see what his God had done? Did she think she was more powerful than his God? But it seemed that Elijah had also forgotten what God had done for him during those isolated three years.

We find Elijah hiding in a cave, fearing for his life. What we see through Elijah’s pitiable behavior, and what can bring us comfort now, is that even a powerful God, who works swiftly to carry out His plans, allows us time in the valley.

God didn’t chastise Elijah for his fear; instead, He gave him time, even providing him, once again, with nourishment. “All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’ ” (1 Kings 19:5-7).

Of course, God didn’t let Elijah stay there indefinitely. He returned and asked pointedly, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 9). And in a gentle blowing wind God brought him back to his assigned ministry.

His Presence

There’s a guilt that comes with being in a spiritual valley, especially when it follows a mountaintop experience. How could we doubt God’s providence when He just did a great thing for us? Sometimes we expect to live on that mountaintop, to always be spiritual fireballs for God. Those experiences show us God’s power; they leave us with no doubts.

We must realize, however, that our greatest spiritual growth often comes in valleys. In this way, we can appreciate the mountaintops even more. When we read Elijah’s story and reflect on our own stories, we realize that God is just as present in the valley as He is on the mountaintop. We can't appreciate the importance of one without the other. Both, good and bad, strengthen our faith.

We aren't perfect, and neither is the world we live in. If someone as powerful as Elijah can hide in a cave after back-to-back miracles, do we imagine we will never shake in fear?

Next time you experience a spiritual drought in your life, don’t imagine that God is only waiting for you on the mountaintop. He’s there in the valley, with you, nourishing you, and helping you to grow.

And this can make the climb to the top even more beautiful.

Janelle Collins writes from Miamisburg, Ohio.