One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is a bit of an odd one. James, writing about prayer and dependence on God, makes this statement: Elijah was a man like us (James 5:17).
Now, I’ve gone to church my whole life and have learned a lot about Elijah. He’s the wild wilderness dude who called out a wicked king in Israel, Ahab, and his equally wicked wife, Jezebel. Think about this. To this day, in 2023, Jezebel is a euphemism for wickedness. There is even a trashy magazine with this name!
Not only did Elijah have the courage to call out wicked rulers—at a time when doing so usually meant you would die—but he challenged the false religious leaders of his day to a special kind of duel. He called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel in an epic display of God’s power. As a kid this was always a favorite story in Sunday school and vacation Bible school and summer camp. Elijah was an example of boldness and courage, almost like a Bible superhero. He even made flannel graph exciting.1
So, when James says, “Yeah, Elijah was like us,” I do a double take. I’ve built a nice bonfire in my back yard, but I’ve never called down fire from heaven. I’ve written some pretty snarky social media posts, but I’ve never stood in the court of a king who could cut my head off and told him he was wrong. I had to walk half a mile to the showers at camp, but I never lived in the wilderness like Elijah. I’ve prayed that it wouldn’t rain, especially when we lived in Nashville, where rain is its own season, but I’ve never prayed a prayer that stopped all precipitation for three and a half years. So how is Elijah like me?
Well, to see the humanity of this superhero, we have to go to a passage of 1 Kings that is usually left off the flannel graph. Here, Elijah kind of does look like us. He’s burned out. He’s tired. And he’s pretty cynical about the people of God.
You might say that if he had social media, he’d be complaining about being the one person standing for truth. Or he might be the person who stays home on Sunday because “no church is preaching the gospel right.” Or he might be the guy at the office who grew up in church and now says that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.
Elijah, in one chapter, has turned from prophet to cynic. Fresh off an epic battle where he called out the false prophets and God sent rain again after a famine, Elijah fled to the wilderness because Jezebel still wouldn’t repent.
God’s messenger is discouraged and defeated. He’s weak and vulnerable. His heart is crusted over with layers of suspicion and contempt. “I’m the only one,” Elijah complains to God. “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:14).
What’s strange about Elijah here is that he has just come off a spiritual victory where he witnessed the power of God to move the hearts of Israel from idolatry to true worship. And yet all he can see is the one person in Israel who refuses to worship God: Jezebel.
Elijah was a prophet of God. Prophets are often called to do hard things, to stir up the people of God away from sin and toward righteousness. It’s often a lonely task to say hard things. We need prophets in our day, gifted and godly men and women willing to say things that are hard to be said, to call out wickedness.
And yet there is a difference between being prophetic and being cynical. Prophets wrap hard words in hope. If you read Isaiah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist and Micah and others, you’ll read rebukes, but you will also read words of hope and comfort, a path forward from sin to salvation. Cynics aren’t interested in salvation or transformation. They’re only interested in an endless self-loathing ministry of doom.
A prophet speaks to people he loves with tears. A cynic disdains the people he is called to confront. A prophet’s desire is to see transformation. A cynic’s desire is to bring attention to himself.
Today, cynicism is contagious. It has become a movement, a niche lifestyle, a way of being.
God’s words to Elijah are sobering. “Seven thousand men have not bowed the knee to Baal” (v. 17). In other words, “Elijah, you are not the only one doing the right thing.” In plain English, God is telling his servant to get over himself. What’s more, God tells Elijah to get up and prepare to meet his successor. What a humbling moment.
God is telling this prophet that not only is he not the only one following Yahweh but also someone will come after him who will carry on his ministry. Elijah, by yielding to cynicism, lost his voice.
And so do we. We think we are telling it like it is to other Christians. We get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see a spiritual hero. But God’s word to Elijah and to us is this: “You are not the only one following the right path. I have many others. This is not about you.”
God’s word to Elijah wasn’t that God’s people don’t need prophetic voices. Throughout Scripture, we see the Lord raise up leaders to speak hard words to stir God’s people away from sin and lethargy. In the Old Testament, the words of the prophets to wayward Israel are words we should read today and take to heart. And in the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles were unsparing in their denunciations of sin and calls to repentance.
And yet there is a way that prophetic words should be delivered. They are words designed to build up and not destroy and are to be delivered not with glee but with humility. Consider the way Paul urges young Timothy to engage the church with hard words. In the midst of his urging Timothy to be bold against the incursion of false doctrine and sin in the church (1 Tim. 1:3–11, 18–20), he is transparent about his own fallenness. Paul remembers that before he was the apostle who wrote much of the New Testament, planted churches around the world, and was persecuted for his faith, he was “once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” But “I was shown mercy,” he writes of his conversion, “and the grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly” (vv. 12–13).
Paul’s prophetic ministry was born of his brokenness, of his love for the people of God. He wasn’t coming in hot, trying to score rhetorical points or speak hard words for the sake of speaking hard words. Paul resisted the urge to make himself the center of things. Writing to the church at Corinth, which was steeped in carnality and sensuality, Paul’s spirit was of a humble, almost reluctant prophet: “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
The apostle wasn’t spoiling for a fight. His aim wasn’t more notoriety but repentance and the building up of the people of God. Paul saw the church the way Jesus sees the church, as the bride of Christ. So even as he penned tearful letters of rebuke, he wrote from a place of love.
Today, loathing seems more in vogue than love. Some prophets are worth listening to, but I find much critical commentary on the church today to be dripping with disdain. And the digital algorithms on social media reward this negativity.
In my experience, when I write something positive about the church or about a local church, I get negative feedback. But if I write something critical about the church, especially a wide, sweeping condemnation (I am writing fewer of these lately), it almost always goes viral.
Ironically, I find that the Christians who fight each other the most in public seem to share a cynical outlook. Either these would-be Elijahs see themselves as mighty warriors for justice, rooting out racism and sexism and every other bad ism from among deplorable Christians, or they see themselves as righteous guardians of orthodoxy, more courageous than those soft compromisers. In their minds, the church is either drifting toward heresy or embracing injustice.
How easy it is for us to lament, whether in our online discussions or in our conversations with fellow Christians, “the state of the church” than to talk about the good things God might be doing among his people. It’s easier to think that every church in town is weak or doesn’t preach the gospel or doesn’t do enough in the community than to roll up our sleeves and get involved and to lift our eyes to see the Spirit at work.
There is little market for the reality that the church is both messy and beautiful, sinful and sanctified, wonderful and wayward. Pastor Jon Tyson said it best recently: “There is a fine line between the prophetic and the cynical. One brings needed critique, the other brings unneeded criticism.” 2
1 – Read the complete epic story in 1 Kings 18:16–46.
2 – Jon Tyson (@JonTyson), “There is a fine line,” Twitter, March 12, 2022, twitter.com/JonTyson/status/1502743230537994247.
This excerpt reprinted with permission from Agents of Grace: How to Bridge Divides and Love as Jesus Loves. Pick up your copy using the link below.