Many walk the broken road – but few will walk there with them. Many walk the broken road – but not all will fully recover from the damage done on the journey. Many walk the broken road and, for some, life will never be the same again. For yet others the broken road is the necessary route to reality, life, meaning and even abundance.
The journey to the broken road, is, for some, a sudden and unexpected disastrous turn on the highway of life. For others the journey here is almost imperceptible and they can’t account for the reason they now walk here. Some are not even sure the road is broken at all – so subtle has their journey been to this place it feels life has always been this way.
However, no matter where we fall on the broken road, one thing is certain – God is there.
God is, without doubt, the God of the broken road, the dark valley, the hopeless journey, just as much as he is the God of the midday sun, the laughing stream and the heights of success.
He is the God of the dark place – even when he appears absent, imperceptible or only fleetingly apparent in the shadows.
I have walked the broken road – so my interest here is not simply academic. I know what it is to experience the sudden and unexpected turn from the highway of apparent fulfilment and success to the broken road of emptiness and confusion. Of course others have travelled on worse roads than I – and I do not claim to be able to fully understand the depths of the darkness of others. Nevertheless – I have, from time to time, also walked with others on this road . This and my own experience has helped me to understand something of such a journey.
The life and experience of one man who suddenly and, I think, unexpectedly, found himself on a broken road and in a very dark place was recently brought to my attention. One moment he was riding high on the biggest success of his ‘ministry’ and the next he was on the point of total despair.
Looking back I think there were signs, because of psychological make up, that this was a danger – but to most people his success clouded any perception of the darkness that was to come.
And here I think we need to pause for a moment and recognise a very important fact. Genetics, upbringing, background, communal psychology and beliefs all play a part in who we are.
Some are under the illusion that when a person becomes one of faith – or to use religious language, becomes a Christian, that their nature is completely changed. Of course this can and does happen – but in my observation of life and living this is rare. Far more often, for better or worse, our genetic code, our mental and communal outlook, our tendencies to positivity or negativity as well as many other things will travel with us.
Perhaps living most of my life in the northwest of Scotland – having been brought up and rubbed shoulders for most of my life with what some describe as ‘Dour (joyless) Presbyterianism’ – I have seen all this in action more than most. Melancholy is a mark of much of our culture here.
I suspect the man of whom I am speaking knew something of this. He was really a bit of a loner and always thought deep down everyone was against him. But yet he was a man of incredible faith – was intimate with God, fearless in his stand for truth and witnessed signs and wonders performed through his ministry.
The catalyst for his big crash and journey to the broken road was something as simple as a threat from a woman in his congregation. He had faced much worse before – but this time it was the straw that broke him – and we find him one day cowering under a tree having totally given up on life.
His subsequent story can be read in full in 1 Kings 19. It is of course the story of the life and fall of the Prophet Elijah. Once again there is so much to discover here that we can only touch on a few things relative to our subject.
The first thing I see is in his journey on the broken road is that God does not condemn him, rebuke him for his lack of faith, or tell him to snap out of it. On the contrary – God does two very important things we should note. First of all he gives him food to restore him physically. Secondly he gives him time and space to come to terms with his situation. Indeed, it appears God did not try speaking to him at all in the initial stages of his journey on the broken road. Far too often we overlook the physical and emotional aspects that lead to burnout, depression and brokenness. The quick dynamic prayer for healing and restoration, while well intentioned, may sometimes be misplaced. The practical is as important as the spiritual when it comes to the healing of the mind – and God is wise enough here to realise that these must be addressed before moving on to deal with the spiritual aspect of the problem. Healing takes time. Nor it appears is God, like so many of us, in a rush when it comes to these matters.
Elijah then takes a journey which is both real and symbolic – travelling 40 days and nights to Mount Sinai (Horeb)* And it is here that God, the Master Therapist, begins to deal with Elijah at another level. Again he does not rebuke or berate him but asks him a simple question – ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’. Of course God is not asking this question because he does not know! Rather he is coaxing Elijah to examine the roots of the spiritual issues which are the real source of his problem.
His answer reveals the true state of his mind and spirit – which are both confused and bitter. He says in effect – I have served you faithfully but where has that got me! The people have all deserted you (this is not true but what he really believes). I am the only faithful one left (again not true but this is his perception). Everyone is against me and wants me dead (again a gross exaggeration of the truth – for many had in fact turned back to God). Elijah is in fact suffering from a distorted perspective of reality – something common in those suffering from depression. I have seen it a number of times.
So what does Elijah need at this point? What would we do to try and restore him to reality? Pray a powerful prayer of faith denouncing the demons of doubt and fear? Take him along to a miracle crusade? Just leave him to his own devices – let him get over it?
Of course we know that the miraculous earthquake and fire came – but God was in neither of them. Please ponder that! However, when the miracles were all over God did come with – ‘The sound of a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:13). I believe that was a profound encounter. The inference is that it took place in the darkness of the cave in which he appears to have been living, for afterward we are told – ‘He wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’ (1 Kings 19:13)
I strongly suspect that the ‘gentle whisper’ healed Elijah at one level but not at another. I also believe, although this is complete conjecture on my part, that the ‘gentle whisper’ was an assurance of the the love, compassion and mercy of God towards his servant – and that Elijah ‘wrapped his face in his cloak’ because it was both glowing and his eyes were full of tears.
Interestingly, and I believe very significantly, in his second session with Elijah the Divine Master Therapist returns to the same question. And, even more interestingly, Elijah’s answers are the same – word for word.
At this point there is no way we would consider Elijah fit to resume his ministry – but that is exactly what God tells him to do! Will a deeper healing and restoration come on the return journey? Perhaps – it is after all a journey of over 450 miles! And on foot!
One of Elijah’s first God given tasks is to anoint his replacement! You would be forgiven for thinking that God had come to the conclusion that Elijah was no longer up to the job. And I suspect there is some truth in that – because we know for sure that Elijah was never fully restored to the level of his previous ministry. The other task God had assigned Elijah before leaving Horeb was, on his return, to – ‘Anoint Hazael to be king of Aram and Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel’. However, there is no evidence Elijah ever met these men, sought them out as instructed or ever anointed them as Kings (1 Kings 19:16). Perhaps in his rush to appoint his successor everything else was forgotten – but I think a deeper problem was still at work here.
The truth is, I suspect, Elijah never fully recovered from his breakdown. The man who returned physically was a shadow of the man who had left many months before. I suspect he was still, at least partially, broken, still disheartened and certainly knew that his time of service was at an end. I’m not even sure he could say with the Apostle Paul at this point – ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ (2 Timothy 4:7). But what I do know is that God had never failed him, never abandoned him and was his strength and comfort even now. Furthermore, The Speaker of secrets was about to openly acknowledge and reward him in a very public way. Few people in the Bible are ushered to Glory in a chariot of fire – but Elijah was!
For those of us on a broken road there is much encouragement to be found here. God will never abandon you. He will always work to heal your broken heart. God is not in a hurry – and will give you the time and space you need for recovery. God can and does work through the weakness of his broken people. We do not have to have it all together before God can restore us in ministry. And even if we are never fully restored – we do not become failures in God’s estimation. Although broken and battered, weary and worn, we still bear the stamp of his divine approval and one day we will hear his ‘well done’!
Your mercy found me,
Upon the broken road,
And lifted me beyond my failing,
Into Your glory,
My sin and shame dissolved,
And now forever Yours I’ll stand
In love never to end,
To call You more than Lord,
Others have noted the interesting symbolism here. Elijah tries in fact to reverse the Exodus story. Israel had travelled through the wilderness for 40 years towards the promised land. Elijah leaves the promise land and travels for 40 days into the wilderness.
When Elijah asks God to take his life because – ‘I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.’ (1 Kings 19:4) he is talking about the Israelites who had disobeyed God and as a result spent 40 years wandering in the desert. Elijah feels a failure just like them and so asks God to let him share their fate – death outside the promised land.
God then leads Elijah to the same place that his ancestors had been led – Mount Horeb – that location synonymous with the giving of the Law to Moses. It is also the location where God had appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush.
Elijah’s journey toward the mountain takes 40 day and 40 nights – again a biblical symbol and reminder of the Exodus.