Elijah the prophet had some formative experiences during chapters 18 and 19 of 1 Kings.
After God gave Elijah great success on Mount Carmel the chapter ends with him receiving the power of the Lord and running all the way to Jezreel. There, he received a message from Jezebel who threatened Elijah’s life. Despite experiencing God’s great miracle with the prophets of Baal, Elijah was scared to the point of asking God for death. He traveled for 40 days and looked for God on his mountain, Mount Horeb.
Incredible things happened on the mountain, but it was all preceded with God’s question to Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”. Some think that God was challenging Elijah with the question, as if to say, “We’ve got a lot of things to do. What are you doing here? Get back to work.” Others believe that it was a question seeking to comfort the prophet, “Let’s talk about what’s happened. How are you? Tell me about Jezebel.” Regardless of the tone of the question, God’s intention was the same. It caused Elijah to reflect on everything that was going on. It gave him clarity and perspective. During the moment on Mount Horeb, as God manifested himself through a gentle whisper, Elijah was convicted through God’s simple question that he actually repeated later on in the story. Elijah descended the mountain and continued his mission.
The question, “What are you doing here?”, is often heard by the missionary. It can be taken different ways. “What am I doing here? I’ve been living here for 10 years and still nothing.” “What am I doing here? Nothing I’ve tried works. I’m wasting my time and everyone else’s.” It sometimes haunts the missionary and brings him or her down to the lowest level. It’s Elijah crying under the broom tree. It’s heartbreaking. People leave the church. Teammates disappoint you. Dependable members abruptly move. Systems you’ve developed just don’t work.
Sometimes you find yourself saying, “What am I doing here?”, and you mean something else. Mission work is hard because you’re creating. There’s no existing infrastructure and no established systems. There are no developed leaders. You are everything to everyone. It’s exciting and scary. You become overwhelmed with it all, and complacency settles in. Lack of inspiration paralyzes you to the point to where you’re lost, and then you say the question to yourself, “What am I doing here?”. It comes from a place of frustration and disappointment with yourself. There’s always more to do. There’s always more investment to be made. You’re constantly challenged to be smarter, stronger, faster, and better.
Here is the point in the story where I’m supposed to lead our thoughts to God’s provision and plan. It’s certainly in Elijah’s story, and there’s no doubt that the resolution of it all depends on God’s will. However, I’ve written recently about it, and emphasizing our part certainly doesn’t negate God’s. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
What did Elijah do after the question? After experiencing God’s provision and hearing the plan, after reflecting on it all, he came down from the mountain and got to work. That’s mission work. It’s going back to the problems and taking them head on. It’s addressing the obstacles and not letting them fade into a forgetful background. We wait on God. But we don’t wait on a couch, feeling complacent, indifferent, or simply frustrated. We don’t wait while we do the same old thing over and over again. We wait on God’s provision while we look for his plan, which is found among the trial and error. We wait in faith that his plan is actually there. It just needs to be discovered.
This is the experience I’ve had in Cusco, Peru. The question, “What are you doing here?”, is always waiting for me. It’s challenging and comforting at the same time.