by Robert Jacobs
“You don’t understand. God can’t use me anymore.”
After being around Living Hope long enough, you begin to hear this phrase (or something like it) with a sort of regularity. From the online forums to the face-to-face groups, both men and women express a deep seeded belief that because they fell into a life style of sin after having formerly served God faithfully, they are now disqualified from serving Him in the future.
This logic goes something like this. “I made a commitment to God to serve him. I then infected myself with sin. Therefore, I can no longer serve him as I did before.” This reasoning posits the individual as a kind of spiritual leper, a soul infected and contagious.
While illness is an accurate metaphor for sin—this is particularly true of Leprosy, which causes you to lose more and more of yourself to the sickness as it consumes you—we serve a Savior who specifically asserted that He exercises authority over both physical and spiritual illness. To say that we can no longer serve God because of our past sin struggles, no matter if they happened before or after conversion, is simply false.
While we could go to a passage like the healing of the paralytic to demonstrate Jesus’ authority over the realm of sin through a medical metaphor (Matt 9:1–8, Mk 2:1–12, Lk 5:17–26,) I think that to correct this misconception we need to look at a less symbolic and more literal passage. In 1 King 17-2 Kings 2, we find the story of Elijah, one of the most discussed prophets found in the Old Testament histories. This notoriety is not hard to understand given his famous interaction with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:16-46) and the fact that he did not experience physical death (2 Kings 2:11).
However, Elijah’s tenure as a prophet was not marked by unwavering faithfulness. Immediately after Elijah’s faith fueled defeat of the prophets of Baal, Jezebel became so infuriated that she put out a call for Elijah’s death. In fear and disobedience, Elijah fled a little over 100 miles on foot. I am prone to look for symbolism, but I have to point out that Elijah’s journey of disobedience and faithlessness took him from Mt. Carmel in the promise land back to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. In other words, Elijah metaphorically “undid” the entire exodus journey taken by Israel, the prophet fleeing from the land of freedom to the land of slavery.
Yet, even in this disobedience, this running back to the land of slavery, God still intimately connects with Elijah. After great displays of God’s power through an earthquake, storm, and fire, He intimately communes with His servant through a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Through the whisper, a form of communication that the listener must work to hear by eliminating all competing noise, God reminds Elijah of his mission, instructing him to “go back the way [he] came” (1 Kings 19:15). God reminds Elijah not only of his specific assignment for that moment but his overall mission to live a life defined not by spiritual slavery but by freedom.
Through Elijah’s example, we can see that one can effectively serve God even after a season of disobedience, with the prophet going on to faithfully serve God until he was taken to heaven “in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). Almost more importantly, though, the narrative reveals how God used the time when Elijah was on Mt. Horeb to deepen His relationship with His prophet.
Because of his disobedience, Elijah experiences what I like to call “a divine stop,” a moment when all other aspects of your life seem to fall away and you and God commune in an extremely intimate way. While I do not think that God wants us to be disobedient so we can experience a divine stop, He often uses our fleeing from freedom back to slavery to do such a work. Several of the men that I have walked with at Living Hope have experienced a stop because of their sin, with God removing them from church leadership, jobs, and friendships for a time so that they can hear His whisper.
There are some very important questions that we should reflect on as we consider this topic in light of Elijah’s example:
Are we running from the land of freedom, back to the land of slavery? Do we, like the Israelites, forget about the bitterness of slavery and instead lionize our former oppression?
Do we see divine stops as a form of punishment, or as an opportunity to connect with our Father in a deep and intimate way?
Do we trust that God will equip us with the strength to “go back the way [we] came,” so we can serve Him in the land of freedom again?
This last question is truly key. Elijah did not stay on Mt. Horeb, but instead began to journey back to the life God intended for him. May we have the same reaction when we find ourselves on our own Mt. Horeb.