Lessons from the Juniper Tree

July 13, 2011

If Hollywood commissioned a biopic of the Old Testament hero, Elijah, they would probably end the movie with his epic holy war on Mt. Carmel. It would be a fitting ending for such a bold, courageous, insurgent leader.

But alas, this is not how Elijah’s story ends at all. If you turn the page one chapter, from 1 Kings 18 to 1 Kings 19, you see a completely different side of this seemingly bullet-proof warrior. You find a fragile shell of a man, in a fetal position, begging God to end his life.

Elijah doesn’t look much like a leader here. But as I’ve studied his life, I’ve gleaned more lessons in leadership from Elijah’s meltdown than from his mountain-top successes.

Here are the five leadership lessons I learned under Elijah’s juniper tree:

1)   Even great people break down. Elijah is one of those mythical figures in the Bible, someone whose larger-than-life exploits make our everyday walks of faith seem pedestrian by comparison. And yet here he is, weak, feeble, and discouraged. The truth is that every great leader has had one more seasons just like this. And so will you. This doesn’t make you weird or exceptional. It makes you human.

2)   Take care of your body. What was God’s first response to Elijah? A counseling session? Another small group Bible study? More church? No. God simply brought Elijah a meal. In all of his working for God, Elijah forgot to take care of the basic needs of his body, as if ignoring his humanity would somehow earn him more points with God. The truth is that physical needs often cloud our judgment. God wired our bodies in such a way that they need regular rest, nutrition, and exercise. Often the first step back to spiritual health is a good night’s sleep, a hearty meal, and a few days off.

3)   We measure success by the wrong metrics. You would think Elijah would be celebrating. All of Israel turned their back on the false worship of Baal and embraced Jehovah. And yet Elijah considered himself a failure because Jezebel and Ahab, the corrupt monarch, refused to change. So, in Elijah’s world, he was a failure. God reminded Elijah, through a series of natural phenomena, that He is sovereign not only in the big stuff of life, but in the small stuff as well.

4)   We’re not indispensible.  Elijah copped a martyr mentality, common in Christian circles. I’m the only one who cares. It’s all on me. And nobody else is as devoted as I am. God destroyed this faulty thinking by reminding Elijah that there were 7,000 other capable believers in Israel. God wasn’t dependent on Elijah. He could easily have raised up someone else to do the job. And so it is with us. The entire sovereign plan of God isn’t dependent on our feeble, clever efforts. Thankfully.

5)   It’s not about you; it’s about God’s glory. I think it’s telling that God’s next mission for Elijah, post depression, was to train his successor. What a humbling and invigorating experience for this do-it-yourself prophet! I think there is a subtle message in this. We don’t own our ministries. They are gifts from God for us to steward. And thus, the work that was here when we left, will be here when we are gone.

What do you think about Elijah’s 1 Kings 19 meltdown? Did it surprise you?