“When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?’”
I Kings 18:17
I was reflecting on a message I shared recently, it is the great story most of us learned in Sunday school about how Elijah challenges the false priests to a worship war. They each ready a sacrifice and the one whose deity can rain down fire upon the sacrifice will be considered the winner. At the end of the competition only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob comes through (for more read 1 Kings 18). When I went back and reviewed the narrative a simple phrase struck me. Though I’ve read it many times before, I had not realized the significance of the verse.
You see there was a famine in the land as a direct result of the king leading the people into disobedience. For years it had not rained. The crops withered in the field. The animals were dying. Tough times bring out the worst in people. Repeatedly Elijah had told King Ahab that if he were to return to God the drought would be lifted, but the king refused. The king had searched high and low to find Elijah to no avail. Elijah sends word to the king that God has instructed him to issue the challenge. When Ahab finally encounters Elijah his first words are, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?”
The revelation I had when reading that verse is how often we rush to blame the prophet for the problem. The prophet did not cause the problem, the prophet simply had the calling and courage to listen to God, recognize the problem, and bring it to the awareness of the people. In almost every case not only does the prophet raise awareness about the problem, but usually provides the God-directed answer to avoid or end the situation that causes the problem. In the end, as most of the second half of the Old Testament reveals, the leader and the people prefer to blame the prophet for the problem rather than make the changes to fix it. Why do we prefer to blame the prophet? Blaming the prophet is easier than accepting responsibility. Blaming the prophet for the problem oversimplifies complex issues of culture. Blaming the prophet for the problem means we do not have to change our heart or our actions. Essentially, placing blame is simply our way of passive disobedience.
Blaming the prophet is easier than accepting responsibility. I have seen this in almost every sized organization I’ve encountered, the willingness to blame the newest member of the team for the long-term problems of the organization. In churches the answer to every problem is, of course, to change the pastor. The pastor must be the problem. Regardless of how many pastors a church burns through and casts aside the next one will be the one that “saves our church.” In the business world a new manager is brought in to whip things into shape and things improve for a short time, but soon old problems arise and that manager is sent packing and a new one is brought in. It is always easier to blame the outsider than to do the work to bring health to those on the “inside,” however the church, organization, or business is destined to continue its slide into oblivion unless the internal issues of the heart are corrected. The longer the organization has existed the deeper the problems go and the longer it will take for them to be solved, which brings us to the second reason we prefer to blame the prophet…
Blaming the prophet for the problem oversimplifies complex issues of culture. Organizations are complex, dynamic, and, over time, establish a shadow culture that is lived but usually never acknowledged but is often the driving force for those who have been part of the organization for a long time. In the narrative, the people of Israel seem to swing back and forth on the spiritual pendulum between being fully devoted to God and then back to worshipping the gods of the culture. Only when things go badly do they fall on their face before the God of Abraham and beg his forgiveness and promise their undying allegiance. When things improve the spiritual erosion begins again, usually beginning at the top with the leader or king, and then infecting the people. The culture of spiritual distance and disobedience eventually returns. When difficulty comes, when a prophet arrives and points out the problems, the initial response of the leaders and the people is to always blame the problem on the prophet rather than addressing the deep heart issue and the complex cultural issues that allow the problem to return time and time again.
This brings us to the last reason it is easier to blame the prophet for the problem. Blaming the prophet for the problem means we do not have to change our heart or our actions. We hate change. We especially hate change that we, ourselves do not personally initiate. Comfortable dying is usually personally preferable to uncomfortable living. Accepting decline is usually preferable to embracing painful change that provides us the chance to live and return to vitality. I have been amazed at how people who seem perfectly logical in one area of their lives, perfectly willing to embrace new technology or patterns of living in their personal life are completely resistant to change in their worship life. Maybe it is because one set of changes seems inevitable and the other seems optional, but change is never really optional. Change of one form or another is inevitable; growth, however, is optional. The culture is changing. The world is a different place than it was even five years ago. Every organization, every church, every business has to either adapt or accept extinction. Rather than change, most churches, organizations, and businesses choose to blame the prophet who shows them the needed change rather than embracing a willingness to make the changes. The longer change is resisted the faster and more inevitable the death becomes. Eventually the only option is the acceptance of the change that brings death. For the people of Israel this would mean that, eventually, the kingdom would fall and they would be God’s people scattered rather than God’s people gathered.
So, what is the solution for the people of God who choose obedience over resistance? Elijah shares a simple formula for their return to relationship with God: seek God; accept responsibility; and repent. Elijah built an altar and when God showed up the people saw that God had not abandoned them. They then declared their willingness to accept responsibility for worshipping God alone, and then repented of their transgressions. The same is true for those of us in the midst of difficulty. We must seek God, for God is always willing to help those who call upon His name. We must accept responsibility for our hard hearts and unwillingness to change and be willing to do whatever God asks. Lastly we must repent, not just be sorry for getting caught, but be willing to change every area of our personal life and our organizational life to come into congruence with God’s will. Then, and only then, will God’s favor rest upon us again. It is time to quit blaming the prophet for the problem and, instead, begin making the changes God is leading us to make.
Ironically, even for Elijah, the change of heart of the leader and the people was short lived. Almost as soon as he had called down fire from heaven and God had showed up, he was on the run again as the queen swore to have his head. The short-lived victory did not yield long-term change and Elijah did what most of us do when we have done our best and have nothing left to give, he passed the mantle to Elisha in hopes that perhaps this new leader could do what he had been unable to do. Perhaps Elisha could turn the hearts of the leaders and the people back to God.
Gracious God, help me to seek you in everything I do personally and in the places where you have called me to lead, guide to me accept the responsibility to do your will, and grant me the courage to change and make changes that will keep us in alignment with your will. In the name of the One who showed us how to live, Jesus, I pray. Amen.