Cynics aren’t interested in salvation or transformation. They’re only interested in an endless self-loathing ministry of doom. A prophet speaks to people he loves with tears. A cynic disdains the people he is called to confront. A prophet’s desire is to see transformation. A cynic’s desire is to bring attention to himself.
One of my favorite verses in the New Testament is a bit of an odd one. James, writing about prayer and dependence on God, makes this statement: Elijah was a man like us (James 5:17).
Now, I’ve gone to church my whole life and have learned a lot about Elijah. He’s the wild wilderness dude who called out a wicked king in Israel, Ahab, and his equally wicked wife, Jezebel. Think about this. To this day, in 2023, Jezebel is a euphemism for wickedness. There is even a trashy magazine with this name!
Not only did Elijah have the courage to call out wicked rulers—at a time when doing so usually meant you would die—but he challenged the false religious leaders of his day to a special kind of duel. He called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel in an epic display of God’s power. As a kid this was always a favorite story in Sunday school and vacation Bible school and summer camp. Elijah was an example of boldness and courage, almost like a Bible superhero. He even made flannel graph exciting.1
So, when James says, “Yeah, Elijah was like us,” I do a double take. I’ve built a nice bonfire in my back yard, but I’ve never called down fire from heaven. I’ve written some pretty snarky social media posts, but I’ve never stood in the court of a king who could cut my head off and told him he was wrong. I had to walk half a mile to the showers at camp, but I never lived in the wilderness like Elijah. I’ve prayed that it wouldn’t rain, especially when we lived in Nashville, where rain is its own season, but I’ve never prayed a prayer that stopped all precipitation for three and a half years. So how is Elijah like me?
Well, to see the humanity of this superhero, we have to go to a passage of 1 Kings that is usually left off the flannel graph. Here, Elijah kind of does look like us. He’s burned out. He’s tired. And he’s pretty cynical about the people of God.
You might say that if he had social media, he’d be complaining about being the one person standing for truth. Or he might be the person who stays home on Sunday because “no church is preaching the gospel right.” Or he might be the guy at the office who grew up in church and now says that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.
Elijah, in one chapter, has turned from prophet to cynic. Fresh off an epic battle where he called out the false prophets and God sent rain again after a famine, Elijah fled to the wilderness because Jezebel still wouldn’t repent.
God’s messenger is discouraged and defeated. He’s weak and vulnerable. His heart is crusted over with layers of suspicion and contempt. “I’m the only one,” Elijah complains to God. “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:14).
What’s strange about Elijah here is that he has just come off a spiritual victory where he witnessed the power of God to move the hearts of Israel from idolatry to true worship. And yet all he can see is the one person in Israel who refuses to worship God: Jezebel.
Elijah was a prophet of God. Prophets are often called to do hard things, to stir up the people of God away from sin and toward righteousness. It’s often a lonely task to say hard things. We need prophets in our day, gifted and godly men and women willing to say things that are hard to be said, to call out wickedness.