It's time to get unreasonable. For others.
The importance of thinking bigger than yourself and going big for others.
It was the last time, on earth, that he would be with his leader. And that’s when he boldly, even unreasonably, asked for more.
The story of the transfer of leadership between the heavyweight Hebrew prophet Elijah to the welter-weight Elisha, is legendary. It’s the famous double portion passage, in which Elisha boldly states he needs twice as much of what Elijah had if he is to take over his work to serve the people.
At Horeb, Elijah admitted he had come to the end. He couldn’t handle it anymore. He was tired and wanted out of the game. See the footnote below for some helpful context.1
Perhaps what’s most fascinating is that Elisha understood what Elijah could no longer see: that there was another option. He could have asked for more.
A quick side-by-side: comparing Mountain-top moments in the lives of Moses and Elijah
If we jump back to another towering prophet, we see this clearly.
Moses modelled the principle well. Moses, at the most challenging and critical moment of his leadership, got unreasonable and asked for more provision, more grace, and more help than he certainly deserved. See the footnote below for helpful context.2
It’s a hard truth for us to hear, especially in a place of privilege where we already have so much. But with God, there’s always more, and he wants us to ask for it. The constant threat of scarcity on a resource- and wealth-hoarding world collides violently with Heaven’s abundance and willingness to give.
Moses had the wisdom and the shamelessness to recognize that what he had as a leader was not enough from God. It wasn’t greedy, it was a necessity. Desperation may have revealed it, but the truth is built into the human condition and is something our insurance industry, medical complex, banking system, and our supply chain just can’t, ultimately, answer or account for.
This principle, that we aren't sufficient on our own, and yet the emptiness can be made full, would not have been a new idea to Elijah. He had already witnessed that God is the God of limitless supply:
The widow at Zarephath (1 K 17.1-24). Here the lesson God teaches the widow, through Elijah, is that she need not be afraid, but that God can stretch what little she has. God can refill her meal and oil, God can sustain her life – He only asks faith and obedience of those in need (and responds to a generous heart).
The widow’s son’s resurrection (1 K 17. 17-24). Here, God shows, through the ministry of Elijah, that he can refill a life – even when it looks totally impossible, even when the boy was dead, God, in his power and mercy, can revitalize and create a new beginning when it looks like a sudden, final end.
Elijah, in the same way, could be sure that the same God, could refill him with vision, with power, with motivation to serve. He did not need to be afraid. God could supply him with all he needed in order to continue to fulfill his calling.
When Elijah went to the mountain at a critical crossroads in his ministry, he asked to be taken out of the game.
When Moses went to the mountain at a similar impasse, he asked for God to go with him and revitalize both him and the nation in order to live out the challenging future.
Both prophets get what they want. But the outcomes are totally different. Moses’ intercession changed the course of history for the existing nation. Elijah was taken up to heaven (after passing the mantle and mentoring Elisha).
The double portion effect: Elisha’s work
Two stories from Elisha’s double-portion ministry illustrate that there’s always more, and remind us, even when the way forward seems impossible and even if we feel done like dinner ourselves, there’s an abundance that can fill our empty cup to overflow.
Is it foolish to assume something as great could have happened in the Israel of Elijah’s day? If, in the mountain, Elijah had jumped on God’s name like Moses did, what would the result have been in his ministry?
For me, the following two anecdotes hammer home just how significant it is to be unreasonable and think bigger than ourselves, to seek blessing for others:
The widow and the oil (2 Kings 4.3-7). “Borrow vessels from all your neighbours, empty vessels and not just a few.” The woman was unreasonable and shameless. She gathered as many as she could and her great faith meant she was abundantly rescued from her troubles. To save your scroll, you can read the full context in the footnote below.3
King Joash and the arrows (2 K 13. 14-19). “Strike the ground with [the arrows].” He struck three times, and stopped. King Joash was modest and demure. His victories were limited when they could have been abundant. To save your scroll, you can read the full context in the footnote below.4
Note to self: Be ridiculous when asking.
The overall take away: Ask big. Ask for others.
There is freedom for the individual to make unreasonable requests of a gracious God. In fact, we shouldn’t fear that our requests are too big. Rather, we should fear making requests that are too small!
Frustrated with the portion you got? Perhaps your request is too small. Perhaps the stakes of your life are too itsy-bitsy (to quote the great Annie Dillard).5
In these challenging times, it’s easy to feel weak, incapable, needy so that we have nothing to give. This happens in work. In parenting. In relationships. This happens in life. Don’t live expecting you won’t feel empty, that you can’t feel empty. I’ve had enough God, I’m no better than my ancestors, take away the struggle, take away the trouble, take away the discomfort, take away the challenges. I want out. I need to be replaced.
The challenge is to think bigger. Think big about God. Think big about his mercy, think big about his grace. Think big about his generosity! Think big about his capacity and ability and his willingness to give. How do you think big? Think about him. Let your mind reflect on his character—what he is like.
Approach the mountain of God. You’re invited, you know. Enter his presence with full assurance of faith.6
Like Moses, be desperate. Ask God to go with you, admit that if he doesn’t go with you that you’re a hopeless case. But don’t stop there. Throw yourself on his grace. Bring your empty vessels and don’t bring just a few. Bring as many as you can. Borrow them if you have to. Be ridiculous. Be foolish. Be audacious. Fill them all up!
Want the blessing? Ask for it. You know you need it; he knows you need it. If you’re going to ask for something anyway, why not ask big?
While you’re at it, why not think big enough for more than just yourself? There’s enough to fill their emptiness full too.
Some quick context on the events that preceded Elijah’s request. The Israelites had returned to God after he miraculously demonstrates his power over Baal. Israel is lost to idolatry, and has completely forsaken the LORD under the kingship of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The nation has suffered three years of severe famine. Elijah is considered an enemy to the nation, since God used him to communicate punishment via the famine. God pursues his people despite their sinfulness and reveals he is God in Israel. The people eradicate the nation of their false prophets (chapter 18). And after all that, Jezebel wants to kill Elijah and promises to not rest until he’s dead. There’s no let up. He is in flight, from Jezreel to Mt. Horeb, afraid for his life (19.1 ff). In this context he tells God that he’s done.
Some quick context on the events that preceded Moses’ bold request. The law has been broken: literally and physically—Moses dropped the stone tablets after seeing Israel’s sin in the golden calf incident. Moses intercedes on their behalf. God brings punishment, but does not wipe out Israel completely as he threatens to (see Ex 32.14). Moses returns to the Mountain to intercede for the people again; he declares that without God, Israel is not unique and is, in fact, hopeless. (33.12 ff)
Context on the events with the Widow in Elisha’s time. The impoverished woman doesn’t even have her own jars, she must borrow them, the ‘size’ of the blessing she receives is dependent on how ‘audacious’ she is. She and her family are in dire straits. She is desperate, and in her interaction with God she must act desperately. She doesn’t have to, I guess, but if she doesn’t she won’t receive as much blessing. She can be meek and mild, appropriate and humble, but the blessing will be meek and mild and humble and appropriate too. Every vessel she borrowed and scrounged up was full. And she sold the oil to pay off her debts and rescue her children from slavery.
Context on the events with King Joash. Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times.” Implication: Joash should have been more ambitious, and sought more victory.
A favourite quote from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “Thomas Merton wrote, ‘There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.’ There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10.19-22).