Today’s first reading says that Elijah prayed, “Enough, Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kgs. 19:4) I feel a certain amount of sympathy for him. Elijah had defeated four hundred and fifty prophets of the false god Baal in a contest of divine power. Briefly, the People turned their hearts toward God. Their repentance, however, was short-lived.
Queen Jezebel grew furious that Elijah had embarrassed her false prophets; she swore to have him killed. Fearing for his life, Elijah fled into the desert. Our reading begins at the point that Elijah was hiding from the wrath of the Queen. His defeat of the prophets of Baal had given him encouragement that the People would return to faithful religion. When he realized that his efforts had been in vain, he prayed the prayer of self-pity recorded in the first reading.
All of us have had similar experiences. All of us have faced difficulty and disappointment. All of us have felt self-pity over unfortunate circumstances. Episodes of self-pity are to be expected; consequently, it matters what we do with our self-pity. Elijah did not turn his back on God. He ate the food that God sent to him and he lifted himself from his melancholy in order to make the journey to Mount Horeb where he heard God’s voice.
Elijah is an example of the kind of repentance that is required in order to live faithfully in a world where injustice and loss happen all too often.
From time to time, people ask me, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” Countless books have been written on this issue. There is no really satisfying answer to the riddles of suffering and moral evil. The simple answer, of course, is that God does not cause evil. That knowledge, however, doesn’t make our suffering any easier to bear.
Suffering, sin, injustice, and evil are unavoidable in this world. There is no adequate explanation for why these exist. Lacking an understanding of physical and moral evil, we are left with the unenviable task of learning to live with them. As I said, Elijah is an example for us to imitate.
There is a kind of forgiveness that we must give to the whole world. The physical evil in the world: natural disasters, illness, loss, and death, is no one’s fault; neither can anyone outwit or escape it. Physical evil is a force to be reckoned with, and the reckoning requires that we forgive the imperfections of the created world. As physical evil will never go away (and none of us can avoid it), we have to forgive and move on with our lives. This is the obvious corollary of Jesus’ teaching about moral evil. He said, “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” (Mt. 5:44-45) Although forgiveness is difficult to accomplish, the alternatives of resentment and despair are much more difficult to bear.
Granting forgiveness to our enemies requires repentance on our part. We must repent of our desire for revenge but, more to the point, we must repent of the exceptionalism that makes us think we should be exempted from the human condition.
There is an analogous repentance that is required of us in order to live faithfully with the experiences of suffering and loss. It is certainly not the case that anyone deserves to suffer, but it is also not the case that anyone can avoid suffering. The certainty of injustice in life requires that we repent of our unrealistic expectations about perfection in this world.
A commitment to living according to Jesus’ teachings neither protects us from harm nor makes suffering palatable, but granting forgiveness and repenting of self-concern might well make us more sympathetic to the sufferings of others. That might not sound like much, but it is more than enough.
Out of sympathy for his faithless contemporaries, Elijah risked his life to call them to repentance. Out of sympathy for Elijah’s suffering, God sent food and water to strengthen him. Out of sympathy for our fallen nature, Jesus died on the Cross. If our forgiveness and repentance can make us more sympathetic toward others, we’ll find ourselves in the best of company.