When God brought judgment on Ahab and Israel in the form of drought and famine, he sent Elijah to a secluded retreat somewhere along the Brook Cherith (1 Kings 17). During this period, God’s care for Elijah reveals an interesting pattern. The details are memorable and exceptional, but the pattern is not.
And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. (ESV, 1 Ki 17:6)
Here in 2022, we need to look closely at how Elijah responded to God’s provision. The record is clear that Elijah ate what these ceremonially unclean ravens (Lev 11:13-15) brought. In Elijah’s mind, he was not choosing between trusting God and trusting ravens.
To put it another way: Elijah saw no conflict between trusting in God and trusting in the means God used to preserve his life and health.
Elijah’s story doesn’t end there.
And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (1 Ki 17:7–9)
Here we see a second feature of Elijah’s thinking that is important in our day. Elijah didn’t reason that since brooks tend to dry up in droughts, he should reject brooks as a water source. Instead, he chose to make the most of what God had made available, limited though it was.
In other words, Elijah saw no conflict between trusting God and trusting in God’s means, even when the means were clearly flawed.
As Elijah walked away from dried-up Cherith, I’m pretty sure his thoughts didn’t go like this: “Well that was a big mistake. I never should have thought birds and brooks would be good enough. How many times have I seen or heard of brooks drying up?! And birds are generally useless as a food delivery service! I should have trusted God instead!”
The context shows that Elijah would have been wrong if he’d thought that way. So what about us? As we look at the means available to us today for taking care of our life and health, should we reject options on the grounds that they often fail? Should we think that their imperfect success rate proves they aren’t from God?
Elijah also rejected the idea that trusting God means being passive. When brook dried up he moved on. He didn’t reason, “My life is in God’s hands. Whether I live or die is up to Him. So it doesn’t matter what I do.”
I’ve often heard Christians reason this way, selectively. They take action to improve their health in lots of ways, then—when faced with a decision that is unattractive for some reason—they embrace passivity as an act of trusting God. “My life is in God’s hands, so I don’t need to take action—especially inconvenient or risky action—to protect my health.” Elijah was directed to travel, mostly likely on foot, more than 80 miles into unfriendly territory to the Phoenician (and Baal-worshipping) city of Zarephath to receive aid from:
- a mere human being
- a widow
- a gentile.
The prophet had every reason to view Zarephath as the religious and political enemy. Ahab’s Israel was full of the same sort of Baalism and syncretism that dominated Phoenicia. The parallel with today’s secularism and religious fusionism is almost exact.
But Elijah didn’t reject the resources of Zarephath as an unchristian alternative to trusting in God. The record of 1 Kings reveals that Zarephath and the widow were the means God provided for Elijah’s benefit—as well as their own.
So far, the principles we need grasp from Elijah’s experience of God’s providence are these:
- The means God provides are never at odds with trusting God.
- The means God provides for our benefit may well be flawed.
- The means God provides for our benefit may be found among those who don’t share our faith, values, and politics.
- God’s sovereignty doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to use the means He has provided.
But we’re not done learning from Elijah.
In our times, we need to wrestle with a related question on the tension between ordinary means and supernatural means. Should we normally expect that trusting God for health and life means shunning natural means in favor supernatural ones? Should we see medicine and explainable remedies as trusting in man and view only miracles and extraordinary events as trusting in God? Should we, as many seem inclined to do, see medical science as trusting in man and home remedies/alternative medicine as trusting in God?
If so, why?
We need to apply biblical principles to these questions, and applying biblical principles always requires two things:
- that we correctly understand the Scriptures we’re trying to apply;
- that we correctly understand the thing we’re applying the Scriptures to.
Elijah’s experience includes both natural and supernatural events, both ordinary providence and extraordinary providence. While the ravens’ behavior doesn’t seem natural, the water flowing in Cherith was. Though the Zarephath widow’s continued supply of food wasn’t natural, the bit of bread she thought was going to be her last meal was (1 Kings 17:11-13).
Applying this to our health choices faces some barriers. Many see medical science as unnatural, and alternative medicine as natural. But this is too simple. The biology, chemistry, and physiology medical scientists draw on in their work relies completely on natural processes they can observe and measure. They’re dependent on the orderliness and predictability of the natural world God created. Bodie Hodge, of Answers in Genesis, put it this way:
… science comes out of a Christian worldview. Only the God described in the Bible can account for a logical and orderly universe. God upholds the universe in a particular way, such that we can study it by observational and repeatable experimentation (see Genesis 8:22). (“Is Science Secular?”)
Home remedies, anecdotal cures, and folk medicine are not more “natural” than the therapies developed through observation, tests, data, and laboratories. They’re just natural in a different way.
It’s true that Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism are man-made philosophies—so we don’t idolize science. But the philosophical traditions of romanticism, sentimentalism, and anti-intellectualism aren’t from the Bible either.
In any understanding of “natural,” a truth remains: there is no biblical reason to believe God’s providence is exclusive to miracles or unexplainable, extraordinary events. In Scripture, we find food-delivery-ravens, self-filling flour jars and self-refreshing oil jugs (1 Kings 17:14-16), but we also find the ordinary, flowing brooks. God uses both, and making use of both is not at odds with trusting Him.
Trusting God by making use of His means is also not unique to Elijah’s experience. Noah leaned on the disciplines of carpentry and animal husbandry in the days of the flood. Israel relied on the government (the government!) in the days of famine under Joseph. Esther used the laws of a pagan land (and her own wits!) against Haman. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus relied on Egypt for safety when Herod threatened.
God uses means, often perfectly ordinary, rational and explainable ones. Trusting Him never means rejecting those means. It means seeing Him in those means. If we only see God in the unexplainable and extraordinary and never in the ordinary, we’re going to see a lot less of him in our daily lives.
But “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.