‘Every wind of doctrine’: Comfort

“So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’

“But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18: 20-21)

“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (James 1:6-8)

The wind of comfort. The people of God had endured years of drought when Elijah met the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. As the prophet’s question implies, they had divided hearts. Ahab had built a temple for Baal, the god of lightning, wind and rain, and since these revived the land, fertility.

In our day, and especially since the end of World War II in America, the vagaries of weather extremes have been mitigated in ways unknown to Elijah or Ahab, so it’s appropriate to think in terms of comfort, since prosperity has generally been the rule, the ebbs and flows of the economy notwithstanding.

By any reasonable standard, I am prosperous compared to my ancestors a century ago, and filthy rich compared to ordinary persons living in medieval Europe. Compared to my contemporaries, however, my nest egg at age 63 is pitifully small next to many if not most persons my age.

Comfort, though, is subjective. I don’t subscribe to cable, and I don’t miss it. But for some persons it’s not just a plus but a necessity. Being without it, or any number of other aspects of 21st century life, would make them unhappy or even a bit disoriented as they found a way to adapt. (And cable is just one random example. There are other things that mean as much to me as cable does to others and I would be just as unhappy without them.)

Comfort can also be measured negatively. How uncomfortable would you have to be with the status quo to actively go out and try to change it? Or, be changed by it?

This, I believe, lay behind the apparent lack of conviction among the people of God when Elijah posed his question about which god they would follow. The drought was agonizing, so apparently Baal was holding back the rains, if they were inclined to think he was the source. But on the other hand, the Lord God appeared just as remote.

People who “waver between two opinions” don’t have strong convictions. And people without strong convictions don’t have much to say. “But the people said nothing.” Or, after Elijah describes the terms of the contest with the prophets of Baal, “Then all the people said, ‘What you say is good’”(1 Ki 18:24). Please—curb your enthusiasm.

If you spend less than five minutes on Twitter (assuming you haven’t been banned) or the Comments sections of most websites, you’ll find plenty of people who feel strongly about current events and personalities. They have plenty to say, some of which will go unpublished on this site.

But social media has become a substitute for constructive action. As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. Not that voicing your opinion is worthless, but in most cases it’s a low-risk alternative to pushing yourself away from the keyboard and really doing something. If some form of social action was a requirement for some college major, social media would be the “gut” course–that’s vintage late 1970s, when I was in college—that every jock and layabout took to get a diploma.

Even before social media took off, the local coffee shop (or mini-McDonald’s inside a Walmart) was the local House and Senate, Council on Foreign Relations and UN Security Council for discussing and solving the world’s problems. There was many a heated conversation that took place until the coffee was cool enough to sip.

And then everyone went home and took a mid-morning nap, raked leaves or mowed the lawn. Their convictions ended just when they started tallying up the cost. The unspoken conclusion from their calculations was, Well, maybe things aren’t so bad, all things considered.

Elijah, bold as he was, required that the people count the cost. After cutting up and arranging the sacrifices, he instructed them to fill four large jars with water and pour them over the altar (1 Ki 18:33-35).

This wasn’t a Houdini-like ploy to build suspense, to up the ante wrapped with chains and padlocks as it were. The nation had no rain for years. Water was like liquid gold. How thirsty were those people who poured out what they had been praying for? How desolate were the fields they couldn’t till?

The people weren’t so much enticed as prodded into belief. How many second thoughts did they have as the water spilled over the altar and filled the trench around it? Did they cut glances at each other, as if to say, Are you seeing what he made us do?

“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”

Also consumed was the double-minded reticence of the people: “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!’” (18:38-39)

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