An Uncontrollable Calling

Woman holding umbrella over young person
Photo by J W on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

In recent years, various responses to employment related stress and expectations have trended online. These include “quiet quitting,” when an employee just does the necessary work but does not seek to exceed expectations. Then came “loud quitting,” which refers to stressed employees expressing their frustration in ways that can disrupt the workplace and may be accompanied by actual resignation. Now there is the so-called #lazygirljob phenomenon touted on TikTok—jobs that allow employees to earn a good salary (relatively comfortably) but do not dominate their lives.

Such trends have elicited mixed reactions. Of course, there is a lot to be said for setting boundaries and avoiding unhealthy levels of stress. But what do you do when your calling doesn’t always allow for a carefully planned, strictly maintained work-life balance?

You, Working Preacher, have such a vocation. You may thoughtfully plan your week, allowing sufficient time for meetings and sermon preparation, only to have your schedule suddenly shifted by a crisis. You may try to protect your weekly day of rest but find you’re the only one available that day to support a grieving family that unexpectedly lost a loved one. The very nature of your calling means you’re always on call. And serving God doesn’t make you immune from challenges and criticism. It may, at times, feel like it’s just too much.

This is the situation of the prophet Elijah in this week’s 1 Kings 19 text. He has spent the night in a cave at Horeb, “the mount of God,” when the LORD asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:8-9).

Why is Elijah apparently on the run? After all, his prophetic ministry has seen some startling successes. Elijah himself has been the recipient of God’s miraculous provision of water and food during a drought by means of ravens and a widow. God has worked through him to raise the dead and confront a corrupt king with God’s truth (1 Kings 17–18). And most recently, God showed up powerfully to consume with fire the water-soaked offering Elijah prepared to prove that the LORD, not Baal, is the only God, leading many to acknowledge this truth (1 Kings 18:17-46). Miracles and mass confessions of faith—what more could any minister or preacher want?

But there is more to the story. Following God’s call didn’t just take Elijah from one victory to the next or make his daily life carefree. Instead, it made it complicated and even dangerous. Elijah was always on the move, dependent on God’s daily provision. And forget a stable schedule with regular times for naps, yoga classes, or a leisurely lunch with friends. To the contrary, making enemies was the consequence of Elijah challenging oppressive leadership and widespread idolatry. His defeat of the prophets of Baal was a threat to Queen Jezebel, a Baal worshipper, who subsequently sought to kill Elijah.

So, instead of finding Elijah on a well-deserved vacation after his victory at Mount Carmel, we encounter the great prophet in a cave because he’s running for his life (1 Kings 19:1-3). Quiet quitting is not an option for the servant of God.

Elijah’s repeated response to God’s question, “What are you doing here?” voices the difficulty of his prophetic calling: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). Although some of Elijah’s claims may be exaggerated—for instance, he’s apparently not the only prophet of the LORD left (e.g., 1 Kings 18:3-4)—his crisis is real. He feels alone and that he’s at the end of his own resources. And his life is actually in danger.

Perhaps Elijah was also asking himself questions that I’ve heard other servants of God ask in moments of crisis or suffering: Has following God’s call been worth it? Can I really continue amidst these challenges?

God’s response is neither to rebuke Elijah nor to let him quit. Rather, it is to meet Elijah in his desperation, right where he is (1 Kings 19:11-18). The God who first called Elijah now speaks to him again, giving him guidance that empowers him to move forward rather than stagnate in despair. Instead of allowing Elijah to retire on the spot, God shows him that his work has not been in vain by telling him to anoint his successor, Elisha, to learn from him and carry on the divine calling.

This turning point in Elijah’s ministry shows us that we do not ultimately control the calling that comes from God, but we can count on God to sustain us in it.

Furthermore, the text affirms that burnout is real, no matter what vocation one has. Preachers and parishioners alike need to be reminded that it is okay to admit when one is struggling and to ask for help—both from God and others. Part of God’s provision for Elijah was other people, including his disciple, Elisha. Who does, or can, support your preaching vocation? Who might you mentor to share in this awesome calling?

At the same time, it is crucial to recognize that the whole of Elijah’s story may indicate that he actually experienced depression at some points, such as when he said he wanted to die (1 Kings 19:4). This is different than vocational burnout and should be taken seriously by preachers, pastors, and entire congregations, who can name this illness and provide nonjudgmental support and appropriate referrals for additional help.

Elijah’s story also encourages us that God’s gracious provision may come just when we need it, in unexpected ways. This may be a timely call from a friend, positive feedback on a sermon, or an unexpected financial gift when a church needs it most. It may also come as a renewed or changed sense of direction when you feel stuck or lost.

Even when we don’t experience tangible signs of God’s presence and provision, the text reminds us that God is ultimately in control of the humanly uncontrollable calling we have received. Perhaps you might be refreshed by answering the question, “What are you doing here?” with reflection on how you first sensed your call and why you said “yes” to this risky, yet rewarding, vocation.

In Christ,

Jenny Pietz