God’s plan for Elijah was on schedule. When Elijah feared for his life, God told him where to hide. When there was no food, God used the ravens to feed him. When the brook dried up, God sent him to a widow in Sidon. And when Elijah discovered she had no food left to share, God provided enough oil and meal each day so the widow, her son, and Elijah could survive. As this man of God faced what appeared to be one insurmountable problem after another. God faithfully cared for His servant.

We read that “some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill” (1 Ki. 17:17). Again we do not know what specific time period is involved. However, from the overall time references in Elijah’s story we can conclude it must have been several months. Although the widow’s oil jug and her meal jar never ran empty, enabling them to make bread each day, it did not keep sickness away from her home. Her son “became ill.”

It was not a sudden attack that left him near death. Rather, the boy’s health deteriorated over a period of time. He grew “worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing” (1 Ki. 17:17).

Though the biblical text reports this tragic event very succinctly, it allows room for a lot of realistic speculation as to what happened. When the boy finally “stopped breathing,” the widow openly expressed her deep feelings of anxiety and distress to Elijah. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (1 Ki. 17:18).

Imagine what must have happened. For days, or perhaps weeks, the boy’s illness worsened. The first day or two the widow no doubt showed little concern – nor did Elijah. After all, the oil and meal were always there! And all of us have faced periods of illness that come and go.

But as the days passed, it became evident this was no ordinary illness. The boy was not recovering. His mothers casual concern turned to intense fear – and penetrating introspection. In times like these, it is natural to begin to ask the question “Why?” Human tragedy is always sobering – especially when it involves death.

The widow’s reactions were predictable. As her son lay dying, this woman’s introspection focused on her former lifestyle. Was it her sin that was causing her son’s illness? Is it God’s judgment? Had Elijah come to reveal her sinful ways and then to bring God’s judgment upon her? Was this why her son lay dying?

On the one hand, the widow was tempted to do what many people do when tragedy strikes. Their view of God often leads them to wonder if God is punishing them for some sin either in their past life or in the present. Lingering guilt has ways of causing this paranoia. She had not yet learned that God does not hold grudges. Though on rare occasions God had punished sin in this way – as He did with David for his terrible sin of adultery and murder – it is not the normal way God works. That is especially true when it comes to our past sins. And even when we are committing sins in the present, He is very long-suffering. Even in David’s case, when God’s law specifically declared that he should die for taking life, God let him live.

On the other hand, this widow knew that it did not seem logical for Elijah to save both her and her son from starvation, only to turn around and take his life once she became aware of her sins. From this vantage point we can certainly understand her questions, her fears, and her confusion.

Death of a loved one brings sadness and heartache. It’s very real! There standing before Elijah was a woman with a broken heart. In her arms was a little boy who was no longer breathing. And even more painful to Elijah were the questions she was asking. In her emotional pain she was actually rejecting the man who had saved her life – accusing him of making her aware of her own sin and then taking the life of her son to punish her.

But there was another factor involved in Elijah’s emotional response. He had come to this family in the name of God. He had shared his mission and how God had cared for him in the ravine of Kerith. The woman and her son had responded to his message and to his God. They had put their trust in Elijah and in the Lord. And now, her son had died and Elijah was feeling deeply her distrust of both him and the God he represented. There was no human explanation. God’s very name and reputation were at stake. What would people say once they found out what happened? Elijah, too, was confused, distraught, and fearful!

“Give me your son,” Elijah replied, no doubt with intense emotion. He then took the boy in his arms, climbed to the upper room where he had been staying, laid him on his own bed, and began to pray earnestly for the boy. In fact, we read that “he cried out to the Lord.” Elijah’s own emotional distress and frustration are obvious. “O Lord my God,” he cried, “have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” (1 Ki. 17:19-20).

Elijah then “stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the LORD, ‘O LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’” (1 Ki. 17:21). Like Elisha, the man who was eventually to succeed him as a prophet of God in Israel, Elijah probably “lay upon the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands” (2 Ki. 4:34) as he cried to God for mercy.

As so often happens when God’s people pray in earnest, the Lord heard and answered Elijah’s prayer. Life returned to the boy and “he lived.” You can imagine the joy that gripped Elijah’s soul as he descended the stairs with the boy in his arms and presented him to his mother. “Look,” he said, “your son is alive!” (1 Ki. 17:23).

The woman’s response must have been just as rewarding to Elijah. “Now I know,” she said, “that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth” (1 Ki. 17:24). In these words we discover even more of what had happened as the boy lay dying. As his condition worsened, the widow began to point an accusing finger at Elijah. In reality she had begun to doubt if Elijah was indeed God’s representative. As long as things were going well because of his presence with her, she responded to his message of truth. But when things began to sour, she began to doubt and to point a finger of accusation.

Elijah, at this moment, also experienced that kind of pain. And we see that pain expressed in his prayer for the boy. He, too, did not understand what was happening. Was he the cause of the boy’s death? Had the Lord brought tragedy into this family because of his presence in the home?

At this point in Elijah’s life, he, too, began to question God’s ways. It was confusing enough not to understand what was happening, but to be rejected in the process by the one he had saved from starvation was indeed frustrating.

But God honored Elijah’s persistence and prayer. In the process, God also honored his honesty and forthrightness regarding his doubts, his fears, his disillusionment, and his disappointment. He gave the boy new life. And in doing so, the widow’s faith was restored and Elijah experienced the joy of seeing his new friends reunited and responding positively to the will of God.

But more important to Elijah and his relationships with this little family was the fact that she no longer rejected the God he served. The Lord’s reputation was once again preserved. To Elijah, this was particularly important since his own people had turned to false gods. In essence, this concern was why Elijah was there in the first place – because he had taken this stand for the one true God. It is not surprising that he wanted God’s name vindicated and honored.

What can we learn from this Old Testament experience? The most important lesson revolves around Elijah and what God was doing to continue to prepare him for even greater struggles against the forces of evil. All along God had been getting Elijah ready for an encounter, first with King Ahab and then the prophets of Baal. What Elijah asked God to do for the widow’s son would seem minor compared with what he was eventually going to ask God to do on Mount Carmel. The Lord was continuing to prepare Elijah for the task ahead!

The point for us to understand and remember is that God is preparing us for the big challenges in life when we face the smaller challenges victoriously.

But the most important lesson we can learn in the process is, God wants us to understand our motives and why we are asking Him for help.

Let’s look at some of the more specific points the Lord wants to call to our attention.

First, it is in the midst of situations that are beyond our control that we really learn to pray. How true in Elijah’s experience! How true in our own!

In some respects it is unfortunate that we have to be in a position where our backs are against the wall before we take the privilege of prayer seriously. But this has always been true in the history of God’s people. And God understands our human tendencies. In these situations He does not turn a deaf ear. Though the outcome is not always what we might choose, He responds with what is best.

So we should not hesitate to pray when we are facing serious problems, even though we’ve been neglecting this important spiritual exercise. It is only natural that we pray more during this kind of trial and that we pray more intently.

Second, God understands our anxieties, our fears, our disappointments, and our disillusionments. We should not be fearful of expressing these thoughts and feelings to Him in prayer.

Some people see God as an angry father figure who is ready to punish when they share how they really feel. Not so! If that were true, God would act before we speak for He clearly knows what we think and feel. Consequently, we might as well tell Him.

But we must also remember that He is God. He cannot be manipulated. But there are times that He responds in unusual ways, especially when His reputation and name are at stake.

Third, God is particularly responsive to our prayers when we are able to get beyond our own interests and concerns and focus on other people’s needs, and especially on His reputation. Though he felt personal rejection, Elijah’s prayers were based on his concern for the widow and, most of all, his concern about God’s reputation. After all, he was identified as a “man of God” – a man who represented the one true God. For tragedy to strike in this instance would cause unbelievers to question even more the message Elijah was proclaiming. How obvious this was from the widow’s response.

And remember, too, that God can bring honor to Himself in all situations, no matter what the outcome. In this instance, God answered Elijah’s prayer and restored the boy because it would bring the most honor to His name. But there are times when He can bring more honor to His name in the midst of human tragedy.

One final question. How do we respond if God does not answer our specific prayers for physical healing?

First, we must realize that God has never promised to heal all physical infirmities, even though we pray in faith. He has promised, however, to provide grace and strength for every situation, but not always to provide deliverance from death.

The Apostle Paul illustrates this in his own life. Though Paul often healed people with God’s power, there came a time in his life when God did not answer his own prayers for personal healing. Writing to the Corinthians, he informed them he had asked the Lord three times to heal him. In fact, he said, “I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”

However, the Lord’s response to Paul was that His grace was sufficient for him (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

It is important to understand this point, for an inaccurate view of God’s sovereignty in healing can lead people to false guilt, feeling they are to blame for illness that is not cured through prayer. Remember that God’s will is more important than ours in these matters, and when it comes to physical healing He has chosen not to reveal His particular will.

On the other hand, God does choose to respond to our prayers for healing when it is His will. Furthermore, if we do not pray, He may not respond. Prayer, then, does make a difference, whether He responds with healing or with grace to enable us to bear the burden.

Gene Getz, Kindred Spirit