Months ago, our friend Sahar called us, asking us to pray. Her husband was lying in a hospital bed in a closed country. He was too sick to even be med-flighted to a specialist. His sons weren't sure if they would see him again. Christians prayed for him in the name of Jesus, and he was healed.
Day after that, our friend Trina was hooked up to a cocktail of drugs. Her cancer was in its fourth stage. She was told she had months to live. Christians prayed for her in the name of Jesus, and she was healed.
Sahar responded with fear. Trina responded with joy. As we tried to understand such different responses, we were reminded of another woman who received a miracle — a widow, living in a place now known as Lebanon. The story of this woman helped us remember a basic truth about humanity that we hadn't understood before…truth that has since informed so much of our evangelism efforts.
The story begins in 1 Kings 17. Elijah is told to go to Zarephath - outside of the borders of Israel, to a woman of Sidon (at that time, worshipers of Baal). He's told that this woman - a widow - is going to provide him with food during famine. He goes, and finds a woman gathering sticks. He asks her for bread. She tells him that she has none: she's collecting these small branches in order to bake her last bit of flour as a meal for herself and her son. And then they're going to wait to die.
The prophet tells her not to be afraid. He says to go and bake the bread, but to give it to him. He tells her that her flour and oil won't run out until the famine is over.
The widow complies: she uses the little she has to feed the prophet. The flour and oil don't run out. The next chapter records that three years pass: the prophet lives under her roof as a guest, and the miracles continue.
We could almost miss the most surreal and confusing part of the story if we read too fast. But there it is - a few verses at the bottom of chapter 17.
Some time after being miraculously saved from starvation, the widow's son becomes ill. He dies. The widow responds by crying out to Elijah: "What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?"
In that moment, the widow's theology — her view of God — is suddenly revealed.
She believes that the compassion God has shown her through Elijah was never real. More than this, that God is a “killer.” That her son’s death shows his true intent towards her: he wants to remind her of her sin and cause her pain.
Like the many who came before her, and the many who came after, her response to God’s proximity in her life was to shudder, to wince, to stagger under its weight.
She force-fit the miracle of God into the worldview that she already had. She cowered and she accused.
After the widow spoke these words, Elijah prayed — and the woman received her son from the dead.
Scripture records that the woman said "Now I know..."
We see a second time that until that moment, she hadn't. The miracle of bread during famine hadn't been enough to persuade her that God was for her. Her sin, unnamed in this passage, took precedence. The woman's guilt and shame refused to be outweighed or silenced: they were only confirmed. It took death and resurrection.
In many senses, Trina had received her death and resurrection. In looking to Christ, her worldview was anchored in a truth that viscerally shows the love and power of God. She knew that Jesus had atoned for her sins, and because of that, any display of his holiness and power was seen as beautiful. She was able to respond in worship.
But for Sahar, the experience was anchored in a text that refutes the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
More than this, a text that refutes the love of God as a central quality of his being. Yes, Islam states that God is merciful and forgiving...but it also states that God is the source of evil, and the one who can lead you astray.
Islam’s doctrine begs the question: Who, then, is God?
Does he play with us? Does he really love us? What does he want with us? ("Man of God...did you come to remind me of my sin?")
I began by saying that this impacted our understanding of evangelism, and for some, this claim might feel misguided. If a miracle didn't move this family closer to Christ, what's left?
I want to end with this simple observation.
As long as a person is alive, there is hope.
As long as a person is alive, the church has a role. It's not more complex than this.
Islam has its own gravity — like the widow, what a person experiences can be pulled into orbit around what they already believe. This can be confusing to encounter.
But God is high and enthroned above all of this. In the same way that he's higher than the universe itself. It's because of this — because of who God is — that we can stand and say: Let's not get tired of doing what is good, for at the right time we will reap a harvest—if we do not give up.
Sahar, I believe your story hasn't ended. Do you?