the shape of leadership

When the Comeback Seems Impossible

Four lessons from the widow of Zarephath

Herbert Cooper on July 21, 2021

We all love a good comeback story.

Think of Rocky, where Rocky Balboa starts from behind, trains hard, looks headed for defeat, but at the last moment comes out on top and wins

As a pastor, I especially love spiritual comeback stories, where a person moves from sinner to saved, from hurt to healed, from defeated to victorious. The gospel is the ultimate comeback story — life, death, resurrection! Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ will one day have a comeback like His!

But in this life, the comeback doesn’t always happen. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that family and friends die. Jobs are lost. Relationships fracture but don’t mend.

Even in church, comebacks don’t always happen. Recently, Lifeway Research reported that more U.S. Protestant churches closed than opened in 2019. The data for 2020 wasn’t complete, but Lifeway predicted that the pandemic would only accelerate the trend of church closures.

Maybe you’ve suffered a personal loss during this COVID year. Or maybe, as a pastor, you’ve experienced a ministry loss. Your church-plant launch failed. Your congregation closed its doors. Support dried up, and you had to return home from the mission field.

Through many years of ministry, I’ve seen people respond to setbacks the wrong way. They get bitter and lose faith. They walk out on church, and then they walk out on God.

So, how should we respond to setbacks? What should we do when the comeback seems impossible? We start by turning to Scripture.

The Widow of Zarephath

First Kings 17:7–15 tells the story of the widow of Zarephath, who had experienced three major setbacks in life.

First, her husband died. He had been her friend, her lover, and the father of her child. He had been the breadwinner, the provider, the one who took care of the family. But now he was gone!

Then famine struck. According to 1 Kings 17:1, God sent drought against the region because of King Ahab’s sins (16:29–33). When the rain doesn’t show, the crops don’t grow, and when crops don’t grow, people get hungry. Over time, the famine became “severe” (18:2).

Finally, the woman’s cupboard was bare. When we meet the widow, she is gathering sticks at the city gate. Elijah asks her for a cup of water and a slice of bread. Her reply reveals her desperate straits: “I don’t have any bread — only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it — and die” (17:12).

Death, famine, and poverty stalked the widow of Zarephath. She appeared to have no help and no hope. She wasn’t even looking for any.

But God was looking out for her.

God Knows and Cares

When we experience a setback, we feel alone. Proverbs 14:20 says, “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” Isn’t that awful? At the very moment we most need other people, they abandon us. We internalize our loss and start to feel like losers.

I imagine that’s how the widow felt. After all, where were her family, friends and neighbors? Were none of them able to help her?

Even worse than the feeling of isolation from others is the feeling of isolation from God. We begin to believe He doesn’t know how horrible our situation is — or, worse, He doesn’t care. So, we start praying desperate prayers: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help” (Psalm 22:11).

Trouble is near. God seems far. No one can help.

Such thoughts arise naturally when we experience loss, but there’s a supernatural dimension in play, too. Ever since the serpent slithered through the Garden of Eden, our enemy has been deceiving us about God, questioning His commandments and motives (Genesis 3:1,4).

So when we experience a setback, the devil whispers lies in our ears. He plants seeds of doubt in our minds: “God doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t love you. That’s why you’re going through this setback. You’re so insignificant. You don’t matter. God doesn’t even know where you are.”

Lies, lies, all lies!

The truth is God knows exactly where we are, and help is already on the way. “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there,” He told Elijah. “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food” (1 Kings 17:9).

Geography and culture separated Elijah from the widow. The story opens in Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, where Elijah is hiding (verse 5). Zarephath is northwest of there, along the Mediterranean coast. Today, traveling from Kerith Ravine to Zarephath involves a long journey through desert, valley, hills and mountains across three international borders — Jordan’s, Israel’s and Lebanon’s.

The cultural distance was much longer. A powerful male compared to a poor female. A prophet compared to a widow. A Jew compared to a Gentile. Could God care about the circumstances of such a socially insignificant pagan? Even Jesus marveled at God sending Elijah to this widow in that place (Luke 4:25–26).

God knew about the widow’s dire straits before she did. Help was on the way before she met Elijah outside Zarephath’s city gates. If God knew and cared about her, He knows and cares about you!

When we experience setbacks and feel isolated from God, we need to remember first and foremost that God always knows exactly where we are and exactly what we need.

Our Last Meal

Interestingly, when Elijah finally meets the widow, his first words to her concern his needs, not hers. “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” After a long journey through a drought-ridden region, Elijah’s thirsty request is not surprising. But in a famine, his next request seems especially audacious: “And bring me, please, a piece of bread” (1 Kings 17:10–11).

I imagine the widow fixed the prophet with the look of a woman who’s been rudely importuned by a man. Let me paraphrase her response: “Are you crazy? I’m already starving, and you want to snatch the bread right out of my mouth and my son’s? I’m dying, and you want our last meal?”

Yes, that’s exactly what Elijah wanted. “Don’t be afraid,” he replied to her. “Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me” (verse 13).

When we experience setbacks, not only do we feel isolated, but we also feel emptied. We have no one to help and nothing to give. God wants us to give Him our “nothing.” He wants our losses, our broken relationships, and our disappointments.

But God also wants our “something.” Even after the widow complained, Elijah still asked her for a piece of bread. When the comeback seems impossible, God wants our last meal.

The widow’s last meal wasn’t just a jar of flour and a jug of olive oil. It was her faith in the God who promised to supply her needs: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land” (verse 14).

When we experience setbacks and feel isolated from God, we need to remember first and foremost that God always knows exactly where we are and exactly what we need.

When we’re at our lowest point in life, we need to keep trusting God. That means being generous with our last meal. It’s foolish to hold onto the jug of flour and jar of oil. They need to be used to meet others’ needs.

When we’re generous that way, we’re not just helping others; we’re helping Jesus. According to His sheep-and-goats teaching, when we feed the hungry, show hospitality to the homeless, care for the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the incarcerated, we’re doing those things to Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

We need to give Jesus our last meal.

In our natural hands, the flour and oil produce only what we provide. In Christ’s supernatural hands, they produce whatever He can provide, and His supply is limitless. In Jesus’ hands, our last meal becomes a lasting meal, for ourselves and others. “So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family” (1 Kings 17:15).

God’s Word

Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point: This is a comeback story after all! Despite the odds, the widow perseveres and beats the famine! In fact, throw in the second part of the story, when her son dies and Elijah resurrects him (verses 17–24), and Rocky Balboa’s triumph pales by comparison!

I can see why you think that, but the widow’s story isn’t a winner’s story. She’s a survivor, not a thriver. Her story is not about winning any more; it’s about not losing anymore. The widow doesn’t leap ahead in life; she just stops stumbling further behind.

At the start of the story, Elijah tells the widow to make bread from what’s in her jar of flour and jug of oil, and that’s how the story ends, too: “For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry” (verse 16). She uses the same two vessels throughout the famine, which lasted three years (1 Kings 18:1).

But while the widow’s story is not a comeback story, it is a come back story. Every morning, she woke up, went out and gathered sticks for a fire, returned to the kitchen, and came back to the jar and jug to make enough bread for three.

She did this out of obedience to God’s word through Elijah. He told her, “Go home and do … (1 Kings 17:13). So, “she went away and did as Elijah had told her” (verse 15). According to Aristotle, every story has a beginning, middle and end. The Word of God itself is the beginning (verses 2,8), middle (verses 14,16), and end (verse 24) of the widow’s story.

When we experience setbacks, we often let our experience shape our theology rather than God’s Word. In pain, we stop believing God cares for us. Because of loss, we start hoarding spiritual, emotional and material resources. Our theology becomes self-centered and ungenerous.

This is understandable. Pain turns us inward. In 2010, I lost my mother; my brother followed her in 2017. There was no comeback at their funerals. It was a difficult time.

And self-care is undoubtedly important. Going through loss isn’t about caring for others versus caring for ourselves; we must do both. The widow certainly did, feeding Elijah, her son and herself.

Here’s the moral of the story, though: The widow obeyed the word of the Lord, and the Lord kept His word. She survived “in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah” (verse 16).

When a comeback seems impossible, we need to come back to God’s Word. That’s the moral for our lives’ stories, too. We must practice that “long obedience in the same direction” Eugene Peterson talked about. God’s Word, not our experience, charts the direction for our lives.

When we want to turn in, we need to turn out and turn up. Keep going to church, keep loving people, keep serving others! Keep praying, keep obeying God’s commandments, keep trusting His promises! Daily obedience to the Word of God will help us get through when there is no coming back.

Grace for Every Season

Still, daily obedience is hard. Thank God there was food every day, of course, but couldn’t God have provided more than “a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug” (verse 12)? I understand there weren’t refrigerators back then and the widow didn’t have a large pantry, but isn’t God bigger than a “handful” and a “little?

If I were the widow of Zarephath, I’d want more than one jar-and-jug’s worth of food. I’d want a whole Costco nearby with supersized containers full of tasty treats, not to mention some meat and potatoes. And throw in some sweet tea, while you’re at it!

All God provided the widow was enough flour and enough oil to make enough Signs-and-Wonder Bread every day. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Daily bread was all that was on the menu — all day, every day — and it was enough.

Enoughness is the issue, isn’t it? We feel less than when we experience a setback. We want a comeback so we can have more than. What God actually gives us is sufficient. He gives us himself when the comeback seems impossible, and at the end of the day, He is all we need.

Jump with me from Zarephath to Ephesus, and from the eighth century B.C. to the first century. Paul is writing the Corinthians (again) to correct their errors (again), and in doing so, he tells them about “surpassingly great revelations” he experienced (2 Corinthians 12:7). Enthusiastic charismatics though they were, none of the Corinthians had been “caught up to paradise” or “heard inexpressible things” as Paul had (verse 4).

These revelations showed that Paul was a more-than-enough Christian, a more-than-enough apostle — certainly more than those troublemaking Corinthians ever would be!

God knew that more-than-ness could easily go to Paul’s head. So, as Paul put it, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (verse 7). Talk about a setback!

Worse, there was no comeback. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (verses 8–9). We don’t know how long Paul suffered. For all we know, he carried this setback to his grave.

The question Paul’s example poses is, “What is enough?”

When we experience setbacks, the answer to that question seems to be … more. We want Jesus + _____. You can fill in the blank with whatever you want. Health, wealth, love, power, influence. Sadly, it seems, we are not satisfied until or unless we have more than even Jesus himself.

Perhaps that is a reason we find life so hard when the comeback seems impossible. We want more than Jesus. We think Jesus is less than we need.

Friends, Jesus is all we need. Let me repeat that: All we need is Jesus. If we have His grace, we have enough. If we have His power, we have enough.

If, like the widow of Zarephath, we come back to the jar and jug daily, we will find our daily bread. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declared. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

For now, for some, a comeback seems impossible. Someday, of course, The Comeback will happen because Jesus Christ himself will come back (Acts 1:11)! Then, there will be no more setbacks, “‘no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Until then, whatever our circumstances, God knows where we are. So let’s give Jesus our last meal. Keep obeying the Word of God, for Jesus is enough, and He gives grace and power in every season of life.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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