Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 31:2 under the title: “More than a Proof Text: God’s Unexpected Provision When Enemies Close In: 2 Kings 6:8-23”
“God is with you. He is in control. You can trust him.” This is the direction Christians tend to go when they try to help others with anxiety. But many people, maybe even most, find these truths—stated this way—more discouraging than hopeful. Consider my friend, Tessa. She is a faithful Christian who struggles daily with anxious thoughts that permeate the details of her life. And while she knows that God is in control and seeks to trust him, she feels numb and is exhausted by the constant struggle to find her bearings. Rather than instilling hope, these truths stoke a fear that she is failing as a Christian. The promises that she knows should bring comfort sound stale and overused. She wonders if something is wrong with her.
In the midst of her anxiety, Tessa needs to experience and grow to trust the Father’s provision for her in Christ. Discouragement and shame have become barriers that separate her from the experience of Christ with and for her. I have found 2 Kings 6:8–23 helpful for Tessa and others like her. This story of Elisha and his anxious servant breaks through these barriers. The story shifts her preconceptions, connects to her story, and points her to Christ. It makes general truths pointed and specific.
Three characteristics make this passage particularly good for helping anxious people who are stuck. First, the story is unfamiliar to many people. It was new to Tessa, which allowed us to slow it down and discover it together. Second, the details of the story are striking and unique. God provides for his people—but not how you would expect him to. Because Tessa expected me to point her to the same old thing, startling twists in the story helped shake some of her assumptions. Third, while the particulars are surprising, God’s overarching action is predictable and normal. This is part of where Tessa was stuck. The very thing Tessa needed to anchor her—God’s steady and unchanging provision in her own unsteady and changing world—had begun to feel like a dismissal of her story. Rather than seeing his intimate provision in the personal details of her struggle, it felt like those details were getting absorbed into a blanket statement. She was ashamed for feeling that Jesus was a “one-size-fits-all” answer that didn’t touch her questions. It’s true that he is God’s Yes and Amen to all of his promises in every situation (2 Cor 1:20). And that is a lovely statement of faith. But it is only half of the answer. The Father gave Jesus as the answer to all the brokenness in the world and Jesus meets her personally, in her unique place and time, in the particulars of her struggle.
Rather than telling Tessa these things, I wanted to let her experience the story come to life and her idea of God’s provision to bloom as we entered the details together. To do this I chose to lead into the story by emphasizing the predictable summary. In this case it was as simple as saying, “Let’s read a story about God’s provision for his people.”
The story starts off with a frustrated Syrian king. He has been chasing the Israelite army but “more than once or twice” they are able to escape (v.10). The Syrian soldiers attribute their escape to Elisha. They tell their king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words you speak in your bedroom” (v.12). When the Syrian king learns of Elisha’s whereabouts, he moves his army there.
Once the stage is set, we read the passage together, one chunk at a time. To help Tessa see the personal nature of God’s provision I slowed the story down to consider the personal details of the characters involved. I began with Elisha’s servant.
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (v.15)
We put ourselves in the servant’s shoes and imagined the scenario. We considered together why the author told us that it is early in the morning. Waking up groggy, walking outside in the cold, seeing your breath in the early morning air, wrapping your cloak tighter around you—and then looking up to see an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. What would it feel like to wake up and find that an army is hunting you down first thing in the morning? Something about the time of day makes it that much worse. You were just asleep, unsuspecting, warm in your bed. And now—in an instant— impending doom.
I wanted Tessa to enter the experience of the servant and relate to how he must have felt. To help her bring it into her own life, I asked her what her version of the servant’s words might be. She knows well the experience of waking up to an onslaught of anxious thoughts about the day. What does she say when she begins to panic?
As we think about the servant together, we make specific connections to her experience. Are there times when she has felt trapped by her anxiety and by the circumstances that are causing it? Does she know that feeling of impending doom? What is it like to experience that feeling? Can she resonate with a time when it seemed like there was nothing that could be done?
After spending time on the servant’s experience, we moved on to Elisha and his response.
Elisha said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (v.16–17)
God peels back the curtain to give the servant a tangible and powerful experience of his presence with them and his purposes for them. In the midst of the servant’s fear, God allows him to see a glimpse of what he is up to.
For Tessa, I was laying the groundwork for the end of our conversation when we’ll talk about the ways the Lord makes himself known to her now. To do this, we spent some time talking about how kind it was for the Lord to open the servant’s eyes. We considered the significance of this detail, that the servant is a minor player in the narrative, and what effect that must have had on his fear. I gave her space to voice some of her frustration that God does not open her eyes to the angel armies around her, knowing that we will get to it later.
God reveals his presence and power to the servant before his enemy. The text tells us the Syrians bring horses and chariots. In response, God brings horses and chariots of fire. Whatever Israel’s enemy can bring, God is greater. Not only is this a picture of God besting this enemy, but it points to his future victories. Christ is the warrior King who comes in power and might to save his people. As the rest of the story plays out, we will see the nature of his victory and how it foreshadows Christ’s work for us. For Tessa, at this point in the conversation, I wanted her to focus on God’s power over his enemies and how he shows that.
We moved forward in the conversation. When God surrounds your enemy with chariots of fire what do you think is going to happen next? Most of us would guess that the enemy is about to be destroyed. But that is not where the story goes—and I want Tessa to be surprised by this. In my life, not only would I guess that is where the story will go, but I also genuinely want the story to go there. I want God to show up and wipe out the things that make me anxious. This is true for Tessa as well. She has well-formed ideas about what God’s provision should be and what it would look like if he genuinely were present. But God’s provision is not required to take the shape we want it to. Even when he doesn’t conform to our expectations, his provision is true and spectacular (as the rest of the story will show).
The Syrian army begins their attack. They are on the hunt for Elisha. Elisha asks the Lord to blind them. As they stand there confused and blind, Elisha offers to guide them—and they don’t know it’s him! He leads them not just into the hands of the Israelite army, but straight into Samaria, Israel’s capital (v.18–19). When they arrive, Elisha prays for their eyes to be opened and “behold, they were in the midst of Samaria,” surely surprised, bewildered, and in the crux of Israel’s power (v.20). God had chosen not to conquer them with his heavenly army. Instead, now it looks like he will use the army of Israel to defeat the Syrian army. But that’s not what happens either.
The story has a surprise ending. Before we read it together, I stop and ask Tessa what she thinks will happen next. Like most people, she thinks that a battle will occur. The king of Israel has the same idea. He wants to kill the Syrians. He wants this so much that he asks Elisha twice, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” (v.21). But Elisha has other plans. Instead of directing them to be killed, he instructs the Israelites to throw them a feast. Yes, a feast!
So the king prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (v.23)
Tessa and I imagined together what it would be like to be one of the Israelite army commanders and get the instruction to feast with your enemies instead of conquering them. It sounds awkward. Yesterday you were trying to kill one another and today you are sharing a meal. It sounds disappointing. The commander had an opportunity to have another win under his belt, but he does not get that. It is confusing. Why would God command a feast in place of punishment?
As Tessa and I wondered about these things together, the gospel story started to naturally emerge—the mighty God enters our world with the power to save. This God gives grace to people who deserve punishment. This God prepares a feast for us in the presence of our enemies. This God overturns the enemy’s mission and brings grace and redemption through it.
These are some of the avenues leading toward Christ, but this last one is where I went with Tessa. God brings grace and redemption through the very things we struggle with. We had spent the majority of our time together talking about the particulars of the story in connection with the particulars of her story. But as we ended the conversation I wanted to zoom out and talk about anxiety as the stage for God overturning his enemy. In Christ, God takes our sin and our suffering, and the enemy’s plan, and uses it as the stage for our redemption. In his resurrection he claims his victory. And with his Spirit he enables us to participate in that victory.
Tessa’s anxiety can become the stage for her to see the Lord’s power. She has been praying for the Lord to take away her fears; it is the equivalent of praying for the angel armies to defeat the enemy. But rather than taking it away he has a plot twist in store for her that displays his power over it. When Tessa struggles with anxious thoughts and cries to the Lord for help, she’s experiencing God’s victory over the enemy’s plan. When she chooses not to nurture her anxious thoughts in solitude but to turn to a friend who can speak truth to her, she’s living out the plot twist. She is living out God’s victorious reign as he uses anxiety to draw her closer to him and to draw her deeper into community.
As Tessa and I continued to work together we practiced looking for ways the Lord was demonstrating his power in the midst of her anxiety. We started by looking back. Tessa had journals from years ago. When she went back and read them she could see God’s presence with her and evidence of his work in her. She remembered a vibrant prayer life. As we talked about the journals we remembered Elisha’s story and recounted how God had been working even when she couldn’t see it. As she practiced turning outward for help he began to heal the shame that comes from struggling in silence. We watched as he gave her courage to enter situations that made her nervous. And reveled together as she became a blessing to others who also battle with anxiety.
Tessa continues to struggle with anxiety—but the struggle has changed. It is her daily calling to turn to her warrior King to combat anxious thoughts. And in the midst of that battle she gets to experience the plot twist of the gospel on a daily basis. Her King has won and even when the path is perplexing she is growing in faith to trust his provision for her.