What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do
God does extraordinary things in the lives of ordinary people who are willing to trust him with what they have.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you just didn't know what to do? Maybe you had a big decision to make. Maybe you were faced with a major crisis. Maybe you had a wayward child. Maybe you did something stupid. Not only did you not know how you got into this mess, but you didn't know how to get out of it either.
I remember when I was 18, and I had just graduated from high school in my home state of New Jersey: home to Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, by the way. My parents loaned me their white Ford Escort for a trip. It was their commuter car—fairly reliable, but not a luxury car by any standards. If I remember correctly, it had no air conditioning, and it was July. It was my first big trip; I wasn't in college yet, and I was headed to upstate New York. I was driving five hours to see an old friend, and the trip was wonderful.
It was the way back that was the problem. About one hour into the drive, on the New York State Thruway, my car died. I pulled over: I checked the water, checked the oil, all the things my dad taught me, but there were no clues. Does anyone remember life before cell phones? If you were stuck on a major highway, you had a few options: wait for a stranger to help you, wait for a police officer to see you, or find a way to get in touch with someone.
I saw a public school across the way. It was a Sunday, but I guessed that someone would be there. I crossed four lanes of traffic, hopped the median, crossed four more lanes, went down an embankment and over a chain link fence, crossed a field, and there was nobody there. But I found a public phone, and I talked to the local police station. Another problem, though: They asked me, "What milepost are you at?"
I said I knew which exits I was between. They told me they wouldn't come and get me unless I knew the milepost, and then they hung up the phone. So I crossed the field, went over the chain link fence and up the embankment, across four lanes and the median and four more lanes—then the milepost. Time to cross again: four lanes, median, four more lanes, embankment, chain link fence, open field, payphone, milepost. "Help is on the way. Wait in your car. A tow truck will be there in an hour," she said.
It was starting to get dark outside. I was 18 years old, and I had a panicky feeling in the pit of my stomach because I didn't know what to do.
Hopefully you can relate: of course, not so much to my idiocy, but to that helpless feeling of not knowing what to do. If you're a parent, you know what it's like—your son or daughter is acting out and making some bad life choices, and if there's one thing you do know, it's that you don't know what to do to help them. If you've ever been faced with a major life decision, made a major mistake, or suffered a major loss, then you know what it's like to feel this way.
I don't know about you, but when I get into these situations, I feel desperate. In fact, I wonder if I'm going to make it out at all.
If you've been there or are there, then I bet you can relate to one of the people we're going to study in 2 Kings 4.
What we discover in this text is a woman caught in the net of life's contradictions. She's in the midst of a crisis. She is coming face-to-face with the challenges and contradictions of circumstantial hardship and crisis. One thing is clear: She does not know what to do.
(Read 2 Kings 4:1-7)
You've probably figured out my main question: "What do you do when you don't know what to do?" It's been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. This woman, this widow, is in the midst of such a time. We read in verse one that her husband has died. Think about it: She is a widow in a patriarchal society, which means she lived in a society in which the rights of men were privileged and the rights of women were ignored. She's in a vulnerable position. We don't know exactly why she's in a financial crisis—she does say in verse one that it's his creditors who are coming. Maybe it was something her husband did. Maybe it was something she did. Or maybe, just maybe—just like in the modern world—creditors were taking advantage of people in vulnerable positions. To be a widow in the ancient world was to be in a vulnerable predicament. She's lost her husband, she's lost her money, and now she's in danger of losing her children. For those of you who are mothers, perhaps you can identify with the gravity of her situation. Nearly every mother will do anything she can to protect her children. Nearly every mother will do all she can to keep her family together.
This woman comes to Elisha with a request. She doesn't know what to do. What do you do when you don't know what to do? I think we see a few answers to this question.
The first thing you do is ask. When you don't know what to do, you ask. Look back at verse one: The verb "to cry out" here literally means "to appeal for help." It occurs eight times in 2 Kings, and almost every time, it means "to appeal for help." To cry out is to say, "God, I need you to come to my rescue. God, I need you to come to my aid." In coming to Elisha the prophet, she is, in effect, seeking out God himself through Elisha, and she's saying, "I need help." We know that her husband revered the Lord. Her husband was in ministry. She came from a good family. They had done everything right, but now all of that is gone. Her husband is gone. Now, she's asking—she's pleading. She's crying out to God.
Is this the first or last person in Scripture who cries out to God for aid, who makes an appeal for divine help? Of course not! I see the prophet Isaiah in the midst of a divided kingdom, when Israel was separate from Judah. I see that prophet in the midst of a crisis, crying out in Isaiah 64, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down … come down to make your name known among your enemies" (v. 1, 2). He's desperate for God to intervene. I see a blind man named Bartimaeus, whom we meet in Mark's gospel, sitting by the side of the road. When he hears that Jesus has come to town, do you know what he says when Jesus passes by him? He says, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47). Does that sound like an appeal for help to you? This woman is part of a long line of people who recognize that God is the source of their help and consolation. To cry out to God for help is the norm in Scripture—not the exception.
I'd like to ask you a few questions. The first question is, "Are you too proud to cry out to God for help?" This is what the French philosopher Blaise Pascal says: "Our principal malady is our pride which cuts us off from God."
The second question is like it: "To where do you go, to whom or to what do you go, when life tumbles in on you?" We run to all kinds of things other than God. We run to the advice columns, we run to our phones, we run to distractions—and in so doing, we actually cut ourselves off from God. The problem is that we look to God as our last resort when God should be our first resort. When you don't know what to do, ask God to come to your aid. Cry out to God for help.
The second thing to do when you don't know what to do is listen. Let's pick it up at verse two. Elisha asks her what she has in her house, and she responds, "Your servant has nothing there at all … except a small jar of olive oil."
That phrase "small jar" is important. It would be the equivalent of about one serving of oil. "That's all I've got," she says. Then Elisha asks her to do a very strange thing. Instead of asking her to bring the oil to him, do you know what he asks her to do? He asks her to go around to her neighbors, pick up a bunch of vessels or jars from them, bring them to her house, and then pour out the little bit of oil that she does have into these other jars. He's asking her to take the only thing she has left and to give it back to God.
Her choice to make is really our choice to make, as well. Will we listen to divine instruction, or will we look to our circumstances as the things that would distract us from divine instruction? There are all kinds of voices we could listen to in this world if we wanted. But will we listen to the voice of God? Will we listen to divine instruction? When the circumstances are desperate and dire, where will we turn? To whom will we listen?
I had a professor in college named Scott Hafemann who used to put it this way. He'd say, "Circumstances consistently call into question the promises of God." Will God be able to do what he says he'll do? Will God fulfill the promises that he says he will fulfill? When we look to our circumstances and allow them to dictate whether we'll listen to God or not, we're going down the wrong path. Will we listen to God in the midst of our circumstances, in spite of our circumstances? Will we listen to divine instruction even when it doesn't make sense to us?
I should say at least a couple of things about listening. First of all, the problem isn't an issue of whether God is still speaking. God is, in fact, still speaking. God speaks to us through the testimony of the Scriptures, through the witness of the Holy Spirit. God speaks to us through men and women, servants of God whom he brings into our lives to instruct us and guide us and counsel us. God speaks to us through the testimony of the church, through people who counsel us and work with us and pastor us: the living witness, the body of Christ. God even speaks to us in strange places and at peculiar times. God still speaks! The question isn't whether God still speaks. The question is whether we will listen.
A second thing I should say about listening: There's a difference between listening and hearing. Those of you who are married or have been married know what I'm talking about. Can you tell a difference between when your spouse is hearing you and when they're actually listening to you? I remember I was watching a Philadelphia Eagles game once, and my wife Jen was in the other room. She was doing something, and she accidentally cut her finger. She said, "Ouch! I cut my finger! I think I'm bleeding." Meanwhile, I was watching TV in the other room, and I said, "Oh, that's nice!" That's not listening—that's hearing!
I like what Tim Keller says: When he and his wife get into an argument, he says, "Okay, okay, I heard you. I understand you." And his wife responds by saying, "You don't understand me until I think you understand me." There's a difference between listening and hearing.
Finally, there's a connection between listening and obeying. This shows up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The word in Hebrew is shema, which is often translated as "to hear" or "to listen," but it's also translated as "to obey." When God says in Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one," in a sense, God is also saying, "Obey, Israel." This happens in the way we speak to our children. We use the verb this way when we say to our children, "You're not listening to me." What we really mean is: "You're not obeying what I have to say."
What do these insights on listening have to do with the widow in 2 Kings 4? This woman is faced with a decision. It's a decision she must make, and it's a decision we all must make as well. Will she decide to hear and ignore, or will she decide to listen and obey? Ultimately, she must decide whether she'll obey what the servant of God has instructed her to do.
Here's the truth about me: I have a lot to learn from this woman. You see, I have a listening deficiency. I'm good at telling God about my plans, but I'm not very good at listening to the voice of God and following his plans. I'm good at telling God what I want him to do, but I'm not very good at availing myself to what God wants to do through me. I'm good at hearing—but listening? Not so much.
Are you listening to the voice of God in your own life? Are you trusting in God's divine instructions? Are you listening, really listening? Not just hearing, but listening? What do you do when you don't know what to do? First, you ask. Then you listen.
But there's one final thing. It's this: You trust.
Look at verse three. Elisha gives her instructions. She listens to them. She leaves him. The text goes on to say that she did exactly as he said. Not only did she listen, but she trusted that somehow in the midst of this divine instruction that didn't make any sense at all, following God was still the best way forward for her life and for her family's life.
After she collects the vessels, Elisha tells her to pour out all that she has. Did you notice that she said she had nothing else except a little pot of oil? He essentially says, "I want you to pour out everything that you have into these other vessels, and I want you to see what happens." That takes a lot of faith. That takes a lot of trust. There's no telling whether these vessels are clean, or whether in pouring out the oil, she will somehow ruin the purity of it. There's no telling what will happen. She didn't know what would happen, but she needed to decide that she would trust God anyhow, regardless of the outcome.
In A Little Pot of Oil, Jill Briscoe writes, "Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives to test our faith, to show us the limits of our own strength and the sufficiency of our own strength and the sufficiency of God's provision. But we don't learn that lesson if we just sit around and wait for God to take care of us. We have to step out and pour out, trusting that the Holy Spirit will fill us and give us what we need to continue."
It's easier to trust God when the weather is fair than when the rain is falling and the storm is raging. It's easier to trust God when everything in life is moving in the right direction—when you're getting into that school, when you're getting that promotion, when your kids are going higher and doing better. But will you trust him when the bottom drops out, when the sky is falling in on you, when sorrow buffets you like a storm, when you feel like life is at ebb tide? Will you trust God then?
Some of you remember the name of Mother Teresa, who worked among the poor in Calcutta in India. One day, someone asked her why the "untouchable" class—the poorest of the poor—was so drawn to Jesus. Do you know what she said? She said, "When Jesus is all you've got, you discover that Jesus is all you need."
The widow's decision is our decision to make. Will we decide that, when all we have is a little pot of oil and Jesus, that Jesus will be all we need? Will we decide that God is enough in a world where enough is never enough, where people camp out in tents at Best Buy waiting for the next iPhone? Will we keep on trusting? Will we keep on believing? Will we decide that all that we have is more than enough in the hands of God? It's time to trust. When you don't know what to do, will you trust? Will you listen? Will you ask?
Extraordinary things, ordinary people
This story is not remarkable because of what happens among its principal characters. There's something else about this story that I love so much. As the story progresses, which we'll get to in a moment, we discover that the widow and Elisha are really part of a larger plan, a bigger point of the story. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to diminish the importance of Elisha and the widow. They are the main characters in the story. You can have central characters in a drama, but there's a difference between the characters in the drama and the one who wrote the play. You can have someone who's a first chair violin in the orchestra, but there's a difference between the first chair violin and the one who wrote the symphony. What I love most about this passage is what it reveals to us about God. This woman discovers what so many of us can discover: God does extraordinary things through ordinary people.
God does extraordinary things in the lives of ordinary people who are simply willing to trust him with what they have. He does extraordinary things in people who have little or nothing, just like this widow has, and who decide anyway, "I'm going to trust him. I'm going to ask him. I'm going to listen for his voice."
God's handprints and fingerprints are all over this text. Look at verse three. Elisha says, "Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars." Elisha uses a different word in verse three than the word the widow uses in verse two. When she says she has a little jar, she's talking about enough for one serving. When Elisha says to go out and get some jars, that Hebrew word is often translated as "storage containers." Elisha is saying, "I want you to get something bigger than this little pot. You see, if God is who he says he is, and God can do what I know he can do, then there's something bigger in store for you—something greater than this little pot."
I love what he says after that. Look at the end of verse three. He says, "Don't ask for just a few." He wants her to go out and get every single one that she can. Look at how it unfolds: "[S]he kept pouring. When all the jars were full …" (v. 5-6) Then she comes to the man of God, and he tells her to go, sell the oil, and pay the debts. "You and your sons can live on what is left," he says (v. 7).
One of the things I love about Elisha in this passage is that even though he's a man of God, he gets out of the way, which servants of God need to do. Men and women of God need to get out of the way so people can see with their own eyes that God does extraordinary things in the lives of ordinary people, people who are willing to trust him and give back to him what they have. Elisha gets out of the way so the action of God will not be mistaken for a prophetic sleight of hand. He wants her to see with her own eyes that God is greater and stronger and able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.
This is not the first person or the last person in Scripture who's willing to give an ordinary life with ordinary stuff to an extraordinary God. Moses returns from the desert after 40 years in exile in the deserts of Midian; he has a family and a staff. Do you know what God does with that staff? God turns the staff into a snake before Pharaoh's palace. God uses the staff to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood. God uses an ordinary staff to divide the Red Sea and open up the way for the people of God.
Think about David. All David had was a slingshot. With a slingshot, David slays the mighty Goliath. David sends the entire Philistine army running for the hills. Think about a little boy along the Sea of Galilee. All he has is a sack lunch: five loaves and two fish. God uses five loaves and two fish to feed more than 5,000. Think about the apostle Paul, who finds himself in house imprisonment, chained to a Roman soldier, and all he has is a quill pen and some parchment. God does extraordinary things with ordinary people who are willing and ready to give themselves back to him.
Of course, I know Jesus is no ordinary person, but I find it curious that God used a piece of wood to change the world forever, to divide A.D. from B.C., to break down the wall of separation and to bridge the breach that separates us from him. Oh, yes, God does extraordinary things in the lives of ordinary people who are willing to trust him with what they have—even if it's just a little pot of oil.
You what that means? It means that you don't need to have a PhD, a 401(k), an OS X, or an MBA. You don't need to have a 401(c)3, an IRA, a Lexus LE, or be in AARP. You don't need any letters after your name to make a difference for Jesus. There's nothing inherently wrong with those things, but to think you need them to make a difference for God is to miss out on something greater that God has for you.
In 1990, a 26-year-old man robbed a bank at gunpoint in Ottawa, Canada. The young man was named Danny Simpson, and he was desperate for the money. He made away with close to $6,000, but he was apprehended shortly thereafter by the police. Upon his arrest, the gun he had used was confiscated by the police, and he was sent to jail for six years. Later, the Ottawa police discovered that the pistol Simpson had used was not a typical handgun, but an antique. Simpson owned a .45 caliber Colt semi-automatic pistol, one of only 100 made by the Ross Rifle Company in Quebec City in 1918. The pistol was worth upwards of $100,000, close to 20 times the amount he had stolen from the bank. If he had only known what he held in his hand, he wouldn't have gotten into this mess.
What's in your hand? Maybe all you have in your hand is a little pot of oil. Maybe all you're holding onto is a handful of hope. If God is who he says he is, and God can do what he says he'll do, then a little pot of oil, a handful of hope—maybe that's more than enough.
Jared E. Alcántara is an Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His latest book is "Learning From a Legend: What Gardner C. Taylor Can Teach Us About Preaching." Follow him on Twitter @jaredealcantara.