Column: When Touch Is What’s Needed Most
By Drew Williams
My first preaching post was in a small Methodist church in North Devon, England, speaking to an aging congregation that was facing multiple challenges. I remember preaching mostly messages of exhortation, encouraging everyone to roll up their sleeves and get busy making disciples.
Now, more than 20 years later, I wonder if that was what they really needed most.
In my own suffering, I have prayerfully sought out God’s wisdom and encouragement in the Bible, especially in recent months when the pain and exhaustion have felt overwhelming. Just the other morning, I felt led to turn to two passages in the Old Testament, the first from the prophet Isaiah.
In chapter 42:3, Isaiah talks of a suffering servant as “…a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” The Hebrew translation of the word “bruised” denotes a deep contusion—the idea being that, while we may not show it on the outside, on the inside it feels like we are dying. How many times have we felt like that?
The “suffering servant” of Isaiah offers a portrait of a messianic figure in which Christians, of course, begin to see the outline of Jesus. But this is also a picture of the Lord’s own heart toward us—how He cares for all of us—even when we are, like bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, and barely able to hang onto Him. How does He do that?
The second passage that caught my attention began to answer that question. It was actually the very first Scripture I ever preached on: 1 Kings 19. In chapter 18 we learned of Elijah’s extraordinary victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But by chapter 19 (as Tim Keller notes), we find our man, Elijah, cracking under the pressure of his ministry. He is one very despondent, bruised man—someone whose light is just about to go out forever. And Elijah is not responding by saying, “I’m just rejoicing in the Lord!” He has actually come to the point where he is ready to quit. He says, “Take my life. I don’t even want to live” (1 Kings 19:4).
We know Elijah is a great prophet, but he is also very human, and there is only so much disappointment, opposition, pain and conflict that any human being can take. So what is God’s first response to this bruised reed?
1) Touch: In 1 Kings 19:5b-8, I am taken by the tender way that the Lord puts our broken hero back together again. The Lord’s first and immediate response is simply to touch him. We are told, “All at once an angel touched him…” (verse 5b). Notice that the angel does not give him a good shaking. He does not berate him for lack of faith or impatience. Neither does he interrogate him (“What’s the matter with you?”). He simply touches him. It is very tender. You could skip right over these seven words, but as Keller points out, reasoning and explanation are seldom the first things God offers us when we are struggling or suffering. The first thing that God does is to restore Elijah’s emotional and physical strength. The angel cooks him a meal and tells him to sleep. The angel does not say “Repent!” or “Fear not” or “Rejoice, I bring good news!” He just cooks him a meal and tells him to sleep.
2) Timing: I also noted the patience with which the angel cared for Elijah. “The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’” (verse 7). A second touch and a second meal. I find this deeply reassuring because, as well as the tenderness of God’s touch, it also reveals that the Lord knew exactly what it would take to get Elijah back on his feet, including the time that it would take.
These passages affirm that the Lord knows each one of us so well. He knows of what we are made and where our breaking point is. David wrote, “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). In addition to speaking to our weakness in the face of temptation and our unfailing propensity for sin, David praises the same God who “…forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:3-5). And Elijah’s story reassures us that the Lord’s touch is tender, His timing is perfect, and His heart is forgiving, healing and restorative.
In all my well-meaning exuberance, I did not preach this message to that Methodist congregation long ago. They were kind and encouraging, but I see now I’d have been better off with a simple touch, a word of compassion, hope and grace. More than 20 years later, I find myself identifying with Elijah in ways I had not anticipated. Perhaps the kind people in North Devon could have told me to expect it, but maybe some things in the Lord are best left for us to discover for ourselves.
Yes, the last few months have been quite challenging, but, thanks be to God, my testimony remains that even in those moments where I have felt close to the breaking point, the Lord has consistently revealed His presence in the tenderness of His touch. Even when I could not see Him, His touch remained unmistakable. I do trust that He knows exactly what it’s going to take to get me back on my feet and, as much it pains me to accept it, that He also knows the length of time that is necessary.
May you know the tenderness of His touch this day, and may He show us all how to offer that same touch to one another.
The Rev’d Drew Williams, Senior Pastor of Trinity Church, has been living with severe, debilitating chronic pain for more than three years. After five surgeries and innumerable neurological procedures, he knows the desperation that comes with wondering if he would ever be pain free. At the same time, he shares, “By the grace of God, that desperation has also brought an increased intensity and honesty, as well as a deeper intimacy, in my relationship with God.” He now shares something of his struggle in a series of devotional writings for the Greenwich Sentinel. One of the more perplexing features of the past three-year saga around my health has been the ongoing battle between hope and disappointment.