The jug of oil and the fuel tank

One of my favorite Bible stories has also been a guiding light to me since I first started working as a volunteer in foreign lands back in 1978. Over the years since then, it’s served as both a promise I could depend on and a nudge I couldn’t ignore.

This is how the story goes: God had sent a drought to punish Israel for their wickedness, and the brook nearby where the prophet Elijah had been camping had dried up, as had his food supply. God told him to travel to a town called Zarephath where he would meet a widow with a good heart and faith in God who would provide for him while he continued his ministry.

As Elijah approached the city, he met a woman gathering sticks by the town gate and felt that she was the one God had told him about. Tired and hungry, he asked her for some water and a piece of bread.

She stared at him in disbelief and explained that she didn’t have any bread left, and only enough flour and oil to bake a last loaf for herself and her son. She expected this would be their final meal before starving to death.

Elijah then asked an impossible favor of her: “First, bake a loaf for me and then one for your son and yourself.” Then he assured her that God would bless this sacrificial and unselfish deed: “There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!”1 The widow did as Elijah requested, and sure enough, the Bible records that from that point on, her flour and oil never ran out, and there was sufficient food for her and her son throughout the famine. God kept His promise.2

Reflecting on my many years of volunteer work on a shoestring budget, I realize that I have a similar story to tell. It seems like we receive almost daily requests or pleas for help. Sometimes it’s an unemployed single mother and her children, or a group of destitute elderly people we meet when taking a mission trip to rural areas, or a stranded stranger who has been robbed, or hungry orphans barely surviving in poorly funded institutions, or a neighbor who has run out of some item, and on the list goes.

In Kenya, the choice to give or to withhold presents itself many times a day, even when we are scratching the bottom of the barrel ourselves. With seven children of my own to raise, I often felt like I had a legitimate excuse not to give. But then I’d feel God’s tug on my heart, and I’d feel compelled to reach out to try to meet the need.

To this day, over 35 years into this giving spree, we still have enough. Our pantry is like the widow’s jar of flour that has never been empty, and our jeep’s fuel tank, like her jug of oil, has never run dry. The cycle of giving has been rewarded by refilling, then it overflows and we keep giving, only to be filled again with God’s goodness.

  1. 1 Kings 17:14 NLT
  2. See 1 Kings 17:7–16.