David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells an engaging and enlightening story about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn. In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote, “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the water line.”
The Brooklyn Bridge continues to this day to be an iconic part of New York’s skyline and a busy transportation artery. This is because 139 years ago, the chief and his crew did their most important work away from the public eye, on the foundations of the towers below the waterline. In this story we are reminded of a timeless principle that speaks to both life and leadership: the work done beneath the waterline (in a person’s soul) will determine their staying power, impact, and legacy. Our public life for God will only be as good as our private life with God.
Back in the Old Testament, we see this principle played out in the life and ministry of the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah is told to beat a strategic retreat to the brook Cherith, having just announced God’s judgment on the House of Omri and wicked King Ahab (17:1–6). He is told to go hide himself by the brook (17:3). I am sure that Elijah took a double take on that command. He was ready to topple pagan grottos. He was ready to draw blood in this fight for the soul of the nation of Israel. Retreat was not an option. But, in this surprising command, Elijah was to learn that his public life for God was only as good as his private life with God. God’s spiritual order is always “go hide yourself” and then “go show yourself” (17:3; 18:1). Beside Cherith, God removed all the scaffolding from Elijah’s life, engendering a dependence upon Him. Beside Cherith, God freed Elijah from the victimizing compulsions of the world. Beside Cherith, God suffocated Elijah’s ego, creating an undivided desire for God’s glory.
It is a lesson we all need to learn. Just as the roots of a tree beneath the soil determine the health and strength of the tree above the soil, so our private times with God in worship, prayer, and the study of His Word will determine the health of our soul, the strength of our life, and the impact of our ministry. When we don’t go to our hiding place before God, people end up seeing too much of us and too little of God. Go hide yourself!