The Gehazi syndrome

The Gehazi syndrome: Suffering familiarity with the Holy

The story of Elisha's servant speaks to busy pastors, professors, administrators-all ministers.

Gerald A. Klingbeil, DLitt, is an associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. He is also research professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Rudolf Otto Otto, professor of systematic theology in different German universities at the beginning of the twentieth century, published a landmark volume discussing the basic notion of the Holy in all religions.1 While I do not agree with many of the ideas of Otto’s volume, the notion of the Holy as a unique category of religion is important. God-talk is talking about the Holy, because God is the truly “Other” that cannot be compared to anything on this planet (Isa. 46:5). He is beyond our constructs and ideas and bigger than our biggest thought.

In this article, I will look at a biblical account of someone who, by all accounts, was in close contact with the Holy and lived day-by-day in the presence of a divinely appointed messenger. Unfortunately, the story that we will look at does not contain all the lessons that can be learned by busy pastors, church administrators, Bible teachers, and theology professors. This story is, after all, just a story that describes real life. Nonetheless, it leaves us with a question that speaks directly to the heart of the issue and challenges those of us who spend most of our time in the presence of the Holy and may be in danger of “suffering” familiarity with the Holy.

Front-seat ministry

I imagine that Gehazi could not believe his eyes when he saw a confirmed dead person walk among the living or participated in miraculously feeding hundreds of people, but he had a front seat, observing from close quarters the ministry of one of the most amazing prophets of Israel. Yes, Elisha had received a double portion of God’s Spirit (2 Kings 2:9), and the rabbis were quick to point out that Elisha performed twice the number of miracles of his predecessor Elijah.2 Clearly, by requesting a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha invoked Deuteronomy 21:17, which details that the firstborn son would inherit the double portion of the other sons’ inheritance. We recognize this request as another quick glimpse into the character of Elisha, the servant of Elijah.3 Humble and, I imagine, somewhat overwhelmed by the task ahead, Elisha realized that a double portion of the Elijah-spirit was needed to face the challenge.

Gehazi’s relationship to Elisha was similar to the previous relationship Elisha had with his master Elijah. He was a wandering apprentice. He was there when Elisha visibly demonstrated that the God of Israel was the completely Other and not to be compared to Baal, Moloch, or Asherah. Actually, Gehazi suggested to Elisha that one of the greatest needs of the Shunamite woman was a child as she was barren (2 Kings 4:14), and it was also Gehazi who later ran ahead of Elisha to lay his master’s staff on the face of the dead boy. Gehazi was close to the action, showed initiative, had been trained by one of the best, and was seemingly ready to move forward.

Naaman’s story

A young Israelite girl, nameless as she remains, pointed the powerful Aramean courtier—facing not only a medical emergency but even more so, social isolation and oblivion—to the prophet in Israel. Gehazi must have also been present when the Aramean general, Naaman, knocked on Elisha’s door, even though the biblical text does not mention him by name until we reach the sad anticlimax of the narrative in 2 Kings 5:20. Perhaps he was the messenger Elisha sent out with the simple order for Naaman to go to the Jordan and wash in it seven times (2 Kings 5:10). He must have been impressed by the fact that Elisha’s ministry was about to move to a higher level. More visibility and prime time action appeared to lie just ahead. The knock on Elisha’s door that day meant that Elisha was not just another local player anymore but had moved on to become an international celebrity.

Naaman’s initial reaction to Elisha’s messenger was not favorable. He was upset—and rightly so. Here came, as it were, the national security advisor of the powerful Syrian king, and he was shown no special courtesies. He did not even get a face-to-face conversation with the miracle healer. A simple one sentence message was all he got.

Naaman did not like the looks of the muddy Jordan (which, outside the rainy season, is not a very impressive river) and was ready to return home, angry, upset, and frustrated. Fortunately, he had a loyal crew of staff members who encouraged him to try—and try he did. Seven times he plunged himself under the water. Six times, as he looked at his hands and arms, his hopes were dashed. But the seventh time was different. He was healed—wonderfully made whole again. Immediately he set out to pay tribute (and some hard-earned riches) to Elisha and confess his new-found faith. This time, he finally met the prophet personally and Elisha guided him gently and patiently into further truth. No, he did not want (or need) any of Naaman’s wealth. He was content to see God’s initial plan for Israel working: being a light to the nations that would attract so much interest and cause individuals and people to come in order to find out about this God who resided in Zion.

Gehazi’s story

Gehazi, however, was not content. Secretly he followed Naaman, running to catch up with the thankful Aramean. A story was quickly fabricated and—to his delight—he received two talents (roughly 150 pounds, or 68 kg) of silver and two sets of clothing. Life was good. He would never, ever again have to worry about food for tomorrow. Returning to Elisha’s home, Gehazi sought to cover his tracks. I imagine he went into the house whistling and looking particularly innocent as he reported back for duty.

Elisha asked only one pointed question: “ ‘Where have you been, Gehazi?’ ” (2 Kings 5:25, NIV), and as Gehazi continued to spin his distorted view of reality (we may also safely call this a lie), Elisha confronted him with reality. How could he have hoped that his master would not be aware of this—a master who had intimate communion with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, raised the dead, fed the hungry and poor, and knew what a gentile king whispered in his bedroom suite (2 Kings 6:12)? Even if he had thought that he could trick Elisha, how could he have hoped to sidestep the Lord, the One in whose name Elisha performed all these miraculous acts?

Elisha asked Gehazi a pointed question that has been asked many times over the centuries: “ ‘Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants?’ ” (2 Kings 5:26, NIV). It was not, and the divine judgment upon Gehazi was immediate and far-reaching. His greed attracted Naaman’s leprosy and cost him his privileged front-row seat in God’s wonderful demonstration of signs and wonders.

Our story

I am an ordained minister, have been a professor of Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern studies, and now work as an editor of a religious magazine. Over the last decades I have, at times, noticed that familiarity with the Holy can lead to Gehazi-like attitudes (and sometimes actions). I confess, I have never witnessed a response as immediate as that of 2 Kings 5 but would argue that this misguided familiarity with God’s holiness often leads us away from the focus of our ministry.

We pray all the time, publicly and privately, and it may be that prayer has lost its mystery.

We open Scripture (in order to preach or teach) all the time, publicly and privately, and it may be that God’s Word has lost its wonder and power.

We witness (or hear about) God’s transforming power all the time, and it may be that we have become sarcastic or even cynical.

Have you noticed the Gehazi syndrome in your ministry lately? Have you felt that God, the Holy God of Scripture who worked in the life of His people and sacrificed Himself in Jesus, has become somewhat stale and perhaps even boring?

I sure have, at times, felt this way and would like to share four elements that helped me re-discover the wonder, power, and majesty of this Holy God who has called me into His service. Perhaps some may be helpful to you as well.

1. Remember your first love for Jesus. Recall (and recount) how He called you into His ministry. No, this would not be to raise your profile or show your congregation that you are better than they are but rather a reminder of where you have come from and that your ministry is nothing outside of God’s call. I wonder if Gehazi ever stopped to remember the time when Elisha invited him to serve the God of Israel. He surely must have been awed then.

2. Block out time for personal prayer. Keep a prayer journal and keep writing in and reading it. I found this one of the key elements needed for avoiding the Gehazi syndrome. When we talk and listen to the Creator of the universe and our personal Savior, our mouths must drop open in awe and wonder. He truly cares—even about wayward, tired servants who may have momentarily lost their way. Writing our prayer journeys helps us remember our utter dependence upon this Holy God. Was Gehazi so busy, looking at the stock market and watching the economic indicators or the vital statistics of Elisha’s ministry, that there just was not sufficient time for personal prayer—and silence before God?

3. Find a prayer partner to whom you will be accountable. This should be a person you trust and who loves the Lord. Be open about your struggles. At this moment, you can let down your guards—and feel safe about doing it. Unfortunately, our sense of position and hierarchy keeps us, sometimes, from finding a ministerial colleague who could serve as a prayer partner. Can I really pray about everything that worries me with my pastor colleague from across town or in the office next door? I wonder if Gehazi felt a bit like that—especially with the schools of the prophets around.

4. Stop periodically thinking about your ministry and plotting new ways to advance the kingdom. This is not your kingdom, but the Master’s. While He wants us to be creative and mission-driven, He wants even more for us to spend quality time with Him. Step back for a moment of reflection, and let God do the planning and plotting. Judging from Gehazi’s careful action after returning with the gold and clothing, he must have been quite a gifted planner and plotter—perhaps too much so.

Wrapping it up

I am grateful Scripture is full of imperfect people that often mirror me quite well. I am also grateful Jesus, Himself, took the time to refocus during His busy ministry years and told His disciples to “ ‘come . . . and . . . rest’ ” (Mark 6:31, NIV). Besides the physical rest, it seems they needed to “process” and recalibrate.

My mobile phone has a built-in program that looks and acts like a compass. Sometimes, when I try to find a general direction, it tells me to shake it around in the shape of an eight lying on its side. People must be mystified when they see me doing this, but this is the only way to get a calibrated direction. As I am trying to avoid the Gehazi syndrome of becoming (overly) familiar with the Holy, I recognize that I may need a similar complete stop and turn around in my own life. What about you?

1 The volume was originally published in 1917 in German.
For the English translation see, Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the
Holy, trans. J. W. Harvey (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,

2 See R. D. Petterson, “1 and 2 Kings,” in Expositor’s Bible
Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids,
MI. Zondervan, 1988), 4:177, 178; cf. also Peter J. Leithart,
1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
(Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2006), 175.

3 Note that the Hebrew term describing the quality of the
“servanthood” of Elisha (1 Kings 19:21) is the same that
describes the relationship between Moses and Joshua
(Josh. 1:1) and is not the typical word used to describe
regular servants.

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Gerald A. Klingbeil, DLitt, is an associate editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. He is also research professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

May 2010

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