After 20 years of serving as a local church pastor, we needed a break. Vocational ministry tends to create a unique brand of difficulty, and somehow we must have signed up for the deluxe package. But little did I know that our decision to take a sabbatical would send me out of the frying pan and right into the fire. After handing over the leadership of our church to my associate pastor, we moved hundreds of miles away from everyone we knew and re-located in a part of the country that seemed more like another planet than another state. I took an entry level construction job which often required me to spend much of my day digging holes at sewage plants and county landfills. Within months of moving, a cantaloupe sized growth mysteriously showed up in my abdomen resulting in the need for major surgery and the removal of over half of my liver. But worst of all, for the first time in my adult life, going to church on a Sunday morning made me feel like I was merely another head in a sea of heads. I went from being a first string Quarter Back to just another spectator who apparently could only afford tickets in the nose-bleed section.
This was just the beginning of a five year period during which I experienced what some have called “the dark night of the soul.” During this time, my identity and self worth came under direct assault. More often than not, my days were marked by a deep depression and an underlying anger toward the Lord for allowing me to go through this kind of mental and emotional torment. “After all those years of serving your people… this is my reward? What is going on? What are you doing to me? This doesn’t make any sense! If this is all there is, just go ahead and take me out.” And so it continued, from anger to apathy, from sadness to despondence. At times my frustration became so intense that I felt I was literally losing my mind. Again, this went on for several years. I now understand that this season was a tailor made time of testing designed to dig up and root out certain mind-sets and thought patterns that I had developed over the course of my life. And though I’m probably only a year or so out beyond the edge of this desolate spiritual wilderness experience, I’m beginning to feel like maybe I can identify a few of the truths revealed to me over the course of that painful hands and knees crawl through the burning sand.
Somewhere in the midst of all my crying and yelling at the Lord, I began to realize that He’s not really swayed by our fit throwing. Though most of my overly dramatic cries for help came in the form of seemingly innocent prayer requests, many of them were actually my attempt to get the Lord to do what I thought he should do. More accurately, I wanted him to do them in the time frame that I thought he should. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that God really does have “all the time in the world” to accomplish his plans and purposes. What feels like an eternity to us is not even a click on the second hand of his watch. So for us to require the Lord to respond to our requests, or even to fulfill his promises in our time frame… well it just doesn’t work that way. Lordship is trusting not only that he’ll get it done, but that it will happen when he’s ready for it to and not a moment sooner, no matter how much we complain or beseech him to do otherwise.
Another key to navigating the wilderness was learning how to stay focused on the right things. Paul encouraged the early church to practice this principle. “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things.” (Phil 4:8) One of our enemy’s oldest tactics is to rob a believer’s enjoyment of life by simply reminding them of what’s not right. But if we spend our days dwelling on what’s not right about ourselves or our situation or that person at work who makes our skin crawl, then we are basically creating our very own self fulfilling prophecy. Magnifying the negatives and minimizing the positives of our past or present reality will inevitably leave us joyless and oppressed. We must learn to focus rightly because eventually we will become that which we behold.
This principle is particularly true when applied to our relationship with the Lord. If our prayers are focused on what he hasn’t done for us rather than what he has, then we’ll slowly be convinced that he really doesn’t love us the way we once thought he did. This is a powerful deception that literally can ruin our faith, and in turn, spoil our life. Over time, I have developed an inner resolve to focus on the goodness of God and what he has done and is doing for me. Listen up believer, we’re going to spend eternity in paradise with the Lord! We are saved, redeemed, justified, adopted, deeply loved, and accepted just as we are. We serve a GOOD GOD who wants nothing more than to bless us because we are his children. He is true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent and worthy of our praise. If we choose to believe anything to the contrary, regardless of how dismal our situation may become, then we are walking in a profound foolishness and deception. We must not allow our flesh and our struggle with our own human weakness to skew the heavenly perspective we were created to maintain. Often, the discipline of focus begins with a decision to simply “think about“ the “right” things. We will stay rightly focused as we learn to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5)
Lord Jesus, help us to get this one. We know you are good. We know you love us. Forgive us for listening to lies about your nature. Forgive us for our impatience. You are a good Father and you want to bless us and surround our lives with your mercy and favor. You have provided for us, you have protected us, you brought us out of the darkness and into the light and we give you our praise. We worship you because you are worthy! Thank you Jesus, we love you. Help us to stay rightly focused today. Amen.
To be continued ….