God is using this valley for some necessary works of grace, changing me in some necessary ways.
"And now, LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:3 HCSB)
There was a time I could not understand how Jonah prayed. That was a time when everything was looking like it was on the way up. Well…when everything was looking like I was on my way up - in the ministry, that is.
For the first eight years of being in the ministry, I was growing and progressing. I do not mean that in some superficial, social way. I was gaining real ground spiritually and influentially. My walk with my Lord was genuine, and He was leading me right along. Those first eight years were no walk in the park, but I thought I had nothing ahead of me but growth and progress. I had no idea how deep and dark of a valley lay before me.
Full-time ministry as a full-time pastor was (is) my dream. I lived that dream for almost six months. While thinking that the Lord had finally decided I was ready - while planning big things for our new church family in the years to come (even planting another church a couple of years down the road) - while devoting myself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching, not neglecting my gift, but determined to practice these things and immerse [myself] in them, so that all may see [my] progress (1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV) and growing with my wife into this new life - suddenly my family and I were gut-punched by almost half the church members who decided that, after only half a year, they didn’t want us there anymore, for reasons neither good nor Biblical. And, so, began our rapid descent into the valley.
I kept thinking that God would stop the descent, level us out and resume our journey to higher ground He had ahead for us. However, in the circumstantial run-off and emotional after-effects - after having to go bi-vocational again - after a failed church plant due to inappropriate advances by a woman in the group - after rebellious choices by a teenage daughter, resulting in her pregnancy and being asked to leave another church - after a grinding, exhausting two-year run of balancing long hours of work, ministry, and family at still another church - the descent only continued and accelerated until I hit a point so dark and low, I could not see what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. I stepped out of pastoring completely in the hopes of resting and regaining my bearings. That was 2 ½ years ago. I am still in the valley. I have been in this valley now for eight years, and I still do not see the other side of it. And God does not seem to be in a hurry to get me out of it. In fact, it appears that He is going to keep me here awhile longer.
God’s hand is on me in my “secular” work. I have real skills that are utilized and appreciated every day. I have favor and a good rapport with the guys I work with and work for. I have their respect as a minister of the Gospel. I am progressing here. But therein lies the problem. I feel like I am going further and further in and into this life I don’t want to live. It seems that the longer I’m here and the better He makes it go, the longer I’m going to be here and the worse it’s going to be. I want God to get me out of this, but He just keeps blessing me in this. I don’t want God’s blessings here in this job somewhat in the same way Jonah didn’t want God’s blessings there in his ministry - if His blessings mean going further and further down this road I don’t want to be traveling, deeper and deeper into this work I don’t want to be doing. I feel resistant to His blessings - even bitter toward them. I feel like praying, “If this is what You want, then just let me die.”
Does that seem drastic - melodramatic? I should just be glad to have a job that pays the bills, right? Yeah, I’ve heard that...from some who would have fit right in with Job’s “friends”.
The problem is when you want something so deeply that you know it is coming out of who you are meant to be by design, but, yet, are kept from it, there is a dark cloud of despair that can settle over you at the thought of having to live any other life. That’s where I am now. I am having to live another life besides the one I know I have been molded for - besides the one God changed my heart for when He called me to pastor - and that dark cloud has enveloped me. I can feel its damp chill on my skin and in my bones. The thought of staying under its cover of darkness, unfruitful and useless, for the rest of my life, makes me want God to shorten my life.
But I know better.
I know that how I am feeling is out of touch with the reality of what God is actually doing, and I love knowing that. I know that He is breaking through this darkness and bringing me through this valley.
God is piercing the darkness with His rays of light. Under this cover of darkness, He is speaking to me, and His Word is brightly lighting the path of each day in front of me. In the damp chill, He warms me with His presence. As I am stumbling along this rough path, He is holding me up and close so that I do not fall away from Him. I can sense Him doing this. There are moments I literally feel like I am being carried, and I don’t mean that in some glib, giddy way people mean when they say they have days they feel as light as a feather and without a care in the world. I don’t have those days, but I have many days I sense a lift of my being that cannot be explained by a brightened outlook or improved mood, because the lift often comes when my outlook is not too bright and my mood is not too good - even after I have outright sinned.
And God is using this valley for some necessary works of grace. I know that my time in this valley is changing me in some necessary ways. I know that He has molded me for the life of ministry and is molding me for the life of ministry, perhaps in a similar way He molded David for kingship, on the run in the wilderness, after anointing him for the throne - and as He has done with so many others. I also know that this valley is not a detour, but a designated part of His plan for our lives. I know that, in His wisdom, He mapped this valley into the race He has marked out for us. I don’t know how it fits into Him fulfilling His purpose for me as a pastor and us as a family (Psalm 138:8), but I know that it does, because I know Him. He lets nothing happen by accident, and He lets nothing go to waste.
What happened in that small country church eight years ago was a watershed moment for us, setting us on a course of disappointments and plunging us into depths of pain no one can understand without going through something similar. I have faltered in my faith in ways I never thought I would. I understand now the way Jonah prayed, and I shake my head at the self-centered shortsightedness of it. That I would resist my Heavenly Father's intentions and be bitter toward His blessings makes me cringe in gut-wrenching regret, knowing He deserves from me absolute trust and gratitude, even in the midst of agonizing pain. Yet, I know He is loving me through this and even with this - He reassures me of that every day - and I know that, beyond this and even with this, He is doing far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20 ESV). So, when I feel like praying, “If this is what You want, then just let me die,” I’m glad He doesn't.
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. (Psalm 42:1 NIV) When can I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, “Where is your God?” I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts. (Psalm 42:2–4 HCSB)
God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not banish me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit. Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will return to You. (Psalm 51:10–13 HCSB)
I will proclaim Your name to my brothers; I will praise You in the congregation. (Psalm 22:22 HCSB)
I will praise You in the great congregation; I will exalt You among many people. (Psalm 35:18 HCSB)
Hallelujah! I will praise the LORD with all my heart in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation. The LORD’s works are great, studied by all who delight in them. All that He does is splendid and majestic; His righteousness endures forever. He has caused His wonderful works to be remembered. The LORD is gracious and compassionate. (Psalm 111:1–4 HCSB)
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