Wilderness #5: Coming Out of the Wilderness

This series was based in part on Rob Renfroe’s book, A Way Through the Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard. I read this book as part of an online pastor’s group where the theme was learning to be resilient. In any case, that’s why the sermons in this series include so many quotes from Renfroe. I recommend the book if you appreciated these sermon notes.

This is not a place we want to be indefinitely. It’s not even where God wants us to be indefinitely. Isaiah 43:18—19 says:

Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

The key question when we began this series was this: Who will you be when this difficult time is over? When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you have become? As we finish this series, we’re going to look at three final lessons from the wilderness: the wilderness will reveal your heart, the wilderness will change you, and the wilderness will give you a gift to share.

How do you find out what’s in a sponge? You squeeze it, right? What’s in a sponge only comes out because of pressure. That’s like us. We’re like sponges. Pressure reveals who we are. Have any of you had to have a stress test? It’s for your heart, right? To see how strong and healthy it is—to see what’s really inside of it. Rob Renfroe says: “The wilderness is a spiritual stress test. It shows us the real condition of our spiritual hearts, our character, and our faith.” Let me ask: have you ever done anything out of character because of a very stressful situation, because of really difficult circumstances? I’m going to suggest something. I’m going to suggest that we never really do anything “out of character.”

Psalm 78:18 says this about the Israelites in the wilderness: They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. This is incredibly important: What was in their heart came out as an attitude toward their circumstances. They were being squeezed like lemons and out came complaining and demanding. The demanding and complaining were already there—their circumstances simply brought it to the surface.

There’s a profound connection between our hearts and our actions. Think about Psalm 119:11: I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Here the psalmist wants to make sure that he does not sin—and this is why he has stored up God’s word—where?—in his heart. Jesus himself says: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. Proverbs 4:23 says: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Other translations say, Guard your heart. All this to say: The wilderness will reveal your heart.

The wilderness is a time when we can learn about ourselves, a time of growing in self-awareness. This can help us understand who we are, why we are the way we are, why we respond to life the way we do, and how all of this impacts our relationship with God. Here’s the thing: when life is going well, we don’t tend to think about it. It’s much easier to avoid the messier, more difficult stuff inside of us.

This is the challenge: most of us don’t want to deal with what the wilderness may reveal about us. It will seem too painful or too difficult. It will likely bring up stuff from our past. It’s just too hard. So as difficult as it is, it’s God’s way of revealing our heart so we can grow and become more like Jesus.

Let me ask: How do you respond to stress? When life squeezes you like a sponge, what comes out? What weaknesses in you does the wilderness reveal? What strengths does it reveal? What about yourself would you rather avoid? How does avoiding it affect your walk with God and your relationships with others?

Sometimes people talk about having a Sunday School faith. And what they mean is that their understanding of faith and of God hasn’t really grown. A person can be an adult but have no more mature a grasp of God than a young child in Sunday School. On the one hand, yes, we’re invited to have the faith of a child; on the other hand, we’re also called to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15). 1 Corinthians 13:11 says: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Along with revealing your heart, the wilderness will change you. In other words, the wilderness doesn’t reveal our heart just so we know ourselves better. It’s so we can grow. And the wilderness will change you; but how it changes you depends on how you go through the wilderness. It’s possible to come out of the wilderness but for the wilderness to remain inside of us. It’s possible that the difficult circumstances pass and for us to come out bitter and hardened, trusting God even less than before.

The challenge is this: We need to come to terms with the fact that God is good, that he loves us, and that for this reason he allows us to enter the wilderness. Think of it as discipline. Proverbs 3:11 says: My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof. Hebrews 12:6 says: For the Lord disciplines the one he loves. Changing—and allowing God to change us—can be profoundly difficult and even painful as God seeks to address old habits, ways of thinking, and patterns of behaviour that keep us from trusting and loving him more fully.

So let’s ask: In what way might God be looking to change you (your habits, your thinking, your attitudes)? What’s ultimately more painful: staying as you are or accepting God’s discipline and letting him change you? Have your more difficult circumstances led you to trust God more? Why or why not?

Have you heard of the “one another” passages in the NT? Here are some of them: Romans 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection. 2 Corinthians 13:11: Comfort one another. Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens. Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. 1 Thessalonians 5:11: Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. James 5:16: Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.  1 Peter 1:22: Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.And while it’s always true, in the wilderness it’s especially true that we need comfort, we need kindness, we need someone to bear our burdens, we need someone to encourage us, we need someone one to hear our confession, we need someone to pray for us and with us, and we need someone to love us. And chances are, someone will also need these things from us.

The wilderness reveals our heart. The wilderness changes us. And, lastly, the wilderness gives us a gift to share. One of the most profound ways we can encourage others is to share how God has been with us, and what he has taught us, in our most difficult seasons of life, from our struggles and our failures.  

Renfroe says: “The wilderness prepares us to be that person for others. When we remember how we struggled, when we remember how long our nights were and how nothing eased our agony, when we remember how alone we felt, when we remember that doing all the right things and praying all the right prayers still left us empty and in pain—that’s when we can give other hurting souls the most important gift of being with them, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. And knowing they’re not alone can be enough to get them through the most difficult time of their life.”

The challenge is this: none of us likes being vulnerable. We have a culture of not talking about deeper issues, the ones that most deeply affect us. We sweep and hide difficult feelings and painful experiences away. We don’t know how to bring these things into community. We don’t know how to bring these things before God with honesty.

So: Based on the “one another” verses, what should relationships in the church be like? Is this your experience? Why or why not? Has knowing others understand what you’re going through been an encouragement? How can you encourage others? In what ways has God met you through the love of other people?

One last quote from Renfroe: “The wilderness is always devastating. It brings us to the end of ourselves so that we can have a new beginning with God.” The wilderness will reveal your heart. The wilderness will change you. The wilderness will give you a gift to share. It comes down to trusting God, to knowing how much he loves us, and to who he calls us to become. It’s not so much about what’s happening to us but what’s happening in us.

Churches can also enter a wilderness, a season of testing, when God calls us to trust him more deeply, to acknowledge our failures and our struggles, and to find grace and even transformation. But to come out of this wilderness, to become who God calls us to be, means being honest about who we are, where we’ve come from, and why we are here.

I think a lot of churches in our society are in a wilderness. Some of this is because of outside factors, things beyond our control. Our society has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Some of this, however, is also because of choices we’ve made or failed to make, decisions about our buildings, our mission, and about how we deal with one another. Some of this is because as churches—just like us as individuals—we convince ourselves into thinking that we can move on without these things having an affect on us now.

So, do we really trust God? Are we willing—not only as individuals but as churches—to let God move us forward? Because this means:Letting God reveal our heart as a church. Where have we come from? Who are we? Why are we here? What aren’t we dealing with that is holding us back?Letting God change us as a church. What might God want to change about us? What does he want to see happen here? Are we willing to go through whatever it takes for that to happen?

The wilderness is painful. No matter how we go through it. I remember someone once talking about churches that are struggling. He said that we have to “choose our pain.” There’s the pain of change, of the hard work of love, of honesty, of deeper relationships; and then there’s the pain of slow decline, of dying without trying.

Or to put it another way, there are two kinds of dying, two kinds of death. One kind of death comes our way because we don’t want to change. This sort of death comes our way because we’re trying to hold onto our life, onto our agendas, onto our comfort. It’s not a death that leads anywhere. But the other kind of death is death with a purpose. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves. He calls us to put to death our sin, our selfishness, our pride, our fear—all by coming to him, all by kneeling at the foot of his cross, all by marveling at the empty tomb. This is the death that leads to life, new life, resurrection. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus says: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Who do we really want to be? Who do we really want to become? And who is Christ calling us to be? The difference between these two kinds of pain, these two kinds of death is this: our choice. And this is the choice that we face in the wilderness.

Wilderness #4: Avoiding Wrong Turns in the Wilderness

This is not something you want to see when you’re traveling. How many of you have used a GPS while traveling? We had one once and every once in awhile, we would hear the GPS voice say, “Recalculating.” Because we didn’t take the suggested directions. Sometimes this would mean the drive would take longer. It’s also possible to take wrong turns in life. We all know that too. This is also true in the wilderness. This morning we’re going to talk about avoiding wrong turns in the wilderness.

Don’t we all feel this way sometimes? Aren’t there are times when we want to complain about life in general? Who can we complain to about life? Well, most of us probably do our complaining around one another. Don’t we wish there was a complaints department for life? Ever feel tempted to complain to God about life? About your life? The first wrong turn we need to avoid is complaining about having to be in the wilderness.

A couple of months into their wilderness journey and after being miraculously delivered from slavery, the Israelites came to Moses and complained (Exodus 16:7—8): Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. But then Moses says: For what are we, that you grumble against us? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.

Let me ask: How long were the Israelites in the wilderness? 40 years, right? How long should their journey have been? The length of the wilderness journey should only have been a few months. But because of the Israelites’ wrong turns of disobedience and lack of faith, they were in the wilderness for 40 years.

Frank Viola writes: “The wilderness is temporary, unless you choose to build a home there. God will eventually make a way out of the wilderness. But when that day comes, your faith will be tried.” Now, here’s the thing: there is a difference between being honest about our pain and struggles and complaining about them. It’s healthy and right to be honest about ourselves and our lives, to be transparent before God and others.

But a complaining spirit can keep us from the life God has in mind for us because it reveals a hardened heart. And when our hearts are hard, it’s difficult to receive the grace or learn the lessons God has for us and that will help us to emerge from the wilderness healed and whole.

Rob Renfroe says: “When we get into that place of self-pity where we are complaining and grumbling, very often what’s beneath our words is anger with God for allowing us to go through the very trials we need in order to become more like Jesus.” Now, the flip side of this is that we should bring our hurts and struggles into God’s presence. And we should also be able to reveal these things in a Christian community. We shouldn’t keep our struggles to ourselves.

So let’s ask:Do we ever find ourselves thinking, saying, or praying that we shouldn’t have it so hard? What’s the difference between complaining about our struggles and being honest about them with God and others?When we find ourselves tempted to complain and grumble about our struggles, what else can (and should) we do instead?

Bill Brinkworth writes: “The Bible repeatedly warns believers to be careful of the company they keep.  The wrong influences often point a Christian in the wrong direction and quite often hurt a Christian’s testimony and closeness with the Lord. What we learn, or are told, by the wrong pressures can direct us into making wrong decisions that we may regret.” Proverbs 13:20: Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.

Numbers 11:4—6: Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

What we have to understand here is who the rabble is. Who was this group among the Israelites? These were Egyptians who left Egypt with Israel, others who had been mistreated by Egyptian rulers. Seeing the Israelites escape, they saw their chance to get out as well. The rabble didn’t worship the God of Israel. And they didn’t want to learn his ways or follow his laws. But when they complained about how God provided in the wilderness, the Israelites eventually complained too. The second wrong turn we need to avoid is turning our ears to the wrong people.

Renfroe explains the rabble this way: “They will not know God or his grace or what is required to walk faithfully with him. Like the rabble, they may be camping with you. They may be members of your family or friends who care for you, or even members of your church who haven’t progressed in their faith.”

The real point is this: our wilderness might involve the breakdown of a relationship, the temptation to deal with our pain in unhealthy ways, and even the temptation to think that we don’t deserve the struggle we’re in and if God isn’t getting us out of it then he must not really love us. And if the people we turn to encourage us to take the easy way out, to give up on God, to give into temptation because we deserve to feel better, these are not the people we should be listening to. The right way out of the wilderness is never the easy way.

Following Jesus, learning to trust God in all the mess and struggle of life, is hard, it’s a process of learning self-denial, and of taking up our cross. “There may be shortcuts to happiness, but there are no shortcuts to holiness.” So, don’t listen to the rabble. Listen instead to those who went through the wilderness the right way, not the easy way.

Let’s ask ourselves: When you’re going through an especially difficult time, who has your ear? Who are you listening to? Whose advice are you taking? Who can you turn to who’s been where you’ve been and has learned to trust God even more because of their struggle? Are you sometimes tempted to take the easy way out of your pain and struggle? How does that usually go? Does it help you to trust God more or less?

In one of the Charlie Brown comic strips Linus and Charlie Brown are talking together. Linus says, “I don’t like to face problems head on. I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them. In fact, this is a distinct philosophy of mine. No problem is so big or complicated that it can’t be run away from!” Well, the people of Israel, hearing the report of the 12 spies and the people of Canaan, also wanted to run from what they saw as a big problem.

Numbers 13:30—31 says: Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.Caleb saw what the rest of them saw, but his perspective was very different. The eyes of his heart were focused more on God than on the obstacle in their way. The people, however, were more focused on their problem than on God. The third wrong turn we need to avoid is focusing more on our struggles than on God.

I know this isn’t easy. Our problems and struggles can feel overwhelming. It can feel like we have no choice but to focus on them, to try and solve it ourselves. I think we all know that this really drains us.

Maybe you’re like me. When I face anxiety or stress or a problem that I don’t know how to solve, it’s like I’m on a hamster wheel I can’t get off. Ruminating endlessly doesn’t make me feel any better. Endlessly going over and over the issue doesn’t make it better or make me feel better. Here’s a suggestion: the next time that happens to you, give yourself five minutes to dwell on the problem. If after five minutes it’s no better, focus on something else.

As Renfroe says: “There are many things in life you can’t control. You can’t control your spouse. After they reach a certain age, you can’t control your children. You can’t even control your cat. You can’t control cancer. You can’t control the drunk driver in the lane next to you. You can’t control whether people like you. You can’t control the stock market or the economy. Most things in life you cannot control. But you can always control what is most important in life, and that is where you choose to focus the spiritual eyes of your heart.”

Psalm 34:3 says: Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! And Psalm 69:30 says: I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. John Piper, in a devotional on Psalm 69:30, writes: “When David says, “I will magnify God with thanksgiving,” he does not mean, “I will make a small God look bigger than he is.” He means, “I will make a big God begin to look as big as he really is.” We all need for God to look as big as he really is. And notice how the Psalmist magnifies God: by worshipping him, focusing on him, praising him, and thanking him.

The truth is: there are times when sitting down and praying and focusing on who God is and seeking his presence is, on the one hand, the best thing we can do, and, on the other hand, the most awkward and unnatural and difficult thing to do.  We need to ask God to help us have perspective, to see him as infinitely bigger and greater than our problems.

When it comes to the wilderness, it is important to understand this: more important than what happens to you is what happens in you. This means that God is more interested in changing you than in changing your circumstances.

So let me ask: What’s bigger: God or your problems? Does your way of approaching your struggles reflect this? What are some ways to re-direct your attention to God when your problems threaten to become overwhelming? Is it possible that you focus on your problems more than God because you want to control your life rather than give God control?

The question is: where do we want to end up? How long do we want to be in the wilderness? While we may not know how long God intends us to be in the wilderness, we can definitely make our stay there longer by making wrong turns. Because the wrong turns we have talked about effectively lead us away from rather than closer to God. You see, the destination is not ultimately having a pain-free, struggle-free life in this world. The destination is God: his presence and his purpose for us. In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples: I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. May this encourage us to trust God and to avoid taking wrong turns when we’re in the wilderness.

Wilderness #3: Walking with God in the Wilderness

Pastor J.D. Greear tells this story: “I once told a group of interns at our church that if they ever had days when they couldn’t feel God’s closeness, experiencing regular waves of His pleasure and mercy wash over their souls, that was proof they weren’t really saved. You should have seen the looks on their faces. I realized they hadn’t gotten what I thought to be a rather obvious joke.” Greear goes on to say: “If you think that walking with Jesus means an endless series of miracles, burning bushes, still, small voices, warm fuzzies, and sensations of peace that pass all understanding, then you are going to be disappointed.”

In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist David prays: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? The fact that David prays this way means he has experienced God’s presence. He’s experienced God’s hand in his life. But here he is feeling as though he’s been abandoned by God. But take note: he’s still praying.How about you? Have you ever felt like David?

There’s an assumption in Scripture that God’s people will experience God’s presence. So what does it mean when we don’t? And why might this happen precisely when we feel the need for the assurance of his presence most? Is our Lord a fair-weather friend or is something else going on?And in many ways this is the fundamental question we face when we find ourselves in the wilderness: Where is God when we’re in the wilderness? How do we walk with God in the wilderness when the wilderness makes it seem like God has walked away?

The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events of modern history, and there are many stories of people who hid Jews to protect them. Once such story came out of France, where a Jewish family were hidden by some concerned French nationals in the basement of their house. The Jewish family waited and waited for their deliverance. At the end of the war these words were found scribbled on the wall of that basement:

“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when it is not given.
I believe in God even when he is silent.”

I believe in God even when he is silent. The experience of finding ourselves in the wilderness—in a time of struggling, suffering, doubt, or uncertainty—can create lots of feelings inside of us: anger, envy, self-pity, unforgiveness, fear. The very presence of those feelings may lead us to doubt God, to question his presence. We may even want to walk away from God, figuring he’s already walked away from us.

In Numbers 14 the Israelites had sent twelve spies into Canaan to check out the land. When they came back and gave their report, the Israelites were terrified. All they could see were the obstacles. All they could see was what they could see. In fact, they wanted to appoint other leaders to take them back to Egypt and they wanted to stone their leaders, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. Moses comes before God and the Lord says to him: How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?

While in the wilderness, the Israelites had real difficulty trusting in God, even after having seen and experienced his presence and his wonders. They didn’t believe that he would do what he’d promised to do: to be with them. Sometimes life gives precious little evidence of God’s faithfulness. That’s why the first thing we should say is this: Walking with God in the wilderness means walking in faith.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “We go by faith not feelings.” Our feelings can mislead us. Now, I may not have a choice about whether or not I experience anxiety; but I do have a choice about how to deal with my anxiety.

Just think of what God says to Moses: How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? If we only trust God when things are going well, then we’re not really trusting him but our circumstances.

All the Israelites could see was what they could see. They were terrified. And from the story it’s clear that they simply didn’t trust God, even after all of the wondrous things he had done for them.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:7: we walk by faith, not by sight. Appearances are deceiving. When walking in the wilderness appearances tell us God doesn’t care, that he can’t be trusted, that he’s not good after all. But don’t buy it. Don’t believe it. Because he does care, he is good, and he can be trusted. Walking with God in the wilderness means walking in faith that God is walking with you. As Renfroe writes, “We simply need to hold on to the truth that God is faithful even when life doesn’t make sense.”

Let’s ask: How do difficult times affect your prayers?When you experience feelings that make it hard to trust God, what do you do?Can you think of how God was faithful even during an especially tough season of your life? The question is: how can we learn to walk in faith while in the wilderness?

In Exodus 33 the Lord appears to be getting fed up with the Israelites. He tells Moses to continue leading the people but tells him I will not go up among you. In other words, “You’re on your own.” Moses goes into the Tent of meeting. We’re told that The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Moses sought God’s presence. Not only that, Moses intercedes with God. We see Moses wrestling with God in prayer. It’s an incredibly profound moment. And he says to God: If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.

Moses knew that without God’s presence, they were toast. They’d never make it through. And even if they physically survived the wilderness, they still would not have reached their destination. Because, you see, on one level God’s purpose was to bring his people through the wilderness into Canaan, into the Promised Land; on another level, his purpose was to teach his people to trust that he was enough. The same is true for us. We’re always called to seek God’s presence, to seek to be in his presence. Think of Psalm 27:4:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we have to be all the more intentional about seeking God’s presence. Because in the wilderness, it is going to be much more difficult to experience his presence. But we are encouraged to seek his presence. Walking in the wilderness with God means seeking his presence.

Now, I don’t know if all of you have daily devotions or not, but even if you do, while in the wilderness you might need to try different things to help you remember that God is with you. Because sometimes when we find ourselves in the wilderness, the things we normally do to meet with God may not work liked they used to.

Here are some possibilities: read Scripture out loud, memorize a helpful verse and repeat it during the week, write out your prayers, sing a hymn or worship song, go for a walk somewhere that reminds you of God’s peace, sit silently for a brief time, raise your hands, and give God your cares, trusting that he cares for you.  But there might be more we have to consider. There’s always a good chance that God intends to use your wilderness to dig deeper into your heart, into your character.

Rob Renfroe says this about seeking God’s presence: “Sometimes seeking God’s presence requires more than setting aside a time and place to be alone with him; it requires us to work diligently to clear our hearts of all the attitudes and emotions that impede us from experiencing the presence of God—including anger, bitterness, envy, greed, self-pity, self-centeredness, and unforgiveness, to name just a few. Sadly, these attitudes that make it hard for us to experience the presence of God are the very ones that the wilderness so often creates within us.”

And remember the first key question we asked at the beginning of our series: Who will you be once you’re through the wilderness? Will your wilderness leave you angry, bitter, isolated, and feeling sorry for yourself? Or will you become a more humble, patient, loving, and obedient follower of our Lord Jesus? If we want it to be the latter, then we have to seek God’s presence intentionally.

So let’s ask: Do you seek to be in God’s presence? What do you do when difficult emotions come up? How might God use your wilderness to shape you and teach you?

At the start we asked: Where is God when we’re in the wilderness? How do we walk with God in the wilderness when the wilderness makes it seem like God has walked away? You’ve no doubt heard the “Footprints” poem:

“One night I dreamed a dream.
as I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
for each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
you’d walk with me all the way.
but I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most, you would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
never, ever, during your trials and testings.
when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I really appreciate these words from famous 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon: “We cannot always trace God’s hand but we can always trust God’s heart.”And how do we know God’s heart? We know his heart because of Jesus. Not only does Jesus promise to be with us always, through thick and thin, but he also knows exactly what it’s like to be in the wilderness.

Hebrews 5:7—8: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. Hebrews 2:18: For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Jesus knows what the wilderness is like. Jesus promises to be with us when we’re in the wilderness. We will not always know or understand why God allows to end up in the wilderness, but we know this: it’s not because he doesn’t love us. It’s not because he doesn’t care.

Wilderness #2: Walking with Others in the Wilderness

Moses said to Hobab, descendant of Reuel the Midianite and Moses’s relative by marriage, “We’re setting out for the place the Lord promised, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things to Israel.” But he replied to him, “I don’t want to go. Instead, I will go to my own land and my relatives.” “Please don’t leave us,” Moses said, “since you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can serve as our eyes. If you come with us, whatever good the Lord does for us we will do for you.”

Numbers 10:29—32
A Monastery in the Desert

Edward Powell was the pastor of Grand Bay Baptist Church when my family and I were living in Nerepis. I love Edward. He was one of the most supportive friends I had during our time there. One of the most wonderful things about Edward is that at the end of every conversation with him, either in person or on the phone, he would pray for you. Even when he left a voice mail, he would pray.

A few years before moving here my wife went through a few months of having horrible insomnia. Most nights it took her hours to fall asleep. Sometimes she would have fallen asleep just before the sun came up. Once in awhile she didn’t fall asleep at all. And so you can imagine what that must have been like. I was a full-time pastor. We had our three kids. It was exhausting and stressful. After talking to Edward about this, he offered to come over to spend some time praying with us about it. He also asked if he could bring someone else who had had a similar experience. So they came over and we shared and we prayed. What I still treasure is how someone was with us when we were having a hard time. Whatever else we can say, we didn’t feel alone.

In Galatians 6:2, Paul writes: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. We all have burdens. But we don’t have to carry them alone. Sometimes the only thing worse than being in the wilderness is being alone in the wilderness. This morning we’re talking about walking with others in the wilderness. Our key question is: Who will walk with you in the wilderness?

There’s a stereotype about men that if they get lost while traveling they don’t want to ask for help with directions. And the truth is, a lot of us don’t like asking for help. Maybe because it makes us feel vulnerable. We don’t want to look weak. We think we should find our own way through whatever circumstances we’re in.

As we see in our passage from Numbers, the Israelites were in the wilderness, journeying to the promised land. And in our passage Moses asks Hobab to come with them to help guide them. Now, some might think this shows a lack of faith on Moses’ part. After all, the Israelites had the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to guide them. But I think it shows humility on Moses’ part. I think that it takes courage to ask for help. It takes courage to admit you need help. It’s risky. It means stepping beyond our fear and pride.

We live in a culture that emphasizes self-reliance, independence, handling things on your own. We don’t want to bother other people with our worries. We think we shouldn’t, that we’re not supposed to. And I think this same attitude or way of seeing things is in the church too. If I can be honest, too often even in church (or around other Christians) it’s sort of like we have to not only put on our best clothes but our best moods. We have to pretend we’re not hurting, that we’re not confused, that we’re not having a difficult time. It’s as though being open about our struggles will somehow ruin everything.

Once I had someone who led a depression support group come share with our church. I was really struck by the fact that those who go to this group can simply vent, talk about messy stuff, and be themselves. Like AA. When you go to a support group, there’s no hiding. Simply attending is an admission that you need help from other people. Though it often isn’t, church ought to be like that too.

So, the first thing about walking with others in the wilderness with others is this: Walking with others in the wilderness means admitting we need others. Coming to church should be like admitting that I can’t trust God on my own—and all the more so when I’m in the wilderness. When we come here, to some extent we should be free to stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Derek, and I struggle with anxiety.” The community of the church is—or should be—a support group.

So, let’s ask: When you’re going through a difficult time, is asking for help difficult? Do you experience church as a place where you can be honest about your struggles? Would you like it if church were this kind of place?

I’ve had the blessing of being in online spiritual formation groups with other pastors, and I am in one now. We meet each week online. It’s a valuable and profound experience because there are things pastors can only talk about with one another. Because only other pastors understand. We’ve traveled the same territory.

When Moses asked his brother in law Hobab to come with them to serve as eyes to guide them on their journey, he had a specific reason for doing so. When Moses married, he married a Midianite woman—Zipporah—and Hobab was Moses’ brother in law. Midianites were wilderness nomads. This means they knew the territory.

That’s why Moses says to Hobab: Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. So in asking Hobab, he was asking someone who could help them on their journey, someone already familiar with where to look for water, where to find vegetation for their animals, what the dangers were. Moses knew what he didn’t know.

Rob Renfroe, in his book A Way Through the Wilderness, writes this: “God will bring into your life someone who knows the terrain and challenges you are facing. God will place someone in the middle of your wilderness who has been there before you, knows the way through, and will teach you the lessons you need to learn.”

Now, it’s probably the case that you won’t share your deepest struggles with everyone. Maybe there’s one or two people who you know you can trust with your struggle. You know they’ll accept you and love you no matter what you share. Proverbs 17:17 says A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. It also makes me think of Paul’s words in Romans 12:15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

But there’s another dimension to this also. I know that if I am having a hard time in my life and I’m having trouble seeing why God might allow these particular circumstances, I don’t just want someone who’s had a similar experience, but someone who can show me how to trust God even when life is hard. In other words, I would want a more experienced Christian, a spiritually mature believer who has also wrestled with God.

Because, remember, Moses and the Israelites weren’t on just any journey. They were going where God was leading them. They were learning how to trust God in the most barren, desolate places. They were on their way to the Promised Land. So are we. Between here and there, we’re learning to trust God.So we can also say this: walking with others in the wilderness means having others with us who know the terrain and can encourage us to keep walking with God while we’re going through it.

Let me ask:If you were to find yourself in a spiritual wilderness, who could you talk to about it? Who has been where you are? Are you comfortable asking for prayer for personal struggles?How might God want to use the presence of other people in your life to draw you closer to him?

After he asks Hobab to come with them, Moses says to him: And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you. Hobab will enjoy the same blessings as Moses and the Israelites. So lastly: walking with others in the wilderness means sharing what we learn with others. We help as we’ve been helped. We bless others as others have blessed us. When we’ve had someone pray with us about our struggles, we’re learning how to pray with others who are hurting. There are times when we’re on the receiving end; other times we’re on the giving end.

Walking with others in the wilderness is also not mostly about giving advice or having answers to someone’s problems. It’s mostly about being there. Being present. Because people will have problems we have no idea how to solve, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk with them.

So maybe it’s being a shoulder to cry on or taking someone out for coffee so they can talk and you can listen. We underestimate the value of listening. Listening is a form of ministry. In fact, more than advice, it’s about sharing our own stories. It’s a way of saying, “Been there.” It’s also about remembering and sharing how God was with us while we were in the wilderness.

The question to ask ourselves is this: Who around me is hurting or struggling? Who can I come alongside and encourage? What can I share from my own experience that will help someone else to trust God even in a difficult season? Because when we—or someone we know—ends up in the wilderness, it’s important to know that you’re never alone.  

Wilderness #1: Entering the Wilderness

During the season of Lent in 2018, I preached a series called “Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard.” This is the first of the series of five sermons. Over the next five days (or so) I will post them all here. I have no doubt that there are many who feel as though they have been and are in a wilderness of some kind. I pray these posts will be helpful and encouraging.

Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your ancestors had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 8:2—3

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Matthew 4:1—4
Sinai desert

Does this look like an inviting place to be? How much how time would you like to spend here? This is the Sinai wilderness where the Israelites wandered for 40 years as they learned to trust and know God and his ways. When we hear the word wilderness, we hear deserted, dry, barren, desolate. The word Yeshimon is the most common Hebrew name given to the wilderness of Judea. It can be translated as “the devastation.” Again, not very inviting. Since you and I will obviously never wander for any length of time in an actual desert, what does it mean for us?

In his book A Way Through the Wilderness, Rob Renfroe says this: “In the Scriptures, wilderness is used to describe a time in a person’s life when his or her soul is parched and dry; when today is hard and the future appears barren . . . You may even feel bereft of God’s presence.” We can see this in Psalm 63:1. There the psalmist begins his prayer: O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. We hear that and maybe we ask, “What’s the point of that? Why would God allow that to happen to anyone?”

British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian later in life, wrote: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

Now, I don’t know if I completely agree with Muggeridge. Not everything I have learned has been from times of pain and suffering. I have also learned from the joys of life. But I do think we can learn from the difficulties of life. And many testify that it is often in these times that they actually grow closest to God. But the simple truth is this: We all find ourselves in the wilderness at some point. When circumstances befall us, for whatever reason, that seriously challenges our trust in God, our confidence in his goodness, our assurance of his presence, we are in the wilderness. The key question is this: Who will you be when this difficult time is over? When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you have become?

Deuteronomy is a sermon. Its words are Moses’ last words before the people of Israel enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. So, this comes at the end of their wilderness wanderings. Our passage from Deuteronomy 8 begins this way: And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness. So much hinges on perspective. How am I interpreting my circumstances? Because the perspective I have will determine how I deal with being in the wilderness and how I relate to God while I’m there.  Notice that the Israelites were led by the Lord into and through the wilderness. And notice where Moses says: God humbled you and let you hunger. How does that strike you? Isn’t God our provider? Don’t we pray, Give us this day our daily bread? Doesn’t our faith in Christ promise abundant life?

Of course, God didn’t let the Israelites starve to death. Moses told them that he fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know. Sometimes when we’re low on groceries and have to wait a day or two to shop, we’re stuck eating food that’s not exactly our favourite. So maybe this isn’t the food, the provision, you’re accustomed to having, but you’re still getting fed.

That God allows us to enter a wilderness—and that he sometimes leads us into one—means that God’s agenda, his purpose for us, can be very different from our own. What I want for my life, what I want for me and for my family, may not always be what God wants.

But this also means that even if we find it difficult to understand, God is with us in the wilderness. God led the Israelites the whole way during their 40 years in the Sinai desert. While they abandoned him plenty of times, he never abandoned them. God doesn’t just lead us to the wilderness, he leads us through the wilderness.

Let me ask: Have you ever found yourself in a spiritual wilderness? What led to it? How would you describe your experience?How did you relate to God during this time? Did he seem near or far away?

But why? Why the wilderness? Moses says to the Israelites: the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. So, there’s the crux: testing you to know what was in your heart. Who are you? What’s going on in your heart?

Ever notice how adversity and difficult times have a way of testing you? They can reveal areas of our lives and hearts that are not as they should be. Rather than focus on what’s going on around me, God wants to deal with what’s going on inside of me. God isn’t so much a problem fixer as he is a people changer.

Often when we find ourselves in a wilderness, we want out. We want God to fix it. We want it to go away. But in those times God also wants us to pay attention to ourselves: our attitudes, our feelings, the way we process and deal with our circumstances. We can put it this way: God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. And often this is about showing us who we are. Most of us need to become more self-aware of what’s going on in our hearts.

Like it or not, God wants to stir up stuff. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that he wants to deal with. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that keeps us from loving and trusting him more. And God is not content to leave us this way. This means that the wilderness is the means God uses to deepen our trust in him. Like our passage says, the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness . . . testing you to know . . . whether you would keep his commandments or not.

Whenever the Israelites disobeyed, their disobedience revealed who they really were: people who didn’t really trust God, that he knew what was best for them and that he was good. Trust and obedience go hand in hand. God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. Let me ask:  What keeps you from loving and trusting God more? How has your wilderness revealed more about you? Do you trust God enough to let him stir up stuff that makes you uncomfortable? Why or why not?

You see, here’s the thing: God’s goal is not our happiness but our Christlikeness. God is seeking to make us like his Son. In Romans 8:29 Paul tells us that God wants us to be conformed to the image of his Son. You might recall that Jesus also spent time in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1—4 it says:  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

So, first, notice that it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness. And then look at the first temptation: And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And how did Jesus answer? “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And do you know what Scripture Jesus is quoting? He is quoting our passage from Deuteronomy where it says God allowed his people to experience the wilderness so that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every wordthat comes from the mouth of the Lord. When faced with his own wilderness, Jesus trusted his Father, even in the wilderness, even when he found himself hungry and alone. God wants us to learn to trust him in the same way. God leads us into the wilderness to make us more like his Son Jesus.

Rob Renfroe says this: “God uses the wilderness to prepare his people. God uses the difficult, desperate times of our lives to teach us important lessons and develop our character, making us into the image of his Son, so that we will be ready for the future and equipped to be his instruments in a hurting and broken world.” Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3—4:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

You probably know how porcelain is made. A piece of clay pottery is put into a kiln at incredibly high temperatures. Once done, porcelain is much stronger and more resilient than clay. A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain. The wilderness is a spiritual furnace. God wants us to make us into porcelain. The key question is: When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you be?

And remember why God allows us to enter the wilderness. He’s making us, shaping us, remolding us, restoring us. Though we find ourselves in a wilderness, we can trust in his word. In Isaiah 43:19 it says:

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Stopping for Sabbath Even When There’s More to Do

Last night I sat down with my family for Sabbath supper. I had been hoping to get certain things done before Sabbath began. But I didn’t. There were unfinished tasks all around me.

There are always unfinished tasks all around me.

But I still practice Sabbath.

I told someone recently that even if my Sunday sermon isn’t done before Sabbath starts, I don’t continue working on it until Sabbath is over.

I’m learning to trust that God honours this.

More, to ignore my need for Sabbath to get something else done—including a sermon—is an act of hubris, of pride, of anxious striving. To insist on finishing a sermon on, say, Saturday morning when I’m supposed to be resting is to insist that I need to make this happen or it won’t.

Obviously, I make every effort not to put myself in the position of needing to work on my sermon after Sabbath begins. Even so, in what or in whom do I trust? Am I letting anxiety or guilt be the driving force in my doing?

My anxiousness over unfinished tasks or chores is hardly limited to sermons. Usually it’s other things. And more important than the tasks themselves is my mindset when thinking about them or when engaging in them.

Sabbath means stopping and letting go. I don’t have to control everything. I can’t control much anyhow. But I live with the illusion of control, this persistent belief that without my effort things will fall apart.

This past week I went on a 4 day pastor’s retreat. Since I am the primary cook and have a more flexible work schedule than my wife who is a teacher, being away for that time meant my family had to get along without me.

And they did. Things didn’t fall apart. Not even close.

If this was the case this week, how much more so with God when I take Sabbath? Am I so indispensable to the world and to what God is doing that I can’t take 24 hours to rest and recalibrate? How arrogant would it make me to live that way?

When we live in such a manner that we never slow down, never allow ourselves quiet, solitude, rest, and Sabbath, we’re endangering our souls. We’re dehumanizing ourselves and those around us. We become human doings instead of human beings. How we see and treat ourselves becomes how we see and treat others.

Because there’s always more to do. Always. Even when we ignore our need for Sabbath. Ignoring Sabbath doesn’t make us more productive. And even if it does, who cares? By whose priorities are we living? Whose agenda are we serving?

Practicing Sabbath is in part learning to be more of myself in the presence of God and others—especially my family. Whatever tasks have to remain briefly unfinished to attend to this reality are, on the whole, less significant. And by practicing Sabbath I learn to experience all of life—including it’s everyday tasks—as participating in the very life of God himself. To me, that’s worth stopping for 24 hours, even if other things have to wait.

The Work of Grace

O Gracious God, by your Son, Jesus Christ, you call us forth from sin and into the baptism of new life. Help us work out our salvation with the fear and trembling necessary for any genuine disciple. Forgive us when we imagine you are done with your re-creative work in us.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

None of is done growing. God has more to do in us. But spiritual growth isn’t always easy. We have to be willing to enter into the process, become more self-aware, and be ready to do some hard work. As the late Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Indeed, the above prayer draws on Philippians 2:12, where Paul says: “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

For me, the last four or so years have been among the most significant of my life with respect to growing spiritually. Not because I have finally made it. Not at all. Instead, I would say that how I see the spiritual life has shifted in important ways. I have had a big change of perspective. But entering this process has meant being willing at times to deal with corners of my heart and aspects of my past that are painful to look at.

And it’s still true. Even now, there are areas of my life that need profound change. And what needs to change in the present is rooted deeply in my upbringing. Lifelong negative habits are often borne of emotional and psychological attempts to cope with other things. Who we are in the present, including the not so good stuff, is the end result of our personal history. This same stuff–habits, traits, proclivities, fears–is what God wants to go to work healing and restoring.

As a result, facing these habits, these things that need to change, can be very hard. It’s never only about the exercise of willpower. Though effort is needed. We also need to recognize that these things are spiritual. Because everything about our lives, especially as it pertains to how we relate to others and even to ourselves, is spiritual. Spiritual in the sense of having to do with the deepest part of ourselves, that image of God-ness, who God has made us to be. Spiritual in the sense of being re-made into the image of Jesus. Spiritual in the sense of needing to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Spiritual in the sense of realizing that long before we began the hard journey home, our heavenly Father saw us from a distance and began running towards us, arms outstretched for an embrace.

In one sense, we go on that journey again and again. As soon as we find ourselves confronting another element of our painful past, or whatever it is that keeps us from being more fully ourselves or from growing, we need to learn to receive the Father’s love that much more fully. Because it’s his love, fully revealed in the person of Christ, that transforms and redeems us.

The question is always: Are we willing to let God into that space, into those painful areas of our lives? What’s more painful, the redemptive process of God doing his work in us or staying exactly where we are and allowing the guilt, fear, and shame have its way with us? Either way, life is going to be painful at times, at some level. But we have to choose our pain.

I’m facing a choice along those lines right now. I don’t even know exactly how to go about it. It’s an area of my life that I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. And while I know perfectly well that the pain of remaining as I am is much less desirable, making the effort again to change, perhaps at a deeper level, is not a prospect I necessarily welcome.

Part of God’s work of grace, I think, involves freeing us from all the baggage, the past hurts, that define how we deal with life in the present. He wants to break the chains that hold us back from experiencing the new life in Christ he offers. The spiritual life–life lived in the presence of God through Christ in the power of the Spirit–is not about holding on until we get to heaven, about just waiting until Jesus returns. No, it’s about the power of God at work in our lives in the present. Here. Now. It’s not an easy or comfortable process. There is some fear and trembling involved. But I’ve come far enough to know that the process is worth it. That God shows up in grace and love. And if I am going to keep growing, which he calls me to do, it’s knowing this that makes continuing this process possible. Not only for me, but also for you.

Lenten TV Fast Update

So it’s day three of no Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or Disney+.

So far, so good.

I’ve noticed a few things. First, it’s not really something I miss per se. But because of the habits that I’d formed, I’m aware of the absence of it. I miss or at least am cognizant of the change in my routine. It’s amazing what I would do because it’s what I was used to doing. Lent is giving me the opportunity to reflect on and change habits.

I also have a little more time. When I would watch something while eating lunch, my meal was always done before whatever I was watching. But I kept watching. Today while eating I listened to a podcast. When I was done eating, I got back to work. I kept listening to the podcast, but it wasn’t the same as passive entertainment; it was spiritually edifying and intellectually stimulating. Lent is teaching me a bit about what Scripture calls “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16).

Lastly, there have been moments when I’ve thought about “adjusting” my commitment to fasting from TV for Lent. Maybe I could only fast from certain portions of it. No doubt an excuse to keep some of what I want. However, I’m not going to change the parameters of my fast. To that end, Lent is helping me experience the value of not always getting what I want.

With 37 days to go, it should be interesting to see what else I learn from observing Lent.

Thoughts on Prayer: Pre-Written or Spontaneous Prayers?

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, I was taught how to pray some specific prayers. The first was The Lord’s Prayer, which in the New Testament (in the CSB) goes like this:

Our Father in heaven,
your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

There was also the Gloria Patri. This prayer is also a part of the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer.

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.

Gloria Patri (Glory Be to the Father)

I remember saying this prayer regularly during my bedtime prayers as a child.

But for most of my adult Christian life, I have not used pre-written prayers or prayed only using the words of The Lord’s Prayer. This is because I became a committed follower of Jesus in university through the influence of evangelicals. I was taught, therefore (often by example), to pray from the heart. That is, to come before God with my own words, to pray spontaneously.

Often, Christians think we should pray one way or the other. Those from a more high-church or liturgical tradition (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) maintain the value and importance of prayers that are essentially “given” to us. We should make use of and personalize pre-written prayers. Those, however, from the free-church or evangelical traditions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans) emphasize spontaneous prayers. More, they often see pre-written prayers as rote, as prayers that can be spoken without the person really praying.

So how should we pray? Does it have to be one or the other?

For instance, when it comes to The Lord’s Prayer, did Jesus intend his disciples to pray those words verbatim? I appreciate theologian Karl Barth, who in his wonderful little book Prayer, puts it this way: “Be content with possessing in the Lord’s Prayer a model, but let your prayer arise from the fieedom of the heart.” I think Barth puts it beautifully, and in doing so addresses the respective concerns of both those who emphasize pre-written prayers and those who emphasize spontaneous prayers.

You see, I think here is a difference between Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, the words to pray and the way to pray. The words he gives in The Lord’s Prayer show us the way. He is teaching us what to pray for and how we ought to prioritize our prayers. However, I daresay we can pray with these words without praying in the way he taught us. We can do it simply by rote without really thinking about the words. We can do it without heart.

On the other hand, one weakness of only ever praying spontaneously is that we often immediately jump to our concerns or worries or needs. Our tendency is to focus on our problems–or the problems of people we know–without ever really giving time for what is on God’s heart and how that should make its way into our prayers. I remember one pastor saying that people often only pray for “stomachs and steering wheels,” referring to health issues and what we call “traveling mercies.” And although God certainly invites us to bring all of our concerns to him in prayer, I think he also wants us to do so within the larger framework of the story he is telling all throughout Scripture.

Notice that even in The Lord’s Prayer, only after teaching us to pray for God’s glory, kingdom, and will does Jesus teach us to pray for our daily bread and everyday needs. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. I think there is.

In making use of the Daily Office in my devotions for the last few months, I have been making use of the pre-written prayers in it as well. One of them is the confession of sin:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Now, let me ask: How often to do you hear pastors praying words anything like this on a Sunday morning? How often do we pray like this in the privacy of our own hearts? Yet isn’t forgiveness, repentance, and the confession of sin a pretty basic aspect of discipleship?

Here’s the thing: What’s important are not the words of pre-written prayers but rather the spiritual realities to which they point us. Without such reminding, I think we would simply overlook some of these basic spiritual realities, like the need for confession (individually and corporately). Indeed, I think there are some key aspects to a praying life that are almost entirely absent from the lives of most believers and the worship of most congregations.

Let me put it this way: Praying only from the heart when the heart is not being sufficiently instructed and trained in how to pray can lead to a self-centred and narrow prayer life.

Just because we’re followers of Jesus doesn’t mean we know how to pray. Consider the context in Luke’s Gospel for Jesus giving the words of The Lord’s Prayer to his disciples:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples. He said to them, “Whenever you pray, say,”

Luke 11:1-2

Jesus’ disciples asked him for help in praying. They wanted to pray like he prayed. They needed instruction. Are we so different?

I think pre-written prayers, even if we only use them as a starting point for our spontaneous prayers, remind us to pray in ways that we might otherwise neglect or forget, ways integral to growing in our living out of the good news of Jesus.

So, I submit, it’s neither one nor the other. Those who are seeking to love God and follow in his ways need both pre-written prayers and spontaneous prayers. Our prayers need both heart and direction, and making use of both ways of praying, allowing them to inform each other, provides what we need.

My Story Part 14: Grace in Hindsight

For you have made me rejoice, LORD, by what you have done; I will shout for joy because of the works of your hands.

Psalm 92:4

It was 1995, my last term at Mount Allison University. I was going to graduate with my BA in Religious Studies (and Political Science, as it happens), after which I’d be heading off to Acadia Divinity College to begin my MA in Theology. At the time, my plan was eventually to earn a PhD in theology and teach as a professor. That last part never happened, and even going on to do a master’s degree was hardly a given while I was at Mt. A.

My years at Mount A were incredibly formative for me. I’ve shared about that in earlier posts about my experience of being involved with IVCF and studying theology. Yet while in the midst of those years, what God was doing was not always evident.

Towards the end of my last year, while finishing up term papers and writing final exams, I recall having this nearly overwhelming feeling of joy, gratitude, and expectation. I remember going for walks and having this profound sense of God’s presence. It felt like the end of the most important season of my life to that point. No surprise, given what those years had been like. I had changed and grown so much. To put it another way, God had done so much in my life.

One memory in particular stands out. You see, our IVCF group met in the basement of the Mount Allison chapel. I had also been involved with the chaplaincy ministry a little bit. I often went there to pray, too, to come before God with whatever frustrations or anxieties were bothering me. So the chapel, which, incidentally, is absolutely beautiful, was an especially meaningful setting for me.

And I remember being in the chapel one spring evening during my final days at Mount A, filled with three years of memories, in awe of all that had happened, and having tears pour down my face.

Was I sad? Upset? Hardly.

Imagine being hit all at once with the realization of what God has done for you over the last few years of your life. Because if we’re honest, we know that God is at work, but we don’t always see or understand how in the moment. Sometimes it takes hindsight. Even then, sometimes God needs to open our eyes.

That’s what happened to me on this evening. All the joy and gratitude I had been feeling for a few weeks overflowed into one of the most profound experiences of thanksgiving I have ever had.

All I could say was, “Thank You.” But believe me, it was a deep and full hearted thank you. Because it was all grace, unmerited favour, sheer gift, God’s doing.

While in the present we aren’t always aware of the significance of what’s going on or what God’s doing in us and around us. But there are times when he graciously gives us a glimpse, when he lets us feel the weight of his providential care and supervision of our lives.

Truly, there is something wonderful about being able to look back and see how God has been at work, to realize how he has been mysteriously and lovingly protecting, guiding, and shaping you.

And this includes the bad stuff, the struggles, the pain that we deal with along the way. God is there too. My time at Mount A, as significant as it was, wasn’t perfect or only an endless highlight reel. There were moments and experiences that, well, sucked. No matter what age you are or what’s going on, life can be hard.

Yet, honestly, I’ve also learned that some of what was difficult to deal with at the time proved to be God’s means of protecting me from something or preparing me for something. Only with hindsight, though, did it become possible to understand that God was even at work in the disappointments.

Each one of our lives can indeed be, as the psalmist says above, the work of God’s hands. When we come to the end of ourselves and realize our need for God, it’s like he immediately sets out transforming us so that our desires and priorities radically shift. He makes it possible to learn how to look back and see his movements in our circumstances.

I’ve always loved these words of Charles Spurgeon: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”

Spurgeon is absolutely right. Much of the time in the present moment we cannot trace God’s hand in our lives. We don’t know what he’s up to or how we are growing spiritually. It’s then that we learn to trust his heart—by learning to lean on his promises and his character.

Yet, there are moments, such as the one I had roughly 25 years ago, when God pulls the curtain back just a bit and gifts us with hindsight to see the work of his grace in our lives. When that happens, treasure the moment and be thankful. And when life is proving troublesome and challenging, look back to that same moment when you saw his hand. Doing so will help you, as it does me, trust his heart.