Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 

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About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

5 responses to “Paths Through the Desert

  • Ellis Hein

    For several days, I have had a sense of needing to respond to what you have written above. Only now have I come to clarity on anything thing I can say.

    In my experience, suffering is the result of either going the wrong way or of walking in obedience to the Lord. In either case, if I am focused on the light of Christ within me, I can say with Paul, “Who or what can separate us from the Love of God…” Or consider George Fox’s epistle 206, “In the power of God that is everlasting, and doth remain in this your day of trial, in it stand, Of which ye are partakers, and are come to be heirs of the same; and in it is your peace and kingdom. And though ye have not a foot of ground to stand upon, yet ye have the power of God to skip and to leap in; standing in that, which is your life, that is everlasting. Who by the power of God are gathered up to the beginning, to the endless life, who have your meetings in it, that neither death nor the power of it can separate you from, nor out of the power of God, for it was before death or the power of it was…” (Works of Fox, Vol. VII, p.201)

    One of the phrases of Fox I am coming more and more to understand is “the cross, the power of God.” This phrase is about the death of all that I “gained” by obeying the serpent, and now coming to live in the power of the resurrection of the image of God within, brought about by the work of Christ in and among us. That is truly something to skip and leap in which no earthly power can diminish, no matter how much outward suffering it heaps upon us. For the Lamb has the victory.

    • jtower11

      Indeed He has! I tend to see suffering in a redemptive way as well. I find in it peace and hope in the midst of trial, because of the presence of Christ. At he same time, while that hope shines, like the psalmist I find room in my faith for the full expression of human emotions and through my journey of recovery believe there is a fine line between denying oneself “to take up my cross” and denial of the truth of where I am at in the journey. Thank you for your encouraging words!
      Agape,
      James

      • Ellis Hein

        It was not my intention to say that suffering is redemptive. Perhaps that was not your intention either. I am not sure what that means exactly anyway. There were at least three people on crosses when Jesus was crucified. By the suffering of none of the three are we redeemed. There were two thieves crucified with Jesus. One entered paradise, the other presumably no; yet their suffering was likely the same. If Jesus had not overcome death, we would not be freed from the bondage to death and the god of death, no matter how much suffering was involved. The point of this is that redemption is by life, not death, not suffering; and results in life that renders ineffectual the lashes of the whip of the god of death. This is what Fox is referring to regarding having the power of God to skip and leap in. Thus life is living in the resurrection of Jesus, which means we experience Him present within and among us fulfilling all the functions proclaimed by the scriptures. (See Lewis Benson’s letter at https://thiswasthetruelight.wordpress.com/george-foxs-view-of-christ-a-letter-from-lewis-benson/ for more details that will fit in this comment.) Life is performance on the stage of this-really-matters. It is not practice in a practice room where nothing really counts. There are no practice rooms for life. Jesus admonished his disciples on various occasions to believe in the light (which He IS) that you may become children of the light and the day. Walking in the light we find no ocassion of stumbling, even though we are performing rather than practicing. OK, enough from me.

        Now that I have gone on more than I intended, do you want to explain what you meant by “I tend to see suffering in a redemptive way”?

      • jtower11

        I hate to keep you waiting, but I hope to respond to you Monday Ellis…

      • Ellis Hein

        OK, I will look forward to it.

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