It was one of those pinched, lightless mornings when I was up for no other reason than because it wasn’t an option to remain in bed. I had an urgent need to hear from God, particularly since I don’t seem to hear his voice as well as I might. I’ve often taken others’ advice and, after praying, remained in the posture of prayer and simply “listened.” But at these times I rarely hear anything with clarity. So it is a pleasant surprise to me when God speaks.
I was bothered as I approached my devotions that morning. The day before, I had begun to experience slippage in my relationship with God. I felt my heart beginning to pull away from him. In spite of the desolate feeling that came with it, I was experiencing a surge of self will stronger than anything I had felt for a long time. I wanted more than anything to go somewhere else, anywhere else, and do my own thing. The scary part is that often in the past such slippage has precipitated seasons in flight from God.
I had no intention of changing course, but some difficult questions lingered: Why isn’t my devotion to God stronger? Where is all the gratitude I should be experiencing, my desire to serve, to be a part of what God is doing in the world? I never seem to have these sentiments in the appropriate measure in spite of my fervent prayers. I have tried to bend my thoughts, speech and behavior to the godly standard, as Scripture instructs. While I’ve seen progress over the course of my Christian walk, it often seems tentative and inadequate given the grace I have so often received from God.
As these concerns began to surface in my mind on that recent morning, God reminded me of the day he taught me that he is in charge of my life and sanctification. That was a day of suffering when God took pains to show me the futility of my painful attempts to purify myself and produce Christian maturity in my own life, through great personal effort and the application of spiritual disciplines. (It had never occurred to me that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and not itself a spiritual discipline.)
Discipline is good and necessary, but the problem for me was that Christian growth isn’t a mathematical formula. I learned that as well as a person can learn it, through fasting, flawless church attendance, marathon sessions in the Word, painful material sacrifices, vehement prayers and white-knuckled attempts to be obedient in everything. (I could recount ludicrous tales here.) I’ve read dozens of Christian books and have a thousand thundering sermons in my head. None of it could ever accomplish the kind of heart change that would permit me to go after Jesus with the kind of grateful, hungry heart I had wanted ever since I started reading the great Christian biographies.
How can the truth of God’s grace be concealed for so long from one who desperately desired it? I have no idea. But finally, after countless thrashings, I was in a position to hear from God on the subject. It was a hideous day, and I was only halfway through it but already bone-tired, burnt to a crisp, exasperated beyond words. I was volunteering that day at the Portland Teen Challenge thrift store. I was walking back and forth along the sidewalk in front of the store waving a sign to advertise the day’s sale. There was a warm Portland breeze blowing over me, but I wasn’t enjoying it. All day long I had been battling unsuccessfully with bitterness and profoundly negative thoughts. Through it all, my self-control had been obliterated in key areas, and I felt the weight of many struggling years. I was exhausted and angry. I scarcely believed in the existence of God.
I could think of a hundred things I ought to be doing to fight on—quoting Scripture aloud, praying for others, praise and thanksgiving, positive self-talk, etc. But as I strode up and down the storefront that afternoon, I told God calmly, “I’m not going to do all that stuff. It’s not accomplishing anything. I’m going to do as much as I can manage. If you want me to be some kind of super Christian, you’re going to have to do something. I’m done.” And just after I told him that, God said to me quietly, “It is done.” I felt an electric charge go through my insides, and I knew that the living God had just spoken to me, as if he was standing next to me on the sidewalk. I knew God had just made a reference to the crucifixion of Christ (i.e., “it is finished.”).
Something mind-blowing happens when Almighty God talks to you about the Crucifixion. After that happens, the blessed event is irrevocably changed from a bit of folklore to something palpably real. But most of this came to me upon later reflection. Right afterward, as I was still asking myself, “What just happened?” I began praying in a relaxed, conversational tone, lifting up some of my Teen Challenge brothers. Now that I had laid aside the crushing laundry list of Christian duties, I found prayer soothing. I discovered that a tremendous peace and joy was welling up inside me. In a way that transcended language and rationality, God was holding me and promising to never let me go no matter what I did.
How does a mere man tell the Most High God what he’s going to do and then receive comfort and assurance from on high? I don’t know, but when it happened, I knew that I was loved with an immense and magnificent love and that I was perfectly safe. All I had to do was trust God.
This event didn’t undo my calling to live a godly life. But since then I have paradoxically found that I have an increased desire and ability to obey God. I take a mysterious pleasure in saying to God and to myself, “I belong to Christ Jesus, body and soul, head to toe.” My heart swells with an otherworldly comfort because my God and Savior is greater than all. According to his pleasure he moves the contents of the universe around as though they were toys, and yet he is good and gentle and kind, and he watches over me.
God reminded me of all this on that recent morning as I grappled in prayer. Once he had spoken, it all came back in a moment, and then it was remarkably easy to trust him again. In a language and style quite uncharacteristic of me, I prayed silently, “Lord, I’m not going to fret about all the ways my Christian life might go wrong. You are the guardian of my soul.” As soon as the thought had gone through my head, I wondered where it had come from. Then, just a few minutes later, I was reading a chapter out of 1 Peter in a version I had never read before (TLB). I came across this Scripture:
“Like sheep you wandered away from God, but now you have returned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls who keeps you safe from all attacks” (1 Peter 2:25).