This past year was difficult for me. Nothing horrific: I lost no loved ones and received no dreadful news. But it was inwardly difficult to navigate.
During the last eleven months, I was sick multiple times (one of them kept me virtually incapacitated for August and part of September); a ransomware attack shut down my website for ten weeks (unprecedented in today’s technology); and the suffering of some friends sapped my strength. (Although my golf game is the best it’s ever been. So I’ve got that going for me.)
My mood is naturally optimistic. I think the glass is three quarters full, that the sun will shine after the storm, and that the Grinch will have a change of heart. I’ve even believed (albeit less frequently) that the Detroit Lions will win their annual Thanksgiving football game.
But this year everything looked dark. I had an outlook of bleakness. It wasn’t despair as much as dreariness. Or cheerlessness, like my health would worsen and my problems would multiply.
Worse yet, when I prayed, I felt God say that His hand had been involved in all my gloom. And then I stumbled across an old poem. It ends this way, with God speaking to its author:
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may find your all in Me.
Our Inner Nature Lies
While I’m normally (and naturally) optimistic, last year I foresaw more decay than healing and more failure than triumph. And then one day in prayer, I felt God say (as clear as the blue skies that haven’t appeared in months) that my positive faith for the future was a lie.
When the disciples were scared to death in a great storm, Jesus asks them, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25). It is a command for self-examination. The obvious answer is that their faith was in their great seamanship. But this hurricane was bigger than their boating skills, and their misplaced “faith” wasn’t big enough to handle the storm.
Like the false-faith of those disciples, I sensed God say that I confused my human optimism for being a spiritual man filled with godly faith. Which is a lie.
My life has been relatively easy. I had great parents and siblings; I did well in school; I had a successful career in software (despite my degree in history); and I have a great wife, terrific kids with great spouses, and fun grandkids. (Not to mention my current golf game!)
My life has been mostly painless, and my “faith” has been based on my aptitude, skills, connections, and luck. If Jesus asked me, “Where is your faith?” I’d have to answer (in a rare moment of honesty), “My faith is in me.” And maybe in my positive frame of mind.
In the storms of my life (none of which were hurricanes), I’ve looked at the waves and seen them driving me in the direction I want to go. The winds weren’t typhoons, my seamanship hasn’t been threatened, and I’ve forgotten to look to Him.
To Break My Schemes
Psalm 119.71 says, “It is good for me that I suffered, that I might learn your ways.” I’ve seen multiple verses like it, heard them preached, and read books and articles that say our lives are better with suffering. But I haven’t believed them.
The reality of my life today is that I’m older. Decay has already set in. I peaked physically thirty-five years ago, and I peaked mentally twenty years ago. No matter how optimistic my nature is, nor how strong I believe: I can’t run as fast as I used to and my thinking has slowed considerably.
If my hope is for this life alone, I am most to be pitied.
If God loves me, if He really loves me, He has to break my schemes for earthly joy. Because all my earthly joys will fade, decay, and eventually disintegrate to dust.
God is calling me to “find my all in Him.” And in my minor suffering, He is purging me of clinging to this world. And since so much in my life is already fading, I find it easier and easier to let go of earthly self-reliance and to find more heavenly contentment.
If only my golf game would suffer, I’d finally be pure as the driven snow (without the slice).
Not Likely (as in, I don’t like this 🙂 ). I have been ignoring little hints at this. You brought them front and center with crystals clarity. Thanks for being a faithful witness.
Pretty challenging for someone that almost takes pride in maintaining a good attitude versus pursuing what God wants me to know about Him or learn about myself. I will be chewing on this for a while.
I’m chewing away too.
Mary Beth Wenger
Not an easy lesson to learn, Sam, but a precious one. When I was a nursing student I was at the bedside of some wealthy, educated, travelled, and in one case, famous (because of her family’s business) patients who were dying. The words of Solomon came alive during that time for me—it is better to go to a house of mourning than feasting. I observed how these people, who had been stripped of their power and abilities, and in some cases friends and loved ones, were left with nothing near the end of their lives. They were empty without Jesus. Fernando Ortega sings eloquently, “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus….And when I come to die, give me JESUS!” May you go even deeper in the coming year in knowing the riches you have in Him and in Holy Spirit—God’s presence IN YOU! We hold this treasure in cracked, earthen vessels. May His glory shine through you in all your frail humanity until all that others see is Jesus in Sam.
Hi Mary Beth,
I LOVE that song by Ortega. And may I remember it in the light as well as when the light fades.
I too am finding myself in a similar situation. Lately I feel far from God and hard to get into my Bible studies. At 72 my energy and focus is fading. I continue to pray but don’t feel any answers. I will pray for you.?
The best book—-THE VERY BEST BOOK—-I’ve read on this is J. I Packer’s book, Finishing Our Course with Joy. https://www.amazon.com/Finishing-Our-Course-Joy-Guidance/dp/1433541068/
IT IS FANTASTIC.
If you haven’t yet discovered the treasure Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels by the Biblical scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, I would highly recommend it. His chapter on the beatitudes will greatly bless you in this season you are in.
Thank you for your transparency, Sam. This really is food for thought, and definitely a word for these last days.
You are ALWAYS SO ENCOURAGING!
In redeeming us, Jesus took our cares, concerns, discouragements, uncertainties, and loss of hopes and dreams, and placed them on His own shoulders. In addition, our God has also taken the responsibilities for the outcomes of whatever he continues to carry for us today.
So true, so easy, and so hard to believe deep down.
I like your words here–my own recent seasons have that flavor. I hear that sometimes a man of God will go through fiery trials with God being silent to his spirit until, unexpectedly, God will speak a work of encouragement or show a sign that He’s still in the process with him. Things will be horrible for him right up to the point of hearing God, then God reveals himself, and the horribleness starts up again.
Which reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila: “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!” –to which we can say, “Oh, yeah. ‘Count it all joy.’ Ok. Let’s talk about that again, OK God?”
I love your description of the trials of God: his silence, our agony, his presence, our joy.
About getting old, yeah, I hear ya. I too feel the aches in the places that I used to play. When I was young, I wanted God to keep me in His service through old age. What I didn’t count on was that I would ache and not be able to do the fun and cool things anymore. And that God might still ask me to do them, and give grace for the now-difficult things that used to be easy.
Margaret G. Crandall
Oh this message came at the perfect moment.
How sneaky is that part of me wanting somehow to “have it all” here in this life.
I was converted by revelation & I know that I know there is no joy, no beauty, no love comparable with Jesus. Yet the human part of me persists in seeking something in this life to fill that place in the heart St. Augustine talks about — the place only Jesus can fill.
All my life I dreamt of love supplied thru a human agent….and time and again I learn this is a burden humans aren’t meant to bear. Your essay is spot on, as the Brits say.
This “dying to self” thing ain’t easy.
We all want it all in this life. How hard to remember that the best moments in this life are but a shadow of the worst moments in the future.
In the future Kingdom, it will be more than “we can ask or imagine.”
The ordeals of the last few years have greatly changed my perspective. I’ve felt God shaking loose the things of this world, and as they’ve fallen away I’ve come to understand Heaven in what feels like a more concrete, less ethereal sense. That’s our eternal home, and this one is only temporary. Yet we seem to think that the most meaningful things take place here, and that our life in Heaven will be some vague hazy resting in peace forever and ever? I’ve come to believe that is completely upside down thinking. I don’t know exactly what life in Heaven will be like, but I know it will have infinitely more significance than this temporary struggle.
Thank you so much for the honest insights and godly wisdom you share here, and I pray that you will reap the full blessings of letting go the earthly joys.
I love your sharing. I won’t add to it, but I’ll copy/paste some:
I see, you have had a similiar year to mine. You also came to the same conclusions?! How weird is that!
God always confirms through the words of a friend, doesn’t he?
I sense that God is doing this to a lot of us – my reliance on self has to disintegrate. He is the only thing I need yet I keep trying to do it on my own – calling on Him when I start to sink. Thanks for being so transparent and spot on – I realize that I am not the only one experiencing a loss of self. He must increase, I must decrease. Thanks for calling me out Sam!
I am praying for the end of “reliance on self” for all of us.
Sam – It is encouraging to me that 50 years after we worked together, you have not lost your faith or your compass. Thank you for your honest transparency. Not airbrushing or pretending Christians don’t have doubt and questions is far more encouraging than leaving the impression they are the only strugglers. Please keep up your efforts to admonish and encourage.
LARRY! How wonderful to hear from you.
To everyone else: Larry was my first “boss” at age of 16, when I became a janitor at a company he started and owned.
Thank you Larry for so many things.
Here a 5 days later I’m still coming back to chew on this more, this time in relation to a recent sermon on end times, when all hope in this world and all hope for the love & acceptance & sense of worth that comes from the people of the world or worldly accomplishments is stripped away. This is not only good teaching on the wisdom gained from living a long life, it’s a companion or pre-teaching for tribulation. Funny how it all ends at the same point no matter what era we live in.
And I love your closing line: It all ends up at the same point no matter what era we live in.”
God really is the same God … the same one who created heaven and earth and parted the Red Sea and walked on earth and rose.