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grow a wildfire faith that will endure anything
By Carol Kent
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Carol Kent
All rights reserved.
When the Fire Goes Out
When circumstances seem impossible, when all signs of grace in you seem at their lowest ebb, ... when love and joy seem well-nigh extinguished in your heart, then cling ... to God's faithfulness.
David Tryon, "But How?"
A growing sense of hopelessness was casting a long shadow over my faith. Did God even care about us? I wasn't sure which was more frightening—the reality of the life-threatening accident I'd just had and the resulting financial challenges I was facing, or the fact that my faith, always vibrant and unshaken until then, was suddenly struggling for survival.
I was twenty-two years old and had been married about six months. My husband and I had moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Gene was taking some graduate classes and I was working as an administrative assistant for furniture maker Steelcase.
One day the accelerator pedal on my car stuck as I was approaching a red light on my way to work in rush-hour traffic. I pressed hard on the brake pedal, but my car picked up speed. Swerving into an open lane, I was unable to guide my fast-moving vehicle into a complete right-hand turn, and I hit the car that was waiting to make a left-hand turn. That car hit the vehicle behind it.
Not stopping upon impact, my car careened down the street. I glanced at the gas gauge. It was half full. I knew I could not run the car out of gas before probably causing a terrible accident in the next intersection. I pulled on the emergency brake, which slowed the car down just a bit. In a desperate attempt to stop, I steered the automobile toward a telephone pole, opened my door, and—with my heart hammering—jumped from the car, landing and rolling on the hard pavement, expecting the car to hit the telephone pole. But it didn't!
My now driverless car hit the curb, missed the pole, and went right into the next intersection and hit another car, which then hit the car behind it. (If you're counting, you know this was now a five-car collision.) I jumped up from the ground, amazingly with no more than a few abrasions, and watched in horror as my car turned in a circle in the intersection, jumped the corner curb and dislodged a fire hydrant, turned in another circle in the intersection, and destroyed a park bench. After one more circle, it crashed into the plate-glass window of the IBM building and finally came to a stop.
Out of all the drivers involved, only two women sustained minor injuries, and no one was seriously hurt. We were grateful there was no loss of life. But the property damage was extensive. We assumed our auto insurance would cover us, until the day after this horrible accident when we discovered we had no insurance. When we left the Christian organization my husband and I worked for previously, they "gifted" us with six months of additional auto insurance. But because of a clerical mistake, we were, in fact, totally uninsured.
Gene and I barely had enough money to put food on the table each week and were still trying to pay off our student loans, so we knew we were in deep trouble. To make matters worse, the day after we made the second large payment to our attorney (with borrowed money), the local newspaper ran an article on him. It read, in part: "This man has been disbarred from practicing law in the state of Michigan because of indecent exposure in his office." We had prayed for God's help following the accident. How could God let this happen?
We were financially ruined, emotionally exhausted, and spiritually devastated. Didn't God love us? Rather than feeling loved by an omnipotent God, for the first time in my life I felt abandoned by him. My sense of spiritual passion wavered as I mentally listed the ways Gene and I felt we had been let down—first by the mechanical malfunction, then by the office worker who made such a major clerical error with our insurance, and finally upon discovering that the statute of limitations in Michigan allowed cases involving this accident to be brought to court for up to seven years. I wrestled with soul-searching questions:
* Why would God allow this to happen? Gene and I had considered the possibility of teaching missionary children at an academy in Brazil, but I wasn't allowed to leave the United States until pending lawsuits were resolved.
* Why did God allow us—a young Christian couple—to experience a financial wipeout that left us uncertain for up to seven years, not knowing if we would be able to pay all our bills and build a secure future?
* Why didn't my miracle-working God fix that stuck accelerator pedal before it caused so much damage? Did he like to do miracles only when there was a crowd watching?
* If God chose not to protect people like us who were eager to serve him, why should we trust him in the future?
I tried to read my Bible and pray, but it was painful to turn to the God who was supposed to take care of me but hadn't. Where was he? I had given him my heart as a young child and passionately pursued him throughout my university years and as a newly married woman. But now I didn't even feel like talking to him. I was mystified and hurt that God would allow such bad things to happen to us. The result? A spiritual numbness settled into my soul. The fire of my faith, it seemed at the time, had been doused by a flood of doubts and despair.
That was over thirty years ago. If I could whisper into the ear of the young woman I was, I would say, "Don't despair. Your faith won't fail. Just the opposite. It will grow even stronger through this trial."
What I wouldn't tell myself, but what is also true, is this: "I know you think this is a major tragedy, but believe me, this is nothing compared to the tragedies you will know in your life!" Thankfully, God, in his wisdom, knows better than to tell us what trials lie ahead. One day's worries are enough for us to bear.
I'd love to tell you that once my faith survived that trial it never again wavered. But that wouldn't be true. In fact, the flame of my faith has, at times, dimmed to the point that all I had were a few flickering embers in a bed of cold, gray ashes.
I know I am not alone in that experience. Perhaps you've reached the same point yourself. My friend Jackie knows it well.
A Fire Grown Cold
From the first time I met her, Jackie has been a source of spiritual encouragement to me. We met when our paths crossed at a conference where we were both speaking, and I was moved by her fiery passion for God and her desire to do his work in creative ways.
Whenever I'm with Jackie, she sparks my desire to do more with my spiritual gifts to accomplish God's goals in this world. An African-American woman committed to racial reconciliation, Jackie makes me more aware of the importance of encouraging Jesus lovers from many denominations and cultures to join forces as we pursue his calling. She allows God to use her to bring people groups together for his kingdom purposes.
Jackie's example has motivated me—not just once but multiple times over a period of years. I always look forward to her encouraging notes on Facebook and to the times she shows up in an audience where I am speaking. From the platform, I connect with Jackie's eyes and she nods in acknowledgment. Her unspoken words are translated to my heart as, "You go, girl! God is going to do remarkable things at this conference. I'm here praying for you, and I can hardly wait to see how he will move!"
I think of Jackie as a Christian with unshakable faith—a woman with deep spiritual roots that give her stability and strength for whatever happens in her life and ministry. She once told me that her faith began to grow as a child when she watched her mom pray for food when there was nothing left in the cupboard to feed Jackie and her five siblings. Before the prayer was even finished, someone knocked on the door and dropped off several bags of groceries. Jackie said, "We asked for bread, and the floodgates opened. It was easy for me to view God as a provider."
This early experience fueled her faith. As time moved on, Jackie believed God would provide jobs and other daily needs, and she saw him answer prayers. Life wasn't perfect, but she knew the truth of Proverbs 20:24—her steps were directed by the Lord, and that truth gave her confident expectations about the future.
Then, not long ago, I received a surprising e-mail message from Jackie:
In the last two years, my faith has come to a crisis. My life seems to have lost its luster. My interest in participating in church activities has waned. My loving husband longs to bring a light back into my eyes. The smallest things cause me to stare into space and weep, wishing for days gone by when there was fire in my faith, enthusiasm in my voice, and hope in my heart.
I wondered what brought about this extreme change in my friend's outlook. Her e-mail continued:
On September 28, my precious mother called in the morning, as she always did, so we could pray together. She told me she hadn't been able to breathe well during the night and didn't think she was going to make it. I prayed with Mom hurriedly and made arrangements to get her to the hospital. Even though I was two hundred miles away, I was able to arrive in time to speak to her one more time. On October 1, she went home to be with Jesus.
Jackie and her siblings carried on in pain as they made plans to care for their father, who had just lost the love of his life after sixty-five years of marriage. She described "the press of grief" weighing on her and her siblings. The hardest moment each day was in the morning when Jackie had usually prayed over the phone with her mother, but now she wasn't there to talk to.
Then her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and began chemo treatments. The following July, Jackie's sixty-one-year-old brother had a massive heart attack, and once more the family came together to walk slowly behind a casket to say good-bye to a loved one. Jackie wrote, "It was heart-wrenching to see my father bury his youngest son. I was sure God would provide grace and comfort, but the pain was unbearable." She went on to share further news:
Then Dad began to weaken, making the risk of falling so great that he couldn't be left alone. He grew weaker each day, went to sleep on January 5, 2013, and woke up in heaven.
As I read Jackie's e-mail, I realized that these multiple losses, so close together, rocked her faith. The words that followed stunned me.
I'm spent. I'm moving on autopilot. My spiritual fire is dim. The embers are smoldering. I know after all of his suffering Job said, "I know that my redeemer lives ..." I still believe he lives, but it's easier to type those words than to truly experience feelings of faith and hope.
Jackie's letter ended with questions.
What has happened to my once rock-solid faith?
When will I see this sorrow bringing glory to God?
When will I have the energy and desire to serve God with the vibrancy I once had?
I love Jackie's questions. Instead of giving superficial answers to gut-wrenching cries of the heart, she dared to ask the questions we are often afraid to acknowledge. I respected her honesty as she described the numbness that comes when there has been so much sadness and loss that we no longer have the ability to function normally. Her honesty gave me permission to admit that I, too, know what it feels like to have my spiritual flames extinguished by disappointment in God when he could have orchestrated a more favorable outcome.
As I travel the world and meet with Christians in every walk of life, I listen to many who are suffering with unfulfilled hopes and unmet longings. Many of us have experienced disappointment in a God we know is powerful enough to have stopped our pain—but didn't. We've known the power of a time when our fire burned brightly and warmed our hearts and recharged our dreams—but no more. The fire has dwindled low. God's Word doesn't speak to us. We can't spur ourselves on to verbalize a prayer. We question God's love. We feel spiritually dead.
Have you felt this way?
Perhaps you, like me, can identify with author Philip Yancey, who wrote, "True atheists do not, I presume, feel disappointed in God. They expect nothing and they receive nothing. But those who commit their lives to God, no matter what, instinctively expect something in return. Are those expectations wrong?"
A Discouraged Prophet
Our experiences of disappointment and questioning God are not unique to modern times. The prophet Elijah experienced this same crisis of faith. It had been fifty years since Israel occupied the pinnacle of power under David and Solomon. There was tremendous corruption in the land, and it was in a state of religious, moral, and social rot. God's chosen spokesperson for this hour of darkness was Elijah. He experienced extraordinary high points as the most famous and dramatic of Israel's prophets. He predicted the beginning and end of a three-year drought, and he was used by God to restore a dead child to his mother. Then in a dramatic scene on Mount Carmel, he represented God in a showdown with priests of Baal and Asherah—and God won big-time! But times of great spiritual victory are no guarantee against times of deep spiritual lows.
The day after the big victory on Mount Carmel, King Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he killed all the false prophets. And this powerful woman, furious at Elijah's success over the prophets of her people, announced that she planned to have him killed.
God had just done astonishing miracles in Elijah's life and ministry, and now a single, angry woman was coming after him. Do you know what he did? He ran for his life! He was so afraid that when he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there and went another day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed to die: "'I have had enough, Lord,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors'" (1 Kings 19:4 NIV). Talk about feeling like the fire of your faith burned out—this was it! This man was beyond discouraged; he was so depressed he longed for death.
What Causes Our Faith to Wane?
How about you? Do you sometimes wrestle with disappointment with God, deep discouragement, or diminished trust in God's faithfulness?
Each one of us has our own trigger points for what wears us down to the point of feeling like the fire of our faith is going out. For some, it might be great personal loss or a series of losses; for others, it might be the burnout of working hard in business or ministry without visible results or much-needed breaks. Many people experience a spiritual indifference that develops over time when the busyness of everyday demands dulls their spiritual fervor. It can come from self-imposed isolation or from too much pressure to succeed. Doubts and unanswered questions about why God allows certain events—when tragedy befalls good people while evil seems to prosper—sometimes leave us discouraged or feeling betrayed, wondering if our faith makes any difference at all.
One look at the notes I've received over the past few months confirms how universal this struggle is.
Cathy: Sometimes indifference sneaks in to extinguish my spiritual fervor, and I find it very difficult to restart spiritual disciplines once I stop.
Heather: Massive changes have been taking place in my church where I was employed full-time in women's ministries. I am worn-out, angry, and hurt. I'm even ticked off at God for allowing this to happen. There is a distance between God and me that I haven't experienced before.
Julie: My sister and I are twins. She just gave birth to her second baby, and during this same time period I've had three miscarriages. I've prayed and begged God for a child, but he isn't answering my prayer—and it feels so unfair. I love my sister, but every time I see her holding her infant, I feel a cold shiver of faith-shaking fear that I will never have a baby of my own. It makes me question God's love.
A single missionary: I've ministered in a remote South American location for over forty years, where I've experienced extreme hardships as well as heart-stopping spiritual victories. Now I'm approaching retirement, and the mission I'm with is going under financially. After promising to provide a modest retirement for me, they've just told me there are no funds available once I leave my field of ser vice. I feel alone and abandoned. As if the God I served all of these years has forgotten me. I still know he's my Savior, but I am confused by his lack of provision for my future. I feel disappointed in him.
Excerpted from Unquenchable by Carol Kent. Copyright © 2014 Carol Kent. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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