About ten years or so ago I had a real word from the Lord. At least, I’m pretty sure I did. In fact, I’m 99.9% positive I did. I’m not charismatic or Pentecostal, and I don’t hear voices. But one night God spoke to me clearly and powerfully through His Word, the Bible. By the way, that’s how God usually speaks to us today. It isn’t that He can’t or occasionally doesn’t communicate to us in other ways. He can do what He wants. After all, He’s God! But if you think God is speaking to you through your circumstances, or a feeling or an impression, or maybe even a dream you’ve had, you’d better evaluate it carefully in light of the Bible. And if it contradicts anything the Bible says, then it isn’t God speaking to you. If the Bible says not to do something, and something is telling you to do it anyway, don’t listen. It ain’t Him.
Anyway, this was back during the hard time when my mother-in-law was dying of A.L.S. (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”). In order to help take care of her mother, my wife would drive up to her parent’s home in rural Franklin and spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday there, cooking and cleaning and helping her mother and father. It was the right thing to do. Rae Anne was obeying God and honoring her father and her mother, just as God told us in the Ten Commandments.
My part in all this was letting my wife go. I mean, there was never any question about it. Her parents needed her, and she wanted to be there and help them. It never occurred to me to tell her, “You can’t go.” It would have been wrong of me to tell her that, and frankly, she would have ignored me and gone anyway. And, in a more limited way, I had gone up to spend time with my mother before she died, and would go up to spend more time with my father in his final years. So, I didn’t begrudge her going in the least. My “sacrifice” was to be home alone for half the week while Rae Anne went up to take care of her mother.
But I hated that. I mean, there are times when I want to be alone, to read and study, or play guitar, or just go walk through a park. But I’m kind of schizophrenic when it comes to this: half the time I want to be by myself, and half the time I want to be with other people, especially my family, and most especially my wife.
My wife and I have never really lived alone. We got married when I was twenty and she was eighteen. I went from my parents’ house to a college dorm room shared with two or three other guys. Then I got married and I’ve lived with Rae Anne ever since. Rae Anne moved from her parents’ home into a one-room apartment with me after we got married. (Talk about culture shock!) Then after a couple of years we had our kids. We have never experienced what both of our children have: living alone as an adult for an extended period of time. And more than two-thirds of my life Rae Anne and I have lived together as husband and wife.
All to say, I can be pretty pathetic when I’m home alone. Oh, I can have fun for about a day and a half while she’s gone: watch guy movies she doesn’t like (I don’t know why girls don’t like explosions), or play my guitar more and louder than when she’s home, etc. But after I get all that out of my system, then I just kind of rattle around in that old house. Frankly, these days there are fewer and fewer movies I want to see, and there’s less on television that grabs my interest. So, I spent more time reading in the evenings while Rae Anne was up taking care of her mother.
One evening I was reading my Bible, and God spoke to my heart from Deuteronomy 3 in a way that caught me off-guard and moved me deeply. (He can do that, when He wants to.) In Deuteronomy 3, Moses asked God one more time if he couldn’t go into the Promised Land like he had long desired to do. You see, earlier there was an episode where Moses disobeyed God in front of the whole nation of Israel, and as a result God told Moses he couldn’t go into the Promised Land. (You can read all about it in Numbers 20:1-13.) The punishment God gave Moses might seem all out of proportion to what Moses did. But you have to remember that Moses had seen God and spoken with Him more directly and intimately than anyone else on the planet. He’d seen what God had done to Egypt with the Ten Plagues. Moses had seen God’s glory, and heard His awesome voice at Mount Sinai. That kind of privileged intimacy was a one-of-a-kind experience, and God had every right to expect more reverence and obedience from Moses because of it, even in little things. So, God told Moses he would not be permitted to go into the Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy 3, Moses brought this all up to God one more time—the same way your child might keep asking you for something repeatedly, even after you’ve told them “No!” And to Moses’ surprise, God became quite stern with him. Moses wrote, “But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’” (Deuteronomy 3:26)
God had finally and for the last time told Moses he couldn’t go into the Promised Land. Going into the Promised Land was what Moses wanted more than anything. But God told him, “No.”
And as I read Deuteronomy 3 that night, something dawned on me. Like Moses, there’s something I’ve wanted more than anything else. For Moses, his cherished desire was to go into the Promised Land. For me, it was to be the pastor of a large, growing church. Or alternatively, to play and sing to large and growing crowds. And that night I realized God was telling me “No!” about my cherished desire, just like He told Moses “No!” about his cherished desire.
It stunned me. I sat there in shock at the truth I’d just received. And I knew it to be the truth. All I’ve wanted since I came to this church was to see the sanctuary full for something besides a wedding or a funeral. I’ve wanted to see this sanctuary (which will seat about 450) filled up every Sunday morning with worshipers. And that night I knew: I was never going to see it.
Then, as I sat there, another thought came to me: Moses was Israel’s leader for forty years. He may not have gotten to enter the Promised Land back then, but he did lead the children of Israel through all those years of wandering in the desert. He was their “wilderness shepherd.” And I believe God showed me that night that’s what I am for this church: I am your “wilderness shepherd.” Just like Israel went through years in “that great and terrible wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:19, 8:15), our church has been through some pretty hard “wilderness years,” too. But Moses got to see a whole new generation poised to go on and enter the Promised Land. And I began praying that night that God would let me see a whole new generation poised to take our church—His church—into a bright and promising future.
Now, I’ve told the Lord that I really don’t want to push this parallel too far. Moses saw the new generation, then went up on the mountain and died! I really don’t want to die…at least, not yet. Evangelist B. R. Lakin used to say, “If I knew where I was going to die, I’d never go there.” Me, too! I’d rather retire at some point, and be invited back to the church once a year to preach in a morning service, eat dinner with the church afterwards, and look around and say, “Look how great it’s all going now!” If I had my ‘druthers.
Somebody is probably thinking, “Well, what sin did you commit that made God decide you couldn’t pastor a large, growing church?” I don’t know. I’ve talked to Him about a lot of my sins, and frankly, that’s all none of your business. It’s between me and Jesus. But I’ve confessed a lot of sins to Him…even some I know I haven’t committed. You know, just to be sure.
Let me turn the question around. The reason Israel had to wander in the desert for forty years is because they sinned against God. So, what sin did the church commit that caused God to take us through these wilderness years? I don’t know for sure. I suspect you don’t, either. I’ve asked our leadership a few times over the years, “Is there anything our church needs to confess? Is there anything we need to repent of?” And some very serious, spiritual people have searched their hearts and said, “If there is, we don’t know what it is.” We’ve even prayed about it together.
I’ve often wondered if our church’s sin hasn’t been pride. I know a lot of folks in town over the years have had the impression that our church has a pretty high opinion of ourselves. Maybe that’s been true, if not of all of us, at least of some of us. I don’t really think it’s true now. (We have to be careful, lest we become proud of our humility!) But old impressions die hard.
I do believe that when a church goes through conflict in such a way as to give the cause of Christ a “black eye,” it takes a long time before God begins to bless that church again. Pastor Jolly Moody once told me that when Israel sinned, all the generation that rebelled against God had to die before Israel could go on into the Promised Land. And Jolly believed it was the same for any church that dishonored Christ through conflict that caused unbelievers to mock and jeer. Jolly said that often the whole generation that participated in such a conflict had to be gone before the church could go forward again. He told Jack Jones the same thing. Jack and I used to talk about it, and I told him, “Boy, Jack, I hope Jolly’s wrong!” But the more time has passed, the more I believe Jolly was right.
But I believe God has humbled our church over the years. I don’t think we look at our buildings any more as something holy that should never be “desecrated” with the sounds of children shouting and laughing, running around, spilling stuff on the carpet and marking up the walls. I think we’ve realized that it’s the children, and their families, and all the noise they make, and all the wear and tear they take on our buildings, that’s what’s holy! God has caused our church to yearn for the presence of families and children again, with all the noise and messes. We long to be able to wear out these buildings with all the joyful noise and holy hubbub that goes along with presenting the Gospel to a new generation. A lot of us have been praying for this for a long time.
And it looks like God may be beginning to answer our prayers! And our eyes are filled with tears, and our mouths are filled with praise to God! We are seeing something no one could have predicted, and nobody could have made happen. We’ve often prayed that God would do something only He could do, so that it’s obvious to everybody that it was Him that did it. Therefore He alone gets all the glory! We just may be seeing the answer to our prayers. And to God alone be the glory!
When God takes you through something painful, you become uniquely qualified to comfort others who have gone through something similar. Listen to what the Apostle Paul said: “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.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
When God takes a church through something painful, we become uniquely qualified to comfort others who have gone through the same kinds of things. And when God brings someone with fresh scars together with someone who has healed scars of the very same kind, that’s no accident. That’s God saying, “Comfort them like I comforted you!”
May God give us eyes to see where He is working, and ears to hear what He is saying! May God give us hearts that are humble and receptive and obedient to Him, to hear Him, obey Him, and join Him in His work. And to love Him and love others, for the glory of God alone!
Or as they say in Latin,
Soli Deo Gloria!