William Carey's relentless succession of achievements in the face of oppression suggests he was no more deterred by tragedies than a locomotive by butterflies. He was the missionary pioneers' pioneer. I was stunned to learn he sometimes suffered what one biographer called 'sheer black depression'.
C. H. Spurgeon, revered as last century's greatest Baptist preacher, was so plagued by discouragement, depression, fatigue and illness that he tendered his resignation thirty-two times in thirty-nine years. (Interestingly, he gradually discovered that such lows always seemed to precede new times of empowering for ministry.)
A modern preacher, world-famous for his emphasis on possibility thinking, sat dejected on a building site and pronounced the death-sentence on his pet project. 'You can't give up,' gasped his advisers, 'the whole world is looking at you!'
'If only I could have a good old-fashioned heart attack and fail with dignity,' was his pathetic reply.
Such grim stories charge me with hope. If past heroes and modern champions of positive thinking can have such bouts, I need not let the Accuser belittle me just because I am appallingly negative at times.
For twenty-four-year-old David Brainerd, thrilling experiences in God's presence were regularly interspersed with deep bouts of melancholy in which he despaired of ever achieving anything in God's service. Three years later, an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit upon American Indians erupted after his preaching. This move coincided with a time when the clammy clouds of dejection were so thick that he was seriously contemplating ending his missionary endeavours.
A. B. Simpson - that highly respected missionary statesman, exceptional preacher, and founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance - was yet another great achiever who 'was always susceptible to periods of despair.' Though his highs soared to supernatural visions, they did not prevent his lows.
I don't make excuses. Having the disposition of a professional prune taster is nothing to boast about. Depression usually marks lost faith in the One with whom I have entrusted my future. It dishonours the One who floods my life with endless love and manipulates for good everything that touches me. When I'm low, however, the last thing I need is despondency about my despondency. Though we slide on a downer, that does not make us losers. A horde of spiritual giants have been on the slide before us and lived to excel.
Dark mysteries bring great blessings. Life in the sunshine is so exhilarating that we seldom notice our faith beginning to droop. It is when things are dim, that spiritual life mushrooms. When it is sunny we want to run off and play. It is when it is darkest that we hold Father's hand the tightest.
At the close of the year that saw the death of his newborn son and then the death of his wife and then assaults on his own health, Hudson Taylor wrote, 'This was the most sorrowful and most blessed year of my life.'
In the gloom, qualities like faith, grit, and dedication, are stretched to limits we have never before reached. Yet life seems so oppressive we are oblivious to our triumphs.
In pristine conditions eyes of faith can see forever. When storms close in, it is a mammoth task for those same eyes to even slightly pierce the swirling murk. It is the conditions, not you, that have deteriorated. Contrary to every feeling, you are not regressing.
Though offered with the best intentions, much sentimental waffle is sometimes uttered about returning to one's 'first love', as if the starry-eyed euphoria of new Christians is greater than the mature depths of your average older Christian. Poppycock! Most spiritual honeymooners are radiant primarily because they think they have entered a blissful world of near-perfect Christians, instant answers to selfish prayers and a life forever free from pain, heartache and trials. Theirs is most likely mere puppy love, relative to the ardor moving you to tough it out.
Though I am all for emotional exuberance, the Bible measures love, not in tingles per second, but in putting one's life on the line. (1 John 3:16-18) It is pain endured in the valley, not gooey feelings in the afterglow of mountaintop ecstasy, that validates love. By all means, passionately seek the face of God, but do not assume that emotional deadness - a normal phase of anyone's spiritual life - implies spiritual deadness. We march by faith, not by warm fuzzies.
An athlete, in the midst of a record-breaking run, has never in his life been so fit and strong. Yet his pain-racked body may have never felt so weak. Likewise, in the midst of a spiritual trial, it is not uncommon to be stronger and yet feel weaker than ever before.
There are seasons when life seems hopeless and the trial endless. Every day it feels you have slumped another notch. Escape seems beyond belief. To maintain even a glimmer of faith in such darkness is a spectacular victory. It may take everything you have just to hold on. But do it. You are pumping spiritual iron.
If your blossom is dying, it is so that the fruit can grow. Remember the cripple at the temple gate: he hoped for alms and got legs. (Acts 3:1-3) Creator God loves surprises. And He loves you.
Take heart from the man exalted as Scripture's prime example of faith. (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrew 11:8-19; James 2:21-23) In an early chapter of Genesis, God tells Abraham on two separate occasions that He will give him the land and descendants. (Genesis 12:2,7) Just four verses later we find Abraham humiliating Sarah, denying that she is his wife. In cowardly deceit, he stands dumbly by as Pharaoh marries Sarah and takes her into his harem. (Genesis 12:10-16) Next chapter, God yet again details the promise of land and descendants. (Genesis 13:14-17) Nevertheless, two chapters on, we find Abraham expecting to die childless. For a fourth time God insists He will give Abraham descendants. At last the old fossil believes. The Lord, thrilled with Abraham's re-found faith, repeats His vow to give him the land. In disbelief, Abraham asks for a sign. (Genesis 15:2-8) With divine patience God dramatically shows the mighty man of faith not only his future descendants, but what will happen to them. In the next chapter we find our faith model throwing away any hope of a miracle from God. He resorts to dubious natural means to forcibly accomplish what God seems unwilling to do. He bypasses his wife and turns to her maid for a baby. (Genesis 16:1-3) Years later, the Lord yet again reaffirms His promise to Abraham and declares that Sarah would conceive. Abraham laughs. He is sure his wife has more potential as an Egyptian mummy than as a Hebrew one. 'She's too old. Just bless Ishmael,' is the crux of his reply. (Genesis 17:17-18) Yet the Lord persists. One more time our hero gropes for that slippery fish called faith. Before long, he is again passing off Sarah as his sister, showing more faith in his powers of deception than in God's integrity. This time it is King Abimelech who almost has a go at impregnating Sarah. (Genesis 20:2-3) Just weeks later, (assuming Genesis 18:10 to 21:2 are in chronological order) she conceived Abraham's baby.
Faith is not a non-stop flight above reality; it's a fight. What distinguishes people of faith is not how rarely they hit the dirt, but how often they get up again. To be perpetually positive is impossible. The mere attempt embroils us in prayer battles and Abrahamic effort. The enemy often flees to his corner, only to prepare for the next round. You might even have climbed out of the ring, but the reward for getting back in exceeds anything anyone could offer.
Among the lessons to be learnt through Abraham becoming a father is not that we should do nothing and leave it all to God. Had this been Abraham's attitude, the miracle would never have happened. The key lay not in doing nothing, but in doing the right thing - trying yet again to fill a barren womb.
Faith is leaving the security of inactivity and deliberately exposing ourselves to the painful possibility of defeat. It is Jonathan and his armor-bearer going out to meet the enemy; not his comrades hiding in holes hoping for a miracle. (1 Samuel 14:1-15) It is Peter saying, 'If that's you, Lord, bid me come ...,' and then stepping out of the boat. (Matthew 14:28-29) It is that same fisherman saying, 'Lord, we've toiled all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, at your word ...' (Luke 5:5) It is Paul, once again facing a hostile crowd. It is you, trying one more time.
The Kingdom needs prayer warriors, not prayer worriers. No matter how much we cry, beg, and wish, we have not moved from superstition to authentic Christian prayer until we can thank God for the answer, knowing it is ours before we hold it in our hand. Faith is not thinking that God can; it is knowing that He will. (Mark 11:24; James 1:5-8)
We will see it when we believe it.
A delay either quickens our faith to rise to the challenge, or it's a dead wait. But how do we muster faith?
I can easily believe the atom-holding, earth-spinning, galaxy-sustaining, life-giving Source of everything wonderful can do whatever He likes. My difficulty is believing that His special love for me makes Him long to employ that power on my behalf.
If we could grasp the enormity of God's love for us, our faith would sky-rocket. Pray for a revelation. (The necessity of divine revelation is highlighted by Paul's prayer that the Ephesians 'comprehend ... and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge' -Ephesians 3:18-19).
Awareness of how much we are loved is forever slipping from our consciousness. Partially in sight for a few days, it begins to fade again. The following suggestions might help.
When we let God down - even if we really foul things up - picture the proudest father the world has seen. The baby screams, dribbles and soils itself, yet Dad still glows with pride. God is like that.
When you feel a tiny blob in the seething mass of humanity, see the shepherd of a hundred sheep frantically searching for one. If he can be personally concerned for one, the omnipotent Shepherd of our souls can love all humanity and still be devoted to you. In the beautiful words of Isaiah, 'As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.' (Isaiah 62:5)
When you feel you can do nothing right, picture a child, paintbrush in hand, gleaming with excitement. Enveloping her hand is the gentle hand of the world's greatest artist. 'And what shall we put in this corner?' asks the man, as his skill and the girl's imagination merge into one. See the artist's smile and the child's delight as together they create stunning beauty. Under God's guiding hand, your possibilities are mind-boggling.
No matter how you feel, you are the focus of God's attention; doted on as though you are the only friend God has. If ever a man wanted to shower his bride with love, or his son with gifts, God longs to lavish you with His extravagance. Expect great things from God. Anything less is an insult to your almighty Savior.
Let faith soar by seizing the fact that the Omnipotent Lord is powerful enough to use you, over-riding your every inadequacy, and loving enough to want to. And believe that though He may lovingly delay your mission, His timing is perfect. Everything God touches is destined for glory. Even now, you are God's 'filthy rags to heavenly riches' success story.
Paul's patience was at breaking point. Day after day, wherever they went, the demonised slave-girl kept shrieking that Paul and Silas were God's servants. Then, in a moment of desperation, he did it. He expelled the demon. And his greatest fears froze to excruciating reality. (Acts 16:16-24)
They were arrested, tortured and thrown in prison. Incarcerated like common criminals? No such luck. It was the maximum security block for them. Everything pointed to a painfully long stay.
Put ourselves in Paul's stocks and our thoughts might be something
like: 'What an ant-brain! I walked right into Satan's trap! Things
were going so well - converts were being baptized, Lydia had opened
her house to us - and like an idiot I blew it! Now I've been flogged.
Poor Silas is in agony. Both of us are in the
slammer, no longer free to preach the Gospel. All because of me! If only I'd kept my cool ...'
I would have been as miserable as an elephant with sinusitis.
Yet instead of berating himself or being bullied by pain, the apostle sang praises. Almost instantly, tragedy yielded potent ministry. Not only was the Lord blessed and fellow prisoners touched, the jailer and all his family were converted. Praise turned misery into ministry.
Praise does things self-pity or self-recrimination could never achieve.
If you think praise is hot air, you are right. It is the hot air that makes faith balloon, lifting us to new heights in God, while warming the Father's heart.
Praise is life-changing. I could extol it for pages, but singing its praises is often easier than singing praises. The less we feel like praising, the more we need its power. I suspect Paul used a couple of tricks to break through despair into victorious praise.
Paul and Silas had so mingled worship with life's humdrum that when things soured, their lips were still warm with His praises. There was no groping for a half-forgotten praise vocabulary; no brain-racking to find something praiseworthy in God. Praise was not a pill in their emergency kit; it was their way of life.
If one of their helps was habit, the second was song. When praise is a struggle, melody and beautiful words can bear us forward.
A third help was fellowship. They joined their praises. Where possible, do the same.
My next suggestion, like the others, is far from original. Multitudes have found that it works. Do not try to start at the top; just find a few reasons to be grateful. Things could be worse. Thank God they are not. Thank Him that things have not always been as dire as they now seem. Lean heavily on tiny blessings. As they multiply in your head, they will provide a rich array of praise material.
You can even turn negative tendencies into an asset. We all need reminders to praise throughout the day. If your mind regularly fills with negative thoughts, train yourself to use each recurrence of doubt or fear or gloom as a reminder to praise God. Each negative thought is packed with potential praise material. If, for instance, you are hounded by the thought that you are getting older, let it nudge you to thank God for the years He has given you. Praise Him that your times are in His hands. Take comfort that at least someone is older than you - God - and revel in the knowledge that the Lord will never fall for modern society's infatuation with youth. Every time you feel old, exalt the One who commissioned eighty-year-old Moses, gave ninety-year-old Sarah a baby and gave Job his greatest blessings in his old age.
Praise magnifies God. The alternative magnifies the problem. The last thing we need is a 'small' God and large problems! Praise pricks bloated problems by empowering us to glimpse the enormity of God.
Curse and be worse; praise and be raised. It's you who choose to win or lose.
'Lord, increase our faith,' pleaded the disciples.
'If you have faith the size of a mustard seed ...' came the reply. (Luke 17:5-6)
Perhaps our greatest need is not huge faith, but to fully use our small faith. Perhaps we miss out because we devalue our faith, not using it to the fullest because we wrongly imagine that tiny faith is too insignificant to move the hand of God. If faith is more valuable than gold, (1 Peter 1:7) the merest speck is too precious to despise. Do not let feelings of inadequacy strangle your faith. Just keep pressing on. Past greats achieved much with wobbly faith. So can you.
Like everyone, my faith levels fluctuate. Usually I am aware that a few moments dwelling on faith-building truths or squashing negative thoughts would boost my faith a little, but I foolishly let myself remain at a lower faith level than I know I am capable of. I have failed to take faith as seriously as Scripture does. If faith is as valuable as Scripture affirms, then only a fool would pass up any opportunity to slightly increase it.
Let faith grow by resting in the certainty that you are greatly loved by the All-powerful Lord. Build muscle on that faith by constantly praising God for the answer He is going to give you. It takes the wait off your mind.
Earth sees us flattened on the wrestling ring canvas in faith's fight. Heaven sees us forming on the canvas of the Great Artist.
Half-completed works of art look ugly. All that matters, however, is the finished masterpiece. Forget appearances. Yield to the Artist. The result will be breath-taking.
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Copyright, 1994, Grantley Morris. Not to be sold. Not to be distributed in whole or in part without citing this entire paragraph. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings by the same author may be found at the following internet site: www.net-burst.net