Sitting on my bed, alone in my room. I remember the anguish that came over 24 year old me. Maybe it pushed itself from the inside of me. Maybe it was a convergence of both. At that moment, I remember expressing my frustration to God with these words: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this! Why is this happening?!” Unfortunately it wasn’t the first time the confusing distress over my circumstances would be cast heavenward only to feel like they bounced right back off the ceiling. Alone. Again?!
However, in this particular exchange, the lessons learned then have stayed with me ever since.
This was my time of isolation:
I was four months removed from my first mission experience, having spent three months in Spain. I was seven months removed from selling my car, a beautiful glittering champagne coloured Pontiac Firebird with a T-roof. I had quit my comfortable, dependable job with the bank. I was sacrificing everything for God – wasn’t that noble of me? Upon my return home, the world was different through my eyes. The lessons I’d learned and the people I learned them from had made a profound impact on my life. Coming home was huge adjustment. At first I was willing to work anywhere and do anything. I was thankful for the opportunity to work, I had a new attitude. One of my favourite jobs, ever, was working 12 hour days at a brand new private golf course: cutting grass, shoveling gravel, sweeping roadways so the members didn’t get stone chips on their cars. It was awesome! When that season ended I needed new work and before long I found it. I was now a roofer. I still got to work outside, this time, I was the guy carrying shingles, 2 packs at a time, up the ladders. I was the guy dodging the old shingles and nails on the ground and then picking them all up and hauling them to the dumpster. I actually loved it…until. Until one day, two weeks in, I was having a conversation with a group of the guys and realized that I was making the lowest wage of anyone on the crew. All of a sudden, my demeanour changed, my attitude changed and my desire for employment changed…I quit!! It wasn’t fair! I deserve better than that, in part, because of what “I” had done for God. Surely He wouldn’t want me to do this kind of work for that kind of money? Turns out He didn’t. He thought I could do with even less and so I spent the next three months unemployed, no work, no money. Alone, I was, only because “I” didn’t make room for God in “my” plans.
In those moments the truth of Shelley Trebesch’s writing, in her book Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, became a reality for me. Trebesch describes the four fold process of isolation (p. 44) in these terms (I have added my own journey in the parentheses) :
- Stripping – Usually a breaking process that prepares a person to want to go deep with God. (see above story)
- Wrestling with God – Turns the experience from a why to a what and creates a hunger for God. (It took two of those months for me to trust God enough to wrestle with Him, rather than blame Him. In that last month the question turned from “Why?” to “What?” and although I’ve faced times of isolation again, the question “Why?” is never uttered, and for that I am thankful).
- Increased Intimacy with God – Forms a hunger for and a deepened relationship with God which will affect all future ministry since ministry flows out of being. (Isolation has allowed me to examine God’s Word and His Creation to see how He was at work in people’s lives and how He is at work in the world around us. Through those observations, even in times of difficulty, there is never any doubt about His presence.)
- Looking forward to the future – Frees up the person to know more of God. Experience more of God, and to expectantly look to God’s continued presence in life and ministry. (Having been through a few significant isolation experiences, one of the phrases that I have come to cherish is “I don’t know but Jesus does.” It keeps me looking to God and hopefully reminds others to do the same.)
So what am I learning as a result of that isolation experience, 23 years ago?
- Pride, left unchecked, can show itself and dig it’s heals in quickly. In particular, after ministry ‘highs’ there is an openness to pride. Learning to remove myself from the ‘accomplishment’ of ministry is an on-going battle that must always be fought.
- That God is my provider, my employer is not. Since that time the Lord has freed me from ever asking about compensation and since that time he has taught me about sufficiency, contentment and generosity.
- My value does not come from my work, but from the stewardship of the gifts that He has given. His gifts (in my case: teaching, leadership, encouragement) are fuelled by the work of His Holy Spirit. My value is being considered His child, a co-heir with Christ which is independent of my job, title or pay scale. Always making time to use His gifts has allowed me to learn how to discern what opportunities to take on and which to let pass.
- Isolation though it can be imposed through unwelcoming external circumstances, can also be integrated into the regular course of our lives. Lent is a period of time where we can enter into the four-fold process of isolation. Engaging the promise of Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11) is another one that many, especially pastors, miss. If we are routinely meeting God in isolation, which Jesus’ exemplifies (Luke 5:16), then we are less likely to fear the greater more extended times of isolation, in fact we may even welcome them because in them we find out that we are never alone.
If you knew that God was preparing you for something that He’s uniquely designed for you, how would you approach isolation differently?