Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion.
— Psalm 103:1-4 NASB
Given the choice between 2019 and 2020, I would choose 2020, hands down. While 2020 has not proven to be a great year, by any standard, there is the sense in which, “we’re all in this together.” Of course, I could be wrong, but I think there’s something about this pandemic experience that bolsters our sense of shared humanity and community. For years to come we’ll start sentences with, “Do you remember when …” and we will all remember when.
On the other hand, 2019 was one of the most horrible years I can remember. Due to no fault of our own, no mistake we had made, no lapse in judgment on our part, my wife, Jayne, and I needed to move back to the U.S. after serving overseas for 25 years. We didn’t want to go, but knew we couldn’t stay. Knowing that something is the right decision doesn’t always make my heart fall in step quickly. What I didn’t know was just how long my heart would be “out of step.”
For the first few months back I could blame the dissonance on transition. “Yeah, I’m still getting used to things here,” was my standard reply when people asked how I was doing. After four months in the States, we were able to take a ministry trip back to “the Old Country.” So excited to see old friends, old teammates and our old home, I made the mistake of not preparing for what it would actually be like to see old friends, hear old teammates talk of new ministry opportunities, or walk into our old home (which we actually got to stay in for the month). Deep sigh. This world (or this house) is not my home.
Sidebar: As we were preparing to leave the United States 26 years ago for (what we thought would be) five to seven years, we were given pre-field training. During that time we were encouraged to not bring our American culture with us (I laugh now as I write – one is not even aware of one’s culture most of the time – you just express it in most of what you think, say and do) but to work hard at adopting the ways of our host culture. What we weren’t told is that if we go beyond our seven years in the country and stay for, say, 25 years, you don’t have to work hard at adopting the culture, it just becomes a part of you. Reading through Hebrews, I would take pride when coming to passages about “receiving a Kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) and “seeking the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14) for I knew that my citizenship was in heaven (although my passport was still from America). I had no idea how firmly entrenched my identity had become in my new homeland.
Coming to grips with my new reality – I am at home neither in Birmingham nor in Zagreb – my melancholy hit a whole new level. Now when people would ask me how I was doing, I gave them an analogy. “You know when you go to Disney World, and you see that kid who’s walking along, hand-in-hand with his dad, but it’s really clear by his attitude that he’s NOT having a good time? That kid is me. I’m him.” Inside I felt as though I should be living a “Disney World” experience – I knew that God had led us back to the States. But life there hadn’t exactly turned out as I had planned (“When does it ever?” you might ask), and I was miserable. Still, I soldiered on, trying to develop new areas of ministry and praying about what to do next.
This went on for some months until we participated in a forum focusing on “Discernment.” It started normal enough – good discussion about a Biblical basis of discernment and other thoughts. But the second day included a (previously unscheduled) session about anger, that the forum leader sensed the need to include. After a short introductory talk, she gave us time to make an anger/grief list. “This should be easy,” I thought to myself, “I’m not angry about anything.”
I moved to a secluded place and started my list. “What was I angry about?” I kept asking myself. “What can I put on my list that looks somewhat realistic?” I penned a few thoughts:
- I don’t like living in the hot south.
- I don’t like having to make new friends.
- I’m angry that we still don’t have an idea of what we’re really doing.
But then the thoughts came a bit more rapidly and were a bit more “personal” in nature (so I’m not going to write them here), and then the floodgates opened and I was deluged by my anger. Anger at God. Anger at the injustice I felt. Anger that I had gotten no “say so” in the arrangement. But most of all, anger that I had to “take my new reality and act like I was happy about it because I’m a mature Christian!” Yes, inside I was screaming this. Outside, I had started sobbing. Really ugly crying. I think the Biblical term is, “I was undone.”
That was the moment when Jesus began healing my anger – He began by “undoing” it. I had shrouded my heart so tightly with anger over the past year that it took a while, and some good, compassionate, curious friends, for Him to unwrap, expose, and heal it. One early milestone in the process was the discovery of an old poem by John Newton, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow.”* From the first reading, it has become a favorite.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and ev’ry grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And, by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea, more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried;
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
Healing is a funny thing. I thought that I was angry with God about my lot in life (and I was, and I needed to voice it all out to Him). But the healing didn’t come in God “apologizing” to me and my “forgiving” Him (as it does in human relationships), but it came in the realization that my anger came, ultimately, because I didn’t like the way God had been answering my prayers for increased faith, hope and love (which Jayne and I had taken up praying a few years ago). He wanted to heal my overdependence on myself and my own ways of doing things so that I could rest in and enjoy Him. I know that Jesus healed my sin on the cross, but He is also healing my heart as I grow in faith, hope and love day by day.
ACTION: How is the Father asking you to trust Him as He answers your prayers for growth? What is He “healing” you from? How might your self-sufficiency be expressing itself today, and how might Jesus be inviting you to lay down your own ideas and plans and allow Him to lead you somewhere you may not desire to go?
*Words by John Newton (1779), Public Domain