Thorns in the flesh sound bad, but God can – and will – use them for our good.
We have been walking through this theme of growing through adversity. I get the privilege of bringing it to a close. One of the things that kept resonating with me as I enjoyed and received is that the more and more I get to walk this faith journey out, the more something about God starts becoming a little bit more clear. Some of us may be on a precipice of being open to Him. If that’s the case, that’s wonderful. Many times, when we think of God and start becoming open to Him, we are confronted with the reality that He is a God who is gracious, loving, and kind. It’s quite surprising, especially if what we expect is very different. He promises us great and amazing things. Anyone who embraces Him, who embraces Jesus in their lives, God gives the promise of freedom of soul, Jesus said it Himself. Jesus came to give freedom to those who are captive. He gave that as a promise. He says if anybody comes to Him and receives Him, He gives the promise of abundant life, a soul that becomes wealthy, despite the physical circumstances or external factors in their lives. He says, there is this promise that when God is invited into somebody’s life, an abundance of life erupts through their soul, which is wonderful.
God will do that to us. He will sometimes entice us or compel us. He’ll draw us near. He’ll deposit something of longing within us. That in itself and being able to recognize and embrace that is a good thing. But as He does that, He has a way of promising something to us, and at the same time, asking us to contend for the very thing He’s promised. Yet, it seems to me God doesn’t have a problem with saying, “Look. Here is your promise. Do you want it?” We say, “Yes.” He says, “Now fight for it. Now I want you to exert some effort to realize it in your own life, to incorporate it into the everydayness of your life. You have to activate this. You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Figure out what it looks like to live this out.”
Right there, in that place of hearing something of His promise, spoken into our soul, and recognizing He’s inviting us at the same time to decide whether or not it’s worth the fight. He gives us that privilege or responsibility. However, we might want to look at it. We get the decision. We get to decide if what He is trying to do in our lives is worth our full engagement. When we decide to step forward with Him, we end up experiencing certain things, resistance, obstacles, and challenges. Generally speaking, that is what ends up getting categorized as adversity in our lives. It is when we start to move into God. It almost seems like pursuing God means inviting more adversity than we had before.
If we’re not careful, it can get a little confusing and even discouraging. I was impacted by this idea, this principle as it were, several years ago. It was about two years ago around this time of year, in the first quarter of the year. In 2015, I was sat down in a room with our lead pastor and several other teammates of the executive team. I was asked if I would be willing to step into a portion of his leadership as he was about to step away on sabbatical. Many of us may or may not know, but he had vocal surgery and he needed time to recuperate. It ended up extending into a major portion of the year. I remember sitting in that room being asked if I would be willing to do this. I think I responded the way anybody who cares about their family, or community would respond, which is, “What’s needed? I’ll do it.” There was something inside of me that said, “Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Let’s do this.” It was a portion with an amazing team of people. It continues to be an amazing group of people who are extremely faithful and very talented in what they do. I remember that initial adrenaline rushing through me, and deciding on the spot, “Yeah. I’m going to do it. Pastor Terry needs to go on sabbatical. I’m going to step in for a portion of time, a portion of what his duties are, and some of that might be platform related.”
I remember doing that on spot, and feeling, “Yes. This is right. This is the right thing to do. I think God’s in this. I feel the conviction.” I remember after that, as time wore on, something else started to settle in. Something else started to creep up within me. I started to realize what I had just committed myself to. I started getting nervous and scared about it. I started to look at the challenges, possibilities, and risks ahead that were involved. I felt a little bit more anxious. At the time, I was attending a class in my seminary studies, in which the professor would begin every class session by opening up and asking the class, “Does anybody have a prayer request?” I generally felt like I wanted other classmates to ask for their requests. I generally didn’t make mine known. I was there to participate and receive from the class. This time, I was feeling under pressure. I was feeling a lot of nerves going on, a lot of fear. He asked the question, “Did anybody have a prayer request this week? Would anybody like prayer?” I raised my hand. This was when I started to realize how I was viewing this. It was a little different than how others were viewing this. I remember raising my hand and explaining, “Well, something’s going on in our church. This is confidential, but in a couple of weeks, Pastor Terry, our Lead Pastor, who’s been there for over 25 years as a Lead Pastor, is going to have vocal surgery. He’s going to be taking a much-needed sabbatical. I’m going to step in and assume some of his responsibilities. I would love prayer. I’m a little bit nervous about it. I’m kind of scared, to be honest with you.”
I’m sharing this with a group of classmates that I’ve known only for a little bit. I feel like I’m being pretty vulnerable. I’m sharing this because I would love their support and prayers on my and our behalf. I’m sharing this fearfully. Their reaction was not what I expected. Their reaction was one of excitement. I’m said, “I’m a little bit concerned about this.” They said, “Wow. That’s amazing, Luis.” I said, “Okay. Maybe you didn’t understand. Our Lead Pastor, who’s been there almost for about three decades now, is going on sabbatical. I’ve known no one else as my pastor. I’ve been there since my teen years. They’re asking me to step into a portion of his role. They are big shoes to fill.” “Yeah. Yeah. No, we heard you.” “Okay.” “It’s amazing, Luis. This is amazing.” I said, “Okay. One last time guys. The community hasn’t known anyone else for over 25 years now. He’s taking a sabbatical. It means he won’t be there.” “Yeah, yeah. That’s fantastic. He needs it. He deserves it. Wow. That’s great. Your Lead Pastor gets to take a break for an extended period of time. Man, that’s awesome.”
“Okay. I have to assume it means I have to do more. I have to do stuff I’m not really comfortable or used to doing for an extended period of time.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Man, that’s fantastic. We are so excited for you.” I said, “Okay. You know what? We’re not going to be in agreement here. So how about this? Can you just pray for me? Can you just do that?” They said, “Yeah. Yeah.” So they prayed, “God, thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing at Cornerstone, for what you’ve done through that ministry. Thank you for giving Pastor Terry this time to be able to rest, refresh, and rejuvenate. We thank you, God, for giving Luis this opportunity.” They go on and on with their gratitude. I’m sitting there saying, “God, that’s not what I had in mind.” That’s when it hit me, we’re in two different places here. We’re seeing things differently.
Several days after that, I found myself in a coffee shop sitting with a trusted leader that I’ve come to deeply respect, a close friend of Pastor Terry. I’m talking with him, and this person is experienced, seasoned in ministry, and leadership. He knows what it looks like. He’s walked it out. I remember just talking to him, and I decided I felt safe. When we feel safe, we feel comfortable enough to let our guard down a bit. I decided to test the waters a little bit. I let out one fear that I thought, okay, let’s see how this goes. “I’m concerned about this.” It wasn’t that big a deal. It didn’t seem to phase him. He said, “Oh yeah, yeah. That makes sense.” I said, “Oh, okay.” I went into my toolbox, and I said, “Okay, here’s a bigger concern I have.” “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I could see that. I could see that.” Didn’t phase him. I said, “Okay.”
I decided to get more honest. “Here are my concerns. Here are my fears. Here are my anxieties. I’ll tell you what, at the end of the day, the reality is, I’m looking at what’s ahead. I don’t know if I have what it takes.” He said, “All right.” He said something to me at that moment that I had heard before. It ended up striking me in a way, perhaps it was because it was the right word for that specific moment in time. He ends up leaning to me with a knowing smile, and says, “Luis. Luis. I understand what you’re saying. But you have to understand, leadership isn’t learned through reading books. It’s learned in the field of testing, which was true. “You’re seeking a degree in Theology, in Leadership Development. You’re going to go to school now in a different way. You’re not seeing this quite the same way you should.” He said, “This is an opportunity for you.”
It just hit me. It might be obvious to some; it might make sense to others. But sometimes a word that you have heard thousands of times before is delivered in the right moment of need, which can make all the difference. There was something in that word, it just felt like it was divinely fueled and empowered for me right at that moment. It ended up becoming a word that I lived off of, to be able to start leaning into that. It also confirmed something that God was putting His finger on in my life. I wanted to pursue this degree or a knowledge base, to be able to understand what leadership is all about in a ministry context and church setting without the requirement of having field experience.
I share that because I think in our most honest moments, we desire the fruit of a promise or a hope, an aspiration that we sense God is depositing in us or is calling us toward. He may give us a vision of life. He is saying, “This can be yours.” He wants that for us. He promises it to us. We might be compelled. It might be the very reason we began this faith journey, to begin with. What happens is we can easily drop into that place in which we want it without the necessary experiences and tests that come in the field. I think we can identify with the reality that in business, relationship, or faith, we desire the highest result with the least amount of effort.
Many times, we think about how to maximize our leverage. We love that; how to get the greatest amount of output with the least amount of effort. If we’re not careful, we end up dropping into this. It might be for a variety of valid reasons. It’s not just black and white. It might be because we simply do not have the time to put in the necessary energy and effort required. Or it might be because we are not sure we’re ready to go all-in on something. What we end up doing is saying, “You know what? This sounds good, but I’m going to hedge my bet over here as well.” When what’s actually being asked of us is not a piece of us, but all of us. It might be that we end up thinking of ourselves, in the way we behave and the way we look at life. Maybe we’re more cautious by nature and want to hold out for something that’s better.
Whatever the reason might be, I think it is safe to say, because of this way of thinking about life and our faith, when we desire the highest amount of output or results with the least amount of effort. We engage our faith journey in this way. What ends up happening sometimes is we can start misinterpreting resistance, obstacles, challenges, and adversity, as a reason to stop moving forward in what we initially felt compelled to do. To double-check, “Is this God or not? Maybe I have it wrong.” Fundamentally, what that speaks to is this idea, “If God is in it, it shouldn’t be this hard.” That is what God’s blessing means. God’s blessing equals not hard. That’s what it means when we see it. You’re blessed means you had it easy.
It’s not quite that way. In order to move into what God may want to bless us with, He may invite and ask us to step into the very thing we would rather run away from, avoid, or not experience. This is where the rubber meets the road, as it were. This is why many times, He will promise us something, and then ask us to grow into it through the adversity in our lives. This is why I love the scriptures personally. They reveal human nature in such an unvarnished, raw way. It also reveals God’s goodness. In fact, this passage we’re going to take a look at together is found in the Older Testament. It speaks of this account of this episode that happened in Israel’s history that I think does just that. It shows us a bit of a contrast of two to different ways of looking at the adversity before us as God asks us to move into the promise He gives us.
Just so we understand, Israel was a people that were enslaved by Egypt for over four centuries at this point in their history. God sends a man named Moses to deliver them out of slavery and ends up doing amazing, miraculous things. At that moment in history, God tells Moses, “This is the moment I will give them the Promised Land. That is why it is called that. It is land that was promised to Israel. It was promised not to the nation of Israel, but to a person named Abraham and their descendants; his descendants were the people of Israel. God is saying to Moses, “Now is the time for them to realize this promise. They’re going to have to step into it.” He takes them to the precipice of this land. Moses wisely sends 12 spies to the land for some reconnaissance work. Their report is what we’re going to interact with here together.
In Numbers 13, we’re told, verse 27 was their report to Moses. “We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country, a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there.” The descendants of Enoch mean nothing to us. It means a whole lot to them. It meant an awful lot to them. “The Amalekites live in the Negev. The Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. They’re surrounding the entire land. The Canaanites live along the coal of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan valley.” It is a rather mixed report. “On one hand, you’re right. The land is bountiful. It’s rich in cattle, produce, and vegetation. It gives a rich harvest. Look at this fruit. On the other hand, it’s not going to be easy because they are powerful people with strong fortifications and defenses that we think are impenetrable. In fact, they are all over the land.”
We have to understand that this promise God gives to Israel is not lest we confuse things. It’s not because Israel somehow has earned it or deserved it. We might see it as displacing a people to conquer a land promised to them. In fact, God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel that there are two reasons why this is happening. One, because God promised it to Abraham, and He’s going to keep His promise. Two, not because you deserve it or earn it. He uses this language, because of the wickedness and evil that exists in that land. The injustice has given God notice, and now He wants to institute justice in the land. Israel’s incapacity, the lack of capability they had to maintain justice in the land, is the very reason they end up becoming displaced hundreds of years later. God is a just God, keeps His promise without being partial. It’s layered, this account with what’s going on. But 10 end up emphasizing not the goodness of the land, but the difficulty of the challenge before them.
All of them, it seems, are bent on this rather negative outlook, except one. We’re told in verse 30, “Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. ‘Let’s go at once to take the land,” He said, “We can certainly conquer it.” The other men who had explored the land with him disagreed. ‘We can’t go up against them. They’re stronger than we are.’ They spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites. ‘The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there.'” This is the report they gave to the rest of the country. “All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Enoch. Next to them, we felt like grasshoppers.'” I’ll tell you what, that’s what they thought, too. You get the sense that these 10 spies were essentially saying, “There’s no way, Caleb. You’re seeing things through rose-colored glasses, blue skies everywhere. You don’t understand. They’re giants. In fact, we didn’t just think they were giants. They thought they were giants.” You get the sense they looked at them, “Oh, what are you doing here? Hey, little guy. Get your fruit, go ahead, go back.” That’s the sense you get. They were mocked, belittled, demeaned, and condescended. They write this report tell the entire people.
The outlook on their perspective is something I resonate with far more than I would like to admit. If we put ourselves in their shoes we see a people group who had just stepped out of captivity. All they had known for generation upon generation was life as a slave. They had no models of freedom. They had no models of success, overcoming, and conquering. They had never seen for themselves what it looks like to overcome a challenge. All they had experienced, is that a nation more powerful than they had successfully overpowered them and oppressed them for hundreds of years. If their recent past said that God was on the move in the greater story of their life, it overshadowed any glimpse of optimism they could muster. They were being asked to risk the very safety they had just recently received in the hopes of securing a future of freedom and hope. They determined that was a risk they were not willing to take. They send this report and the fear ends up not just going forth from their own hearts, but it ends up infecting the rest of the community.
We’re told in verse one of Numbers 14, “Then the whole community began weeping aloud. They cried all night upon hearing this report.” Nothing had happened, by the way. Not one thing had occurred. This simply occurred by them looking into the future at their challenge. The entire community, the entire night, cries out. “Their voices rose in a great chorus of protests against Moses and Aaron. Their fear gives voice. ‘If only we had died in Egypt or here in the wilderness,’ they complained. ‘Why is the Lord taking us to this country, only to have us die in battle? Our wives and little ones will be carried off as plunderers. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?'”
The situation they were perceiving in front of them was being interpreted through not just concern but through anxiety. Concern ends up becoming anxiety. Anxiety becomes fear. Fear becomes the very stream that exposes the underlying core of why they were terrified. They give voice to their pain, their brokenness, their wounds, their cynicism, and give voice to a fear that ripples throughout human history. On the precipice of a future, they are terrified. They say, “God is against us. Man, I knew it. Man, I knew it. I knew it. How dare I be fooled? I knew it. God, see, we thought He was with us. No, He’s out to destroy us. Do you not see how big those challenges are? He’s out to destroy us. Why is He doing this? Why is He against us?” In that fear, in that place of acknowledging, their concern wasn’t the giant. Their concern was that God was not with them. They know if God is not with them, then they are doomed from the get-go.
Their fear reveals a core truth. They start to discover freedom is not as easy as captivity, not when challenges show up. No. What happens that ends up bringing them to this place of what? Longing for the days when they did not need to take personal responsibility. They long for the days when they were simply told what to do. They long for the days when risk, facing giants, conquering lands, wasn’t even a possibility. They long for the days when they could at least have the comfort of what they knew. They long for what we can all find ourselves longing for in moments of adversity. They long for the familiar. In the face of adversity, the familiar, no matter how broken or painful it might be, always look enticing when the future is uncertain.
We’re told, “Then they plotted amongst themselves. ‘Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt.’ Then Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground before the whole community of Israel. Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. They said to all the people of Israel, ‘The land we’ve traveled through and explored is wonderful. What are you doing? Look at that. It’s right there at our fingertips. We just need to go for it. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land, flowing with milk and honey. It’s right there. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land.'” Look at this phrase, “They are only helpless prey to us. They have no protection, but the Lord is with us. Don’t be afraid of them.” This account ends up becoming a study of contrasts. One group of people see the challenges up ahead. God is asking them to step into them. They see a future of destruction. The other group sees the challenges up ahead. God is asking them to step into it and they see instruction. “God’s with us. He didn’t lead us out for vain. He’s going to give it to us, but we have to go for it.”
This account is so rich. There are so many things we can glean from it. In our remaining moments, I’d like us to focus on how we might view this through the idea of growing through adversity. “Growth through adversity happens when we fuel our endurance with hope in God.” This is what we’re being shown here. When our endurance is fueled by hope in God, in contrast to anxiety and fear. Some of us are driven. What drives us is that we are so good and productive when we are anxious and afraid. Some of us are very good at seeing the things that scare us. We proactively go after them and solve them before our fear can be realized. That creates, some have coined the phrase, paranoid productivity. There is a benefit to having undergirding anxiety always flowing through us. It’s what prevents us from resting on our laurels and being caught off guard. That in itself can do that. That’s one side of the coin of anxiety and fear. It can drive us.
The other side of the coin is that it can end up becoming the source of our defeat. It becomes the catapult to the thought, “I don’t even know if this is worth it. So why even try?” In that place, we end up quitting on the very thing we initiated. When we end up quitting, the first time, it’s rather difficult. The second time, it’s a little less. The third time has become a habit. It becomes a little too easy to do. If anxiety is productive or defeating it ends up ultimately affecting us, as it gives us a constant sense of insecurity. It undermines our confidence. If we are driven by our fear and anxiety, it ends up hollowing out our sense of courage and hope. Inevitably, we come to the place where we realize, “I don’t know if I can go on much longer.”
In contrast, we see that Caleb and Joshua discovered something different. They looked in the future and fueled their hope with God. The reality is that God would never leave them nor forsake them. The reality is that God is for them, not against them. The reality is that God is good, just, gracious, and merciful. His love is abundant. They see the future. They don’t see something to run away from. They are fueled with courage and they see a preferred future to step into. They are fueled not so much by the desire to run away from the past, but by the very thing that scares others. They say, “No. I will run right into it. We should all go do this together. If God has promised it, then God will give it. But it requires us to go.” It means that hope in God will always be more powerful than our capacities, anxieties, and resources. It means that hope in God shows us a future that is worth moving toward. It gives us the courage we need. It gives us a reason to remain under the pressure we might be feeling. It reminds us that adversity is never in vain. Hope in God will remind us that this will also be to our benefit. If that is the case, if that is what hope in God gives us, then it also positions us to be open to the beautiful thing God desires to do in our lives.
When we posture ourselves in a place of being willing, being open to what God is doing, we grow through adversity. We become open to the beautiful thing God desires to do in our lives. What sticks out to me, is that Caleb and Joshua were not desiring the past. They were desiring what God was going to do in the future. They weren’t in denial about how difficult it was going to be. They understood that struggle was part of the process. They understood the implications in front of them. Their picture of the future was dominated by what God was going to do, not their capacities or sense of strength.
I remember several years ago when I was walking that season out. It seemed like our entire community experienced that in a different, unique way, each individually. I remember reading different books on leadership, and one of them stuck out to me. It was written by a former Navy SEAL. His name is Eric Greitens. He spoke about resilience. He wrote this book on resilience. I used to think resilience was the ability to bounce back up exactly to where one was. He said, “What happens to us becomes part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences. They find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.” There’s a difference. We think resilience means we fell, failed, stumbled, bounced back up, and go back to where we used to be. He says, “No. That’s not resilience. Resilience is something that happens to us. Instead of resisting or denying it, we incorporate it into what we are. It becomes part of our story. It becomes something that gives us a more well-rounded perspective on life. It enhances and strengthens us. It empowers us because now we have experienced it.” What I think sticks out to me is when God is involved we become open to what He wants to do. Our wounds become the place where compassion can become a part of us. Our brokenness can become the place where others receive grace and mercy through us. Our weaknesses become access points to others seeing what Jesus can do through a life that is willing and open.
We become people who no longer bemoan what has happened to us in the past, the mistakes we have made, or what others have done to us. We become people who are no longer defined, bitter, and resentful by the wounds, scars, and different challenges we have faced. When grace is involved, God is invited in, something new is made, something beautiful and wonderful. We become people whose very wounds and points of pain become the motivation to become people who pursue what is right, true, beautiful, holy, lovely, good, kind, and gentle. We become vessels of the master artist. All because we say, “I deny not where I was or what happened to me. I surrender it to you.” When we do that, no pain, tear, or bloodshed is ever lost on God. No adversity is in vain. When we start to step into this together, we grow through our adversity. When we contend for the very promise God has whispered into our soul, we become the people that say, “God, I’m going to line up with your promise in my life. I’m going to line up with what you’re trying to do in my life.” God promises abundant life to everyone, but it uniquely means something to each one of us. He promised freedom of soul to everyone, but it uniquely means something different to each one of us.
The question is, “What is the promise that is living within our soul? What does it look like for us to contend for it?” Where He says, “You will be a person who will be free in this area of your life,” what does it look like for us to contend for that? “You will be a person that will be generous in this way, kind in this way, forgiving in this way, and forgiven in this way.” What does it look like for us not simply to receive it, but to say, “I’m going to take one step at a time. I’m going to move forward. I’m going to make this a promise I live in. I see that land, and I want it. Because you’re with me, it’s worth the fight. With everything in me, it’s worth the fight.”
While we do that, we grow through our adversity. Perhaps, in our moments of weakness, in our moments of being overwhelmed, maybe this prayer will help us throughout the week. Our final prayer of the series. Lord, you have whispered your promise to me. You give me a future and hope. You do not desire destruction for me. Thank you for your grace. As I look into my future, I confess the challenges look bigger than I can handle, so I ask that you remind me of your faithfulness. As I take one step at a time, strengthen me with your hope. Yes, Lord, help me participate in the beautiful thing you are doing through my adversity, for I know it’s worth the fight. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
What is the connection between our weakness and spiritual strength in the Lord?
In times of struggle, God can do new things in us and to us.