Sometimes the hard places in our lives are where God brings about transformation or refinement in us. For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
Confining places, when I was first exploring this series, it had to do with my situation that was going on. The adversity series flows out of time when I was away on a medical sabbatical in 2015. I was thinking a lot about this idea of being stuck in a situation I didn’t want to be in. It brought me it towards Paul. I said, “The apostle Paul was someone who understood what it was like to feel limitation, to feel stuck, and not have the freedom and autonomy that he desired.” There were two passages in particular that came to my mind. I want to use them very quickly to work off of. The first is in 2 Timothy 10-12.
Paul says, “Now He has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the good news.” Paul starts with this expansive declaration about who Jesus is as the savior and how He has broken the power of death and shown us the path of life. He’s talking about this good news, which is another way of saying the gospel. He is talking about the message of Jesus, His death, burial, resurrection, and the transforming power that He can bring into a person’s life when we open up our hearts towards Him. Paul goes on to say, “God chose me to be a preacher and an apostle and a teacher of this good news.”
I remember reading this at the time, thinking about this idea of adversity. I thought, “Paul saw himself as someone who had legitimately been called by God to preach this great message of Jesus. He threw his heart into it and did it with an abandon that was far more than casual. There was an intense commitment that flowed out of this man’s life towards Jesus.” I couldn’t help that as I read the one about his glowing report of who Jesus is. Two, how Paul himself had been called to share that message. I couldn’t help but be a little bit jarred by what followed on the heels of that statement. After declaring the fact that he’s representing Jesus, he’s a preacher, apostle, and a teacher of this great message, he says, “That’s why I’m suffering here in prison. I’m not ashamed of it for I know the one in whom I trust. I’m sure that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until the day of His return.”
Look at that closely. He says, “Here’s the message, I’ve been fully committed to sharing that message. Look where it got me. I’m in prison, I’m suffering in prison.” I look at that and think, “Well, Lord, this is how you take care of your people?” Thinking Paul probably could have easily had an attitude of, so this is what happens when you put yourself out for the Lord. Why isn’t it when someone puts themself out in this way, wouldn’t you think that maybe they could get a little bit of protection, be exempted. What’s fascinating here is what we don’t hear Paul saying, “Lord, why are you doing this to me? Why are you allowing this to happen to me? Look how much I’ve done for you.” There’s no venting. There’s no sense of, “You owe me, Lord. I’ve given you everything. I’ve thrown myself into preaching this good message. This is what this gets me.” When we read this, we think, “Oh yeah, that’s why I’m suffering here in prison.” That phrase of suffering, don’t run past it. Suffering is not an easy thing. It’s hard to suffer. Maybe some of us at some level in our life feel that we are suffering. To suffer is to be in pain and it isn’t easy. It might be something that has a physical component to it. It might be relational. It might have an emotional side to it. Something that is sitting with this in our mind, when we suffer, that’s hard.
Paul says, “I’m suffering and in prison.” What he meant by that was he was literally in a jail cell and he was not free. He was confined. He was not experiencing the ability to move as he chose. He was hindered. This was his situation because his situation was connected to what he had done for Jesus. My point is his attitude. He says, “You know what? I’m not ashamed of this.” Part of what I hear there is not only I’m not ashamed. In other words, I’m not backing away from this and somehow allowing it to affect how I think of Him. Nobody says, “No, I know the one in whom I trust. This is not something that’s shaking my faith.” It’s not like he’s holding up his fist and saying, “Why Jesus? Why, if I’ve given so much, are you allowing me to suffer because of it? Why am I here in prison now? I’m not free because of what I’m doing and committed for you. Is this the way it’s supposed to work?” I don’t hear that. What we hear from this is this, “Lord, I love you. My confidence in you is unshaken. I believe.” I think he uses the word guard intentionally because I suspect there was a guard very near to him and he writes it down, “I know that I can trust you with my life. I know the one I have trusted and I know that you are able to guard what I have entrusted to you until that day.”
This is a tremendous statement of faith on his part. What it reminded me of is the absence of a complaint. The absence of grievance and a sense of entitlement. The willingness on his part to say, “Lord, even though I’m in this difficult place of suffering and confinement and my willingness to step forward on your behalf, I have nothing in my heart other than utter confidence in your unshakable faithfulness and goodness. I trust you implicitly. I am not ashamed of you.” That’s a great word, I found myself saying, “Wow Lord, this is helpful.” Look at the second passage in Acts 26. He says, in this situation he’s been before King Agrippa and had to defend himself.
He has chains on and is brought into this interview before the Roman governor. He’s a very powerful man. A king and queen who were over a local region named Agrippa and Bernice. They were with Festus, the Roman governor. They were trying to ask Paul, “What have you done to get so many people mad at you?” The Roman governor wanted to understand why Paul was such a problem or why so many people were angry with him because he couldn’t understand it. Some of the things that were going on with Paul and the groups of people such as fellow Jews and some former colleagues were upset with him for proclaiming Jesus is Messiah. There were a lot of people who were angry with Paul.
Paul starts explaining himself. As he explains himself, he starts having a conversation with Agrippa. They have this great exchange. Agrippa starts talking about how Paul says his life was changed by Jesus. Paul used to hate Jesus. Paul said, “I met Him and it changed everything. My life was altered. I’ve been sharing who He is with everyone I can and it’s created quite the stir.” Then Paul says to the Roman governor, “Agrippa you know this as well.” To the king, Paul says, “You know that these things have been going on and they were not done in secret or in a corner.” Paul’s very passionate about his commitment and love for Jesus. Agrippa says to Paul, “You almost persuaded me to become a Christian.” Read Acts 26, it’s a great exchange. I love Paul’s response, “I would to God that not only you but everybody who hears me today might become both almost and altogether, such as I am. Except of course, for these chains that I obviously would want no one to have.” We cannot miss the irony when you read it. We have only read two of the verses from that 26th chapter where that exchange that occurs. When you read it, you cannot miss the irony. It struck me. Here is the prisoner making a declaration to a king and governor.
The power of Rome and a person of great privilege, all represented in that room. Paul basically says, “You know what? I wish you guys were like me, except of course, for these chains and the fact that I’m essentially not free.” The point is, Paul wasn’t pretending the chains were good. He wasn’t saying, “Oh wow, this is a wonderful thing that I’m here in chains.” What he was saying though, is that he wasn’t limited by them. He did not allow his limitation to limit his testimony of Jesus nor to define him in defeat or despair. This is not a beaten man. This is not a man saying, “Why would God let me have to go through this? If I serve such a one as Him and I’m committed, then why am I sitting here with chains on my hands?” He didn’t say that. He said, “You know what? The truth is, I wish you had what I have. I would love for you to know Him. I would love for you to have everything that I have in my life. Except, of course, for these chains.” Chains are tough. Chains bind and confine. They are things that hang on to us. They hurt. They’re heavy. They’re a hassle.
These types of things testify to our limitations, pain, loss of freedom, and loss of autonomy. They’re the things in our lives that remind us of what is hard. This is a hard thing for me. Sometimes a chain is the loss of a blessing we once enjoyed and wish we could get back. We walk with this heaviness. I was thinking of Paul standing there with his chains saying, “Lord, I think a lot of us have experienced chains.” Right now, maybe there are certain things that we feel in our lives hinder us. They’re hindering our ability to move forward in love and freedom. They haunt us. They might be things from our past. There might be things that are connected to the choices we’ve made. There might be things that we have no control over, but we feel hindered and confined by them. Certainly, we wish we didn’t have them and they’re hard. Sometimes we understand what it’s like because they are painful. We feel like we’re suffering and we carry them with us. I look at this and say, “Wow, Lord, it reminded me of my own story.” I mentioned earlier that I was on a medical sabbatical for a significant portion of 2015. During that time I was struggling with my voice. I had vocal surgery.
On top of that, I had stretched my body hard before the surgery. I was already on an edge. I wasn’t doing great. I had to have the surgery and it was a tipping point for me. This series is centered around adversity. It is not something that I’m sharing theoretically. It really is a product of my own experience and outgrowth, if you will, of my time and confinement. In that sense, what I’m about to share is very personal for me, intensely personal. I remember thinking about this passage and writing the core of what would ultimately become this message. I remember one time I was sitting in this chair and was writing because I was feeling so poorly. This was after what I’m about to talk about. I was just sitting there thinking, “Lord, one of the things that I look forward to, I can’t see it right away, but I dream of the day when I will be able to share.” I remember I wept. I would have the deep privilege of sharing the things that I had a chance to learn at this spiritual, biblical, emotional level while I was in the throes of despair and intense hardship. I said, “Lord, I dream of being able to strengthen the people that you’ve allowed me to be able to touch in some way, the flock I love, the people connected to us, this community.” That was something that touched me in a way that gave me hope too, something of what I was walking through could be a blessing.
I think most of us know that periodically we’re going to find ourselves stuck in a place, situation, or struggle we don’t want to be in. Maybe some of us are there right now, imprisoned almost like Joseph in an Egyptian hell hole. Or Paul in the prison we just read about. The bottom line is we find ourselves in places we don’t want to be. Feeling pain in a way we don’t want to feel it. In some cases. some of us do not see an easy end to this thing. We have to walk through it. This is a journey that we’re going to be making. “How do I do this Lord? I carry this with me. How do I move through this?”
Let’s throw a couple of things up. This first one is obvious, but I need to say it. Confining places are hard places. They are places of sadness, places of loss, or places of limitation. Places where liberty, freedom, or flexibility are curtailed. We’re in a cell, so to speak, like Paul attached to a guard. We’re tethered, we can move around, but we’re not free. Thinking about that guard because wherever Paul went, that guard had to go with him. Wherever he goes, you have to go, you can’t go by yourself. He’s under house arrest for some of this time. Some of the time he was in a more confined environment later on. The bottom line is there are certain things that we carry. We don’t want them, but wherever we go, they come with us. You’re thinking, “It’s just hindering me.” It just comes. We’re connected. That’s what I’m talking about. As I was looking at that, I was saying, “Oh Lord. But that’s where a lot of us really can struggle.” Sometimes it’s because of decisions we’ve made. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
Sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes it happens because the choices other people make affect us. We have to work through that stuff. Sometimes it’s some combination of everything. Somebody did something, a situation happened, and we didn’t respond right to it. We’ve ended up creating our own stuff around it. It’s hard, painful, and difficult. It hangs on us. It’s connected to us. We feel confined by it. If we’ve never learned how to struggle through things, then a lot of times when we’re forced to have to get past things, it could be really hard. Some things or something I might be walking through, someone might say, “Oh, what’s the big deal.” For me, I might say, “Oh, you know what, what you’re dealing with? You just got to get past it.” But we’re different. What may be nothing for someone else, might be hard for me. It’s clipped on me and I can’t get it off. The more I pull, the more it stays connected to me. How do I get out of this, Lord? How do I get free out of this? I hate it. What do I do? Where’s my pathway of breakthrough here? When’s this going to end? What’s going to be the end of this story? How do I get past this? This hurts. I hate this. For me, my lowest point was almost two years ago.
It was right after my vocal surgery. I mentioned my nerves were already frayed before I went into surgery. I was already noticing stuff. By the time I got out, I noticed my hands were shaky. It may have been the medicines, but I noticed my hands were shaking and I couldn’t stop them. When they went in through my mouth, they hit a nerve in there. So half of my tongue was numb. I said, “Well, how long is that going to be? It’s really bothering me.” They said, “Well, it might be a couple of weeks, but we can’t say for sure.” It ended up being two months for me. On top of it, when I came right back from surgery, I couldn’t talk. I was already not in a good place. Thinking about what it all meant was hard. Other stuff happening that I was working through. Now, I’m a talker. I thought, “Oh yeah, you’re going to get this.” I’m already on edge. From the beginning of the year, I wasn’t handling certain things and losses well. I had to start thinking about the fact that I’m going to lose control here. I’d never been away from the church for any significant amount of time. Now, I was being given the privilege of being able to go on a medical sabbatical.
I say that tongue in cheek because, for me, sabbaticals are when you choose to go on a sabbatical, not when you’re being told to go on a sabbatical. When you’re told to go on a sabbatical, you think “I don’t really want to do that.” “Well, you can’t even talk.” When I got home, they said you can’t talk for seven days. I didn’t handle it well. I was unable to communicate with the trusted tool that I had come to rely on. I had no idea if it would ever come back to me. Those first seven days or so I had to write things down. I was writing things down like Zacharia. If you read Luke 1, Zacharia loses his voice and he has to write things on a tablet. I had my tablet, at least my version of it, except it was a yellow tablet. I remember because I hadn’t looked at this for a little while. My wife had saved it. When I got home, I started writing on it because I couldn’t talk. I would say all kinds of stuff to her such as, “How long until this anesthesia wears off. Can I swallow yet? How big is the pill? My throat feels real dry.” All kinds of stuff.
I remember there were times where I thought, write some more. I couldn’t say anything. So I was writing. I started reading. I am very weak, very dependent on Grace, and whatever courage He could give me. “How long does this last for? I forgot, six days ago. He said still, will let you know” I am writing stuff. A lot of stuff. “I am more tired today. Fatigued a bit. No sleep. I feel like Jobe. I want to talk. Maybe I’ll honor God with my silence.” I just keep going. You can see this was what it was. It was hard for me. I was in pain. There were times I started getting so frustrated because I wasn’t healing fast enough and other stuff was showing up in me. I was feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally stressed for even more complex reasons. I can tell you there was a cut couple of times in the following months where I feared I would never get my voice back. In my head, I said, “I wonder if I will ever get back.” I genuinely feared it. Confining places are hard places. They may have to do with our health. They may have to do with relationships. It might be stuff with our vocations or career. It might have to do with our identity, insecurities, or deepest struggles.
First Peter 1: 6-7, says, “So be truly glad.” This is the last piece of scripture we’re going to look at. “Be truly glad, there is wonderful joy ahead. Even though you must endure many trials for a little while, these trials will show you that your faith is genuine. It reveals and helps create a quality of faith. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold.” Let that image sit with us. Your faith is far more precious than just mere gold. When your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise, glory, and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. Number two, what do we see? We see that confining places can also be places of refinement and transformation.
I can say with absolute certainty that when the Lord is welcomed into our confining places, the things that we don’t want, are struggling with, and are hard, He can turn them into something that will be transformative. Confining places can be the places where God burns things out of us, like metal being refined. That draws the impurities out and they rise to the top. When we welcome the Lord into these things in our lives, seasons, situations, and un-fun painful places that beat the life and enjoyment out of us, we will notice that something starts to change in us. Sometimes that change is imperceptible. It’s just a little bit here and a little bit there. It’s so gradual. You don’t even notice something is growing.
It’s a very little thing. It seems as if nothing’s really happening. Oh, something’s happening. Other times the change will be something big that will happen. You will think, “That change in me right now is so dramatic. So different than what I would’ve done before this happened to me, before this season in my life.” That is almost impossible not to notice it. It’s sometimes stunning to recognize the change that can occur. Sometimes we are dismayed. In this heat, you start to get dismayed by what is rising to the surface and you’re thinking, “This is in me? This is the stuff in me?” It’s in there. It’s just coming up now. Now we’re really working through stuff. Sometimes the things that have been so central in our life, we’ve got interests here, hobbies there, some relationships that we like a lot, career goals, and possessions that mean a lot to us. We want to purchase this or that. We’re working.
A lot of times in the confining crucible, we begin to realize those things don’t mean that much to us. How this looks, how I come across, and the image here, all of a sudden, it doesn’t matter. Right now, those things don’t mean that much to me. I was pouring so much into this, but it showed that it wasn’t what it was to us. When the heat comes on, when the pain is real, when we’re in this place of confinement and it’s hard to get out, all of a sudden things that we thought were important, aren’t that important. Other things start to emerge that we thought, well they’re good.
All of a sudden things start to come up that are very important. As a follower of Jesus, one of the things that start to emerge is your walk with God. All of a sudden that’s huge. It means something. The relationships that I establish. The investments that I make in the community. Learning how to be connected with other people who love the Lord. People who can encourage, strengthen, can pray with me, stand with me, and give good God-centered counsel or at least support or encouragement into this process or situation. I can trust. I’ve taken the time to build a little bit of it. All of a sudden, those relationships are huge. The investment I make and the time that I spent trying to learn His word or read it, try to get acquainted it with. All of a sudden now those words mean so much to me. All of a sudden the scriptures that I’ve read take on new meaning.
They mean something different when we’re in an intense place. It’s like I’m looking for a promise here, Lord. Give me a word within this word that hits me where I need to be, God. I’ll write it down. I’ll honor it. I’ll hold it. It’s my word from you. These places often confront us and force us to start dealing with stuff that we previously would have not looked at. That’s why they can become transformative. A lot of times, by the time God’s done and we’re done with that situation, it’s like an earthquake hit. The landscape has been altered. On the back end of certain things, we’ve welcomed the Lord into it and it’s hard. It’s like a fire in the jungle, it alters the ecosystem. What was there, is not there anymore.
Third and we’ll close with this one. Confining places are usually preparing us for new places and open spaces. For me, this is huge. New assignments and possibilities, new things on the horizon. Weary Pilgrim come on, keep those feet moving because we are not alone. There are better days, faith by faith. They’re ahead of us. I can see it on the horizon. It’s far away, but I can see it. Lord, show me my way. Show me what you’re about to birth through this very difficult season of questioning, pain, suffering, hurt, wound, loss, or limitation. The confinement that is so hard for me, don’t let me be reckless. Don’t let me be foolish. Don’t let me give up, Lord. Remind me again that you’re preparing me for something new, something good.
Something about to be birthed like Mary being pregnant with the Messiah. Like Elijah in the cave or Jonah in the belly of a fish waiting to get out. I go back to Zacharia in that first chapter of Luke that I referred to earlier because he was the one that lost his voice. Zacharia lost his voice. It’s interesting, Luke’s account opens up with Zacharia and his wife, Elizabeth, who become the parents of John, the Baptist. John, the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the prophet who says he comes to prepare the way of the Lord. John, the one they ended up calling the Baptist, baptized people under repentance in anticipation of the coming Messiah. John was born in his way, a miraculous way.
His parents were very old. Zacharia is pictured when you read his account, he has this situation occur in the temple. He’s told he is going to have a child. He doesn’t believe it. The Lord essentially says to the angel, “You’re not going to talk again until that child’s born, that son’s coming, but you didn’t believe he’s coming. As a sign to remind you that he’s coming, I’m taking away your voice.” He didn’t speak. Flash forward. Elizabeth, a much older woman who is probably beyond the age when you should be having one or could have one, has gotten pregnant to everybody’s amazement. She not only has one, but she also brings him to full term.
In their culture and society, in accordance with the law, they held back on the name till the eighth day, that’s a circumcision ceremony. They bring the family in. The family comes a long way. It’s a big festive occasion, they’re going to present this baby to the Lord. They’re going to give him his official name. The name is usually a name connected to the family. Most likely it’s going to be Zacharia Jr or something like that. Everybody’s expecting that because this is their only son. He is a miracle boy. He’s got to be like his dad. His dad still can’t talk. All this time he hasn’t been able to speak since he came out of that temple moment. That exchange occurs, they get there and the family says, “Okay, so you’re going to name the baby, right? You’re going to name him Zacharia?” Elizabeth says, “No, his name is going to be John.”
They say, “Well, what do you mean, John? We don’t have any Johns in our family. We have Zacharias in our family. He’s the only son that you have. Surely his name can’t be John.” You read in the account, they turn and say to Zacharia who can’t talk, “You don’t want the baby to be named John, do you?” This is fantastic, he says, “Give me a tablet.” He doesn’t say it. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know what he does. He writes. “His name is John.” As soon as he shows him that, his voice comes back, “His name is John.” It says he just starts praising God. He’s walking around the room, praising God, that’s the picture. It’s amazing. He gives us this beautiful picture just the way the Bible’s language describes it. The holy spirit comes upon this man. He starts to speak poetry in the name of the Lord. Part of one of those pieces of it is of the prophecy of what his son is going to pave the way for. It is such a beautiful statement. He says, “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us.” It’s a beautiful thing, the words flowing out of his mouth, after a season of complete silence. All of a sudden comes this birthing bursting through of a new thing that God is doing.
The eighth day is the number of new beginnings. Everything about it spoke of something of a breakthrough. A lot of times in these places we think nothing’s going to happen. Then we see when God is in it, all of a sudden, boom, it breaks open and something new is born out of you, born right through you. There’s a new thing God is doing that wasn’t there before. A new boy, a new life, a new word, new praise, something that God does, that wasn’t ever going to happen in any other way. But it comes out of this place of confinement. When it breaks out, boy, it’s beautiful. It’s the better days. It’s what the Lord does. I’ll finish it with this.
What do we do, when we’re in these places of confinement? How do we get from here to there?What do we do when we’re in these confining places? We want to see this breakthrough, but we’re not anywhere close to it. What do I do? Here are a few things. Align our perspective, anchor yourself in the promise, Paul and his unshakable confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God, anchor it in, anchor it in, anchor it in. Remind yourself, align, and anchor yourself. When you’re anchored you might float a little way around, but you’re not going anywhere when you’re anchored in.
I might question God. I might drift here. I might drop into a poor attitude. My faith may falter at times. I may buckle with my attitude. I might start feeling sorry for myself. I might want to give up, but I’m anchored in there. Because I’m anchored in there, I’m going to hold. I’m going to get through this thing. I’m going to come out better. Be patient with the process. Let it play. Be patient with the process. But you don’t know how much pain. Be patient with the process. Why are you doing this, God, I can’t stand this. I have to get out of this situation. Be patient with the process. Refuse to become defined by negativity, power words. Don’t speak out, don’t speak out of the mouth. We create things with our words, power is in the mouth, power is in the tongue, power is in our words. Words have power, words reinforce things. There’s power of life and death in the tongue. Do not speak negatively and death words over our lives. Speak the life of Jesus over them. Practice trusting God. Notice that, practice. That means it’s not something we always do right. I’m practicing this. I may not get it right. I’m going to keep practicing, trusting Him. What does that mean? When my attitude starts to get corrupted. When I start to try to panic. When I want to get out prematurely and not learn what I’m supposed to learn.
I can abort the life He’s trying to bring through my words and attitudes. Lord, help me to practice trusting, to align myself with your words and your promises. Stay close to your words. Keep your promise as my own. Find a promise, hold it in you. Then be open to learning. I want to be open to the opportunity that could come to me in no other way. Show me my way. Show me my path of growth. Show me my way of breakthrough. We’ll close with this prayer because we have the time of giving coming, our offering, and closing song. The closing song is poetically connected. There’s a part in the song we’re about to share that opens up. It’s like that moment when Zacharia just bursts out. It’s almost like God opens something up that we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for to open up. Then it does. The green fields open up in front of us. It’s, “Wow, Lord. These are better days that I’ve been hoping for and moving towards. Now, I see what you’re doing.”
With that in mind. Let me close with this prayer. Lord, we can pray this week to be United. Lord, I ask that the confining places in my life, though hard, may be my learning spaces. I want to learn from them. You are the one who can teach me about what matters and who I am. Please, use these confining places to transform and prepare me for the new paths you want me to walk down. Repurpose my most difficult limitations into something beautiful, better editor in your name, Jesus. We pray this. Amen.