Finding God in Desperate Places
Finding God in Desperate Places
I'd like to write a book someday called Desperate Places: How God Shines Through Our Weakness. These desperate places are places of weakness, brokenness, and vulnerability. They comprise the times in our lives when we're at wits' end and, if God doesn't show up with power and redemption, we're lost. The apostle Paul described a desperate place in his life in 2 Corinthians 12:9: "I will boast … about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." Desperate places are agonizing places, but they are also the places where God unleashes his power in ways we could never imagine. Second Chronicles 32:1-22 describes a desperate place. This is a story about finding God's strength in the midst of our weakness, brokenness, and vulnerability.
For nearly thirty years, the nation of Assyria was the reigning superpower. They were big, strong, organized, efficient, and incredibly cruel. In 701 B.C. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, started moving his vast army down the coast of Palestine to recapture all the territories that were supposed to remain under Assyria's thumb. He eventually made his way to the hill country of Judah to topple the fortified city of Lachish. This brings us to 2 Chronicles 32:1.
There are a few things to understand about the context behind this story. First, the Assyrians weren't like the other superpowers; they surpassed everyone in their sheer cruelty and savagery. As they conquered new places, they took the leaders and hung their bodies on poles. Archaeological digs have uncovered artwork from this time that shows Sennacherib lounging on his throne, being fed grapes by one of his wives and holding a wine goblet in his hand, while off in the distance, in a grove of trees, Assyria's enemies are hanging upside down and headless.
Not only were the Assyrian armies violent, but they were also masters of psychological warfare. They utilized intimidation techniques brilliantly. They were masters of fear.
The Assyrian invasion would have created a spiritual crisis. Why would God allow this powerful, cruel, and violent army to attack his people? Why didn't he stop it? Where is God in the midst of this trouble and fear and destruction? This is a real crisis. How will Israel's leaders respond?
Desperate places require action.
The first element is human action and initiative—plain hard work. In 2 Chronicles 32:2-5, we read that the first thing Hezekiah did was to consult with others. That is so practical and helpful. When you're going through trouble, whom do you lean on? This past week I consulted with my dad, and based on his nearly 80 years of life he gave me some amazing insights. After that conversation I thought, I wish I had asked for his advice twenty years ago.
Are you in trouble? Are you facing things that make you feel afraid and overwhelmed? Ask for help. Don't go it alone. Consult with others as soon as possible.
After consultation the officials cut off the town's water supply. The Assyrians came with battering rams to demolish the walls around the city, and Judah's troops kept lighting the battering rams on fire. Assyria needed water to extinguish the flames, but the water supplies were all blocked.
Notice in this account how having faith does not preclude taking action. Martin Luther once commented, "Oh, it is a living, creative, active, mighty thing, this faith!" Some people get the impression that having faith means the end of human ingenuity and initiative. Not at all! We work because we have faith. We work in our faith. We let our faith spur us on to good deeds. Faith sometimes implies fighting well—for the right things, in the right way.
We know from archeological digs of the battle described in this story, for example, that Hezekiah and his armies fought back. One of the most surprising discoveries at Lachish was a massive counter-ramp built by Judah's army opposite the Assyrian siege ramp. These guys didn't just trust God and then roll over and play dead. They had something valuable—the lives of women and children and a way of life and faith—that was worth protecting. Their faith led to action.
Two years ago our son, Matt, started attending Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts. A few months ago I asked Matt, "What is it that draws you to the Nazarene denomination?" He instantly replied, "They do things. They don't just think about things or forever plan things or even just pray about things; they share the good news of Jesus in their words and in very practical ways, such as giving sandwiches to homeless people in downtown Boston and planting churches in rural Kenya."
Our faith should be active. Sometimes we think, I know that I'm forgiven and that my God is a loving God of grace. Great! But what are you doing about that today? How will that change how you spend your money, what you watch on TV, how you spend your free time, and what you do to serve your local church? Faith is earthy and practical.
Desperate places require radical trust.
This isn't just a story about human ingenuity and initiative. More than anything, it's a story of God's supernatural presence and power in our desperate places. One of the central themes of the Christian story is what theologians call the Fall of Mankind. Although we have been—and still are—glorious creatures made in the image of God, we're also deeply flawed human beings with a warp toward sin. Every human being on this planet is flawed in every part of his or her life. Total depravity doesn't mean that every part of me is as bad as it could be. It doesn't mean that there isn't glory and goodness in my heart. It just means that all our attitudes, actions, and even our deepest and most spiritual thoughts and aspirations are bent and flawed.
The Academy Award-winning movie Crash contains a powerful scene that illustrates total depravity. Throughout the movie, a white rookie cop consistently fights against the blatant racism in his police department. He's young and idealistic, and he wants to conquer the evil of hatred and prejudice. He's utterly convinced that his innocent heart will prevail. Toward the end of the movie, while he's off-duty, he picks up a young, black hitchhiker. The black kid reaches his hand into his pocket to pull out a small figurine for the dashboard, but the white cop assumes he's reaching for a gun, so he shoots and kills his passenger. In utter horror and panic, the cop drives the car to an abandoned lot and sets it ablaze with the black youth still inside. As the flames ascend from the car, we watch the once-idealistic cop walking away, singed by his own depravity and dead dreams. He's joined the ranks of broken men with a broken heart.
The Bible puts it this way: "We all like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way." We are warped away from God. Even pastors can do church work with a warped and fallen heart. Even mothers can love their children with a warped heart. Even doctors can remove an appendix with a heart warped by pride or callousness. The good news is that this is where faith comes in. We have to come to the place where we feel and confess our brokenness and fallenness even in the midst of our noble and spiritual activity. We must realize where our strength and activity end and where the power and activity of God begin. We are the fractured clay vessels, and Jesus is the mighty, glorious treasure within those clay pots.
Faith begins when we acknowledge who we are. We are active, creative, broken, and weak; but more importantly, we're people filled with the glorious treasure of Jesus Christ. In verses 6-8, Hezekiah encourages the people by pointing them toward God. In fact, there are four commands in verse 7: Be strong; be courageous; do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Then he gives the reason for the commands: "for there is a greater power with us than with him." Hezekiah's confidence is not in his strength, but in the sufficiency of God's supremacy in every situation of life. Verse 8 explains, "The people gained confidence from what Hezekiah said."
Shortly after Hezekiah spoke these words of encouragement, the people were socked with more psychological warfare. Verse 18 reveals the purpose of spiritual warfare: "to terrify you and make you afraid." Satan wants you to live in fear and terror. God wants you to live with courage. God wants his people to encourage one another in their desperate places.
In verse 19, the Assyrians "dealt Yahweh the final insult" by comparing the God of Israel with the idols of the nations—"the work of men's hands." God's immediate answer is to send an angel. His account compresses time in such a way as to suggest that Sennacherib was assassinated immediately upon his return to Nineveh. Actually, Sennacherib was murdered by his son Adrammelech while worshiping in the temple some twenty years later. From God's perspective, this prayer was answered immediately; but from the human perspective, twenty years passed before the prayer was answered. In other words, prayer from desperate places means waiting on the Lord.
For nearly thirty years, Dr. Philip Hinerman had a successful ministry at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. He was a brilliant speaker who was nationally known for his creative outreach to the community and for his commitment to bring blacks and whites together during tense times.
When he turned 70, Hinerman—whom I called Doc—was forced to retire, so he became senior pastor of a large church in the South. He continued his bold preaching and his commitment to racial unity. This time, however, he ran into some powerful people who did not like his message. A small but vocal coalition formed against him. They accused him of dangerous ministry techniques and laziness—because he took a nap every afternoon. They didn't know—and Doc never told them—that he needed a nap because he woke up between 4 and 5 a.m. to pray every morning. Eventually they fired him.
At 72 years old, Doc was no longer the successful, popular pastor he once was, and his wife was sick with severe arthritis. He was entering one of those desperate places. I didn't know it at the time, but this was Doc's greatest legacy for me. In that desperate place, the power of God started shining through his life in the most brilliant way. During his heyday of success, Doc taught me profound lessons about ministry; but I learned even more from his days of struggle and weakness.
Are you facing things in your life that are causing you to be afraid or discouraged? Are you facing a desperate place? Consult with others. Take action. Put your faith to work. Cry out to God. Take the long view in prayer and waiting on God.God's power flows into and then gushes out of our desperate places.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.