Thanksgiving in the Wilderness

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. A day of food, football, and most importantly, gratitude. It is a day for all of us to come together and recognize how blessed we truly are. What do we do though when thankfulness is hard? When the year behind us has been filled with ups and downs? Loss and pain? This is Thanksgiving in the Wilderness and this is where I am at. 

As a Christian, there are periods of life that are difficult. Seasons that are marked by pain and uncertainty. Confusion and chaos. This has been my last year and a half. 

Stepping out of ministry in August 2017 with no plan in site, I returned home. Angry. Depressed. Defeated. Once a rising star, now a fallen dud. The joy? Gone. The hope? Vanished. I know this sounds kind of dramatic, but when your career, and everything you worked for in the last five years is taken from you, then you just feel lost. 

Ministry was everything to me, and that was the problem. It had become an idol. I put my hope in it, and thus when it was taken away, my identity disappeared. My purpose sunk, and my life failed. 

Since I was called into the ministry at the same time I was saved, I felt lost without it. Losing ministry was like losing an arm. Or a leg. And when loss occurs, then you return to what you know. And that’s what I did.

Over the next several months, I just isolated myself and became quickly a shell of the man I used to be. I was always angry. Depressed. And moody. 

Feeling as though I had “failed” God and others, I gave up. I quit trying to live the good Christian life, and I chocked my last six years up to a good try. I sunk back to the lowness of the pits that I crawled out of. 

I became angry with God for taking from me the students. My purpose. I yelled and screamed and had a fit like a child throwing a temper tantrum. “It’s not fair” was my mantra. I questioned his calling of me into ministry when He knew that I would fail. That He knew that I would destroy what He had given me. 

I questioned God’s love for me, and I ran. I huffed and puffed. And thrashed about. And then I just sat down. Exhausted. 

Tuckered out from my hissy fits, I just sat there. Feeling as though life was over. Feeling as if the “good times” were over. So I sat there. At age 27, I felt like I was done. 

I sat there with regret, feeling the dust of the wilderness between my finger tips. I felt alone. People had reached out to me, but I had pushed them away. I just wanted to be alone in my pain and frustration. I wanted to shoulder the blame for my own destruction. 

I could understand the sins from before becoming a Christian, but the sins that I had now as a Christian? Bewildering. How could I, a Christian, knowingly disobey God and run back to the filth of my sins? I knew where they led to and I just didn’t care. I was under the belief that I better get comfortable. That the dust was my new home, and my new norm. 

In this state though, something amazing happened. In my inability to love God and in my exhaustion, both from living in sin, and defiantly running from Him, God was pursuing me. As I sat there in the quiet, in the loneliness, in the brokenness, when I felt no one else there, Jesus was still there.  

You see this was astounding to me. Because for me, even though I was saved out of my sins in the beginning of 2012 and radically transformed, I had come to believe that Jesus only loved me because I was important and because I had something to offer. In essence, I believe that Jesus loved me because I was his “preacher” and because I was “important” in His Kingdom. 

But when I lost this title, I thought I had lost my love. I felt like I was a misfit toy that was to be shelved now, and that I no longer had use. I had a purpose, and I had abandoned it, and thus I would be abandoned by God and others. 

This was not the case. Thankfully. 

I never have experienced a more loving pursuit of Jesus in the wilderness of my soul. He came after me with a fervor that I hadn’t experienced since 2012. This time it was different. He came and sought me out. He pursued me gently and patiently. Throwing an encouraging word in. Here and there. Speaking truth to me in the midst of my lies and sin. 

Even as I ran back to Greenville to experience “freedom” and to be on my own again, He pursued. He pursued and pursued and pursued. And it broke me down to my core. 

After 18 years of escaping, numbing, running, excusing, it was finally time to deal with the mess beneath the surface. For Him to do the long painful surgery that needed to happen.

He didn’t decide to do this six years ago when I got saved. He decided that now was the time to do the deeper work. 

His pursuit of my life stripped me bare. He showed me my idols. He showed me my insecurities. He showed me how empty and shallow the pursuits of my life were. 

He took me back to the past. To where things began. And He showed me that it was okay, even as a Christian, to have things that were unclear. To still struggle. He showed me that it was okay to not be okay, and that He had the answers. 

He showed me the evilness of my heart, but how much He still loved me and was changing me still. He showed me that sometimes we have to move backwards to go deeper with Him, and that going back to go deeper is a not a step backwards, but a step forward. 

He taught me that change was not an overnight thing, but a persistent and difficultly long process. And it has been. Many times walking out of my Christian counselor’s office wondering if true change was really possible. Many times questioning why I went.

But in this long wilderness process, God has worked, and is working for my good. He gave me this verse when I lost my job: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). 

Today, even in the midst of my wilderness, I am not alone. I am loved. I am pursued. And I see this now clearer than ever. There is hope. There is joy. All in front of me. I am leaning into that even in the midst of the wilderness of my soul and life. And for that I’m thankful. 

I’m thankful that He decided to temporarily wound me to permanently heal me. I’m thankful that He took from me things that I loved and cherished, so that I could experience new and better things in new and better ways. I’m thankful for the hours of questioning and asking because it made me see more clearly His vast love for me. I’m thankful that He never gave up on me, even when I had given up on myself. 

Maybe this Thanksgiving this is where you are. Maybe you have experienced loss, frustration, pain over this past year, and you are sitting in the dust of your own wilderness experience.

Maybe you lost your job. Or your spouse left you. Or you lost a loved one. Or maybe you’ve dealt with depression, or anger, or just confusion. 

Maybe you’re one of the many that have been impacted by the senseless shootings over this past year, or a victim of the destruction caused by the California fires, and you sit here today, and you don’t even have a physical Thanksgiving table. And life is well….just hard. 

I’m here to tell you that Jesus sees you in your pain. Your loss. Your hurt. Your loneliness. He is there with you in the wilderness that you face. He sits with you. In the dust, He wraps His arms around you and sits beside you. 

The promise is this: He will not leave you here. This is a season of life. A very difficult one. But He will use this for your good. He will strengthen your feeble hands and weak knees (Heb. 12:12). He will bring you out of this after He has taught you what He wants to teach you. 

Be encouraged those who find themselves in the wilderness this Thanksgiving and Holiday Season. While life is tough, and your loss is great, Jesus has not forgotten you. There is hope. He is with you. 

So rejoice. Be thankful. Even in the wilderness of your soul and life, in this difficult season, you can be thankful. 

As you sit today in the dust of the wilderness, look beside you. Jesus is there. This is Thanksgiving in the Wilderness. 

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