Saturday, March 17, 2012

Part 3: Cultivating Hope in the Desert Seasons of Life

Ok, it has taken me a really long time to get back to this series. Sorry about that. :) In Silencing Depression Part 1, I shared a little bit of my story. In Part 2, I talked about how God Leads Us Into the Desert. This next part really helps me hold onto hope when all I can see is desert ahead.

God Has a Purpose for the Desert

Our Father is more interested in shaping our character than making us happy. The lessons we learn in the desert will be necessary for our future. The desert is often a time of pruning, because He wants us to grow and be fruitful. Jesus says in John 15:1-2, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."

It's interesting that every branch is pruned, not just the dead wood. God isn't simply content with purifying the obvious maladies in us. He continues to prune even the healthy vines so they will bear even more fruit. When we first come to Christ we realize how sinful we truly are, and as we repent God shapes us into His image. We think there's nothing left to prune, until God slowly reveals other areas that need some work- like being a little lazy or selfish, spending too much, being irritable or indulging a little too often. Every time we think we're fine, that's usually when the Lord will reveal another layer of vines in need of pruning.

In Alicia Britt Chole's book, Anonymous, she shares a similar analogy about trees in winter.
What the plenty of summer hides, the nakedness of winter reveals: infrastructure. Fullness often distracts from foundations. But in the stillness of winter, the trees' true strength is unveiled... In spiritual winters, our fullness is thinned so that, undistracted by our giftings, we can focus upon our character. In the absence of anything to measure, we are left with nothing to stare at except for our foundation. Risking inspection, we begin to examine the motivations that support our deeds, the attitudes that influence our words, the dead wood otherwise hidden beneath our busyness... The Father's work in us does not sleep- though in spiritual winters he retracts all advertisement. And when he does so, he is purifying our faith, strengthening our character, conserving our energy, and preparing us for the future.
Just as a tree's true form is revealed during winter, we are exposed during a desert season of life. But although the desert may leave us vulnerable, it isn't meant to shame us. God has a purpose in mind.

Discipline Creates Character
God uses the desert seasons to discipline us and impart character traits that we desperately need. When the pruning becomes painful, I constantly remind myself that, "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." (Heb. 12:11) Some character traits are only learned from discipline- like perseverance and endurance. Discipline requires practice. And practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make progress.

After I had our fourth child, I really struggled getting household chores done. My sweet husband came up with a great solution- the kids needed to help. We wanted them to learn how to do different chores, so he created a chart that listed everything that needed to be done and assigned each of the kids to complete daily, weekly, and monthly chores. At first, they rioted. It wasn't fair. We were so mean. They wanted to watch tv and play. None of their friends had to do chores. They fought over who did what and refused to work together. It was hard on everyone, and I for one considered just letting things go back to normal. But Ted was persistent. He patiently taught them how to do each task and gave them feedback after they tried. He checked their progress and wouldn't allow them to rush through it or play until it was all finished.

I'm really proud of the kids. They eventually started getting up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays, just so they could finish their chores and play as long as possible. They work together and will trade off just to be nice to each other. Daniel recently told me after finishing his list, "I feel really sorry for my friend at school. We want to grow up and share an apartment. But the only chore he knows how to do is to play video games." We both laughed. :)

Lessons from the Desert
God does more than just shape our character in the desert seasons. He teaches us total dependence on Him. When you're desperate, God will provide. Whether it's manna for the Israelites, or money to pay your bills, the Lord takes care of His children. I can't even count the number of times someone anonymously sent us a check in the mail, we got an unexpected refund, or just found cash out of the blue (an old birthday card, pile of papers, even in our egg carton?!).

God teaches us that He is faithful and can be trusted. He will fulfill His Word. Even if it takes years, like it did for Abraham and Sarah. Many times we give up before we see the answer, or we forget what we prayed for, so we don't notice when God does answer our prayer. Throughout the Bible, God instructed His people to remember what He had done, by writing it down, going back and reading the stories, even constructing visual reminders (stones of remembrances). When we remember how God has been faithful in the past, our own faith is strengthened and we trust Him more. Every time I go back and read my journals, I can't help but be encouraged that God is faithful. I've been challenged lately to write down my prayers so that I can see more clearly when God answers them.

Another lesson we learn in the desert is that our hope comes from Him alone, not our circumstances. How many times have we complained that if we just had this or that, we would be fulfilled? That dream job, more money, the perfect figure, a soul mate, fewer responsibilities, a more exciting life,... does it ever end? I'm definitely guilty of it. It's so easy to get into that "if only" mentality. Then resentment seeps in, gratitude fades away, and our eyes turn their focus from God to our perceived "lack." Our circumstances dictate our happiness. But Jesus wants our eyes to be fixed on Him alone. Then we can say with Paul, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." (Phil. 4:11-13)

In the desert, we learn compassion for others. After we experience suffering, we can empathize with people in pain. We understand the difficult seasons of life, and if we have grown from them, we can offer encouragement. But one of the best things about sharing another's hurt is that we can rejoice with them when it's over. When several friends lost their jobs in the recent recession, we understood because Ted had lost his before. We prayed fervently with them, and were overjoyed when they were later hired. Being in true community with others means walking with them through difficulties, but it also means watching God restore and heal them. When we share in Christ's sufferings, we can share in His healing power and hope for ourselves and others. And it's beautiful to see that God can use everything for His glory and for our good.

In Wendy Blight's book, Hidden Joy in a Dark Corner, she recounts the painful story of being raped and the subsequent questions about why God allowed it to happen. But as she searched God's Word for answers, she found His peace. After all she had been through, she was able to say:
Our suffering is not meaningless because God has a plan. He asks us to trust in that plan, and we can because we trust in Him... He intends to use every gift, every talent, and every life experience, good and bad, for His purpose and His glory... God alone knows exactly what you and I must endure in order to form His character in us. It is in our trials that God refines us and removes our impurities... The tough question for us as His children is this: Are we willing to accept His refinement?
God has a purpose for the desert. We usually can't see it while we are in the middle of the desert season. But as we continue to journey forward and fix our eyes on Jesus, we can learn to trust that He has planned our path for a reason.

Part 4: God Orders a Season for the Desert, is next!

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