God's Timeout

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”~ Psalms 46:10, English Standard Version

If one believes, as I do, in God as a heavenly Father, then I suppose that as a parent who knows what is best for us, it is His prerogative to put us in a timeout when He thinks it’s important for us to get our heads and hearts right. Whether that timeout is one He imposes directly, or one where He allows Satan to “sift us like wheat,” His purposes are always good, even if it doesn’t feel like it, and I’ve had to remind myself of that often in the past few months.

I want to share my experiences and lessons learned during my timeout because so many who follow my work have affirmed me and expressed their support for me to continue, especially in these turbulent times in which we find ourselves.

I haven’t been able to write anything, however, other than the occasional social media post since the remarks I prepared for the Clarion Community Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration in Clarion, Pennsylvania on January 26th.  It’s almost as if my gift of written expression has been suppressed.

My particular timeout has manifested itself in a few ways. My new position as an associate dean and assistant professor at Liberty University is one of the greatest blessings of my lifetime, and I believe I can do great things for God in this place, but my family and I continue to struggle with the financial burdens that have plagued us for nearly six years. I know the light is just over the horizon, but I’ve been in the darkness for so long that my soul is weary, especially since I carry the burden of being my family’s provider and protector, and I have failed them for far too long now.

Moreover, in the past few months, I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the tone of conversation in the online community I’ve developed on Facebook. My desire has always been to create a place where people could learn and interact on the issues of the day without rancor or incivility. When people who disagree with me or others in our community occasionally post their disagreements, I try to treat them with the grace and respect due to them as fellow Americans and children of God. I have no problem with spirited conversation, and I certainly don’t spare the elites when I believe their words or actions are inconsonant with the laws of God, but I try, in the words of Romans 12:18, to “be at peace with everyone.”

People were still denigrating others and behaving in a bullying fashion despite my pleas for civility, however, and I became fed up with their personal assaults on people simply for evaluating information, processing it through the filter of their personal worldview, and reaching different conclusions than they did. It wasn’t enough for them to disagree; it was almost as if they forbade us to hold an opinion different from their own, and they were going to see to it that we were cowed into silence or submission.

Freedom of conscience is a bedrock principle of human dignity and worth, and those who use insults and intemperate language to browbeat others are, in my opinion, launching a direct attack on individual conscience and freedom of expression. Because of them, my reservoir of goodwill was depleted to the point I couldn’t engage in the political dialogue anymore without becoming drained, and I eventually hit a wall and had to back away.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of my timeout, however, is the run of misfortune I’ve had over the past two months with my physical health. I ruptured my left triceps tendon on December 16th, had arthroscopic knee surgery on December 20th, had surgery to repair my ruptured triceps tendon on January 19th, and spent the past week in the hospital due to internal bleeding, which caused me to lose two-thirds of my blood volume, and the incidental discovery of pneumonia while they were searching for the cause of the blood loss.

I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, and when you add to it the other issues I previously mentioned, the result is a much needed timeout, if for no other reason than to restore my equilibrium. I feel strongly, however, that it needs to be about more than getting back to where I was. I need to go higher, because I sense that God expects it of me.

So what is He teaching me during my timeout?

He’s teaching me to be obedient, even when it doesn’t seem rational to the rest of the world. I’ve been reading my Bible with great deliberation, trying to learn what He wants me to learn, and one thing that leapt out at me immediately was how the great men and women of the Old Testament obeyed the Lord without question. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Issac, was the ultimate expression of obedience to God, and he didn’t do it blindly, but with the belief that God is always good and perfect, utterly incapable of evil or error, and therefore had a good reason for commanding him to do so. He had no foreknowledge of God's intervention to prevent Issac's sacrifice, or that God would provide a substitute instead.

Such extraordinary faith is in short supply today, as we succumb to the pressures to go with what the rest of the world, with its pride and reason, thinks is a better way. We don’t want to be vilified or negatively labeled, so we bend or break altogether, and we render ourselves useless to Him.

He’s also showing me that there is nothing on the earth that isn’t His or resides outside His reach or influence. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

This is a warning to those who want to relegate God to Sundays inside the four walls of the church, or in the homes of believers, and it’s not just for secularists, either. Most who call themselves Christians hide behind the sanctuary of church or home, telling themselves that God doesn’t want us to engage the culture or participate in worldly endeavors like politics because they aren’t “ministry.”

As I read, however, about the lives of great Christians like William Wilberforce, a politician who devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself in Great Britain, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who opposed the evil of Nazi Germany and was martyred for it, or recount the actions of Christians in the early Roman Empire who stood against the Roman practice of female infanticide, elevated women to equal status, and cared for the poor and sick even of their oppressors, it’s clear that God has always reigned in all the affairs of men without exception. The conduct of our very lives, wherever we happen to be, is ministry, pure and simple.

Colossians 1:16 says, “For all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him.” How complete is His dominion over everything and everyone!

Is this were not true, then what are we to make of Joseph and Daniel, great men of God who rose to positions of authority in pagan governments, yet were fearless in declaring before pharaohs and kings their allegiance to the Lord? They were the living illustrations of what Jesus prayed for His disciples:

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. ~ John 17:13-16

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” It was never clearer to me than in these words that Christians are not to disengage from the world, but to stay close to Christ and guard against evil while we are fully involved in our ministry to the world, wherever our calling takes us.

As He reaffirms His sovereignty over all things, encourages me to minister where I am, and convicts me to stand firm and not yield to the ways of the world, He reminds me in 1 Peter 3:15 to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks…for a reason” for my faith, “yet do it with gentleness and respect.” One of my favorite verses, Romans 12:18, says “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Taken together, these verses underscore His desire for us to be affable and engaging in our Christian witness to others, never denigrating or vilifying.

As Christians, we are supposed to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23). If we are Christians, it should be apparent even to those who do not believe, and Jesus, in warning us against false prophets, declared, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

In other words, a fruit tree can only produce one kind of fruit and we who are surrendered to Christ are made to produce the fruit of the Spirit.

God is teaching me that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1). That means even the most evil rulers of history, like Caesar in the days of Christ, Hitler in the 20th century, or Omar al-Bashir of Sudan in the 21st century, were granted their power by the Lord Himself.

As I struggle with that fact, He reminds me of His words in Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” In Romans 8:28, we are told, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

While I don’t understand His ways in allowing evil to prevail, I must believe He will make it work, just as Joseph learned after thirteen years of slavery and imprisonment, leading him to proclaim to the brothers who betrayed him, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20). Perhaps it is the crucible of evil in authority that will bring forth the Josephs of today and tomorrow.

Regardless of the nature of authority, He commands me to “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13-14). He even tells me to pray for our leaders, declaring, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Looking again to Joseph and Daniel as examples, they submitted to the authority of the rulers for whom they governed.

What they did not do, however, was place the authority of earthly rulers over the authority of God. Daniel refused to follow King Nebuchadnezzar’s dietary guidelines because they violated God’s law, and King Darius had him thrown into the den of lions when he refused to worship any god other than the one true God. It’s clear that God is supreme, and whatever respect is due to the rulers of the earth, he is due even more. The Lord declares in 1 Samuel 2:30, “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” As Peter and the disciples declared before the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

Finally, He is showing me that morality has no foundation without Him. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

As evidence, He led me to some excellent comparative historical scholarship by Regis Nicoll and Ray Blunt on two great statesmen, Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce, and how they confronted the seminal issue of their day, slavery.

Both the United States and Great Britain depended economically on slavery, and both nations rationalized this horrendous wrong despite their supposedly civilized and enlightened cultures.

One man’s words, which resonate throughout history – “all men are created equal” – ultimately clashed like clanging cymbals with his actions, in which he kept slaves and defended the 1820 Missouri Compromise, codifying slavery in certain states and territories, and giving it a legitimate foothold in America.  In his later years, he tried to defend his lack of action to abolish slavery by citing the inferiority of black people and their inability to make it on their own, and he opined that future, more enlightened generations would inevitably be better equipped to handle the problem. His equivocation, and that of those who followed him, left slavery in America unresolved, and a hundred years of opposition to slavery on the American continent, beginning with the Quakers in the 1750s, led eventually to a brutal war that left over 1,100,000 dead or wounded, and tore apart the American fabric so thoroughly that some would say it has yet to be fully mended.

Another man’s words – “Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions” – were the rallying cry of his life, and he doggedly pursued the abolition of the slave trade and, eventually, the outlawing of slavery altogether. He never wavered from his task despite the enmity of his peers and the public, the nearly fifty years of struggle, and his failing health. He died three days after the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, thirty one years before the American Emancipation Proclamation, and he prevailed without bloodshed or national strife.

What was the difference in these two outcomes? Thomas Jefferson, whose words so eloquently proclaimed the equality of man, couldn't overcome his own economic self-interest, his belief that blacks were inferior beings and thus not truly equal, his loyalty to his fellow southern planters, or his desire to be admired and respected by the elites of his day, to take a principled and consistent stand against slavery. For all his faith in the enlightenment of man, his virtue, unmoored from the transcendent nature of God, could not hold against human nature and the adversity of earthly existence.

William Wilberforce, on the other hand, leaned on God and his circle of evangelical Christian friends, known as the Clapham Saints, who constantly immersed him and themselves in prayer, Bible study, and reflection. Wilberforce’s conviction that they were doing the work of the Lord was the only way he, as the public face of abolition and the restoration of morality in Great Britain, was able to persevere against the hostility of his nation, the pressures of economic interests, and threats to his own life.

He not only sought to end slavery, but also the abhorrent practices of child labor, the abuse of poor people and women, and even animal cruelty. He fought to bring virtue back to the Great Britain of his day, and his was an existence which no person would willingly endure unless he believed he was pursuing something greater than the acceptance of man or his own well-being.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” and Paul triumphantly declares, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

The Lord is teaching me, through His Word and through history, the frailty of human morality when it is motivated by anything less than His power and our awe of Him. We have seen “good” people stand by and do nothing while 11 million souls, including six million Jews, were murdered, yet men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer surrendered their safety and security, and eventually their lives, because they knew it was more important to do God’s will than to remain mute or still against evil. Bonhoeffer was safe in the United States, and had a life of full-time ministry and theological scholarship ahead of him had he stayed but, against the advice of his friends, he returned to Germany and certain death.

As you can see, God is really working in my heart, and He is calling me to something significant. I don’t know what it is just yet, but as He reveals more to me, I promise to share it with you. Meanwhile, the timeout – and the lessons I must learn from it – continues.