Everyone, at least once in his or her lifetime, needs to embark on a period of spiritual restoration. I shan’t refer to it as a retreat because a pastor gifted in semantics once pointed out, quite logically, that we are not called to retreat from anything–from the love of God, from the call to love our neighbors, or even from the spiritual battle in which we all engage (Ephesians 6:10-17)–but to stay the course in all of the above. So, everyone ought to spend some intensive time worshiping the Lord, preferably in a place that invites Bible study and prayer and, at least to some extent, remains free of some of the temporal stresses that tend to entangle even the best of us. Now, if possible, this place should be beautiful–an historic castle, or a well-appointed conference center owned by a Christian organization whose sole mission is to proclaim the Gospel in whatever they can. Or both. What if said Christian organization bought an elaborate, old series of buildings and transformed them into that conference center!? Then, everyone would need to stay there for a period of several days. And while there: everyone, at least once in his lifetime, needs to experience an hour of the most glorious worship music while sitting in a deep, cushioned wicker chair outside a renovated barn that now serves as the bookstore and front desk; to observe the beautiful waterfalls and traverse the myriad stairs leading to and from certain buildings on the grounds while singing “Arise, My Soul, Arise”; to stay in a room whose ornate furnishings all “become strangely dim” in the light of what he is reading in God’s Holy Word; to take Communion and engage in an achingly magnificent foot-washing service with dear friends in the Lord; to marvel at the One Who, in His awesome power, created every delicate flower, every majestic tree, and each imposing stone and boulder; to know that he can approach anyone on the grounds, be they volunteers, staff members, or fellow guests, and begin a conversation; to experience people offering to pray whether the request be simple or complex; indeed, to enter the dining room at each meal and be utterly awed by the sound of men in particular quietly thanking God for food, for certain conferences being held on the premises, for His great mercy–and, even though none of the words are discernible, to hear the Holy Spirit in those praying men’s voices; to have others make his acquaintance not by asking and answering questions about his career, family, or unique characteristics (i.e., a guide dog that may happen to accompany the party of overnight guests), but by how much s/he loves Jesus; to read the red letters, the words of Christ, and focus only on these for the richest possible Bible study; to read a devotional by one Lois Tverberg and have his faith transformed… Yes, everyone needs this! Note: Everyone, at least once in his or her lifetime, does NOT need to experience a sentence as long as mine was. So, we won’t show it to everyone–now will we? Just to those precious readers who have already stumbled upon this post, and to anyone you know who is thoroughly fascinated by protracted T-units. Or, considering that our time of refreshment was punctuated by several cups of peppermint and Earl Grey tea–in a hand-sculpted cup engraved with a Scripture, of course–should I say “Tea-units”?
Everyone, I say, should experience this. I did. So why was I still so disconcerted?
For over two months, I had been planning this time of refreshment with a beloved sister in Christ. For purposes of this post, let’s refer to her as Naomi. It was to be a time of such joy and peace that all the mishaps that had hitherto been dominating our lives–health concerns on every side, computer troubles, spiritual heartaches–could be healed, restored, redeemed, and otherwise set to rights. On the surface, that was exactly what was happening: we were reading the Word, singing numerous hymns, being thoroughly blessed by Don Moen’s song “You Make Me Lie Down in Green Pastures”, devotionalizing our hearts… See above paragraph. And while all of this outward rejoicing was taking place, I was being deeply, miserably attacked. My opponent, of course, was the enemy–we live in a spiritual realm, and sometimes we need to stand stronger in prayer, applying the armor of God to our hearts, during times of intense worship or seeking the things of God. During our three-day “prayer meeting”, Fear and Depression were warring against me, trying to attach themselves to my heart and rendering true prayer very difficult. Have you ever stood in church when everyone around you was raising his or her voice in triumph, victory, and praise when you had a heavy heart and could only half-heartedly whisper about singing of His love forever–not really knowing whether you really could sing of His love for the next twenty seconds, wondering how you could get past that moment so you could focus more truly on Him, knowing it would be better in eternity but almost unable to imagine it? Magnify that feeling tenfold, and you might understand what I was experiencing.
I was not really the official leader, but I felt I had to lead. To feed. To allow God to use me to fill others, and especially to show Naomi God’s love for her. Dear readers, please don’t do this. Putting that much pressure on yourselves in never healthy–and it borders on quenching the Holy Spirit in that it assumes that we are fine in our own strength. I’m not, and–pardon my saying this–but neither are you! But I realized none of this at the time. So, my life was an enormous question mark when it should have been filled with ellipses and double dashes. In case some of you aren’t grammatically-oriented, particularly as our language pertains to the faith, ellipses and double dashes are the punctuation marks of worship and praise, respectively… Question marks are not. So why was this desperate monologue floating through my every waking thought: “What if I don’t make this retreat spiritual enough? What if, when we go home and it’s all said and done, we have really had no quality time in the Lord? What if I err in some way–doctrinally? theologically? in my fervor, or lack of it, in worship? What if we don’t read enough Scripture? Why am I feeling so bereft, so depleted of joy or peace or the anointing of the Holy Spirit? Where are You, Lord?” And the pain. Somehow, I could not seem to relinquish all that had happened in the past. Instead, I was remembering every mistake I had ever made including the sins I had already repented of, every traumatic moment I had ever experienced, every unkind word ever said to me… This was condemnation, not conviction–there is a difference. Conviction would have led to godly sorrow and a closer walk with Him, but this was only leading to a deep internalization of my utter wrongness, unworthiness, and general state of “Bad Christian Syndrome”. Not of God. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!” But did I listen to that solid Scriptural exhortation? Not exactly. It was all an attack, and I knew it, but still…
Paradoxically, when I was not being oppressed and feeling downhearted, I knew deep in my heart that I was exactly where the Lord wanted me. In the part of my being that no fear can ever penetrate, I knew how much our Lord loves me, and that I was doing things to please Him. Far more than my own works, I knew that He had already atoned for all of the sins I was so mired in thinking about. What was more, I knew that I should forget those things which were behind and press on, living my life in holiness before Him as perfectly as mere dust can (see Genesis II, Psalm CIII).
I knew what I needed–what would either diminish or completely demolish all of this fear. First, I needed to express, and to have others know, that I was deeply confident in my love for the Lord. I needed to cast aside the fear and despair that were disrupting my heart, and focus on proclaiming confidently what the Lord had done for me. Personal worship would help with this, too. I had another need, but it was far too intricate and personal to be written here.
All of this, to say that I was feeling listless during some of our lovely, prolonged, Spirit-led, glory-filled “prayer meeting”. I had done everything in my own strength, and I was weak and worn out.
Suddenly, Naomi called across the room to me. “Do you know what I’ve realized about you?” she asked. She then proceeded to tell me, in vivid detail, how much I loved Jesus, and that she knew I was exactly where the Lord wanted me to be. She spoke of my joy in worshiping Him, and added that I am filled with joy in His Holy Spirit. I had just had a bit of personal worship time, so she didn’t mention that. However, she did tell me of my other needs, both spiritual and emotional–those things which, as I’ve said, seem too private to post.
“Perhaps,” you say, “she saw it on your face. Perhaps she and you know one another so well that this sort of realization is second-nature to her. Perhaps you yourself said something to her that you don’t remember. Perhaps…”
But how do you explain, my beloved reader, that she was repeating only what I had said before the Lord in my prayer closet? How do you explain the gentle, holy peace that encompassed me and drove away all doubt as soon as she had stopped speaking? How do you explain away the fact that, in the silence that followed, the Lord Himself confirmed to my heart all that Naomi had said? And, how do you explain the fact that Naomi had said, word for word, sentence structure for sentence structure, semantics for semantics, exactly what I would have written in my prayer journal that night–personal pronouns being the only exception? That she left nothing out, and that she expressed the needs of my heart in the precise sequence in which I myself would have expressed them had I dared communicate what she had just said?
Later, when I asked Naomi if she knew she was speaking to me from the Lord, she said that she had had no idea. If she only knew…
It took a few hours for all of this to sink in. When it did, I realized a few things: First and foremost, the Lord had set me free the moment she spoke those words. I had a renewed, radiant outlook on life, particularly my life in Him. Then, too, Naomi and I were instantly closer than we had been ten minutes before.
At the same time, a desperate question that had lingered in my heart for years was resolved. In mid-2003, I was attending an unfamiliar church when a man in the congregation proclaimed that he had something to tell me from the Lord. What he said next was filled with condemnation and fear, and did not reflect my spiritual life in the least. However, I was relatively young in the Lord at the time and, because I consider prophecy a very holy gift of the Spirit, to be used with all reverence, I believed everyone else did, too. So, naturally, I believed this man–absorbing every word he spoke like a sponge, or a piece of linen cloth that I could never wring out completely. I was “damp” for months, pondering those words and questioning my very salvation at every turn. The worst part was that I was much too ashamed and terrified to share this with anyone else, for fear that they would only tell me it was true. If I was going to struggle with this, I at least wanted to do it alone without a hundred other people telling me that this man was possibly right. I forgive him, and it is a daily process, but it has impacted me greatly over the years; it is difficult to write about, and it has caused me to question/fear/avoid most people who claim to have the gift of prophecy. “What will they see in my heart?” I wonder. “Is it true? Will the Lord reveal to them sin in my life that I had not known existed? Will I feel as though I’m pleasing Him, and then suddenly be rebuked by someone who says he is speaking in the Lord?” Time and again, brothers and sisters in Christ have tried to offer support with this, telling me that the Lord doesn’t work that way, that He will chastise me Himself if there be any wicked way in me, and that He will only allow others to see into my heart in that way if I don’t listen to His Holy Spirit, and furthermore, that most people who are permitted to prophesy over one another speak words of encouragement… Still, I feared. When Naomi told me what was in my heart, from the Lord–though she didn’t know that!–I began to see that this was how true encouragement from God worked. I saw that people can be given this gift for good, to be used to encourage the brethren, and that I had nothing to fear from actual believers who might be given something for me from the Lord. Will I resolve henceforth never to worry about being near other Spirit-filled Christians, for fear of what happened in 2003? Well, I’m still working on it… But now, for the first time, part of that wall I had erected is gone–chipped away, to let the light of His glorious presence in. By His grace and with His aid, I will allow other Christians to speak to me in the Lord if they have something to say.
And in the stillness of those post-freedom hours, I heard in my heart over and over again, “O LORD, Thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, Thou knowest it altogether” (Psalm CXXXIX, RSV, pronoun capitalization added). And to my heart, the Holy Spirit was saying, “My child, I know your heart.”
If I had had any doubt of this, it was obliterated late that evening, as I was preparing for private Communion. Before I ever take a step in that direction, I try to engage in a time of worship. Quite by accident, without my looking for it or even knowing it existed, I stumbled on a profound song by Michael Card. (I often forget or find myself unaware that I own a certain song, because I have a habit of buying worship music and then failing to listen to it for months or even years.) What, you ask, was Michael Card setting to music? Psalm CXXXIX. Psalm 139. The selfsame psalm that begins, “Lord, You have searched me and known me…”
Everyone, at least once in his or her lifetime, needs a Psalm 139 experience. You don’t necessarily need it in an elaborate historic setting–in fact, it might be better in ordinary surroundings, “when all is stripped away and [you] simply come”… Just you, in worship, knowing that He knows your heart, alone with your Savior, your Teacher, your Rabbi, Jesus, your Messiah, the Holy and Anointed One…