It’s really easy to serve God when things are going well
Do you remember where you were in 2012? I remember vividly. It was a good year.
I married my high school sweetheart that March. March is a wildcard month in northeast Ohio; the weather can be anywhere from frigidly snow-covered to sunny with a high of 75. March 24, 2012 just happened to be absolutely beautiful. It was warm, but not humid (as most warm Ohio days are). The apple blossom trees at the church were in full bloom, lining the parking lot with clouds of white, contrasting with the bright green grass that the early spring rain had provided. It truly couldn’t have been a more beautiful spring day for me to say “I do” to the love of my life.
I was involved in just about every ministry I could be involved in at my church back then. Living right across the street certainly didn’t hinder me from being there as often as I could. I was leading worship in our young adult ministry and serving on every other worship team that I was able to. I grew up in church, and I just loved being there and serving God. I was also going through a two-year ministry training course at our church that was a prerequisite to going to Bible college. So I would work by day, do ministry by night, and learn how to be a good husband in between.
It was a fun year. Everything was new, things were going smoothly, and I enjoyed just about everything in my life. It’s really easy to serve God when things are going well, isn’t it? I never found it hard to read my Bible, pray, or serve at church up to that point in my life. Why would I? I had a good life, and God was a huge part of that. Why wouldn’t I worship Him, serve Him, and do everything I could to grow in my relationship with Him?
fruit doesn’t grow on the mountaintop; it grows in the valley.
In November, our church hosted its annual missions conference. Each year we would have guest speakers and visiting missionaries remind us how important the Great Commission is. But 2012 was different. God was tugging on my heart in a different way this year. Sure, I had felt a desire when I was just 16 years old to be a pastor; I was even using all of my spare time pursuing that dream. But this just felt different. I felt God touching my heart, telling me that I wasn’t completely surrendered to Him. What I hadn’t realized is that I had surrendered to serve God how I wanted: in an enjoyable, comfortable, and self-fulfilling role. But God wasn’t interested in my leftovers. He wanted the whole plate.
With head bowed and eyes welled up with tears, I knelt at the altar and reckoned my life wholly to Him, to serve Him in whatever capacity He commanded, whatever timeline He required, and in whichever geographic direction He pointed me. You could say that November 2012 is when I surrendered to do “whatever, whenever, wherever”. I went back to the pew with a renewed desire—a rekindled passion to serve the Lord with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength. I was excited, zealous, and ready to jump at whatever the Lord told me to do next.
Then came 2013. I call 2013 my “Prove It” year. While 2012 was possibly the best year of my life, 2013 was most definitely the worst. In hindsight, the juxtaposition is almost beautiful. It wasn’t at the time. It was awful. That year came at me out of nowhere, like a 285-pound pass rusher blindsiding me after my left tackle tripped at the line of scrimmage. It was a storm like nothing I had ever gone through before.
One of my former pastors from my childhood, the late Frank Pardue, used to say that “fruit doesn’t grow on the mountaintop; it grows in the valley.” Spiritually speaking, everyone wants to live on the mountaintop. It’s that incredible feeling of walking with God intimately, and all the while circumstances are pleasant and life is smooth sailing. But that isn’t where growth happens. That isn’t where faith grows. The mountaintop is the result of going through the valley. It’s where the soil is fertile enough to test and support the growth of our faith.
On February 28th, 2013 I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I was 22. Don’t know what that is? That’s okay, I didn’t either. The doctor told me that it was an autoimmune disease, closely related to ulcerative colitis, that causes inflammation in the intestines. It’s a tricky disease because it can manifest itself in many different ways and symptoms in different people. I asked him what the cure was. I can still hear his response in my head today. He said, “There is none.” He continued to tell me that we don’t know much about why it happens, or what causes it. He said you just have to find the right treatment that works for you and hope you can get it into remission.
Maybe you’re in your late teens or early twenties. I don’t know about you, but before this happened I felt invincible. I wasn’t thinking about illness, or disease, or mortality. I was playing ultimate frisbee with my friends, eating Taco Bell more times a week than I’d like to admit, and sleeping when I had time. I was 22; I wasn’t worried about health issues. Then this happened. I hadn’t even been married a year. I’ll spare you all the details, but the process of testing, diagnosing, and experimenting with treatments is arduous and expensive. It took about five months and every dollar we’d saved up.
When this happened, I was surprised. I was worried. But most of all, I was frustrated. Why was this happening to me? I remember praying to God with a teenage-like angst as though He were sitting right next to me, asking Him earnestly why He was letting me go through this. After all, just a couple months ago I had surrendered my entire life to Him! Didn’t He remember that? I had told Him I’d go wherever and do whatever He wanted. Why in the world would He let this happen? Wasn’t I going where He had told me?
All forward momentum had ceased.
Have you ever gone through a storm like this? Something life-altering that stops you right in your tracks?
Storms will often hinder you from traveling to your destination because visibility is compromised, and the hazardous conditions make for dangerous traveling. Storms prevent movement, and thus, cause immobility and stagnancy. This is where I was at in 2013. I was stuck. All forward momentum had ceased.
God showed me a passage in scripture that refocused my perspective that year. Not only did it sustain me through that storm, but it has brought me to where I am today. In Matthew 14:14-21, we find an account of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles: the feeding of the 5,000. This is a very special miracle. It is the only miracle of Jesus, except for the resurrection, that is recorded in all four gospel accounts. That tells us there is something special about it. Not only does Jesus feed over 5,000 people (the number only includes the men, Matt. 14:21), but He uses His disciples to help him do it. Jesus performed the miracle, but the disciples got to help distribute it (Matt. 14:19).
Can you imagine how life-changing this would have been for the disciples? Yes, they were already following Jesus, but now they witnessed Him do something incredibly miraculous right in front of them! He even let them participate! I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the twelve, I would have been on cloud nine! We can certainly say this would have been a mountaintop experience for the disciples. I imagine that they would have been chomping at the bit to see what Jesus was going to do next! They probably couldn’t wait to do whatever Jesus asked, whenever He asked them, and wherever He told them to go.
So, Jesus told them what to do next:
Mat 14:22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.
‘Straightway’ means ‘immediately’. That means, chronologically, the very next thing that happened after this miracle was Jesus told them to get into a ship and sail across the sea to their next destination. I imagine they obeyed exuberantly. How could they not be excited to see what Jesus had in store for them next? Well, it just so happens that the next step for them after the spiritual mountaintop was a pretty rough valley.
Mat 14:24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.
Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
A big storm hit their boat. It stopped them in their tracks, right in the middle of their journey to where Jesus had told them to go. It was so bad that the parallel passage in Mark 6 says that the disciples were “toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them.” They had ceased all forward momentum. The sails were of no use to them, considering the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of where they were headed. They abandoned the sails and pulled out the oars. They rowed to no avail, being thrown around by the thrashing waves and roaring winds.
What do you think the disciples thought at this point? I imagine they were probably wondering why this was happening to them. They had just witnessed Jesus do something amazing in their lives, and now, after obeying Him and going exactly where He told them to go, they were stuck in a life-altering storm!
In fact, this storm had them so bent out of shape that when Jesus came walking to them on the water, they didn’t even recognize Him! Talk about an irrational reaction! They were so focused on the storm that they’d lost sight of Jesus. They forgot what He looked like. They thought He was a ghost.
So, what does Jesus do? He calls to them, and answers each one of their irrational reactions with very rational responses:
Mat 14:27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
I can’t tell you how much those words meant to me in 2013. Those words jumped off the page, and I could almost hear Jesus speaking them to me through the thunder, “Kale, be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.” Can I just tell you, Christian, that if you are going through a storm in your life right now, Jesus is walking upon the very waters that are trying to drown you, displaying His power and manifesting His authority as Creator God with every stride. Regardless of how irrationally you’ve been reacting to your circumstances, Jesus is calling to you, saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”
Don’t let the apparent safety of your boat distract you from the true safety of being in Christ’s arms.
Mat 14:28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
We often talk of Peter’s great faith here. But really, he is still in doubt. He needs proof that it is Jesus. “Lord, IF it be thou…” God, if it’s you, prove it! Have you ever asked God something like this while going through a storm? Lord, if you’re there, __________. Many struggling people in this world have begged God to prove Himself by bringing back a loved one who has passed, or by bringing back a parent who walked out when they were young. What about you? Have you ever, in your lack of faith, asked Jesus to prove Himself to you? It’s a marvel how quickly we can forget what Jesus did for us on the cross, when He pulled us out of the miry clay and translated us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His dear Son.
Nonetheless, Jesus is gracious. Peter may be doubting, but Jesus shows us here that the safest place to be in the storm is not where we might think. The only place that seems safe in the storm is in the boat, but Jesus says, “Come.”
Christian, if you are caught in a storm, go to Jesus. Don’t let the apparent safety of your boat distract you from the true safety of being in Christ’s arms. Go to Him. Refocus your vision on Him. After all, the only time Peter sinks is when he takes his eyes off of Christ and looks back at the waves.
Mat 14:30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. 31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
When we take our eyes off of Jesus, that is when we sink. Don’t look at the wind, look at Him. Don’t focus on the waves, focus on Him. Don’t let the roar of the thunder worry you, let the promises of His word comfort you (Philippians 4:6-9). When you do that, He will guide you through the storm, right to the place He wanted you to go.
Mat 14:32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. 33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. 34 And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.
This passage brought me through my storm in 2013. That storm is a major moment in my life, a pile of stones that I can look at in my rear-view mirror and say, “Hitherto hath the Lord help me.” Each time a new storm pops up, I look back at that storm and remember how God delivered me back then, and it encourages me that He will do the same this time. It has brought me to where I am today in life and ministry.
He needs people who have been tested and prepared
So, here’s the deal: God uses storms in your life to grow your faith, to make you rely on Him more than yourself. God taught me so many things in 2013. One was trusting Him to supply for me financially. I had no idea that I hadn’t given God my wallet until He took away my savings account and I panicked. God will use storms to prove you, test you. And when He turns up the heat in your life, the impurities float to the top and become more visible. It is a painful process, but if you will let God scrape away the dross, you’ll look a little more like Him when it’s over.
Christian, if God has given you a burden or a dream, that is a wonderful thing! But you must understand that God doesn’t merely desire zealous followers. Zeal is a great start, but He needs proven followers. He needs people who have been tested and prepared, who have been proven to rely on Him for everything.
I told God in November 2012 that I was all in to serve Him. Just months later God replied, “Prove it.” He wanted to see if I was still all in if circumstances weren’t as easy. Was I all in if the sun wasn’t shining on the mountaintop? Was I all in if my health failed, I had no money, and all I had left was Him? After all, if He was ever going to send me across the ocean to a different mission field, He needed to know whether I would quit when things got tough! Eventually, after about 7 months of toiling in rowing, I said yes. I was truly all in. Not just with my mouth this time, but with my heart.
This is the part where many good-hearted and well-intentioned men and women fall: the proving. Following and serving God is exciting, but are you still all in when life falls apart? When all you have left is Him? Many Christians aren’t. Sadly, many Christians pack up their stuff and head home to Comfortville when the rain starts falling and their ship starts rocking.
I know how it feels to get a glimpse of what God wants to do with you. The first time you get a burden from God, you want to run out and do it as fast as you can! You can’t fathom why your pastor won’t turn you loose faster. You feel like you are doing jumping jacks in the front row, shouting, “Here am I, send me!” It’s easy to get frustrated with your leaders, as well as God, when you think they’re just not willing to give you a chance. But that wrong perspective needs a refocusing that sometimes only a great storm can provide.
If you are stuck in a storm today, I encourage you to simply focus on Christ. Keep your eyes fixed on Him. Stop wondering, “Why is God letting this happen to me?” and start asking yourself, “What is God trying to teach me through this?” That will sustain you in the storm, but it will also aid in your spiritual growth.
Christ wants to draw His sons and daughters closer to Him through the storms of life. But drawing is different than pulling. God never pulls. He draws. Pulling requires no effort on the part of the ‘pull-ee’; it actually may act against their will. Drawing is merely leading. And anyone being drawn always has the choice not to follow the leader. How will you react when Christ asks you to put your money where your mouth is and prove it?
Storms come in all different shapes and sizes, and they happen to all different kinds of people. They aren’t fun to go through, and often, we are much more interested in the destination than the journey. But what matters most is, when you come out on the other side, are you the same person you were when you stepped on the boat, or did you allow Christ to further mold you into his image?