Probably the most well-known story of someone experiencing God’s absence is told in the book of Job. Stripped of everything in life—his health, his family, and his wealth—Job is brought to the point of utter despair. By the end of the book, though, God replaces much of what was taken during his desert experience. However, I’m left with the impression that Job was never the same person after his trials, no matter how wealthy he later became.
I think one of the reasons this book was included in the Bible was to show us that times of doubt and God’s absence are meant to be experienced in community with others. The book of Job is forty-two chapters long. Seven of those chapters are devoted to what God did and said, while the remaining thirty-five chapters, roughly eighty percent of the book, are dedicated to the conversations Job had with his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. I believe one of the lessons God wants us to learn from Job is that navigating spiritual deserts was never meant to be a solo activity.
Two years ago I went through the third major desert experience of my life. My first desert experience occurred while I was in graduate school, which I described in chapter one. The second was as a young church planter in Dayton, Ohio, which I told about in chapter four. But my third desert experience is recent.
Our church in the suburbs of Philadelphia grew to over eight hundred people in less than four years, and I was exhausted—mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I began questioning whether I was cut out to be the pastor of a large church. The larger the church grew, the more my soul shriveled. The demands placed on me were incredibly toxic. We were adding more staff and buying more land and raising more money than I felt I could keep up with. It seemed so strange that at the same time the church was exploding, my soul was imploding. I began to question why God would “call” me to do something but not give me the necessary gifts to be able to get the job done. I became desperate and anxious. I stopped reading my Bible. I stopped praying. I went through the motions at church, feeling numb to it all. For the second time I seriously contemplated quitting the ministry, and I felt completely alone.
One afternoon I began journaling on my laptop. I typed for hours, pouring my heart out to God. In the middle of those paragraphs, I wrote a poem I called “The Awful Journey”:
Take me to the place where no one else will go
Take me to the place where despair and hope
crash into one another
Show me the person who knows the awful journey
Show me the person who knows the dark road
I’m at the ledge and have lost my footing
The rocks loose underneath my feet
Holding on to nothing but my will to survive
I look for another
Show me the person who can stand with me
Point me to the one who knows many sleepless nights
Show me that person
Let me hear you doubt out loud
A few weeks later, out of desperation, I reached out to a mentor of mine in the ministry and shared with him my thoughts from that day, including the poem. I e-mailed him and told him I didn’t want to quit being a pastor but wasn’t sure I had the strength to go on. I was afraid and alone and didn’t know what to do. A day later when I checked my e-mail, I saw his response. The few words at the beginning of his e-mail were exactly what I needed to hear. They reminded me why it’s always best to take dangerous trips through the desert with friends at your side:
Well, I like the poem.
I’m traveling the same journey. You do know that, right?
I like your description of the awful place.
Of course, it is also an awe full place.
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