I’m discouraged. Again.
Lately it seems as though nothing is going as I planned. I wake up some mornings wondering how I got here. Is God really working in this mess I call my life?
I open the Bible to Psalms, my go-to book for lament. I am comforted by the psalmists willingness to put their pain before God, raw and unfiltered, and let Him handle it. I read Psalm 77, a Psalm of Asaph when he is desperate.
“I cry aloud to God, and he will hear me…My soul refuses to be comforted… Has God forgotten to be gracious? …Then I said, I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds…You are the God who works wonders … Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”
I ponder the last line, long and hard… “Yet your footprints were unseen.” Asaph is remembering a time when God guided the children of Israel though they couldn’t see Him. And yet, their deliverance was so miraculous, so extraordinary, so impossible that only God could have done it.
I need to remember my own stories. Unmistakable evidences of God. Times when the Lord has helped me.
The Bible calls them Ebenezers. Stones that remind us of God’s presence, His help, His faithfulness.
The Israelites frequently gathered these stones of remembrance, affirming their victory was the result of divine assistance, not human strength. Remembering the past gave them hope for the future.
I actually have an Ebenezer board. I made this board a month ago at the suggestion of a spiritual mentor. We were talking about spiritual markers. Pivotal moments. Encounters with God.
She gave me a basket of shells to use as my “stones of remembrance,” naming each one I found significant. I sat and prayed, asking God to remind me of specific times when I was changed by an encounter with Him.
My first shell symbolized my conversion. When I came to Christ at age 16, Jesus turned my life upside down. Months later, my FCA leader said that God used the disciples’ radical commitment to turn the world upside down. I wanted God to use my life that way too. I named my first shell Upside Down.
I was drawn to a starfish as my next marker, which began with hearing a sermon on the sovereignty of God. As I listened to it, I had the profound sense that God was about to change my life forever. The pastor talked about serving God out of delight, not duty. That day I asked God to give me a passionate desire for Him above all things. I named this shell Delight and placed it beside the first.
A conch shell caught my attention for my next Ebenezer, a life-changing answer to prayer. A prayer I had whispered for a decade. A request that I had begun seeking God for daily, prostrate, face in the carpet, in my study. I was desperate. Just as the centurion told Jesus to say the word and His servant would be healed, I asked Jesus to just say the word. He did. And my world was forever changed. This shell I called Blessed be the Name.
I picked out two more shells, both representing unmistakable encounters with God. I can remember where I was and what was happening when I sensed God speaking to me. After each of those times, I was profoundly changed.
I mounted all of these shells on a foam board and wrote the meaning beside each one. My Ebenezer board.
So today, I pull out the board and run my fingers across the shells. Seeing them buoys my faith. Just like the Israelites, remembering the deeds of the Lord makes me grateful for His provision in the past. It gives me courage to trust Him in the present. And hope for the future.
I am thankful as I look at this board. But as I stare at the shells, I realize they have something in common: suffering. The times when I encountered God and sensed His presence were all born out of pain.
My conversion occurred after 16 years of dealing with polio. Sixteen years of being angry at God, wondering what I had done to deserve my handicap. The night before my conversion, I wondered if there was any purpose to my suffering. As I read John 9 the next day, I discovered the answer.
I heard the sermon about delight weeks after I buried my son. I was wrestling in my faith – wondering why I had been singled out for such suffering. Wondering why my son had to die. Wondering if God even cared. The pastor asserted in his sermon that God is in all our suffering and He uses it all. This was radical yet strangely comforting to me as I struggled to make sense of Paul’s death.
The jaw-dropping answer to prayer commemorated by my third shell arose from a difficult situation too. One I had sought the Lord about for years, alternating between hopelessness and anger. I was tired of waiting. I had often wondered if He would ever answer.
The other two shells have similar threads as well.
At first this troubles me. Why are all my markers related to pain? Why were my life-changing moments with God connected to suffering? Does God meet everyone this way?
I look at Psalm 77 again. Asaph was recalling the parting of the Red Sea. A miraculous deliverance from the oppression of slavery. And in the moments before the miracle, the children of Israel were desperately afraid. They stood between Pharaoh’s army and the water. There was no human way out.
I’m starting to see the connection, trying to piece this all together. It seems counter-intuitive that the high points of my relationship with God would be connected to the low points in my circumstances. But the ways of God are often not what I expect.
Perhaps only when I am truly desperate can I hear the Lord’s still small voice. Perhaps suffering and sorrow are God’s invitation to know Him better.
Perhaps, as Laura Story says, the trials of this life- the rain, the storms, the hardest nights-are [God’s] mercies in disguise.
So yes, God is working in the midst of my mess.
No, God has not forgotten to be gracious. Though His footprints are unseen, they are unmistakable.