Charging the Gates of Hell When You Can Barely Move
I was sixteen days into the season I’d been dreaming about for a decade and a half. After spending almost nine years pastoring an established church, I was now a full-time church planter. Everyone said I would feel like a bird with unclipped wings, uncaged and free to fully follow God’s call. But just over two weeks into this season of free range ministry, a door with iron bars imprisoned me. In the semester leading up to our church launch, I had committed to teach a number of theology classes as an adjunct professor. This was in part because I’m called to teach the Bible and in part because I’m called to make enough money for my kids to eat lunch every day. Two weeks into the first of these classes, while lecturing from Acts 17, a firestorm of anxiety swallowed my mind and heart. After limping through the lecture, I spiraled into months of nearly debilitating anxiety.
A Futile Season
I say nearly debilitating, because I never just stayed in bed. Until the worst was over, no one but my wife and a few people very close to me knew what was happening. In short, I faked it, and I barely made it. I had almost no ability to do the things that needed doing to get the thing done. I was supposed to be charging the gates of hell with the gospel, and at points I could barely hobble into the day. It seemed strange to me, that God would call me on this pathway and then allow me to get kneecapped before I’d even started. It was a frustratingly futile season when I needed to be the most effective and productive. I couldn’t go in the right direction, because God was letting me go in the wrong direction. I couldn’t march, because I could barely move. Like the time I got my Jeep stuck in the mud at an off-road park, I couldn’t continue the adventure when my tires wouldn’t even sink their teeth into the earth. After all, it’s hard to charge into Mordor when you’re afraid to answer the phone.
The Mystery of God’s Ways
That was two years ago. By God’s grace, although I still have tender spots in my soul and residual reminders of that season, I’m doing quite a bit better. While the ways of the mysterious Father, Son, and Spirit remain a mystery, God in his grace often clues us into who he is and what he’s up to. Fred Sanders in The Triune God deploys the way Paul uses mystery to explain the Trinity as a concealed-now-revealed truth. God has done something a bit like unveiling the mystery to me in my suffering. While much of God’s purpose is still clouded to me, there are things that I do know. I do know that God was dislodging pride in my heart. I do know that Satan hates new churches so much that he swings hard at those who attempt to start them (ask any church planter “what happened” near the beginning — every one has a story). I do know that God was spoon-feeding me with himself in ways that were engaging more of my spiritual taste buds than ever before. In his providence, I was doing a directed PhD study on the Doctrine of God, Theology Proper. In the midst of my fragile, dependent, volatile, and complex emotions, I was marinating in the power, aseity, impassibility, and simplicity of our Triune God. In short, and in part, God was making me a church planting pastor-theologian, who could more deeply taste and see the glory of the God I was called to proclaim.
When You’re Stuck or Going the Wrong Way
The “wrong direction” is often exactly where God leads his people. Sometimes he gets us stuck, because that’s exactly where he wants us. Firestorms and futile seasons are often economized by God for theological formation. You can ask Moses. He would tell you: “Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2). You can ask Jesus. He would tell you, “For the joy that lay before me, I endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (cf. Heb. 12:2). You can ask Hilary of Poitiers, the great “Athanasius of the Latin-speaking church.” In the 350s, Hilary was exiled from Gaul (modern-day France) to Phrygia (modern-day Turkey) by an Arian emperor. And while in exile he learned the depths of the trinitarian theology of the Greek pro-Nicene theologians and wrote De Trinitate, one of the great works of theology in the church’s history.
Here’s the upshot: God stalls us to shape us. God exiles us to educate us. He wounds us to heal us. The land of exile is the locus of theological formation. God makes us stop and sit at his table of suffering, so that we can taste and see that he is good.
If you’re in such a season, hear the simple truth yet again: He’s got you right where he wants you.