What I want is peace. What I want is success. What I want is to have more than enough. What I want is an absence of conflict. What I want is to win. What I want is for everything to be easy. What I want is for people to like me. What I want is lots of candy. What I want is for someone else to do this hard thing. What I want is to be plucked out of this wearisome situation.
But what I want doesn’t necessarily get me to a place I want to be.
I’ve come to understand that easy doesn’t mean right, just as hard doesn’t mean wrong. These organizing thought structures have failed us. We put struggle in the bad column and plenty in the good column, when frequently, it’s plenty that’s bad for us and struggle that is good for us. Sometimes God does air lift us right out of situations, but more often, the process of rescue looks like hard work or limbo or failure. He allows us, or rather invites us, to walk difficult and dangerous pathways. Because he sees how it will benefit us, and he knows the end goal, even when we cannot.
My husband, Marc, once told me a story that often resurfaces in my thoughts when I find myself longing for a shortcut. In the midst of a hard season, he asked some friends to pray with him. After some well-intentioned prayers, pleading with God for rescue, one wise and seasoned man spoke. With tears streaming down his face, he said “Marc, you need to travel your road. And don’t let anyone pull you out too early or you’ll miss what God has for you.” And that’s it, precisely.
Sometimes rescue is hard. Sometimes it even looks like failure. God said these words to me during a particularly difficult season. A season I was railing against. A season where I could not determine if the pressure had its origin in God or in darkness. A season where I couldn’t sense whether I was to embrace and grow or grit my teeth and fight. I only knew I wanted out; or, at the very least, wanted to be looking back on it from the other side. But when he said the words, I understood. What had felt like death would actually produce life, if I would allow it.
From my human perspective and limited understanding, my experience during this phase of life felt like failure; like shrinking: I was a leader who had stepped back from leading. I was a capable person who no longer felt capable. I went from being the one who could handle it, to no longer handling it. I went from being a known participant, to being an unknown bystander. It felt hard and embarrassing and weak. And I do not like to be weak.
Weak and irresponsible are, to me, the most cutting of insults. My innate response in any situation is to take care of it. My first-born, over-developed sense of responsibility kicks into gear with a “don’t worry, I‘ve got this” arrogance. Though I have trusted God my entire adult life, the point could be argued that I have sometimes assigned myself the role of “God’s #1 Helper.” But not this time. I was at a loss.
Once, I had been a mature tree with expansive branches, fully in leaf, but it seemed I was no longer so. More than just the shedding of leaves during an autumn season, it felt as though I had been cut down to the ground. Branches and foliage gone. Nothing living. Only a stump remaining.
The internal vacillating during this phase was intense; enough to give me emotional and spiritual whiplash. I wondered, constantly, “Is this God?” or “Is this the enemy?” “Is this good or is this bad?” In the end, I actively chose to believe his words, that in all things, he works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose. I decided to accept what was instead of planning my escape or orchestrating my own rescue. Even if the enemy did mean it for my destruction, God could use it for my good.
A.W. Tozer wrote “God rescues us by breaking us, by shattering our strength and wiping out our resistance.” Though I knew this pruning practice to be true in my own garden—that to strengthen root systems, we must cut back the part above ground—in my own life, it was painful and counter-intuitive. To the natural eye, things were falling apart, but from God’s perspective, great gains were being made.
Trusting God, I embraced my stump-dom. And then one day, I heard him whisper “You let me cut you down and now your roots are strong and glorious.” In my mind’s eye, I saw myself, again, as the pitiful stump. But this time, instead of seeing only brokenness, I gazed deeper and saw my own elaborate root systems. My roots were beautiful, like the inverse reflection of a tree. In a moment of epiphany, I understood that these roots were a foreshadowing of what I would, again, become. That in order to become more fully who I was created to be, my roots had to be be able to support and balance the growth.
I won’t glorify the struggle or pretend that I loved the discomfort of that season (or any of the stressful seasons that have come before and will, inevitably, come again). I didn’t always weather it gracefully; in fact, I gritted my teeth and endured most every second of it. But it was worth it.
And now, on closer inspection, I see that little green shoots have unfurled from the humble stump; new growth that I believe, in faith, will mirror the strong, far-reaching roots. It wasn’t failure after all. It was rescue.