I’m going to share a very personal story, which I try not to do very often. I don’t want to be an “overshare” guy, because I always wanted my blog to honor and glorify Jesus, and not be an outlet for narcissism. I’m telling this story because I think it accomplishes the former, skirts the latter, and ties directly into where we find ourselves today, nearing what we all hope is the tail-end of COVID-19-induced quarantine.
We all have our struggles, what I call the “high-hanging fruit on the sanctification tree.” Some things, like cursing or substance use issues, were either not temptations or fairly easy to eliminate from my life, by the Holy Spirit’s grace and power. These were low-hanging fruit, relatively easy, by God’s grace, to pluck away and discard (everyone is different, I know, which is a point of my story). For me, the “high-hanging fruit” was, and is, anger and frustration. I’ve mellowed somewhat in my older age, but in my younger years, and even carrying on to now, when things don’t happen according to my expectations, it tends to create frustration and anger that is unreasonable and out of proportion to the circumstances.
Early on in my life and in the early days of my marriage, frustration and anger manifested in yelling and hollering. Later on, as I became more “sophisticated,” frustration and anger resulted in a seething, slow boil, and often leaving the house or situation until I could cool down. But, it never seemed to completely resolve. It stuck with me, as I cried out to the Lord and hated that I was this way, and prayed and asked Him to make it go away. I was like Paul in Romans 7: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”- like I said, high-hanging fruit, hard to get.
Until, at a train stop light in Conway, Arkansas last June, the Holy Spirit flattened me.
My wife and I were going up to camp to pick up one of our daughters, and we had been driving for hours. We hadn’t seen our daughter in nearly a month, and I was anxious to get to Missouri to reunite with her. We stopped for lunch in Conway, got out of the car, picked up our sandwiches, and got back in. As we drove for about two miles towards Missouri, my wife realized she had lost her phone. She surmised it had fallen out of the truck when we stopped for sandwiches, so we returned to the restaurant. We searched everywhere for it, to no avail. Then, I had the revelation to actually call the number. Someone answered. I identified myself, and the person on the other line said her mother had grabbed the phone from the street outside the restaurant, returned it to her house, and they had the phone with them now. The very kind person gave us her address, and we began heading that direction.
I’d like to tell you I was patiently enduring this diversion, but I absolutely was not. This whole sidetrack was taking us off my plan, and I was getting hotter and hotter under the collar by the minute. The nice lady lived more than five miles in the wrong direction away from the restaurant. We stopped at her house, and my wife retrieved her phone. She got back in the truck, and we set out on our way. I expressed my frustration with my wife through my right foot, accelerating at a ridiculous speed to return to the road that would take us to Missouri. My frustration at her “irresponsibility” (translation: honest accident) and how it was leading to our massive delay in seeing our daughter (translation: maybe forty minutes, after she had been away for a month) making me angrier and angrier as I quietly seethed.
As we turned the corner to return to the road, we came to a railroad stop. The arms on the stop came down, red lights on, and the longest train in the history of North American traindom began to pass in front of us. Cars pulled behind us, and we were stuck. I managed to hold in what was by now a fiery intensity, but my sweet wife, who has been married to me for 25 years, knew exactly what hurricane was raging within me. She quietly began to shed tears, which made me feel worse…
And, the Train hit. The Holy Spirit careened into me, as certain as if the train passing before us had detoured into our F-150 Super Crew cab. In that moment, God overwhelmed me with revelatory insight. I came from a divorced family, like some of you. As a kid, most of my young life I felt completely out of control. Even though I knew in my head God was sovereign, I had been trying to control my environment to one degree or another throughout my life in a vain attempt to provide the comfort and stability I never felt I had back then. Any time life felt out of control, or didn’t meet whatever expectations I had tried to engineer for it, even something as relatively minor as the “great lost phone detour,” I responded with frustration and, in its advanced form, anger. In some real sense, I worshipped control; it was an idol for me, a way for me to be god of my life, rather than God being god.
I deeply believe that we reach greater seasons of spiritual maturity and intimacy with the Lord when we begin to understand the ways we are relationally broken (and we all are, living in a fallen and broken world), and how that brokenness has hampered our intimacy with God. By God’s grace, He had decided that now, waiting for the train, it was time to reveal these truths to me, to allow me to repent, to seek my gracious and understanding wife’s forgiveness, and to begin to use all of this as an opportunity to draw deeper into Him. Since then, I’ve felt out of control many, many times, but God uses it to demonstrate, by contrast, He is completely in control, and He is the good and gracious and loving God who only wants His glory and my good, and, unlike me, He actually has infinite power to pull all that off. So, I can rest. And, I don’t get as frustrated anymore. I’m actually starting to reach up high and pick off some of that fruit.
All year long we’ve been talking about cultivating gratefulness, and this episode in my life is one for which I’m profoundly grateful. It may be the best thing that’s happened to me all year. Through it, God in His grace prepared me for COVID-19 and quarantine. In a world where it sometimes feels like state and national government are listening in on my conversations, hearing me make plans for our school and my life, and hastily rushing to draft regulations and guidelines to undermine those plans, it’s easy to feel out of control over what could happen next each day. Each day is an adventure, and not always a welcome one. I know you feel the same way. In this time of heightened stress, anxiety, and frustration, I’m finding it easier to bring myself to a place of peace before the Lord with these questions each new morning: in what ways are my vain attempts to control the world around me creating the very conditions that are sapping my strength and my soul? How can my gratefulness for my God and His goodness restore me to good health and a resilient heart?