Have you ever experienced a season of devastation? A season so seemingly hopeless that you wonder if God is even there–and if He is, why won’t He intervene?
My guess is that most of us have been there. Times when our lives have felt attacked and invaded… Times of loss and crisis…
Our new series comes out of the book of Joel, when the people of God were facing such a time. Locusts had invaded their land, and they didn’t only come once. Swarms of them came upon the land, over and over again, until absolutely everything was devastated. All of the crops were gone. They had nothing. And then, after all seemed lost, a fire and a drought came…
I can’t relate to this on an agricultural level. I’ve never farmed or relied on my own land to provide for myself and my family. But I know what devastation and loss feel like. I have experienced attacks and invasions in my own life–and it’s probably safe to assume that you have, too.
In this new series, Pastor John will give us five things we can do when the enemy shows up on our doorsteps, adapted from the book of Joel. We’ll look at how God, through the prophet Joel, invited His people to respond to the calamities they faced. And we will see that His invitation to them is the same one He extends to us today.
It’s important to note that the “enemy” can show up in a few different ways… It can be in the form of Satan, who is always aiming to steal, kill and destroy. But we can’t blame every storm we face on Satan. Our enemy can also be seen in the things that have been done to us, people coming against us in one way or another. It could be circumstances outside of our control, devastation that–like the locusts–appears and invades every corner of our lives. And sometimes, what is wreaking havoc in our lives is ourselves, our own choices. All of these are “enemies” that can land us in seasons of crisis.
Before I write any further, I want to acknowledge that this is hard. Devastation, hopelessness, loss–these aren’t easy or fun things to think about, much less talk about. If you, like me, have experienced seasons of trauma and loss, I know that the last thing you may want to do is remember and relive those times. You may be in a season like what I’m describing right now. Your world may be in a state of utter chaos and despair. Wherever you find yourself as you read our words, I hope that you’ll hang on. Keep reading–there is hope to be found. I don’t say that lightly. I know that when we’re in the midst of the pain and the struggle, the last thing we want to hear is a sunny platitude that seems beyond our reach. This is not that. What Joel offered to his people–what Pastor John presented to us, and what we’re now presenting to you–is a lifeline that will keep us above water even as it churns and slams against us.
So…what do we do? When our lives are invaded and devastated, whether by our own choices or not, where do we turn?
Chapter one in Joel details what the people were experiencing. And then in the beginning of verse 19, Joel cries, “To you, Lord, I call…” Step one: Cry out to God. Even if you’re not sure He’s listening. Even when you’re doubting His goodness. Even when it’s your own choices that have led you to a place of devastation and you feel too ashamed and unworthy to even speak His name…. Cry out to Him.
In Joel 2:12, God responds: “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Even now… no matter whose fault it is, no matter how far away you might be… return. The word return is an interesting one. It means to turn back, like we assume it does. But there is an undercurrent to the word in this context that I find so beautiful–and so telling of the heart of our God. It carries an implied meaning of being brought back, or being restored. Those aren’t things we do for ourselves. This changes the way I understand the call to return. Because sometimes, crying out takes all I have left. The energy required to turn back and move toward God is more than I can muster. And He knows that. He knows that He’s the one that does the moving. We see it throughout the whole of scripture–this God that runs. This father that gets to where we’re going before we do and meets us there–wherever “there” might be. We see it in the stories of Gomer & Hosea and the prodigal son & his father that John referenced on Sunday. Both Hosea and the father went after–ran toward–the one they loved that had wandered from them. Both represent the heart of our God, though He goes even further. These stories paint a picture of love, forgiveness and restoration. A love that says “Return to me”, and doesn’t wait until they find their way back, but goes after them and actually brings them back home.
God does the same for us… and more. I can’t help but think of the psalmist, David, and the words he penned that we find in Psalm 139…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run to, where God isn’t already there waiting. There is a song that was penned recently, based on the words from this Psalm. This is part of it:
“You meet me there, Spirit you meet me there. You go before me, Your love surrounds me, Spirit you meet me there…
You don’t give up, even when I do. You don’t walk out when I threaten to. You are steady when I can’t be still, Your love finds me, and it always will.”
Returning to God is not an intimidating, tedious process. It doesn’t begin with a long, lonely walk of shame. it begins with simply realizing that He is already there–wherever our “there” is. He’s there, and He’s waiting for us to open our eyes and look up and find His love staring back at us. His face doesn’t hold judgement or condemnation. He’s not ready to scold our lack of faith or belittle our weakness. He is, as Joel 2:13 describes,
“…kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” (Joel 2:13b, Message)
Kind. Merciful. Patient. Extravagant in His love… The God described in Joel is the same God David wrote about in the Psalms. The same God whose character and heart were made visible in the person of Jesus when He came and walked the earth as the exact physical manifestation of God the Father. (Colossians 1:15) That’s who we see when we open our eyes and find Him already there looking back at us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a long road to walk–but it does mean that we never have to walk it alone.
But what about the “…always ready to cancel catastrophe…” part? This line slammed into my heart like a wrecking ball on Sunday. I found myself asking, “Then why didn’t you, God? If you’re always ready to cancel catastrophe, why haven’t you done that? Why have so many of my pleas for you to do exactly that gone unanswered?”
The very next line of Joel goes on to say this: Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. (Joel 2:14a, NLT)
Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t like this part. We have a God who is always ready and able to “cancel catastrophe”… but sometimes He doesn’t. Why?
I don’t know.
I hate typing those words. For myself and for you. Because I told you to hang on, that there was hope coming. And I want to be able to say that your reprieve is coming. That circumstances are about to change and it’s all going to get better. You and I both know I can’t say that, though.
But here is what I can say… The “enemy” has come and taken a lot from my life. I wouldn’t choose to relive the storms that left me devastated and barely hanging onto hope–except for the part where I discovered the truth that I wrote about above…
God, my good, gracious Father, was with me in every moment. He met me in every hell I found myself in. There was nowhere too far, nowhere too dark, that He wasn’t already there waiting for me. I used to say that all of my life, Jesus has pursued me and gone after me when I’ve run from Him. But it’s even better than that… As I’ve grown and changed and looked back, I’ve realized that yes, He’s always pursued me. But not from behind me, like an animal chasing it’s prey. No. He’s pursued me from the places I’ve run into-He was there waiting, loving me back to Him, before I could even get there… In the deep darkness of the cult I was born into, in the fear of my very heavy-handed earthly father… In the rooms of my teenage promiscuity, and the hangovers from nights of being used… In the real possibility of burying my baby-more than once… In the weeks my marriage felt hopeless and in the loss of my presumed identity… In the room where my mama took her last breath, and in the terror at the thought that maybe her death was my fault… In unemployment and moves that knocked the wind out of me and in callings that seem far beyond my reach… In betrayal and accusation… In my own webs of lies and unforgiveness… He has been there. There is nowhere I’ve been that I haven’t been in His presence. No choice I’ve made that is so ugly He’s turned his face away. No moment that I’ve ever been alone.
Would I have loved for God to cancel some (or all…) of these catastrophes? Of course. Some of them left me reeling and believing I would never recover. I wouldn’t choose to walk these roads. But it’s been on these roads that I encountered the power of the love that didn’t look away. Didn’t walk away. Didn’t accuse me. Didn’t use me. But brought me back home to the arms that have never stopped holding me…
These seasons have taught me to cry out, and to turn my eyes to the One who can restore everything. The One who can re-story my story–and has, in so many ways. He’s the same One who can re-story yours… fix your eyes on the eyes that have never looked away from you, cry out to Him, and let His love bring you home…
I looked out my window early today
I saw a big gray blanket
When I walked into it, it opened so that I could pass through
Then closed again behind me
Leaving me surrounded
In a cold, gray world
I wrote those words in my 8th grade English class. It was a poetry assignment that unbeknownst to me would be entered in a city wide poetry contest. I won the contest. My poem was published in the newspaper, my dad used it in one of his sermons, but I didn’t care. I didn’t make the poem up out of thin air– I was describing my life at the time. I was three years into ongoing “locust” devastation and could not see an end in sight. My mother had died from cancer when I was in the fifth grade-eleven years old. In the midst of that storm, just a year later, sixth grade, my dad married a widow with four children of her own. I finished out my sixth grade year with all of the kids I’d been in school with since first grade, but we had moved to a larger house to accommodate our larger family, so seventh grade I began junior high in a school with no friends. I was sharing a bedroom with a step-sister who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I never felt safe at home. I discovered the hard truth in my new school that “good” kids who’ve been together for a long time don’t embrace new kids very well. I was accepted into the group of other hurting kids; we were all trying to numb our pain without knowing that’s what we were doing–we called it “partying” but there was no joy. I would continue making increasingly self destructive and others destructive choices until I was in my early twenties. Many times during those years, I would sense the voice of God drawing me back, and sometimes I would come, but I’d never stay long.
Laura wrote above that sometimes our “locust” seasons are the result of a direct attack from Satan, sometimes they are because of something done to us by someone else, sometimes they are the consequence of our own choices. In my above season, I felt like God had done something to me. I was so, so, so angry with Him. In my understanding, a God of love would not have allowed my mother to die, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed life to have stayed so hard for so long afterward. In my anger, I turned my back on Him with an “I’ll show you that I don’t need you” attitude, and then reaped the consequences of my own poor choices. It brings up a great deal of emotion just writing about it.
How did I get back? Joel 2:12– “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Even now. Right now. Today.
I was twenty-two years old and was with a friend leaving a night club at closing. We were held up at gunpoint as we headed to her car. She managed to get in the car–I didn’t. The gun was held to my stomach. In the end, my purse was taken and I was not physically harmed. There were police close by who caught the young man with my purse. My friend and I went to night court to positively identify him, and then I went home and got in bed. While lying in bed, I heard God ask me “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?” His voice wasn’t angry or scary, but it was very direct. My answer was “No. This is not the legacy I want to leave.”
Even now, return to me…Like Joel, I cried out and asked God what I needed to do. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, it was summer so I wasn’t in school. I asked my manager at work if I could take a leave of absence, and he said yes, so I moved home to Missouri for a couple of months. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing Joel 2:12–fasting, weeping, mourning…
I was welcomed home with love and given lots of space and time to process what I needed to.
I was “fasting” without knowing that’s what I was doing. Pastor John defines fasting as giving something up so that our focus can be on God–not trying to get His attention, but giving Him ours. I sought Him for those two months. I didn’t do anything with friends. I stayed home, spent a lot of time on the back patio with my Bible and a study on how to forgive yourself (I’d made some horrific choices), and dug in with God.
There was a great deal of “weeping”, which Pastor John defined as the outward evidence that something is going on inwardly.
And mourning…acknowledging loss. There were so many things lost that needed to be acknowledged, brought into the light and mourned.
The hard thing for me to grasp, is that God’s embrace happened instantaneously. I kept acknowledging that I didn’t deserve anything from Him, and felt as though I should be “lesser than” in His kingdom work. I felt that way for a long time.
Grace is powerful, and so difficult for us to understand, but what’s true, is just like Hosea’s wife, just like the prodigal son, God met me when I chose to rend my heart and not my garments”and I returned to the Lord my God and found Him to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13). I was fully restored, even though I didn’t “feel” it. Over time (years) I began to “believe” it.
I won’t say that I was completely healed in my two months home, but I was deeply in love with God and knew that my life was much better in His hands. When I returned to college, I moved out of the house I’d been living in, moved back into the dorm, began attending a small group Bible study and was fully embraced there, which led to attending a church where I learned how to worship in a new way. I left my old “friend” group behind and found new friends, one of whom became my husband.
I don’t know what season of life you are in. If locusts have come to devastate you, even now, in this very moment, God is with you. His grace, His compassion, His love will meet you right where you are. Cry out, return to Him with all your heart–He will meet you there.
The “locust” season may not come to an immediate end, it might still be really hard-but you won’t face it alone, and in the words of an old Steven Curtis Chapman song:
His strength is perfect when our strength is gone. He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on. Raised in His power, the weak become strong. His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect.
He is a good God. Life on a fallen planet is not always good, but God is always good–always full of love, always for us. Turn your attention to Him, take your questions, your mourning, your weeping to Him, and let Him meet you where you are.