Wes Furlong is pastor of church development with the Evana Network.
“This could go terribly wrong.”
Every faith journey comes with freak-out moments where the familiarity of the present feels far more appealing than the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
In the days leading up to the biggest faith journey of our lives so far—moving from Florida to Pennsylvania to join the staff of EVANA, a new church movement—I turned deeply introspective and thought, “What if our kids hate the area?” “What if the job doesn’t work out like I hope?” “What if this is that moment in the film when everyone gasps and thinks, Why would he go through that door!?”
How do you best interpret and process the complex and and often conflicting emotions that come with transitions?
We cannot embark on a faith journey without an almost intolerable amount of vulnerability, which exposes our weaknesses and pokes our deepest fears.
The main question is: what do we do with these feelings?
One option is to get stuck.
Picture Busia, a small town between the border of Uganda and Kenya.
It’s a no-man’s land between the two countries. There are no laws and no government; it’s a land between places. Busia is full of people who aren’t crossing between the countries. They’re stuck in this in between place.
In the Bible, this land between places is called the wilderness; a place of testing, education, and growth. Every journey from slavery to the Promised Land goes through it.
One of our greatest temptations in the wilderness is to get deeply introspective. We look back, we look ahead, and then we look within and we don’t like what we see. It’s easy to equate deep introspection with keen self-awareness and think of it as a virtue. It’s not. Deep introspection can easily derail faith journeys.
And here’s why: What we focus on expands.
As I thought more about my concerns in this transition, the list grew longer and seemingly more legitimate. I noticed my heart racing and my palms sweating as I thought about a thousand scary ‘what-if‘ scenarios and the chain reactions they’d set in motion.
The more real these fears felt, the more clear it became: this is the wrong move! We need to stay where we are. It might not be perfect, but at least it’s familiar.
One of God’s goals for us in the wilderness is for us to train our eyes on Him. When we’re in the wilderness, if all goes well, our view of God grows bigger and it naturally displaces the desires and fears that once loomed large and held us hostage.
Another tempting option in the wilderness is to confuse movement with progress.
In 1969, the first single person sailboat race around the world was held. One of the nine contestants, Donald Crowhurst, an inexperienced sailor who entered the race to win the cash prize and save his family business, got into trouble early in the race. Rather than continue the race, he decided to stay close to the coast and sail in circles until it came time to finish.
His thought was that he would submit false times, sail in somewhere near the middle of the pack, finish a respectable race and no one would notice. Unfortunately, most of the sailors dropped out of the race and only one sailor crossed the finish line. Donald’s submitted times would have established him as the clear winner, if he finished the race. However, he decided to commit suicide rather than finish the race. He simply couldn’t see a way out of his circumstances. His journal entries in the final days reveal that he was being overcome by shame and fear.
Of course, there are less severe and dramatic ways to “check out” and sail in circles when we get blown off course. John Ortburg uses the phrase “shadow mission” to describe the subtle detour from the faith journey we’re called to walk.
“A shadow mission is an authentic mission that has been derailed, often in imperceptible ways. Part of what makes the shadow mission so tempting is that it’s usually closely related to our gifts and passions. It’s not 180 degrees off track; it is just 10 degrees off track.”
In my experience, the shadow missions always feel safer. They seem like good compromises or “the best of both worlds.”
I often have to remind myself to embrace the uncertainty of vulnerability as part of the cost of following Jesus. My desires for security, comfort and predictability are desires that need to be released rather than given the driver’s seat. I must not baptize them or misname them. I need to identify them for what they are, understand their potential hold on my life and then release them to the Lord.
Honesty and transparency are helpful virtues in the wilderness! Sometimes I think, “God, you know I want a good and guaranteed income. You know this is too much uncertainty for me.” Such honesty before the Lord is better than falsely baptizing fleshly desires, and far better still is releasing them to the Lord and walking by faith.
When we lose our bearings in the wilderness, we need to stop moving. Crisis moments are best treated as decision-free zones.
A third tempting option in the wilderness is to look for a way out. When we’re overwhelmed, confused, and tired, it’s tempting to look for exit signs.
But Jesus’s experience in the wilderness is a good reminder that the right door might be just behind the open one.
A better option in the wilderness is to press forward, in stride with the Lord, no matter the circumstances or how you feel in the moment. A good study of wilderness journeys teaches us to expect resistance, setbacks, timely miracles and a level of growth and closeness with the Lord that no amount of security or comfort could compare to.
And that takes us back to Busia. When you cross into Kenya from Uganda through the Busia borderland, the landscape doesn’t look much different at first. But a couple miles in, the view really starts to change. You can start to see grasslands with acacia trees on picturesque hilltops. Mostly the difference is that there’s life.
The greatest way to cure the pain of disorientation is to train our eyes on God.
Second Corinthians 10:5 is a helpful reminder here: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
Rather than legitimizing fears and rationalizing desires by dwelling on them, we can hold them in the light and expose them for what they are. We can test them with Scripture, pray about them, and listen for the Holy Spirit’s counsel. We can submit them to wise mentors when we are confused and feel like we’re not hearing from the Lord.
This week, take some time to meditate on Jesus’s experience in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) and identify the temptations that most threaten to derail you right now. And remember the constant encouragement of God to those walking by faith rather than by sight, “Be strong and courageous, for I am with you!”