January 20, 2015

How Life's Thorniest Paths Can Lead To Great Joy

I lay still that early winter morn soaking in the silence of the house. Our bedroom remained artificially dark by the drawn window shade. My head was pounding and nothing could stop the battle that raged deep within.

The sound of the ringer on the phone interrupted the internal dialogue.

Picking up the receiver I heard the voice of a woman from a Bible study group I’d attended at a local church. We’d not connected in a while due to my ongoing medical issues.

She explained that God had told her to call me and read a page from her devotional Streams in the Desert. She didn’t know why or have anything else to say and only wanted to be obedient.

Here’s an excerpt of what she read... 

“My child, I have a message for you today; let me whisper it in your ear, that it may gild with glory any storm clouds which may arise, and smooth the rough places upon which you may have to tread. It is short, only five words, but let them sink into your inmost soul; use them as a pillow upon which to rest your weary head. This thing is from Me.

Have you ever thought of it, that all that concerns you concerns Me too? For, “he that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye” (Zech. 2:8). You are very precious in My sight. (Isa. 43:4) Therefore, it is My special delight to educate you.

I would have you learn when temptations assail you, and the “enemy comes in like a flood,” that this thing is from Me, that your weakness needs My might, and your safety lies in letting Me fight for you.

Are you in difficult circumstances, surrounded by people who do not understand you, who never consult your taste, who put you in the background? This thing is from Me. I am the God of circumstances. Thou camest not to thy place by accident, it is the very place God meant for thee.” (emphases mine) (pg. 56-57)

Later I’d discover that, even though it was the month of November, this devotional entry was from February 1st. What I’ve shared is only a portion. You can find the rest online here.

I’d begun crying after the first sentence and when she finished reading, through a stifled sob, thanked her for her obedience before hanging up the phone.
  • She didn’t know that I’d just been through one of the worst medical debacles ever.
  • She had no idea that after three hours in the operating room a team of surgeons who’d promised they could release my contractured foot had deemed my case too difficult.
  •  She didn’t hear my “ugly crying” as it echoed throughout the surgical unit when I was informed, by some of the best, that my condition required a higher level of expertise. 
  • She hadn’t heard the bickering between specialists who each insisted it was the other who was afraid to operate.
  • She couldn’t see that being “examined under anesthesia” had further crippled me.
  • She wasn’t aware that as I lay there in the dark the tentacles of despair worked tirelessly to choke every remaining ounce of willingness to live from my heart.
  • She’d not heard my faint prayer as tears soaked my pillow: “God, where are You? What happens now?”

But God had seen and heard it all.

In fact, He knew about this battle long before it ever began. He had been with me every step of the way. Twice He’d spared my life. I’d traveled a very long road of sickness and suffering before arriving at this place.

The corner of doubt and despair.

And in that place He reached down and literally whispered in my ear. Using the voice of an unwitting obedient servant He reminded me that, not only was I in the center of His will, but that He would fight for me.

Joy didn’t immediately flood my soul but regaining a sense of God’s presence brought tremendous relief.

The next few days were spent unearthing myself from the fog of general anesthesia while fielding calls from three different physicians volleying my case back and forth like a hot potato. In some ways it was akin to a scene out of The Three Stooges. I listened a lot and spoke very little. Laughed once or twice.

I had no idea what God was up to but He was the only One worth trusting at this point.

That Saturday, I received a call from the specialist in East Tennessee who’d more recently been in charge of my care. He had set up an appointment on Monday with a surgeon over there. By this time, I felt a wide range of emotions and only slightly hopeful.

On Sunday evening the phone rang.

The voice on the other end radiated joy. We’d only met once or twice. He’d fitted me for an orthotic. “You’ve been on my mind,” he said. “I thought I would give you a call. What’s happening?”

Boy did he open a can of worms.

I shared with him my recent experience hardly stopping to take a breath. When I finished he laughed and said, “Let me get this straight. You’re depressed because you have an appointment with the best foot surgeon this side of the Mississippi River in the morning, right?”

Wait, what?

Before our conversation ended, I discovered that not only did this man know the surgeon; he’d worked with him in the operating room for years. He felt that the appointment was all God’s doing, promised to be in prayer, and offered additional words of hope before hanging up.

I sat on the edge of the bed in total awe.

Twice, in one week, God had used people who hardly knew me to deliver words of truth I desperately needed to hear. Our “church family” had long ago walked away from our mess. Most doctors didn’t even want to hear my name.

But they were not God.

God knew my name. Apparently He knew my phone number, too. He also knew which of His kids could be entrusted to obediently follow His nudging so that He could minister to me in a very personal way at one of the lowest points in my life.

As I allowed it all to sink in I could feel the vice-like grip that despair had on my heart break loose.

Although there was no way to predict the outcome of the next day’s appointment in that moment only one thing mattered--maybe two. God fiercely loved me and would walk with me all the way even carrying me if necessary.

This was cause for great joy.

This difficult time in my life resurfaced recently while reading Margaret Feinberg’s book Fight Back With Joy. Feinberg is no stranger to suffering and pain having recently fought an intense 18 month battle with breast cancer.

During the battle she made an amazing discovery. It is the very foundation of what surely must be her most vulnerably written book yet. “More than whimsy, joy is a weapon we use to fight life’s battles.”

You might nod your head yes emphatically if you’ve never had more than a “bad hair day.” But if you’ve gone through or are currently going through gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, bone-crushing hardship, your response might be different.

You might argue or ask questions like “what about when things seem to be unbearable OR unbelievable OR both? Can we experience joy then?"

We can, but it requires shattering some illusions about joy first. Margaret does an excellent job of that.

“The biggest myth about joy is that it only flourishes in good times, or that it is only a byproduct of positive experiences. We assume that when everyone has a clean bill of health, when the kids are well behaved, when the spouse is attentive, and when the bank balance has on extra zero, inner exuberance develops most easily.”  (pg. 62)

“Trials can become the gateway to greater joy, but these passages are fraught with obstacles. The roadside is dotted with land mines, inhabited by bandits, overgrown with briars. Telling someone to look for blessings in the midst of burden, however true, is hard to swallow and even more difficult to execute. But the spiritual growth we experience in trying times, though often more gradual and painful than we’d like, is occasion for celebration.

It’s not in the absence of difficulties but in their presence that God bestows a mighty blessing on us.”
(pg. 60)

The story I shared is just one example of a time when God has revealed Himself to me in a greater way while in a hard place. In those moments when the path grows increasingly painful, it seems that He fully has my attention and I become more aware of His presence in my life. The thorny places challenge me to trust Him in new ways and more clearly see Him working on my behalf. And often I am able to spot blessings that I would have missed otherwise.

“Life’s thorniest paths can lead to great joy.” Margaret Feinberg 

Oh how true this is. Life can be hard at times but it is possible to celebrate more, regret less, and stare down our greatest fears. Instead of cowering under adversity or curling up in defeat we can fight back with joy.

Maybe you don’t know where to start. Margaret’s book is a perfect place to begin. I can't adequately put into words all that I've gleaned from this book. I was dying to get my hands on it and trust me when I say it did not disappoint.

Fight Back With Joy will help you:
  • Expand your joy threshold by awakening to God’s fierce love for you
  • Escape fear and regret by applying biblical strategies to whatever crisis you’re facing
  • Overcome depression as you reignite your imagination for laughter and celebration
  •  Discover freedom from the past by learning how to turn mourning into joy
  • Rise above endless demands and become more winsome, cheerful, and thankful
No matter what your circumstances, you can practice defiant joy. When you do, you will embrace a life that’s richer and fuller than you’ve ever known before—a life radiant with joy.

I recently shared an interview with Margaret Feinberg along with a preview of the 6 Session DVD Bible Study which you'll want to check out. I also highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Fight Back With Joy at Amazon or Barnes and Noble today.

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