In times of crisis, many of us instinctively respond with a Fight, Flee or Freeze response, which can lead to poor decisions and ineffective leadership. So, how can we go beyond these instincts to make good decisions, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit?
In this second chapter of my book, I talk about my struggle to discern the will of God when I was conducting leadership workshops for ministers in Myanmar, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, back in March 2020. Through this difficult time, and in many situations since then, I have seen the wisdom and effectiveness of a “both-and” approach to decision-making, which I explain in the video.
I pray that each one of these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day, and that God will use these videos to strengthen and encourage you in many ways to live better by faith in the midst of your hardships and suffering.
Today, I’m going to talk about a spiritual practice that has been very helpful to me when I feel so powerless and angry, especially in those situations where someone I care about is being treated unjustly or being mistreated, and when I feel so limited in my ability to help. This is the second short video (6 minutes) in the current series, “Light in the Darkness.” I’m creating these videos in support of the Burmese people who have been suffering greatly in Myanmar as a result of a political coup on February 1, 2021. (Video is in English with Burmese subtitles.)
I’m not there in Myanmar facing danger every day, the way that so many of you are, but every time I hear about another killing, or that one of my students is fleeing through the jungles to escape capture, or that refugees don’t have enough food or medicine, I want to do something to help. But, in so many cases, there’s nothing I can do. I feel so frustrated, frustrated. I feel angry. I feel helpless.
At such times, I’ve learned how important it is to be willing to accept my powerlessness, to lament, and to reach out to God for comfort and help.
In Psalm 137, we find a great biblical example of lament. The ancient Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonian army and forced to live in a foreign country. It was miserable for them. They hated it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And we get this picture of masses of exiles, sitting down by a river, just weeping with sorrow, and shaking with rage.
Listen to just a couple of the verses from this psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion [their homeland]. … O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
I used to wonder, how could such violent words be in the Bible? But after all that’s been happening lately in Myanmar and in many other places around the world, I think I understand better now. The Israelites had to get all all their sorrow and grief and rage out of their system. And they had to reach out to God to help them, and to reach out from a place of emotional honesty.
When Mindat was under attack, recently, I was so upset and angry. I kept looking for ways to do something, anything that I could to help. Yet, it seemed like there was nothing I could do. I had watch helplessly as people were being hurt and people were fleeing for their lives. I could feel myself almost getting frantic in my desperation, but then I remembered what I’m supposed to do when I feel this way.
So, I found a quiet place. I took a deep breath. As painful as it was, I let myself feel my powerlessness. I didn’t stop caring, but I reminded myself that I have to accept my limitations. I have to wait until God shows me what I can do; and until then, I have to rely on God or someone else to do what I cannot.
Well, as I began to let go of what I could not control or do, I began to feel more peace. And with greater peace, I began to feel more strength. And little by little, I didn’t feel so powerless anymore.
The spiritual truth behind this practice is this: When we feel so much distress and pain, and our lives have been so wounded, and when we feel so overwhelmed and consumed with fear or despair, we need God. We need God’s help. We can’t face these things on our own. And so, we need to cry out to our Creator, who is the Source of our life. We need to cry out to the one who can renew our life when we feel as if we are about to lose it. We need to sit with our power-lessness. We need to lament, and we need to wait for God’s power-fullness, which comes to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As the Apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God, so that he may life you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7, NRSV) Amen.
Trust this. Let go of your powerlessness. Lament. And then reach out to God, reach out to Jesus Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the life that you can’t get in your own power.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့္ ကိုယ္ ကို ဂရုစိုက္ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
ျမန္မာျပည္အျမန္ ျငိမ္း ခ်မ္းပါ ေစ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
There’s a lot of screaming going on right now. Emotions are running high, political opinions are polarized, and each side is predicting the end of democracy if the other candidate wins. November 3 is the official, designated Election Day, but who knows when all the votes will be counted and the country as a whole will agree who has been chosen as the next President of the United States. And Christians are in the thick of the debates, consternation, and furor.
Discerning the will of God
Disagreement among Christians is nothing new. In the early church in Jerusalem, there were “sharp disputes” among the leaders when it came to the right interpretation of the Gospel in various contexts (e.g., Acts 15:1-21). Paul and Barnabas disagreed, on at least one occasion, on the best candidate to accompany them on their missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). Christians disagreed on lifestyle matters and religious freedoms, and they were prone to judge those who believed differently than themselves (e.g., Romans 14:1-5). At times, there was even inadvertent discrimination against various ethnic groups and leaders were charged with neglecting certain minorities, causing an uproar in the church (e.g., Acts 6:1). So, it should not surprise us today that sincere Christians would, at times, vehemently disagree with one another. There simply is not just one correct Christian view on community values, priorities, freedoms, policies, treatment of immigrants and minorities, etc.
The challenge for Christians does not come from the fact that we are disputing with one another and have sharp disagreements. No, the real issue is how do we do so in ways that honor Christ, glorify God, and truly lead to constructive outcomes. The Bible does not give a clear formula for how a church or society can always discern God’s will for the community. Rather, the biblical ideal calls Christians to learn how to listen to one another and seek God’s leading and will together. As individuals, we are called to submit ourselves to God, offer our lives as “living sacrifice” in the service of God and others, and to seek personal transformation by renewing our minds, so that we can discern the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).
Of course, most biblical teaching refers to the Christian community and not the secular state. Furthermore, the political situation was different then from what it is today in the USA. Though the United States is republic, as was ancient Rome, prior to the empire, most early Christians would not have been Roman citizens or have had the right to vote. Yet, we can extrapolate from the teachings and examples in the New Testament to draw the following, simple guidelines at election time.
Biblically-based guidelines for making a responsible decision
Take your status as a member of society seriously and fulfill your responsibilities. Biblical writers taught Christians to be good (moral, responsible), participating members of society to the extent that was available to them (e.g., Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Be prayerful, discuss issues with other believers, and seek wisdom from God (e.g., Acts 15:6; James 1:4-7).
Listen to your conscience, have the courage to have your own opinion, and then act in faith. Whatever your position, Paul says, “Be fully convinced in your own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
Don’t judge those who take a different position or who choose to vote differently than you (Rom. 14:1-4).
Whatever you say or do, be thankful in your heart for your privilege and opportunity to vote as a citizen in a free society, and always seek to bring glory to God by your actions (Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:31).
Trust God to work for good in your individual life as well as in the nation, regardless of the outcome of the election (e.g., Romans 8:28-30).
In other words, in the secular context, in America, when it comes to voting for a particular presidential candidate, discerning the will of God mostly comes down tobecoming well-informed, being prayerful, staying open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to change your heart and mind when need be, making the best decision you can, and then filling in the little circle in front of your chosen candidate’s name on the ballot in time for your vote to be counted.
The upcoming election: Our choices
While most of us are going to choose (or have already chosen) between Trump and Biden on Election Day (rather than a third party candidate), the positions people take are more complicated than just being for or against a particular candidate. As I see it, there are roughly six different clusters into which we could group ourselves as well as other people. The first three clusters of citizens would likely vote for Biden, the second group of three for Trump.
Identifying the various groups helps me understand myself better–where I fit, how I may still differ from others who are voting the same way, and how I might be able to explain my choice more easily to others who are voting differently. It also helps me better understand someone else who is making a different decision, and to realize that, when a friend or family member votes for a candidate I’m not choosing, it doesn’t mean that he or she has lost all sensibilities, values, or faith!
Cluster 1: Extreme left. Variously defined, they will include socialists, communists, antifa, anarchists, et al. They will vote for Biden (or some third-party candidate) because he is far closer to their views than is Trump.
Cluster 2: Genuine supporters of Biden, who generally embrace the Democratic platform (e.g., universal health care, reform criminal justice system, special emphasis on protecting civil rights widely, etc.). They are not extremists but are proudly liberal on many issues.
Cluster 3: Those left-leaning independents, moderate Democrats, or disaffected Republicans, whose greatest concern is the potential negative effect of four more years of a Trump presidency. These folks may even favor some of the Republican platform policies but consider Trump and his leadership to be a bigger threat to the future of America than a Democratic president and Congress.
Cluster 4: Those right-leaning independents and moderate Republicans, who appreciate many of Trump’s accomplishments and actions taken as president, though they may be critical of his undesirable characteristics and behavior. For these folks, the Republican policies and platform are more important than how well they like the individual candidate.
Cluster 5: Those who both embrace the Republican platform and greatly appreciate and admire Donald Trump as an individual. They view him positively, possibly even the political, social, and religious (rights) savior of America and champion of Christian causes (most notably, pro-life/anti-abortion). They are conservative and probably very religious.
Cluster 6: Extreme right wing. Variously defined, they include libertarians, white supremacists, white nationalists, and Ku Klux Klan. These folks will vote for Trump (or some third-party libertarian) either because they discern that he is more or less secretly one of them or because Trump will lend support to their causes far better than Biden ever will.
So, which cluster is most suitable for a Christian? For whom should Christians vote on or before Election Day?
The answer is, there is no “right” answer–that is, one that is right for everyone. The decision is up to you. If you’ve done your homework, if you’ve been prayerful and open throughout the discernment process, if you have been willing to think for yourself, and if you are willing to act according to your own faith and conscience, then your decision is the right answer for you.
You may not like your choices (few of us do). You may be afraid of making a mistake or of being criticized by others for your choice. But, don’t let any of that hold you back. This is what comes with taking your responsibility as a citizen seriously. Please vote for someone of your choosing. It’s what you can do.
The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they [do something they don’t believe in], because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Truth 6: Expect more peace, as you put your anxieties in God’s capable hands.
On some days, the stress seems to be getting worse, not better. I’m continuing to have trouble sleeping well at night. This past Thursday, as I was tossing and turning in bed, I suddenly imagined a huge, translucent, 50-foot wall to my left. On the other side of it, I could see a mountain of water, which looked as if could burst through at any moment. I don’t know what I thought would happen next—wash me away? drown me? hurt me in some other way? I don’t know if I was awake or asleep, but it was frightening. The dam was about to break, and I didn’t know what I could do to protect myself.
When I feel anxious like this, my peace and joy disappear. I used to bite my fingernails when I was younger. Now, I mostly get tense or freeze up. I have trouble concentrating or connecting with others emotionally. If it gets bad enough (like the other day), I can hardly hold a conversation or look the other person in the eye. We’ve been staying-at-home for nearly eight weeks. While I’m getting used to living this way, and even enjoy the extra time at home and with family, the stress is always there. And, it’s building.
What can we expect from God when so much is frightening or unknown about the future? What can God do for us when our anxiety becomes so great that we cannot function normally and we cannot be the kind of person we would like to be?
Spiritual Truth 6: Expect more peace, as you put your anxieties in God’s capable hands. (Philippians 4:6-7)
The Apostle Paul knew very well that many Christians, in spite of their strong faith, still struggle with anxiety. It’s human. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be prisoners to our worries. So, he offers this fairly simple formula, with the promise that if we follow it, God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds. What is his formula?
Do not be anxious about anything,
but in every situation, by prayer and petition,
present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7, NIV
If we break down Paul’s guidance into a step by step process, we can easily see what we need to do, whenever we are feeling anxious.
Recognize that you may be more anxious than you realize. Typically, symptoms include feeling nervous or tense, fixating on something you’re worried about, becoming irrationally fearful, feeling tired or weak, having trouble sleeping, and so forth. If you’re feeling anxious, don’t deny it or try to pretend to be something you’re not. Recognizing your anxiety is the first step toward becoming free from it.
Reach out to God. When you are in distress, your loving Creator and Savior is there for you. The primary goal of prayer at these times is to get out of yourself and make a connection with God, so that he may lift you out of the black hole of your anxiety. Pour out your heart to him. Seek the comfort that comes from drawing closer to him and resting in his presence, as I discussed in my previous essay.
Ask God for everything that you want and need. Make a list and tell God what you are worried about and everything you would like him to do. This is not like clutching a rabbit’s foot or rubbing some religious statue or carving, hoping to unleash magic powers or to compel God to do your will. It’s true, Paul assures the Philippians that “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19), but he does not promise that just by praying you will get everything you ask for. No, what he promises to those who makes their requests known to God is peace.
Be thankful while you are asking for help. Don’t give all your attention to your worries and wishes in your prayers. Choose to focus on what you’re grateful for as well as on what it is lacking in your life. “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” At our family mealtimes, before we pray, everyone shares one thing they’re grateful for from the day, one way they’ve seen God at work in their lives, or one experience that has drawn them closer to God. It’s a great “upper” to the mood around the table. There always many reasons why we might feel anxious, angry, or sad, so sharing words of thanksgiving breathes some fresh life into everyone’s mind and heart. A good friend told me recently that she is trying to consciously “choose joy” every day, no matter what else may be weighing her down. The attitude we choose makes a difference.
Paul knew very well that if we allow ourselves to dwell on our fears and problems, we will become more anxious, not less. If, instead, we consciously and systematically replace our anxiety with prayer and thanksgiving, the result will be greater peace. As I’ve already said, in praying this way, we should not deny our anxiety. On the contrary, we need to fully recognize the power it is wielding over us and talk to God directly about our all our fears and worries. Likewise, praying with thanksgiving is not just positive thinking or minimizing our concerns (as important as it is to think positively). Rather, this kind of prayer links our spirits with the Holy Spirit, so that we can receive the kind of spiritual help God wants to give us in our distress. What brings us peace is God’s Spirit, who ministers to us through prayer and sets us free from the burden we’ve been trying to carry alone or in our own power.
An apt analogy
One time, when my elder son was only about six years old, he got very sick. Every time we tried to give him some water to drink, he would vomit it up. We watched him get weaker and weaker as the day went on. The doctor advised me to bring him in to the hospital, but I thought I could nurture him back to health. As it grew dark, I made my bed on the floor next to his. I kept thinking that if he could only fall asleep, he would recover. But it wasn’t to be. I would doze off, only to be awakened by his coughing and restlessness, over and over again.
As it became clear that he would not be able to sleep or keep any liquids down, I became more and more worried. Finally, in desperation, I called his doctor one more time, who again implored me to bring him into the emergency room. This time I listened. When we arrived, at 2 or 3 a.m., I put the nearly lifeless body of my son into the doctor’s arms. The doctor took one look at him and then quickly admonished me, saying, “You should have brought him sooner.”
How foolish I had been! I risked the life of my son. Instead of getting him the help he needed, I chose to simultaneously fill my mind with false hope and stew in my anxiety. I was stuck in my way of thinking and behaving. He and I were both paying the price.
I have thought of that night many times over the past 28 years. It was a real lesson to me about how to handle serious medical problems. More important, it’s been a continual reminder to not try to carry all my burdens and anxieties on my own shoulders. When I finally put my son in the doctor’s care, I felt great relief. I didn’t know for sure if my son could be saved, but I knew that I had gone to the best possible place for help. (Thankfully, he did recover and is now a very healthy 33 year old man.)
Spiritually, my experience became an apt analogy for how to handle all my worries and serious concerns. Today, whenever I notice that my anxiety level rising, it’s a call to prayer. Just as I gathered my son in my arms that one frightening night, when he was so very sick, and took him to the doctor, I now routinely scoop up all the things I’m worried about and put them into my Father’s hands. And time and time again, I soon feel relief and freedom from my distress. The peace I have known is just as Paul described. It “transcends all understanding” and guards my heart and mind from the crippling power of overwhelming, all-consuming anxiety.
How are you handling your anxiety these days?
The Apostle Paul’s instruction to the Philippians are words for you, too.
Acknowledge your anxiety.
Reach out to connect with God, even if you can only say something simple like, “Father, help me,” “Jesus, take my burden,” or “Holy Spirit, set me free.”
If you can pray more specifically, share all of your worries and concerns with God. Ask him for everything you want and need. Give him all of your burdens…and leave them in his hands.
Consciously replace your anxiety with thanksgiving as you pray. Count your blessings. Let yourself feel grateful for what is good in your life. Choose joy.
As we have said repeatedly in this series, you cannot know what God will or will not do with your requests. But that’s not the point here. When you are weighed down by anxiety, Paul says, gather all of your worries and put them into the loving hands of your heavenly Father. Draw near to God, count your blessings, and lean on him to support you in ways that only he can do. This is the pathway to true, abiding, inner peace.
You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast,
because he trusts in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
for the LORD, the LORD, is the Rock eternal.
Next week: How your anxiety can teach you what you most need to know
Help us spread the good word! To reach more people who need biblical and practical words of encouragement in the midst of the COVID-19, global crisis, we are translating these essays into 10 different languages spoken in various parts of Myanmar, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If you have been touched or encouraged by one or more of these essays, please help spread the word by sharing it with others, andbysupporting our efforts to reach more people bymaking a donation to Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries, today.
CONTEXT: I CREATED THIS ESSAY SERIES IN RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 GLOBAL CRISIS. EACH ESSAY EXPANDS ON THE PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS OFFERED IN THE SPIRIT-LED LEADER: NINE LEADERSHIP PRACTICES AND SOUL PRINCIPLES (HERNDON, VA: ALBAN INSTITUTE, 2005), PAGES 184-90.
The first photo, with ocean waves, Tiko Giorgadze via Unsplash
Truth 5: Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night more often than usual. I just can’t seem to sleep as well as before. Sometimes, it’s a bad dream. Other times, I can’t get out of mind the people who are suffering from war, hunger, or looming economic collapse. One very early morning this past week, I woke up feeling empty and drained. I had hit a wall. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time, trying to pray, trying to go back to sleep, trying to decide if it would be better just to get up. It was going to be a hard day.
So far in this essay series, we have emphasized the hopeful messages in the Bible for those who are suffering or facing crisis. There are many reasons to be encouraged in spite of our circumstances. As Christians, for example, we can look for God to actively lead and guide, to produce character and hope, or to use us to help others in some way.
But what do you do when your darkness is just dark? What if you can’t see anything good coming out of your suffering? What if you expect only more of the same—more uncertainty, more loss, more pain? Or, what if you just don’t have any more energy to try?
Spiritual Truth 5 Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God. (Hebrews 2:18; 13:5; Romans 8:19-28, 38-39)
“Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,” says the Lord.
Hebrews 13:5 NIV
These words from Hebrews are usually interpreted as a promise of God’s ongoing presence and provision. And rightly so. This is why we don’t panic in hard times. This is why we keep reaching out to God for help in our times of need.
At the same time, the promise of God’s abiding presence is also meant to remind us to look beyond this life’s troubles. The Apostle Paul taught us that all creation is groaning, waiting for the redemption of the world. Likewise, we, too, are groaning, looking eagerly for the day our bodies will be completely delivered from suffering, decay, and mortality. (Rom. 8: 19-23)
In other words, sometimes, we must wait for heaven to find the relief we are longing for. As Paul explained, this is the very definition of Christian hope:
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
To Paul, the most important gift of the Christian faith is not how much God can fix or improve our earthly lives. Rather, our most treasured possession is our eternal bond with our Creator, our Father in Heaven, which comes through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If this bond of love is secure, and it is, then no matter what happens to us in this life, we’re going to be O.K. We have an amazing, wonderful relationship with God that extends throughout eternity that no one can take away from us. By God’s grace, through faith, we have a precious and secure hope that can carry us through the darkest of days.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks rhetorically. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35). The answer, of course, is, No. No one. Nothing.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 NIV
The power of prayer
As I lay in bed on that difficult morning not long ago, not knowing when I would find the motivation to get up,the prayers from Psalms 61 and 62 kept coming to my mind. “Lord, you are my rock…. Lift my feet to the rock that is higher than I.” Whenever I feel so empty or sad, what helps me the most is reaching out to God. I may not have many words to pray, but I keep asking him to do something inside my mind and heart that I cannot do on my own. I pour out my heart to God.
In moments like these, I am not praying for solutions, healing, or even deliverance. I’m just looking for some comfort, maybe renewed strength, or just an ability to feel some joy again. And answers come. Not usually right away. I need to listen and respond to the still, small voice of the Spirit; and in time, help comes. I follow the prompting to open my Bible, get up and go for a walk outside, reach out to good friend, talk to someone who loves me, or turn my attention to someone who needs my love or help in some way. Or, maybe I find the freedom to just sit with my sadness and not feel compelled to try to make myself happy, as I wait for the Holy Spirit to restore my peace and joy.
The one to whom we have entrusted our lives for salvation, whose sufferings we share throughout this mortal life, is also the one who is able to comfort us in our time of trial.
Because [Jesus Christ] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
And when we do not know what to pray or we can’t find the words, Christ’s Spirit prays through us and for us. Paul put it this way:
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
What are you doing when you feel low and are struggling to strength or motivation to get up and get going ? As the COVID-19 crisis continues on, how are you reaching out to God to help you through the darkest days?
Pour out your heart to God. Pray in the Spirit. As Christ prays with you and for you, you will come to realize that you are not alone, not abandoned, not hopeless. Even though you may not know what to say or ask for, the Spirit will transform your tears, gasps, and grasping into requests that fit with God’s will for you. You may not feel bubbly happiness every time, but your mood is likely to shift. You will be able to cope again. Your peace will return. Your ability to love others will re-emerge. And joy will not be far behind.
Contemplate the photo above. What do you notice? What do you feel? Meditate on the words of the Psalmist:
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I…
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah
Psa. 61:2; 62:2, 5-8
Whatever painful experiences you are going through are simply not the final word in your life. Christ is. The Lord’s love and presence will not spare you from all suffering or from death, but he can and will hold you securely in his loving arms for eternity.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To read this essay in Burmese and certain Chin dialects, go to “Resources in Burmese” in Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries’ Resource Library, or look for it on my Facebook page, later this week.
I created this essay series in response to the COVID-19 global crisis, though the biblical teaching is applicable in many troubling situations involving human suffering. Each essay expands on the practical suggestions offered in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-90.
Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you….
[For this essay in Burmese or Mizo Chin dialect, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or see my Facebook page later this week.]
It was early March. The COVID-19 crisis was mounting globally. No confirmed cases were yet reported in Myanmar, but the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the world and heading toward my home state in Minnesota. I was in Yangon, preparing for a month of ministry to approximately 200 pastors in three weeklong workshops, in Mandalay, Kanpetlet (Southern Chin State), and Sittwe (Rakhine State), respectively. What should I do? Should I play it safe and get out of the country immediately? What was the most loving thing to do, as a husband and father? What was the most responsible thing to do as a minister and teacher? Should I press on to conduct these workshops for the sake of these pastors, who had been counting on this training for themselves and the benefit of the churches they serve—or get home, ASAP?
In retrospect, the answers seem clearer. But at the time, as is often the case in the midst of impending crisis and uncertainty, the “right” choices were not so obvious. In this situation, for me, the values of caring for my family, protecting my own health, and fulfilling my ministry commitments and responsibilities were in raging conflict within me.
For so many of us, we pray for guidance in such circumstances, but the answers don’t always come readily. Our inner turmoil makes us feel anxious or confused. If the crisis is big enough, instead of making a Spirit-led decision, a fight-flight-(or) freeze response might kick in. That is, we may boldly ignore the danger and attack the problem head-on but may do so blindly or foolishly. Or, we may run away as fast as we can, only to discover later that we had panicked. The danger was not as great as we feared, and we missed the opportunity to serve those who were counting on us. Or, we may become so anxious that we freeze, unable to make any decision; but by our indecision we fail to make a measured, wise, timely response. Any one of these fight-flight-or freeze instincts may be quite natural to us and common, and sometimes even helpful in times of danger; but Spirit-led decision-making relies on more than impulses, intuition, or personal intelligence.
Spiritual Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you; and act accordingly. (Proverbs 3:5-6; James 1:5-6)
What trust in God looks like
As my wife, staff members, ministry partners and I agonized over these questions, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I needed to trust God to guide us in our decision-making. Instead of having to bearing all the weight of these unanswered questions on my shoulders, I felt relieved remembering that I was not alone in this anxious time of uncertainty. God was there to help. I needed to believe it, and act like it. Solomon put it this way nearly 3000 years ago:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own
understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV
If we rely (exclusively) on our own wisdom and understanding in times of crisis or difficult decision-making, we may easily misread the situation or jump to the wrong conclusions. The biblical path of discernment, in contrast, leans heavily on God as leader and guide. First, we are told to “acknowledge” the Lord God in all our ways—that is, we have to slow down, humble ourselves, and surrender our will to God’s. Then, we must “trust in the Lord with all our hearts,” meaning, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide as we proceed with gathering information and weighing our options. Clearly, this kind of trust is not passive. It’s involves actively reaching out to God for wisdom to see things clearly and to better perceive what cannot be seen with our eyes or minds alone. It is only through this kind of God-centered discernment process that we can hope to make the best decisions. James talks about the process this way:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
James 1:5-6 NRSV
It’s not our circumstances that make us unstable, it’s our lack of faith. In times of crisis, Spirit-led decision-makers do not abandon reliance on God, who is often more silent than they might like. Rather, they both take responsibility to assess the situation, seek help in discerning the best course of action, and then make thoughtful (not impulsive) decisions when they need to and simultaneously trust that God is very much present and active to lead and guide them, often behind the scenes, so-to-speak.
This both-and approach requires creating enough space to quiet ourselves and take time to listen for the Spirit’s voice through Scripture and prayer. We will reach out to reliable spiritual guides, pastors, mentors, co-workers, and friends for input. We will not try to push our way forward, regardless of warning signs. Neither will we run away out of fear, unless we must protect ourselves from imminent danger. We also will not get stuck, frozen, unwilling to think things through and make a rational decision in a timely manner. We will fix our eyes on Jesus, considering his example of faith and sacrificial service in setting our priorities. We will trust God with our whole heart, and then take action when as the way forward becomes clearer.
March in Myanmar reassured me again that God does indeed lead and guide amid upsetting and confusing circumstances. I had to stay fully engaged in the decision-making process, and I had to manage my fight-flight-freeze types of impulses so that they didn’t take over. Yet, the more I kept putting the workshops and decisions into God’s hands, and the more I was willing to listen for the quiet voice of the Spirit and listen to the voices of others around me, the more I was able to hear what I needed to hear and to see what I needed to see. Over time, answers emerged.
The final itinerary was different from any of the scenarios I was first considering, but the result was 12 Spirit-blessed days in Myanmar and a timely return to my family afterward. Graduation week at MIT was full of meaningful connections and ministry. Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries staff member, Saw Newton, and I conducted the Spirit-Led Leadership workshop in Mandalay, as planned. Then, when circumstances suddenly changed again (civil war and unexpected crises), it was time to go home. I arrived back into the loving arms of my wife, Jill, three weeks early. I felt grateful for how God had worked through the ministry, peaceful about letting two workshops go for now, and equally assured that home was where I now needed to be.
In the midst of needing to make difficult decisions, do not expect God to necessarily give you the answer you’re looking for right away. Instead, fully engage in the process of decision-making while trusting God to guide you along the way. Face the crisis or important decision at hand, surrender your will to God’s, release your attachments to your plans and original desires, ask for the ability to see whatever you need to see. Then, when it’s time to act, don’t be afraid to make a decision or to change plans, if need be.
No, you will not always make the “right” decision, but your judgment is much more likely to be Spirit-led with a both-and approach. And, no matter what, you will learn from the experience. As you engage in the hard work of making difficult decisions, earnestly seeking God in prayer, and trusting God with your whole heart, your faith will grow, too. You will become stronger and more capable of making good decisions in the future. Ultimately, through this kind of God-centered approach to discernment and decision-making, you will grow closer to God and will become more capable of serving as Spirit-led elders in your community when they need you the most.
This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.