Resilience 3: When Striving Fails


Have you ever had someone surprise you with a life choice that they made? Vicky White was the assistant director of corrections in Lauderdale County, Alabama. She had served in the corrections department for 17 years and she was a valued and well-respected member of that team. But on Friday, April 29, Vicky helped a murder suspect, Casey Cole White, escape. Though they have the same last name, Vicky and Casey are not related, but it appears that they had some kind of a romantic relationship. Vicky told staff that Casey had an appointment at the courthouse for a mental health evaluation, and that she would transport him there by herself. This was a violation of department rules which required two sworn deputies to accompany prisoners. But because of Vicky’s high rank in the department, she got away with it. There never was an appointment for Casey at the courthouse, and the prisoner and the deputy never arrived there. They ditched the police cruiser at a local shopping center, jumped into a different vehicle and took off.

Lauderdale County sheriff, Rick Singleton, said that he and the rest of the staff who knew Vicky were shocked. “This is not the Vicky White we know, by any stretch of the imagination,” the sheriff said.

On Monday, May 9, after 11 days on the run, authorities caught up with the pair. A police cruiser rammed the vehicle they were in, turning it upside down. Vicky shot herself and later died of her injuries. Casey was apprehended and returned to Alabama to face justice there.

When a person is put under a lot of stress, or a great enticement is set before them, the things that they are truly striving for are revealed. We might think that they are working throughout their entire life toward one thing. And then we are shocked to find out that, all along, what they really wanted was something else. By itself, having a secret desire is not a problem, but when our secret desire is dark and destructive, it usually leads to devastation in the life of the one who holds them, and grief, sorrow and loss in the lives of those around them. So it is important for us to examine the secret longings of our heart.

That examination begins for each of us by admitting that we have a problem in our heart, and that problem can show up in a couple of different ways. First, we may find a problem with integrity in our heart. An integrity problem means that there is a misalignment between who we are on the outside and who we really are on the inside. Second, and we can be certain of this, we will find that we have a problem with holiness in our heart. Either those secret desires in our heart are tinged with sin, or we are considering sinful ways to fulfill a good desire, or both. I don’t know what was going on in the heart of Vicky White. Was it a desire to be loved that drove her to develop a sophisticated plan to spring Casey White from jail? Because she is now dead, we will never know.

But this shocking case in Alabama is an opportunity for us to evaluate what is going on in our own hearts. So, consider these questions: What are the secret desires of your heart?  And then, think of your life as a movie. If you played it out to the end, where will you end up if you keep following the secret desires of your heart?  To help us as we consider these questions, we are first going to Jonah, chapters 1 and 2. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.

The Secret Desires of Jonah & Some Sailors

What we find as we dig into this book is Jonah has a problem in his heart. He is a prophet of God, but he acts like he doesn’t believe in God at all. In spite of God’s direct command to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against the wickedness there, Jonah decided to take matters into his own hands and do things his way, instead of God’s. Turning to the account we find recorded for us in the book of Jonah, we read,  But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. (Jonah 1:3).

The sailors on the boat which Jonah boarded did not believe in the one, true God, but they acted like they did. During a fierce storm which came up after the ship left port, All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. (Jonah 1:5) The captain came below deck, where Jonah was sleeping, and urged him to call on his God too. There was an awareness among the sailors and the captain that the spiritual world was real and connected to this physical world and that what happened in the spiritual world mattered in this physical world, and vice-versa. They were spiritually aware and attuned. On the other hand, Jonah was willfully rebelling against God. He clearly knew what God wanted and yet he blatantly disobeyed God. 

In many ways, we can be like Jonah.

Picking up the account at verse 7, we read, 

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) (Jonah 1:7-10)

The sailors recognized the danger that Jonah had put himself and them in when he deliberately disobeyed God’s direct command and ran away from him. Sin is never contained within a bubble. It always radiates out and impacts the people around us, even when we don’t intend for that to happen.

The sailors asked Jonah what they should do. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12) The sailors wanted to spare Jonah’s life, so they tried rowing back to shore, but the sea grew even wilder. Finally, crying out for forgiveness to Yahweh, which is Jonah’s, and our God, not the god of the sailors, they very, very reluctantly took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately, the sea became calm. In verse 16, we read, At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:16) Do you see how shocking this is? The pagan sailors are put under stress and it is revealed that deep down in their hearts they desire a living relationship with the one, true God. Jonah is a prophet of that one, true God–he speaks God’s Word to God’s people–and yet when he is put under stress and it is revealed that he wants to be lord over his own life instead of God. Yet, in his merciful love for Jonah, God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. There in the darkness, confined and alone, Jonah thought and prayed.

God Herds Us Sometimes

Sometimes God will block off all our options to give us a time-out–a forced retreat–where we can think about what we are doing and where it is taking us, and then repent, or turn away from, that path we were on and turn toward the path God has opened before us. So Jonah had a three day retreat in the belly of a huge fish, and there, in the darkness and all alone, Jonah came to the end of himself and turned toward God.

Maybe you have experienced something like this where all your best efforts lead to nothing but sawdust and ashes and you are left exhausted and heart broken. I know I have. When I decided to leave the family farm, I chose not to get on the path that led toward ministry and go instead on a path that led to me becoming an agronomist and then an Esso agent. 

But as I moved forward on my chosen path, God began to herd me like a border collie herds a flock of sheep. He hemmed me in and prevented me from reaching my desires so that I would head in the direction that he knew was best. He frustrated my business goals and prevented me from accomplishing the success that I desired. It felt to me like I was banging my head against a wall again and again and again.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that God was preparing me. He allowed me to experience things that encouraged me to grow in my faith and in my reliance on him. The end result of this process was that when the door toward ministry was opened to me a second time, I walked through it. It only took Jonah three days to wise up. It took me seven years. Our broken dreams can be the catalyst for healing. But that healing begins, Jesus tells us, by bringing our exhausted heart to him.

Jesus Came for Tired, Discouraged People Like Us

It is for tired, overwhelmed, discouraged people just like you and me that Jesus came into this world. God the Father knows that all of us have problems with misdirected desires that lead us down twisted, winding paths that end up breaking our heart. So our heavenly Father sent his Son to come into this world as a helpless human baby and live life in this world, just like we do, except without sin. Think of what love God must have in his heart for all of humanity to move heaven and earth so that the infinite, invincible High King of heaven could become a frail, helpless human being just like you and me. He loves you so much that God came.

This God-human, Jesus, could have lived life as a human being in this world avoiding all our human brokenness, but he didn’t. Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, he touched and healed lepers, and he grieved with those who were grieving. He had compassion on those who were poor or suffering, he healed the sick, he raised the dead, and he cast out demons from people who had been possessed by them. And to show that his was not just a temporary visit of no lasting value by someone from far, far away, Jesus willingly went to the cross to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world. This is what has changed everything for everyone forever. Jesus not only died to redirect our sinful desires, he also died to redeem us. Jesus has bought us back from our slavery to sin and our destiny of destruction to give us a new life with him that will last forever. We know that this is true because, on the third day after his death, Jesus rose from the dead and he now rules over all creation as our heavenly Father’s regent. There is nothing that happens in this world which is outside of Jesus’ compassionate view, there is no one in this world who is outside of Jesus’ love, and there is no desire in any human heart which cannot be redirected and redeemed by Jesus. At the end of time, Jesus will put an end to death, banish all evil, restore his creation and raise us from the dead to live with him forever in the new heaven and earth. 

At that point, Jesus will step down and turn all things over to his Father, “…so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28) In the meantime, as we wait under Jesus’ Lordship for the fulfillment of all things, we have the Holy Spirit to lead, guide and empower us. We have God with us, God for us, and God above us. He loves you so much that God saves.

Even with the saving actions of Jesus Christ, God’s active love for you does not cease. (Hands) Having brought you into a relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through the reconciliation Jesus won for you on the cross, Jesus now actively loves the new you in the new relationship you have with him. But note how he does it. Jesus doesn’t act unilaterally, nor does he force his will upon ours. Instead, God invites. In Matthew 11:28-30, we have these words from Jesus recorded for us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This is the point where we have an opportunity to turn away from living for our own kingdom and turn toward living for God’s kingdom. Do we want to keep striving for things that will never satisfy? Do we want to keep following desires that lead us down a wide road toward pain, suffering and regret? Or do we want to stop our striving and turn toward the God who came to save us? The invitation from Jesus promises us rest and that is what our weary heart needs. 

But Jesus also says something about a yoke. What did he mean by that? A yoke is a wooden bar placed on the shoulders of two oxen so that together they can pull an implement like a plow. The word “yoke” was used in ancient times to show the joining together of two people in a close connection. It was also used to refer to something burdensome, like the yoke of the law, or the yoke of slavery. 

We see both senses of the word “yoke” in Jesus’s invitation. He is inviting us to receive the relationship he has given us with him and also to voluntarily bind ourselves to him as he has already bound himself to us in the waters of Holy Baptism. From his side of the relationship, our bond with Jesus is unbreakable for he has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. When we yoke ourselves to Jesus and let him be Lord over all our life, we find that Jesus is the one who is doing all the hard work in our life. Jesus is the One who has completed all of our forgiveness, he is the One who provides for all our needs, he is the One who carries all our concerns. Jesus lifts all our heavy burdens from us and we no longer need to worry about the future, the present or the past. He holds them all for us in his loving care. 

The only burden Jesus places on us is to trust in him. As we learned in the Red Letter Challenge earlier this year, this means taking Jesus’ words and putting them into practice. We are yoked together with Jesus, but not like two equally strong oxen pulling a heavy load together. Jesus dwells within our heart and does most of the heavy lifting of transforming us to become more like him. Jesus is gentle and humble in heart and as we partner in life with him, he teaches us through our relationship with him how to, as The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it, “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

And what we will find as we do that is that we will not only receive the rest and relief we desire, but also, as we rest in Jesus and let him work within us, we will find that our desires are transformed by him. The things that we used to strive strenuously for because we thought that they were so very, very important, we now find, as we reflect on how we live and move and have our being, that those things are not given much weight by us at all. We no longer pursue those things and we rarely think about them because we are now resting in the greater love which truly satisfies the deeper desires that have always been beneath the superficial desires we used to chase after. 

The rest Jesus offers becomes real to us when we let him be our Lord, our Master, and our King, over all our life. 

Quo vadis? (Where are you going?)

In the apocryphal Acts of Peter, there is a story that was used by Henry Sienkiewicz as a thematic event in his novel, Quo Vadis. The story describes the apostle Peter fleeing Rome and crucifixion at the hands of the Roman government. Along the road, he meets the risen Jesus and asks him, in Latin, “Domine quo vadis?” which in English means, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Peter then realized that Jesus is going to do what Peter is leaving undone. With that clarity from Jesus and the encouragement of his presence, Peter returned to Rome where, according to Christian tradition, he was crucified upside down.

You see, in this story, the question Peter asked of Jesus was really a question that Peter needed to answer for himself, and his encounter with Jesus helped Peter realize that. So the challenge that I am leaving you with today is to take some time to sit in silence with Jesus and imagine how you would answer this question from him, Quo vadis? Where are you going? Think about where you will end up if you keep following the secret desires that you have deep down in your heart. Is that where you really want to be?

Jesus wants to give you a life that is far greater than anything you could ever ask or imagine for yourself. Therefore I want to encourage you to step out of your exhausting patterns and spend  time resting with and allowing yourself to be loved by Jesus. Let him recalibrate your desires so that they align with what he knows is best for you and for the world. That will naturally happen as Jesus’ love for you seeps into your heart and draws you deeper into love with him. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on May 22, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)

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