“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
I began this sermon with big ideas, bullet points, and a systematic scriptural structure moving from doubt to certainty in the Lord for present and future concerns, but it all fell apart. It lacked heart and depth as it lightly glided over difficult topics like suffering, doubt, fear, and grief. So instead of a three point outline of cold theological “comfort,” I just want to share my experience over the past several months, the trials I’ve experienced, and what I have taken away from the recent difficulties in my life. My only intention, and prayer, in sharing this testimony is that God would be glorified, that others could find some encouragement as they struggle with their own trials as they walk the dark paths of the valley of the shadow of fear, and to know that we are not alone.
In many ways, the Lord has been overly generous to me and my family throughout this whole ordeal and for that I am grateful. But, even the most comfortable of circumstances is not without pitfalls and the enemy is relentless in pursuing our destruction. Fear and doubt are ever present, and I have struggled with them both.
It is difficult to express how powerfully the Lord called me to Haidian. At the end of 2009, I had come to the end of my rope, and had been living for myself and the pleasures of this world. Not for God. Though I called myself a Christian, I had my salvific experience when I was 13, a lack of discipleship and worldly temptations drew me away from the Father and back into a life of sin and self-indulgence. That came to an end when the Lord allowed the consequences of my actions to come crashing down around me, and in desperation I cried out to Him in repentance. Three things He revealed to me on that day, as plain as I am speaking to you right now: 1. I was loved. 2. I was forgiven, and 3. I worked for Him now and should go to Haidian church. I had no clue where the church was, I don’t even remember how I found it, and I had heard some rumors that Jesus wasn’t there. But when the Lord speaks we obey, so I went. Long story short, ten years later I was still carrying out the mission that the Lord had given until the Coronavirus struck.
As the virus spread, Beijing went into lockdown, and everything moved online, many things were going through my mind. Like: If Sophia and/or I contract the virus, ending up in the ICU, what would happen to Johnny? I lost my dad when I was seven, and I am beginning to see how those deep scars still affect me in my relationship with my son. The thought of that happening to Johnny breaks my heart and is a continuous source of fear. At the time, we were seeing videos of people being “escorted” to fever wards, if they showed any sign of illness. Suffice it to say, it was a very scary time, and my Chinese is insufficient for that level of crisis. On top of that, Johnny suddenly came down with Roseolia and a fever of 40.5C. We couldn’t go to the doctor for fear of being sent to the fever clinic and risk contracting the mysterious Coronavirus that was doing so much damage in Wuhan, so we prayed and quietly battle against this virus effecting our son. By the grace of God, we were able to treat him with the baby ibuprofen on hand, and after a few intense days Johnny’s fever broke, followed by a rash of little red dots all over his torso which he ultimately recovered from. Thank God!
Over the next couple of weeks being locked up in a small apartment became increasingly difficult, as any parents with small children can attest to. So with prayer, we decided it was best, given what we had experienced, if we went back to America, thinking at most we would be back in Beijing at the beginning of September. As we bought our tickets on one of the last remaining flights out of Beijing, I struggled with the feeling that I was abandoning my mission from God, but again I reassured myself that we would be back, so with one suitcase for the three of us we set off for the airport.
We arrived in Texas, after a long but uneventful flight, and were quarantined for 14 days at my parent’s weekend home. After which life, for a brief time, carried on like there was no epidemic. We were able to go to my parent’s church and hangout with some friends. It was almost like summer vacation had come early, but the virus did not stop. Starting with Italy, it spread across Europe reaching America. The prospects of going back to China grew dimmer, and in the back of my mind that nagging feeling that I abandoned my mission grew louder.
When it became evident that we would most likely not be back in Beijing before the New Year, we decided that it would be best to move out of our apartment to save as much money as we could during these tumultuous times. That broke my heart! Sophia’s friends graciously helped in that process between the original outbreak and the beginning of the second wave in Beijing. From half way around the world, I saw my whole life in Beijing being dismantled and given away. At that point, I felt as if I had betrayed the Lord. “Go to Haidian Church” but I had ended up in Texas instead. I can imagine a little what Peter might have been thinking when he denied the Lord three times. After that I fell into depression, and just like Peter I ran away, and the further I ran the more depressed I became. I’m sure this sounds quite melodramatic, and for sure self-centered, but the feelings were inescapable, and I was egged on by Satan. I can’t count how many times I ask “Why?!” God’s command, not Haidian, was a big part of my identity, and when I walked away, I felt like I lost a piece of who I was. Part of the problem with being in isolation, physically separated from a community of believers, is it very easy to become self-centered, and as my problems grew my world shrank. I turned to TV and lost myself in hours of its numbing entertainment. But in the mists of all this self-centered sinful sulking the Lord dropped a seed, actually a family of seeds.
I wasn’t asking Him for one, and I had pretty much stopped reading the Bible and praying. Not in 10 years had I felt so distant and cold. I had closed myself off from the Lord out of shame when my wife concerned for me casually told me about a worship group she’d heard about called Seeds Family Worship. If you don’t know, they take Bible verses, God’s seeds, and turn them into contemporary Christian music. So, I got the album, and I started to listen, and the first song I heard was Jeremiah 33:3.
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know,”
If that wasn’t a poke from God, I don’t know what was, but He did not stop there. The second song that came up was Philippians 4:6-7.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And the third was:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
I think the Lord was trying to tell me something @_@
With each new song, the Lord was calling me back and planting little seeds along the way. Then I arrived at the song on Psalm 105:1-3.
Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
Although there was not an immediate change in my spiritual life and my struggles did not vanish overnight, for the first time in a several months, my heart responded to His call and opened up a bit. I stopped was I was doing turned up my headphones, and soaked in that moment of worship. And as I did that, my shame, doubt and fears began to thaw. God was speaking to me and making the little seeds grow. I found these Bible verses began floating through my mind though out the day carried on the wings of music. As I lay down to sleep, God’s Words were a lullaby to my soul, and when I woke they were waiting to point me to the Light. My dry and weary soul was being restored bit by bit.
Earlier this week, I was listening to the song on John 16:33 called “Take Heart”. And again I felt the Lord speaking to me thought the verse when Jesus said:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
What an encouragement it was to be reminded that in all the troubles and difficulties both big and small, Jesus has overcome them through the cross. To be reminded that through this and every crisis, Jesus is King. Not only that, but we have a King who cares; who walked with us, who experienced suffering with us, who wept with us, and stayed the course when all others abandoned Him. Then, not only did he proactively seek to restore them, but He chose to make His home in us. He understands our pain, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty as we stumble on our roads to His kingdom. When we fall away it’s His love that brings us back, when we are broken it’s His Spirit living in us who gives us comfort, when we are faithless He remains faithful, when we are hungry He feeds us, and it all started with a little seed. Imagine how transformative these seeds were to Peter after denying his Lord.
So, what have I learned, or more precisely relearned, through these trials? Like Peter, I took my eyes of Jesus again, seems we have that in common, And, as the storm raged around me and in me, I began to sink and was swept away. So I need to fix my eyes on Jesus, making it a daily conscious effort, especially during my prayer time.
The second thing is I place too much importance on this world, and my own life. I was losing heart because the life I had built for myself over the past 15 years in China was falling apart. And I forgot Paul’s words to us, when he says:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
I have to keep reminding myself and praying for His strength to stay focused on the prize. After all, this is not our home and we are strangers in this land. Many hardships await us here and if we lose sight of the Eternal City, the home of our Lord Jesus, we will stumble in our pursuit of God.
The third thing is, I took “trials and sufferings” out of its biblical context. We will suffer in this world it is unavoidable, either through internal or external forces, but our suffering is never meaningless. There is always a reason, and it is for our ultimate good. Whether it is a lost job, illness, or whatever, we know God will use it to train and discipline us that we may be a useful tool in the Masters’ hand. As James says:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:1-4)
Let us pause for a second and remember that the the peace and joy that the Lord offers are only a byproduct of a deep relationship with Him, not an end in themselves.
I had sin in my life that was mingled in with my walk with the Lord and God used and is using this time of global crisis to purify my spiritual life.
Fourth, and this is still a struggle, but I need to trust the Lord with my son, who loves him more than I ever could, and even if I was to be taken ways like my father was, we have an eternal kingdom where we will be reunited forever, never to be separated again, Lord willing.
Many of these issues had been brewing for a while, but all came to the forefront when this whole process began back in February, I was in denial, and I wasn’t being honest with my feelings or the grief I felt, and instead of bringing it to the Lord in open and honest communication I ran away.
Also, I would like to interject one more point here. I believe this whole process would have been much more painful and long if the Lord had not provided good and honorable brothers to share this load. Brothers who were willing to listen without judgment, give godly advice, and pray with me all in an environment of trust knowing I could truly be open. In February, we decided that we would come together once a week for fellowship and prayer. This helped, and continues to help, enormously, especially spiritually behind the scenes.
If we don’t have this consistent meaningful fellowship on a regular basis, where we can be open and vulnerable, then we will struggle more in our spiritual lives and when the problems come, which is guaranteed, we will have poorer spiritual outcomes. This is not something that can be built up in a day and takes time to develop, but we have to start somewhere. And as we reach out to our friends to lean on, let’s determine now to be trusted friends that do not lead another to ruin by betraying a confidence.
So what about now?
Though my problems are still not fully resolved, I nevertheless feel that at this moment I have reached the valley floor and have begun climbing the slow narrow road back out into the Light. I go back to one of my core verse for guidance John 15:4. In it Jesus says:
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
Why did God allow this to happen? I may never fully know this side of glory, but I know that He loves us. And now, after this period of trials, I see that he has burnt away some of the dross that was weighing me down. The future is still unknown, but God is good, does not change like the shifting shadows, and loves us so much that He gave His one and only son that we might not parish but have everlasting life in Him (Psalm 100:5; James 1:17; John 3:16). The journey is not yet over, but as Jesus said: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
P.S. As we go about our week, here are a few questions for reflection that might help:
1. Where are we missing the mark? (What is negatively affecting our relationship with God?)
2. What do we believe God is trying to teach us through our particular circumstance?
3. How can we be salt and light towards others during these difficult times who are suffering trials?