. . . all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
Every seasoned saint who walks deeply with God, I am coming to believe, has been through a very distinct experience.
I could call the experience ‘adversity’ or ‘suffering’ and that would be true but unhelpful. I have in mind something more specific, more penetrating.
I have in mind the experience of God’s children when they walk through the deep valley of a single instance of adversity or suffering so great that it cannot be handled in the same way as the various disappointments and frustrations of life. This particular adversity passes a threshold that the garden variety trials do not reach.
An Over-the-Head Wave
The picture in my mind at the moment is swimming in the ocean of Laguna Beach in southern California many times years ago. Wading out into the water I would immediately feel the waves beginning to come against me. First my ankles, then my knees, and so on. As I continued, though, inevitably a wave would come that could not be outjumped. It washed over me. I’d get completely submerged and there was nothing I could do to avoid it.
That total-submersion wave is what I have in mind. I’m not thinking of bad grades, failed dating relationships, rejected applications for school or jobs, the flu, resentment over being sinned against. These are forms of adversity. But they are waves that hit us in the knees. We lose our balance, but quickly get it back. We keep moving on, weathering the trial but essentially unchanged. We aren’t forced to change. Such trials wash into all of our lives with some regularity.
But those who live into their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and are quietly walking with the Lord from a posture of fundamental trust have weathered something deeper. At some point in their lives a wave has washed over them that could not be outjumped. And somehow they survived emotionally. They softened rather than hardened.
Finally Believing What We Say We Believe
Someone who has become a Christian and truly believes what he or she confesses to believe comes to a point in life where they must suddenly, for the first time, bank all that they are on that professed belief. Their true trust must be proven.
It is not as though they didn’t believe before. They did, with sincerity. But their belief had only to that point been tested by the gently lapping waist-high waves of adversity.
To switch metaphors: it’s the difference between saying you believe a parachute will float you safely to the ground in a skydiving class and actually jumping out of the plane.
At that moment of life meltdown we are forced into one of two positions: either cynicism and coldness of heart, or true depth with God. A spouse betrays. A habitual sin, left unchecked, blows up in our face. We are publicly shamed in some way that will haunt us as long as we live. We lose utterly that one thing we always counted on—physical health, financial stability, etc. Our good name is stolen. We hear words from the lips of a son or daughter that had only been the stuff of nightmares. A malignant, inoperable tumor. Abuse of a loved one, the kind of abuse that makes us physically nauseous to hear of. Sustained depression. Profound disillusionment in some way.
A Universal Experience
When I consider the saints I know who exhale that depth of trust that makes them almost otherworldly, there has always been a time of weathering a wave of adversity that went over their head.
Abraham is told to slit the throat of his only son. Jacob wrestles with God and is crippled the rest of his life at just the moment when he needed God most, about to meet Esau. Moses kills a man and loses everything the world holds dear. David ruins his life through an afternoon’s indulgence. Job reaps the nightmare of all nightmares.
When that moment comes looking for us, sent by the hand of a tender Father, we will either believe that what we said we believe has just been disproven, or we will believe that what we said we believe can sustain us. The two lines of professed-belief and heart-belief, to this point parallel, are suddenly forced either to overlap completely or to move further apart. We cannot go on as before.
Let us not be simplistic or formulaic. Many such over-the-head waves may wash over us in life. Or we may experience such a crushing trial in our 20s–then another in our 40s that makes the trial 20 years before seem only waist-high–and so on. But I remain struck at how often it seems to have been one defining, devastating affliction when a senior saint reflects back on life.
The Tragedy of Shallowness
I know Christians in the latter half of life who are not deep people. They are dear people. But they are shallow. If they will take off the mask and be truly honest, they will acknowledge that what they are after in life is comfort, nice vacations, a good tan, and being liked. Nothing wrong with any of these things. But these now have their heart’s deepest loyalty rather than Christ. As a result they are not compelling, not attractive, people. They are wispy, not solid.
Could it be that a wave came suddenly crashing over their head and they believed that their faith had just been disproven? That God had failed them? Could it be that the very moment which they now look back on and view as the moment when God failed them was the Father inviting them further up and further in? Might it not be that the Lord stands as ready as ever to welcome them into depth, into a communion with him they never dreamed of, and that it is only on the other side of giving in and banking everything on him?
He Went through the Wave
Recognition of the strange ways of the Father should not drive into a fearful, darting-eyes existence. Recognition of this pattern should sober us, encouraging us to go on as we have been and not to throw in the towel when the nightmare becomes reality.
He is in it. He is over it. He loves us too much to let us remain the shallow, twaddling people we all are and will remain as long as the waves only reach our waist.
But above all else remember when life implodes that he went through the greatest nightmare himself, in our place. The tidal wave of separation from the Father washed over Another so that it need never wash over us. Dane Ortlund