Looking for Grace in All the Wrong Places

I remember the night that I finally found myself in the place I had longed to be. For three years I had sought, planned, and anticipated being able to plant a church in a place where few existed. I was going back to the roots of Christianity to recover what had been lost. I was going to save the Turks. I was going to save the world, or so I thought. Now I was finally there, lying on a mattress in an empty apartment eight floors above sea level. My wife and our three young children huddled up near me. The fridge had just enough food to keep us fed tomorrow. I could not speak Turkish and our neighbors could barely speak English so we were all in trouble if something bad happened.

The constant noise of horns and coal stench flooding in through the open window only added to the fear and anxiety panicking my soul. I looked at my wife, a picture of calmness in the midst of uncertainty, and cried like a baby. Nothing is more comforting for a woman than a bubbling idiot of a husband when strength is needed. But all the outside circumstances paled in comparison to the reality that rested heavy on my soul—I was afraid that I made a terrible mistake.

Saving the world did not look like this in my dreams. What happened to all the glory and excitement? Where was the cool story of how God did all sorts of neat tiny miracles of providence? I had been told so many glory stories that I thought they were common place. Where was the fresh invigoration of the Spirit to strengthen me? Nothing looked like I expected it to.

We lasted ten months. We burnt our dream in the jet fuel provided by Turkish Airlines and went home. We were damaged and we damaged others. The hardship and pain left a permanent residue on our souls. It struck deep into a place that I would have otherwise not been able to access. It crawled into my very being and changed me. At the time I didn’t realize it but all the money, all the planning, all the friendships, all the effort, all the fights, all the letdowns, all the pain, all of it. . . was not wasted. It was unforeseen, yet necessary grace.

When we look for grace, we tend to see the Garden of Eden and not the Garden of Gethsemane. We think grace comes in a nice package of a well-supplied bank account, cozy Bible studies, public acceptance, and a life so wisely lived that hardship is avoidable. We think the graciousness of God will always deal us an easy hand and any hardship is because we have stood up from the table. We want grace served up on a nice platter. We want puppies and kittens and kisses. We often want laughter and smiles and cool breezes on a 70-degree day, partly cloudy of course.

We want the type of grace that anyone could want. Who wouldn’t? But the grace of God is like riding an untamed mustang who has our best interest at heart. God meticulously knows what circumstance each one of us needs in order to make us like His Son and He graciously puts us in them, hardships and all. I went to Turkey looking for grace in all the wrong places—accolades, ministry success by worldly standards, approval of men, and the approval of God. I was certain I would find God’s deep and rich, approving grace through my efforts. What I found was the grace of God working against me. God, in His grace, destroyed me. God in His grace, like a surgeon, amputated all the gangrenes parts in me that kept me from Him.

Finding Grace in all the Wrong Places

I didn’t expect to find grace through devastation and dejection. I didn’t expect to have resilience pounded into me through a beat down. I didn’t think my marriage would be strengthened through long periods of weakness. I didn’t expect to learn empathy through desolation. I didn’t expect the mirror that showed my blemishes clearly to be so dirty. I thought a conversation and a glass of wine at an accountability meeting would do the trick. Turns out I needed to be standing alone in an airport with a wife, 3 kids, 9 duffel bags and the loss of everything else, in order to start listening. This was terribly difficult grace for my soul.

But this is the way God works. Suffering, hardship, pain, loneliness, heartache, and dark nights of the soul are par for the course. I’m not sure why it’s so easy to forget that. It’s not as if the Scriptures give us some other path. Every single example, from Adam to the end of Acts, is plagued with suffering. Moses, the deliver of the Israelites, who went toe to toe with Pharaoh, is so frustrated with the people of Israel that he lashes out at God while he suffers through their unbelief. Isaiah, the prophet, is called by God to preach in such a way and to such an extent that the people’s hearts are dulled and they reject everything he says. That sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I doubt we have that in our category of grace. Even Paul, from the time the Lord saved him, was told that he was appointed to suffer for the sake of the Lord. Was God being ungracious to Paul? Can God be ungracious? As pastors and leaders in the church of the living God, do we see the grace of God coming to us in the form of suffering or are we looking for it in all the wrong places of worldly success and approval of men? Grace is often found in the “wrong” places of hardship, turmoil, and conflict.

Gracious Truths For Pastors

Here is what suffering and hardship do for us. They remind us that we are nobodies. As pastors, it can be all too tempting to believe we are something special. We have people coming up to us and praising us, people asking us to speak at different venues, people wanting to hear our opinions on things, and people looking to us as endowed with some special grace that doesn’t belong to them. Before we know it, we live for it. We love the approval, the pictures posted to Facebook, the public acknowledgements, the places of authority, and the praise of mere men.

What we do not want is the rod of humility wielded by a gracious Lord. We want to be something and expect the only One who is something will not to deal with us. Then, when through many gracious hardships He does, we look around wondering where He went. Turns out, He disciplines the ones He loves. The great news is that when He humbles us, He sets us free. There is freedom in remembering that you’re a nobody. There is freedom in remembering in your soul that you do not matter in the work of God. He is able to do everything without you.

When this happens, we need to look at the place where He has called us and be thankful. It makes us look at the 10 or 10,000 people He has placed in our care and be grateful. It makes us see the value of caring for the people that Christ loved enough to suffer for. It frees us to put out of our minds the constant bombardment of needing to be someone in the Kingdom in order to just be faithful to the King of the Kingdom.

Wherever you are called to minister, the God of the heavens has called you there. Is that not enough? The people in your care are the saints of the Most High God. Their salvation was bought by the One who endured the cross for them. His suffering was so they would be with Him forever. That He would be their God and they would be His people. Now, He is entrusting them to your care. He loves them with an unimaginable love and He asks you to watch over them and feed them. Are you having trouble making it through the day because you believe your role as a pastor seems insignificant? Are you having trouble making it through this year because somewhere out there you think there is a better less stressful place to see Christ formed in His people? If so, let me suggest that you think too highly of yourself. A place of humility and faithfulness where the grace of God is poured out on you is better than a proud place with opposition from God.

And when you’re in that place where grace is poured out, don’t be surprised if the chauffeur is suffering. Consider the life of Christ. He was mistreated, abandoned, His leaders struggled, and He was surrounded by conflict. We should probably expect the same. I remember as a young Christian being told by a pastor as I went to confront a man about beating his wife, “Welcome to the Christian ministry.” At the time I thought I was on the fringe, turns out I was in the heart of ministry. I should have taken note.

Maybe you are looking for grace in all the wrong places. Maybe you need to learn to trust in the grace found where you least expect it. The hardships and sufferings you are going through are from the Lord God. When He gives them to you for your good. Trusting in grace means trusting in the one who graciously oversees everything you need in order to be like His Son. What other type of grace would you want?