Let Your Faith Build Up the Church
by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
CHAPTER FOUR: IN THE WILDERNESS
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
— Psalm 115:3
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
— Romans 8:28
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
— Ephesians 1:11
Before Israel inherited the promised land, they wandered through the wilderness for forty years. Before the Lord Jesus Christ began His public ministry, He walked in the wilderness for forty days. My first wilderness trip took about four years. Every worthwhile journey goes through the wilderness. It is a time of preparation, testing, and solitude. In the wilderness God seems to be absent, yet He is never more present.
The church cast me into the wilderness by creating seminaries. I spent three years in my first one, then one year in my first church, which turned out to be a place even deeper into the wilderness than the seminary. It was a time so stressful it caused me to question my calling, doubt my salvation, and almost lose my faith. My father warned me, but the church did not destroy my faith. Many of the struggles over these four years were of my own making. God was there to make it all work together for good.
Are wilderness wanderings the inevitable path of missteps and mistakes, or does the hand of the Lord lead us there? As the great theologian Forrest Gump said, “I think both things are happening at the same time.” My wilderness was plagued with bad advice and poor decisions at every turn, yet God and godly people were prepared to meet me at every step the way. If I had it to do over again, it would choose a different path, yet I am glad I cannot change a single thing. For God, then and now and always, is in control.
I rushed to seminary before selling our home and saving enough money to carry us over for the prescribed three years of study. Therefore, I had to work full-time while completing a very demanding graduate school program in the self-imposed timeframe. Sixteen hour days were the norm, and I spent precious little time with my family. I'd leave early in the morning before they woke up and often came home after they’d gone to sleep. I can still see my oldest daughter, Christie, sneaking out of bed early in the morning and going to her window to wave at me and blow me a kiss as I left. I look back now and wonder why I was in such a hurry.
In the providence of God, the man who hired me out of college had been transferred to the city where the seminary was located. This connection allowed me to transfer and work in the new city. During my time with this company, I watched them take scoundrels who committed sexual harassment or immorality and fire them, while my experience in the church has shown me that scandalous pastors often get promoted. The company paid good salaries and provided excellent benefits, something most churches are not willing to do for their pastors. It is a shame that secular companies have higher standards than the church of Jesus Christ. I was a good worker and witness there, and could have stayed as long as needed to complete my seminary training. But, the unpleasant aspects of seminary life made me want to finish as fast as possible.
I did not do much research or pray much over seminaries and there was no one in my church, including the pastor, who had ever attended one. I had read a book by a seminary professor, though, and decided to attend that particular school. It proved to be a mixed blessing that God worked together for good. They promoted some of the evangelistic techniques that had misled me in my first church experience, yet I do believe their heart was in the right place. Some of the professors were there for nepotistical reasons and were not well qualified. Others were outstanding. They let go of the professor who wrote the book during the semester I finally got to take his class. He challenged some poor practices and questionable theology endorsed by the mainstream. So, about half way through the program I was angry over his dismissal, exhausted from work and study, overcoming a battle with the chicken pox, and sickened by yet another sex scandal in the church. I was ready to leave school, ministry, church, and the whole wilderness experience.
But God would not let me go. His hand had guided me there and kept me in His care. He provided honest work, some good professors, and some colleagues who are my best friends to this day. The job He gave me helped me get jobs for many of my needy seminary friends. God grounded me theologically. He helped me to overcome a speech impediment I had carried all my life, an intense fear of public speaking that caused me to lose my breath when reading or talking in front of people. By my final year, I was chosen the best preacher in my class and received the honor of delivering a sermon in chapel.
Knowledge and confidence I had, wisdom I lacked. My heart longed to return home, to the people I knew and loved, and seek out a church to serve as a pastor among them. Like the Gadarene demoniac who had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ, I wanted to go back home and tell of the wonderful things God has done. But my professors and pastors convinced me going home was not an option. They quoted the Scripture about a prophet being without honor, but God had called me to be a pastor, not a prophet. Taking their advice, I walked through the first door that opened to me in a little church not too far from the seminary. I consider it my internship, because I only stayed for one year. No sooner than I had arrived, I realized I had made a big mistake.
The little church had billed itself as a fast-growing fellowship of excitement, a common mantra among churches of that era. The growth was a mirage, as the large number of bus ministry style baptisms they conducted over the past few years resulted in few, if any, real disciples. The excitement they craved came from a combination of upbeat music and bad doctrine. Mail started coming in addressed to former pastors from the so-called “word of faith” and “health and wealth” movement that had been burgeoning in the church. One of the old deacons in the church rebuked me for spending my morning hours in study and prayer, and told me if I was a real man of God I would not have to study but just get in the pulpit, let the Bible fall open wherever it may, and start preachin’. When I sought to implement church discipline to a member who was given to drunkenness and hitting his wife, I became the bad guy instead of him. When I wouldn’t have a television-style healing service for a wayward member with a bad back, I was a worse guy. Modern church growth techniques had not worked for them, and the church would not work with me. My faith fell flat on the floor of the church. Maybe Dad was right.
In the transition from these missteps to planting my feet in a pastorate closer to home, I realized where I have been for four years. I had wandered through the wilderness. I thought at times God had abandoned me, but He was never closer. He taught me some invaluable lessons, some I took to heart and some I would have to learn again. But through it all, the Lord became nearer and dearer to me, and the church that made faith hard became a prize and a treasure.
In the wilderness I learned my faith is thwarted by the sin of impatience. As a matter of fact, I think impatience is the mother of most other sin and stress. When we don’t wait for God to clearly guide, when we don’t wait for the finances to come and go deeply into debt, when we don’t wait to have sex after marriage, when we don’t wait upon the Lord, we lack good sense and lose strength. I should have taken more time to pray about seminary, get our finances in order, and seek God’s will concerning a church to serve. All of our decisions should be consistent with Scripture, and I have always tried to ensure that. But they should also be made after much prayer and perfect peace. Stay where you are, unless the Lord is clearly leading you elsewhere. And, as the great theologian Yogi Berra said, “When there’s a fork in the road, take it,” but make sure you can see the Lord on the right path. He’s on the other path, too, He’s just invisible it may take a while before you clearly see Him again.
In the wilderness I learned that the church destroys people’s faith with cheap evangelism, hyped up excitement, and upside-down theology. Once again I had been exposed to a philosophy of evangelism that offered quick fixes and false promises. Just because someone hears a three-minute presentation of the gospel, repeats some prayer, and signs some card does not necessary make them a Christian. In that first church, I caught a glimpse of the modern church’s emphasis on excitement, which I have never found to be a valid spiritual gift. Loud music with hands waving in the air is great for concerts and football games, but I am not sure they are a sign of holy worship or spiritual maturity. Most of all, any theology that makes God into a cab driver waiting for us to call, or a genie in a bottle who grants wishes, or a voter whose vote was canceled out by Satan leaving us with the deciding vote, is bad theology. But once people are bitten with those bugs, a biblical cure is hard to swallow.
In the wilderness, when feelings were fuzzy and decisions were difficult to come by, I gained an unfailing trust in the Bible, the word of God. When you wander in the wilderness, God gives you a map. Read it. Trust it. I do credit the church at this point for pointing me to high view of Scripture. Even my uneducated pastor and inconsistent seminary got this one right. They revered and honored the Bible and presented it to me as God-inspired, absolute truth. When I doubted my salvation, the Bible affirmed the way and overcame my fears. When I doubted my calling, the Bible confirmed my commitment and call to preach. When I had any moral questions at all, the Bible was clear on the path to holiness. When I became a pastor, on the Bible I stood, even though there were some in the church who tried to knock me off.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, in the wilderness I learned that God is absolutely sovereign. I sin and make mistakes, the church discourages and disappoints, but God has a plan that no one can stop. I rushed off to the wrong seminary, but God unmistakably wanted me there to meet certain people and learn specific lessons. The church that took me in as a rookie pastor seemed to do everything wrong, which forced me to think and pray about doing things right. In the wilderness I came to understand the frailties in my own life and the sovereignty of God over our lives.
The Bible is quite plain on this subject, as indicated in the verses that lead this chapter. Even in the wilderness we are walking in the plain sight of the sovereignty of God. He does what pleases and glorifies Him. He factors even our mistakes into His perfect plan to bless us and make us a blessing. His will is done, in Heaven and on earth. An old preacher who came to our church during my college years said, “God can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, and involve whomever He wants.” He can, He does, and He will. This is sovereignty and this is our God.
I got mixed signals in seminary and didn’t stay long in that first little church. By the end of my year there I had taken them through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John and the ninth chapter of the book of Romans, which is when the light really came on for me. I’m not sure they got it, but the bedrock doctrine of the sovereignty of God got burned into my soul. The wilderness experience wound up providing me with a foundation I desperately needed. It was built with the word of God and finished with the sovereignty of God.
Little did I know at the time that the next two churches I served would try to crack this foundation, along with my life and ministry, wide open.
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