Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Sanctifying Hand of a God Who Keeps Me Awake

John Piper and the ministry of Desiring God has been one of the most influential Bible teachers in my life. Though I do not agree with everything Piper teaches, nevertheless he has been one of the most influential teachers in my life and from him I have learned a deep respect for the richness of God's word. Piper has taught me how to exegete God's word and apply it to life in a way few people have. From him, I have learned how to love God more. His book, Let the Nations Be Glad, was the primary influence God used to smash my worldview which was bent on starting my own business and getting rich, and directed my life into full-time pastoral ministry. 

In 2014, I was excited to attend to the Desiring God conference because I knew I was going to be fed the Word and have a blessed time of fellowship. The night before we left, I stayed up all night finishing my sermon for the next day and packing for the week-long trip. After church, I drove straight through to Minneapolis. Monday night, I laid down and spent the entire night doing everything I knew trying to fall asleep. But sleep never came. I was awake for almost 72 hours before I finally crashed in the middle of one of the conference sessions.  

Ever since that trip, I have been plagued with insomnia. I have gone days and nights without sleep and have had only two "normal" nights of sleep since then. During the past five years, I have been to six different sleep doctors, a sleep psychiatrist, a neurologist, a cardiologist, and a Christian counselor. All of them confirm there is something wrong with me, but none of them have been able to figure it out or fix it. I have been on nearly a dozen different medications including Trazodone, Belsomera, Klonopin, Lunesta, Seroquil, Restoril, Ambien, and a few others I can't remember. Meds have had either little or no benefit, or caused side-effects that were worse than sleeplesness. I even got serious one night and rubbed essential oils on my feet. At the counsel of a few close friends, I applied to Mayo Clinic's sleep department. After a board of MD's reviewed my stack of records, they observed that I had already seen some of the best doctors in America for insomnia, and there was nothing more they could do that had not already been done.

The effects of not sleeping over such a long period of time are numerous, including Tachycardia (rapid heart rate), memory loss, difficulty concentrating, hallucinations, brief periods of insane thougts, a general lack of energy or desire to do anything, and difficulty controlling my emotions. 

One day as I was leaving the bank, I stood for an awkwardly long period of time staring at the door waiting for it to open. I was so dazed that I couldn't put together in my mind that the door would not open itself. I had to push on it. I hit a low one night when I was reading a children's book to my daughters, and I couldn't put the words and sentences together in any coherent way. I sat there on the couch fighting back tears because I realized the toll this had taken on my mind and coming to grips with the fear of where this could lead. 

Over the last five years, I have learned that whatever sleep I do get is like a partial charge to the batteries of my mind. My work day begins the second I roll out of bed to get as much out of my batteries as I can before they are empty, which is normally around 1 pm. My body works fairly well in the afternoon but my mind is weak, has difficulty focusing, and does not remember things like it used to.

I am getting ready to take a two-month sabbatical during which I will be combining two different doctor's plans to crash and then restart my adrenal system and try to re-train my mind and body how to rest. As I have been preparing for that time away, I have been reflecting on the work God has done and contiunes to do in my life as a result of this trial. I wanted to share them here in hopes that they would be a blessing and encouragement to others as well.

One of the first lessons God began and continues to teach me is true compassion for other people who suffer.

In 2 Corinthians 1:4 it tells us God "comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." I approach this passage with a presupposition that my affliction is not an accident. It does not catch God by surprise. It is actually something God has sovereignly brought into my life as an expression of how much He loves me and desires to conform me into His image. 

With that presupposition in place, I take 2 Corinthians 1:4 to be saying that God has given me insomnia so that He can minister His conforting grace into my life as a means of equipping me to comfort other people in the same ways He comforts me. In other words, if my life was easy and trouble-free as it used to be, I would not know how comforting God can be to us in our suffering. I would not be able to truly sympathize with other people in their suffering and minister to them in a meaningful way.  

Historically, compassion has not been my strong point largely because I have not suffered much in life. My easy life has made compassion difficult. Six years ago, if you would have described your health concerns or other forms of suffering I would have said, "That stinks" and walked away without giving it a second thought, except for maybe that you were weak and needed to toughen up and try harder. God has used my own trials to show me there are forms of suffering that are silent, hidden, and often unnoticed by most people, but are still very difficult to endure. As one who is daily comforted by God, I need to show the same comfort and compassion to other people in their suffering. For the first time, I have learned to sympathize and empathize with people in their suffering and how to minister to them in a helpful way.

Another thing God has been teaching me is the importance of the ordinary means of grace. 
When you begin your day with your batteries already drained, there is a very real temptation to focus all of whatever energy you do have on getting things done: preparing sermons, reading books, getting Bible Studies ready, replying to emails, and so on. To my own shame, I have to confess that there have been several long periods of time during the last five years that the best and clearest moments of my day were not spent in personal prayer and reading the Word, but were spend on getting things done. 

God has and continues to show me how much I need the daily means of grace for myself. Mark 1:35 says of Jesus, "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place where he prayed." Even the Son of God rose up early and spent the best and first part of His day in prayer and communion with God. It was His time with the Father that prepared and strengthened Him to do all that He had to do. If that was true for Christ, how much more for me. If I am going to be any benefit to the Lord's work, it will be only because I am spending time communing with my Father in His word and prayer. I have been a slow learner, but God has been faithfully leading me to see just how important the daily means of grace are in my own life if I am going to be any service to Him.

God has not only been teaching me compassion and the importance of the ordinary means of grace, but He has also been teaching me that I magnify Him when I boast in my own weakness and the sufficiency of His grace. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul begins by talking about a spiritual experience he had that no one else had. His spiritual grace could easily have been the occasion to boast. As the loving Father often does, God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh. Paul remarks about his own suffering in v8-10, 
"Concerning this thing, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Like Paul I have prayed - more than three times - that God would remove the difficulty of my insomnia and up until this point He has not. One of the reasons is so that I can continue to learn that it is His grace and not my gifting that is sufficient. My weakness and the sufficiency of God's grace are two sides of the same coin. A year or so ago, a fellow pastor called one day and asked me, "How is this affecting your ability to preach?" I had to confess that I think it is affecting me. I do not have the energy I used to in the pulpit. I do not have the depth of thought I used to, and I am not able to spend as much time in preparation as I used to. 

As we finished that conversation, I found myself wondering if this was God's way of taking me out of the ministry. I place a high value on preaching. I view it as my primary calling and the better part of my workday is still spent in sermon prep. While I do believe my preaching has suffered, I think God is still feeding sheep through me. But maybe that is the point in all of this. 

I used to think I was smart, creative, young, strong, and gifted. I used to boast in those things. God has been taking that self-reliant pride and chipping away at it to the point that I can only say I get through the day and I do what I do, not because I had a good night's sleep and and I am firing on all cylinders, but in spite of those things. God's grace has suatained me and continues to use a cracked pot to serve Him in some small way. 

Another thing God has been doing in me is giving me an increased appreciation for His body, the church. I am privileged to live in a day and age where information travels great distances quickly. The benefit of that in my own life is that there are people on every continent - many of whom I have never met or seen in person - who are my brothers and sisters in Christ and who regularly pray for me, for God's strength to be effecutal in my life, and for God to continue using me in His service. 

This reality is without a doubt one of the greatest comforts I have, to know that God loves me enought to put me in a family that genuinely cares enough for me, their fellow brother, to pray for me and send encouraging messages.

Finally, God has been teaching me to long for eternity with Him. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul says, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." 

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul teaches that a God-honoring perspective of difficulties is that they are like salty food before a refreshing drink of cold water. The saltier the food, the sweeter and more refreshing the cool drink seems to be. In the same way, the greater our trials in this life, the more we will long for and enjoy the glory that awaits us. One of the reasons God keeps me awake at night is so that I long for my rest with Him, and He has effectually produced in me an increased desire to be with Him in the glory of my eternal rest which is far better!

Be encouraged, fellow sufferers! Join with me in practicing James 1:2-3 as we "count it all joy when we fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces patience." If you suffer as one of God's people, your suffering is not wasted. If you suffer as one of God's children, you suffer under the hand of a loving Father who may or may not remove the suffering, but He will never waste it in the trash can of meaningless pain. Our Heavenly Father loves us enough to test our faith in order to produce in us the godly traits of endurance and holiness.