Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. [Ps 139:23-24]
‘He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, and not into light.’ Because I cannot see, nor even assuredly feel, His satisfaction with me, I cannot doubt the leading simply because of the dark. The leading is nonetheless real, the pathway has simply been into a place I didn’t expect or ask for.” Jim Elliot

I think that one of the hardest doctrines for Christians to grasp is the sovereignty of God. How can God be both great and good when so many terrible things happen to Christians? It goes against the popular teaching which either blames bad things upon a lack of faith or credits them to a free-wheeling devil. It is only a matter of time before our idea of God will be tested. One writer put it this way, “The same God who led us out of darkness into light will also lead us from light into darkness.” Abraham is given a promise and is found to be childless. Moses is called to be a deliverer and finds himself on the backside of the desert. Paul is God’s messenger to the Gentiles and is locked up in a Roman prison. David, God’s anointed one, is driven from the house of the king and hides in the cave of Adullam.

C. H. Spurgeon often had cave experiences where he fought bouts of depression. They happened interestingly enough, not when he was failing but when he was succeeding. Instead of celebrating, his success led him into great fits of depression. In “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” he confessed,

“Who was I that I should continue to lead so great a multitude? I would take me to a village of obscurity, or emigrate to America and find a solitary nest in the backwoods where I might be sufficient for the things that were demanded of me. It was just then the curtain was rising on my lifework, and I dreaded what it might reveal. I hope I was not faithless, but I was timorous and filled with a sense of my own unfitness…This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry.”

God’s chosen method of shaping his messengers seems to follow this pattern: He calls us and gives us an awesome dream. We start out with great enthusiasm and expectation. Then, suddenly, without warning we wake up one day and find that we have been detoured, sidetracked, put on the shelf, put on ice, deposited in a cave. We thought God’s power and authority would guarantee a direct and unhindered pathway to victory and glory.  

What we fail to realize is that God is more concerned with shaping his messenger than he is in completing the mission. God does not need us to accomplish his will on earth. He could do it without us. He calls us to follow him so that we may drink more deeply and fully from the fountain of his grace. That is why he puts us aside. That is why he stokes up the fire. That is why he deposits us in a cave. He wants to stretch our faith so we can get a far bigger picture of his glory. 

Caves are dark, dusty and dirty. They are confining. They keep us from getting on with our projects. No one who is anybody and who is going anywhere would ever choose to stop in a cave. But, that is where God puts the man and woman he would use greatly. When he would use a servant in public, he first shapes him in private. J. Oswald Sanders explains why God does this: “The leader must be a man who, while welcoming the friendship and support of all who can offer it, has sufficient inner resources to stand alone, even in the face of opposition, in the discharge of his responsibilities. He must have no one but God.”

I write from experience. Four years ago I left my church family because I believed God was calling me to a great, Christ-honoring mission. In my head I had it all worked out. The dream had shape and success was written all over it. I would be used by God to honor his name and bless his people throughout the world through the dissemination of his powerful word. I saw no side tracks, no delays- just a straight line to glory. After all, at 66 years of age, delay could be fatal to completion of the dream.

I have had the privilege of traveling and ministering in places I had never dreamed. I have met and fallen in love with precious people from around the world, who are hunger for the Word and who love Jesus. They have opened their lives and their hearts to us. Family, friends and former church members have generously and faithfully supported our efforts with prayer and finances.

But, God is committed to doing much more than sending me to teach in other lands or enabling me to write a book. As strange as it may seem, He is not through growing me, even at the age of 66. He wants my undivided attention to do that so he has deposited me in a cave. My cave looks like this: The doors are not opening like I thought they would. The finances are tight. The writing is unbelievably hard and slow. And, in a few days I am scheduled for an operation that will put me on crutches for the next three months. If that isn’t enough, our house won’t sell! Your cave will have a different contour, but, if you are passionately following the Lord in ministry, you will have one.

Martin Luther once remarked that three things make a theologian: Prayer, meditation [on the Word] and trouble. All believers pray and all believers meditate on the Word, but when they are in trouble they really pray and they really meditate! In those moments, we discover that the little faith that we had when we started is insufficient for the task that lies ahead. We soon learn that the God we are following is far more dangerous and far more glorious than we ever imagined. Trouble turns us into theologians.

In the cave, dark, alone, and deprived of the old securities and supports, a torrent of questions seep through the cracks and crannies of our cavern. “Did I really hear from God?” “Is there some sin in my life that has disqualified me from the task?” “Am I just not cut out for this kind of faith life?” “Is God really active in every detail of my life?” “Am I just a fool who got carried away and now will suffer the consequences of my stupidity?” “Should I seek an easier assignment?” There is a temptation to turn inward, but that is the last place you should dwell. That is a “home field advantage” for the devil. He will eat you up if you stay there. No, in the cave you desperately need an external light, a light that will give divine perspective on your life. That light is found only in God’s Word.

Over three hundred years ago, Nicholas Herman of Lorraine said that early in his Christian life he determined to cut through the entanglements of religious life by nourishing “high thoughts of God.” He was right on. We always get into trouble when we give more weight to our thoughts than God’s thoughts. That is why early morning devotions are more than a daily vitamin for me, they are my life-support! They lift me above the darkness of my problems into the vastness of his promises. “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” [Ps 139:17] I desperately need God’s perspective on my life. I need to think his thoughts.   

Psalm 139 is a great friend for those who find themselves in a cave. Read it. Pray over it. Memorize it. There, the psalmist takes the initiative. Rather than listening to his doubting thoughts, he speaks God’s truth. Here is how I personalize Psalm 139. Verses 1-6: God is personally and intimately involved in my life. He even knows a word I would say before it rolls off my lips. Verses 7-12: He is with me wherever I go, in the heavens, in the caves and across the sea. Wherever I am he guides me and holds me fast. Verses 13-16: His awesome purposes for my life commenced before I was conceived and will continue eternally after I am deceased. Verses 17-18: My joy and my treasure is found in God alone. I think about him in the daytime, dream about him at night, and when I awake, there he is waiting for me to get up so we can walk into a new day of adventure. Verses 19-22: His enemies are my enemies and the call of my life is to honor his name, not mine. Verses, 23-24, Finally, I acknowledge the sinfulness of my heart. I welcome the cave for it is while I am quiet and alone with Him that he reveals and removes the “anxious” and “offensive” ways that keep me from enjoying the fullness of the splendor of his glory. When God gets through doing his perfect work in me, in his time, he will put me back to work. Until then, I will pray and meditate and trust the Lord that he will do what is best for me and fulfill his purpose for my life.

I think Samuel Chadwick’s remark is pretty good counsel for cave dwellers. “If successful don’t crow. If defeated don’t croak.” “His grace hath brought me safe thus far, his grace will take me home.” God is still ruling, still leading and still committed to doing a great work in your life. Caves are necessary but they are not permanent. You will come out with your faith stronger and convinced more than ever before that God is great and God is good!

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. [1 Peter 5:10-11]