4 – Transformed by grace

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

There is a high degree of romance associated with doing something new and adventurous. When I responded to what God was doing in my heart, I was excited about entering a new culture and experiencing a completely different context. In theory, I had been trained about culture shock, yet I was not prepared for it when it hit. There comes a time for all of us when the romance fades and we find ourselves struggling to cope emotionally with our new life.

My downshift into coping mode happened on a six-week trip to Pakistan. My wife, Joan, and I were gearing up for going to Pakistan, and I went for an exploratory trip. Joan had grown up in an impoverished Cameroonian village, and understood simple, rural living. I, on the other hand, had grown up as an upper-middle class suburbanite. I had traveled to Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro (Copacabana Beach), the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands. Though I was more than willing to live in Pakistan, I really was venturing forth into uncharted waters. Making this exploratory trip before I took the final plunge turned out to be a wise move.

Pakistan in 1984 was still quite rustic. (Over the years we were there we watched the country rise significantly.) I surprised my hosts; I was able to handle what appeared to me to be chaos on the roads, the poverty, the substandard construction, and the unhygienic conditions. For example, we were traveling with a group of Pakistanis and Afghans and we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. The tables were filthy, the plates were greasy looking, and flies were everywhere. I noticed I was the only one working to keep the flies away from the food. So, I stopped, invited all the flies to lunch, and stopped bothering them.

Yet, the day was nearing when I would hit the wall. It happened two weeks later in a bathroom. I was squatting down in a dingy, mold-covered bathroom, shivering with cold, sloshing warm water from a bucket over myself. At that moment the thought hit me: “Am I going to do this for the rest of my life? Am I going to expect my family to live like this?”

I could not see myself doing this for the rest of my life; yet, I couldn’t see myself saying no to what God was offering me either. The trauma of the moment so overwhelmed my systems that I couldn’t even process. My systems simply shut down, leaving the matter unresolved, lodged in my subconscious.

Six months later in Minneapolis, I was walking from work to lunch and the thought flashed through my mind: “I can do it.” Grace had been quietly percolating inside my subconscious for these six months without me even thinking or praying about it. At that very moment grace had completed its work and I was experiencing the result. God had worked within me what I needed to face the conditions I would encounter. I was alive, and ready to go.

I was blessed to experience this work of grace in the comfort of my passport country. Many do not have this luxury; they go through the pain on site. One colleague shared this experience: In his early 20s he had developed a successful business, ran it for a number of years, and sold it at a significant profit. He came to Peshawar with the same can-do attitude. It wasn’t long before he was scraping his ego off the floor. He didn’t have the language skills even to get himself to the bazaar to purchase basic household supplies. He felt disempowered, vulnerable, and angry.

At these times we get upset with God over where he has led us, as Jeremiah did. Jeremiah got seriously upset with God when he was released from the stocks. He had obeyed the call to be a prophet, and spoken what God had given him. Yet, the persecution and the ridicule he faced for his obedience was becoming too much for him to bear. Jeremiah voiced his grievance:

O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived,
You are stronger than I and you have prevailed (20:7).

Jeremiah was between a rock and a hard place; but what was he to do? Say no to what God had asked of him? Such an answer was impossible for Jeremiah. Yet how could he endure the opposition he was facing?

Jeremiah had to move forward the same way we find ourselves moving forward – by grace. Though we don’t read of it in Chapter 20, we see from Jeremiah’s ensuing obedience that God had worked within him, giving Jeremiah what he needed to follow. Following God into the hard places is not a cakewalk. But, as we are honest with our feelings, and as we hold on to God, we discover his grace bubbling up within us giving us what we need, not simply to survive but also to thrive. It is at this point the words of Paul take on a whole new meaning:

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4: 12-13).