After many years of diverse career experience, I was excitedly counting down the days until my retirement. I eagerly anticipated being in control of my schedule and time while enjoying a slower pace of life. I envisioned more days devoted to serving in ministry at my church and deepening relationships with family and friends, and I prayed for the Lord to prepare me for these opportune times. And while he did answer that prayer, the opportunities he provided were not the ones for which I had hoped. Instead, the Lord thrust me into a very painful and difficult “wilderness” season during which I sometimes wondered how I would survive.
Though not a physical place, this wilderness was a period of time that felt wild, dark, and scary due to the uncomfortable trials that God allowed in my life. It was not the peaceful “promised land” of retirement that I had imagined. I identified with the Israelites, who entered unfamiliar territory after being miraculously delivered by God from the Egyptians. They were not immediately brought to the Promised Land but spent forty years in the wilderness.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle (Ex. 13:17-18).
God used a wilderness detour to teach his people, and the same was true for me. In my wandering through the wilderness, God taught me four truths about control.
The Role of Control
1. God is in control of our circumstances, even when we don’t understand what he is doing.
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut. 29:29).
Before God took me on a wilderness detour, I didn’t realize the depth of my desire to control my life. This desire was like tangled weeds, choking the growth of my faith. When things were going well, I found it easy to deceive myself into thinking my faith was strong. But when trials continued to multiply, I was not able to fully “trust in the Lord with all [my] heart and lean not on [my] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). My faith needed to develop deeper roots. God used his Word to help me understand that he is often working in secret ways that I cannot see or understand (Deut. 29:29). And God is not obligated to explain his ways to me! As I believed his Word, my illusion of control weakened and my trust in God’s sovereignty deepened.
2. We can control our responses to the circumstances that God allows.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
I couldn’t choose the circumstances of this wilderness season, but I could choose my response. Charles Spurgeon said, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay.”1 I faced a choice: would I be like wax, softened by the heat of trial, or would I harden like clay under the fire? Choosing a godly response to suffering was challenging. I was tempted to harden my heart, focusing on the perceived prominence of others’ sin instead of asking the Lord to reveal mine. By God’s grace, he “melted” my resistance, teaching me to forgive instead. The Holy Spirit enabled me to entrust my painful situations to the Lord’s care, knowing that God was working for my good. I used to think that this meant everything would work out the way I wanted, as in “happily ever after.” But the “good” referred to in Romans 8:28 is that of becoming more like Christ—which is truly the best “happily ever after” of all.
3. The Gospel acts as a compass to control our navigation through trials.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Pet. 1:3).
The truths of the gospel had directed me to saving faith in Christ in the past. But the gospel was also necessary for enduring the present suffering to which God had called me in this wilderness experience. As I wrestled with putting one foot in front of the other, the Lord graciously revealed that I was pointing my gaze in the wrong direction. Instead of looking to Christ and relying on his power, I was focused on myself and my seemingly insurmountable circumstances. But clinging to 2 Peter 1:3 helped me get my bearings and remember an important gospel promise: Christ’s divine power had already provided everything I needed to navigate this path. And Christ’s presence ensured that I would never walk alone.
4. God calls us to surrender to his control by holding our plans loosely.
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (Prov. 16:9).
After a year of struggle, I thought I was finally leaving the wilderness behind. And then a tiny nodule appeared on my thyroid. My uneasiness grew as I left the doctor’s office, considering what the biopsy might reveal. I picked up a book I had ordered, He Will Hold Me Fast 2, surprised to see the subtitle – A Journey with Grace Through Cancer – and to learn that this book detailed a woman’s experience with thyroid cancer. Two days later, fear gave way to panic with the official diagnosis of my own thyroid cancer. I wrestled with the Lord, asking why he would allow this now. This was not my plan following the difficult wilderness I had just endured!
In God’s mercy, I began to realize that I had never surrendered my retirement desires to the Lord. I had merely prayed that he would provide for what I had planned. The Lord helped me discover a different way to pray: “Lord, cancer is not what I wanted or planned for my retirement years. But if this is what you are now calling me to experience, I submit to your plan. I don’t know how to do this, so please help me.” Interestingly, the title of that book later came to hold a different meaning; rather than striking fear, it became a wonderful reminder of the Lord’s ability to “hold me fast.” Just as the Israelites entered the wilderness “equipped for battle” (Ex. 13:18), God equipped me to handle treatments and surgery, and he encouraged me through the prayer and support of friends and family.
Now three years later, I am mercifully cancer-free and able to enjoy many of the relationship and ministry opportunities I had longed for in retirement. But there is something sweeter than these blessings. Although the wilderness season was a detour I never would have chosen, the Lord knew it was what I needed. Learning to trust his control and surrender my own has transformed my relationship with the Lord, which is now richer and more deeply-rooted than I ever thought possible. I don’t know what difficulties and opportunities every future day will hold, but I know who holds control of my future.
1. Charles Spurgeon. “The Lesson of the Almond Tree.” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Volume XLVI. (Passmore and Alabaster, 1900).
2. Connie Dever. He Will Hold Me Fast: A Journey with Grace Through Cancer. (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2017).