Going Away Into Arabia
We are engaged in a 50-day spiritual adventure under the theme, “Facing Down Our Fears.” The fear we’re concentrating on this week is the fear of living an insignificant life. The great Apostle Paul led anything but an insignificant life, and yet Paul would have been the first to admit that the larger portion of his adult life was actually spent in an insignificant pursuit. It was only after a transforming experience in his life that he began to understand what living a truly significant life is all about. I think that we see that very clearly in this amazing passage from Paul’s hand. It is such an important passage that at one point in the middle of it Paul says: “Listen, what I’m writing to you is the truth! You need to believe me. I’m not just whistling Dixie here! This is serious and this is true. I’m not lying to you. I’m telling you what happened.” And right in the middle of this incredible account is this intriguing phrase: “I went away into Arabia.”
It is my firm conviction that there is no single word that is in Scripture by accident. This is nothing less than the inspired word of God and therefore every word in it is there for a purpose. We might look at a phrase like that, “I went away into Arabia,” and we think that well he just threw that in as an interesting detail. It is not there for that reason. I think it’s there for a much deeper reason. You begin to see that once you go on and read the rest of the letter to the Galatians, but let me see if I can put your minds into focus on that phrase.
But first let’s pray. Almighty God, we come into confrontation with Your word. Knowing full well that any confrontation with Your word is just liable to change us. Amen.
It’s 25 years after the fact. Paul is writing to the Christians at Galatia. He is recounting for them what happened so much earlier in his life: how in the course of his adult life he had been such a strong and faithful follower of the tradition of his fathers, how he had excelled in his studies, and how he had become so clearly recognized as one of the great young leaders of the religious community of his day. Then he had that incredibly transforming encounter on the Damascus Road. Suddenly everything that he had done before that seemed insignificant. Everything from that point on was different and yet it was so different that I am convinced that Paul did not know how to deal with it. So he is very careful—listen to how he expresses himself here—you hear one who has suddenly encountered great change in life and is very unsure of what to do and so he pretty well stays away from everybody. He doesn’t go into the public places. He doesn’t make contact with other people—even though he recognizes that now he has been encountered by nothing less than the Son of God. He makes no attempt to contact those who are the leaders in the Christian church of that day. He simply pulls back. I believe he pulls back for a key reason. I believe he understood that before he could expose himself in terms of his new faith to the world about him, he had to get things straight in his own mind and heart. So Paul took some time away in order to, as we might put it in our modern vernacular, to get his head on straight—to try to digest what had happened to him and try to understand that what his life may have meant up to this point now, it didn’t meant that, and what was it going to mean in the future. He had no idea. Somehow he had to get a handle on all of that. In the middle of that discussion, he says: “I went away into Arabia.” Arabia, a place away, a place of a different culture, a place where nowhere knew him. No one knew his past, no one knew anything about him. There were no Christians there. There were no Jews there either. It was a place completely removed from the normal flow of his everyday life. We don’t know how long he stayed there. Biblical scholars using a variety of methods have fixed the time sometime between six months and three years. He was there at least six months. He could have been there as long as three years. But it was an incredibly important time for him.
I can almost see him in my mind’s eye—seating in some Arabian desert oasis—away from everything and everyone else. There struggling to discover who he really is and who this God really is, who had revealed himself in such a startling way. Trying to understand what his life really meant and how his life was going to be lived from that point on. He knew it would be different, but how different would it be? I don’t think he fully understood that. So he took this time in Arabia—a time where he, I believe because Arabia is Arabia and that time it was basically the Arabian desert—it was a time where he would have no others with whom to counsel, no other sources of enlightenment. It would be a time where he would have to focus on God and on himself—who God was, who He was, and what God wanted the two of them to do together. That, let me say to you right now, and I hope you’ll note that down—that’s the key principle to living a significant life. Learning who God is, learning who you are, learning what God wants you and God to do together in your life. That’s what Paul was doing in Arabia.
It was a time when he challenged in his own spirit. It was a time when he wrestled with God until he possessed God and God possessed him. It was a time when he stretched his mind and his heart and put himself in a position of being totally vulnerable to the leadership of God in his life. I think he understood that after Damascus, he could never again be the same. And therefore he would have to depend now, totally and completely—100%, upon the power of God in his life. Up to that point, he had been dependent on himself. He lists his pedigree here in Galatians, tells you all of the wonderful things he has done. I think he was saying to you and to me: “Listen, I was too dependent on myself—on my own perceived gifts and abilities -on the things that I felt I could accomplish in life. God knocked me off my horse on the Damascus Road and from that point on I had to come to understand that what matters in life is what God wanted me and God to do together. What matters in your life and in mine, is what God wants you and me and God to do together.”
I went away into Arabia … I think that one of the things that happened to Paul in Arabia in this time away, this time where he came to know the mind and heart of God as well as coming to know his own mind and heart, I think what happened to him there, is first of all, he came to understand that the center of his life was not himself, his own interests, his own desires. The center of his life was the desire and the will of God. I see so many people today, and you do as well, maybe you’re one of them—sometimes I know I am—so many people today caught up in such a swirl and twirl of activity that they begin to lose sight of their bearings. They lose their equilibrium in life. The so-called rat race begins to get the best of them. They become victims of what I call the “barrenness of busy-ness.” I think that’s what had happened to Paul. And so he went in his own barrenness into the barrenness of Arabia in order to be replenished in his spirit. I want to submit to you that that’s exactly what I’m calling you to do in your life and what I’m calling me to do in mine, I want us to go away into our own Arabia. Understand me please, Arabia does not mean sitting down and reading a good book or watching TV. It’s not taking a day off. It’s not sitting back in the easy chair and dropping off to sleep. It is not an invitation to laziness or slough. Going away into Arabia means taking a small fraction of time out of your life. I would submit every single day. For me it’s a period of fifteen minutes a day—that’s all. Fifteen minutes a day where I get away from everything and everyone else to sit in quiet and to pray and to listen. You see, what we as Christians do so often, we get to a time of prayer and we unload our agenda on God. Only rarely do we sit and listen. God cannot speak to us if we’re so busy talking to Him. I’m not telling you not to pray. I’m telling you to pray but I’m also telling you to balance it with listening. God may not speak to you overtly so that you can hear it as plainly as you’re hearing me. But I promise you if you listen, you’re going to hear the still small voice of God whispering in your heart. It will be unmistakable over a period of time. So find a place, in your house, in your office, at the church, on a park bench, I don’t care where it is. A place where you can take a few moments everyday to go away into Arabia, to get away from everything and everyone else, to sit and focus your mind and your heart on God and on the things of God. Because it is out of that experience that the still small voice of God will speak to you, and you will begin to understand that the true significance of your life is in doing what God wants you and God to do together.
You see this principle all the way through Scripture. Look at Moses. Moses withdrew from all of the noisy debauchery of the Egyptian royal court. He went out into the midst of the wilderness of Midean in order to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, away from all of the glitz and the glamour, away from all of the prominence he had enjoyed, to get away. And there in the wilderness, this very ordinary man became the man of God. There, and nowhere else, he saw the burning bush that ultimately ignited his whole life. There, and nowhere else, he came to find the courage and the spirit in him to then go back into Egypt and to take a band of slaves for Heaven’s sake and weld them together into nothing less than the chosen people of God. A very ordinary man became a man of God because in his Arabia he discovered what God wanted Moses and God to do together. Look at David. Young David, merely a lad, out on the Judean hillsides tending the sheep. There the green pastures spoke to him of the things of God. There the still waters restored his mind and his soul. There David heard eternal truths forged out of the world around him. That spoke to his heart so profoundly that later on he would pick up his harp and begin to sing: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” There the young boy became the Great King David.
You remember what the Bible says about him later on? That he was a man after God’s own heart. If that is true, and I think it is, remember David wasn’t perfect, a long way from it. What does it say? He was a man after God’s own heart. He had the heart that God has. We can have the same heart. We don’t have to be perfect. God wants to know what’s in your heart. And the secret of God knowing what’s in your heart is for you to understand that what God really wants of you in life is what God wants you and God to do together.
And there, out on the Judean hillsides, a young boy came to understand what it was that God wanted David and God to do together. Or even, look at Jesus Himself, regularly Jesus stole away from life’s incessant crush in order to find a place filled only with the sound of hush. Regularly Jesus pulled Himself apart from the crowds that clamored after Him in order to reestablish contact with His Father in Heaven. It’s fascinating when you read the Bible. The Gospel accounts and everytime it says that Jesus went off somewhere to be alone, when He came back, every single time, it says that people came rushing after Him trying to touch Him. You see, what happened was, in His time away He became so charged with the spirit of God that it literally was radiating from Him. So that when He then returned, people wanted to touch Him and draw energy and strength from that charge. That’s the principle. He went away in order to remind Himself of what God wanted Him and God to do together. He went away into His own Arabia regularly.
I think that’s what it means when it says: “Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before me but I went away into Arabia. Six months, three years, I went away in order to come to understand some deep truths, to carve some deep lines on my heart, to pummel my spirit to the point that I would be a fit servant of God, to come to understand what it was that God really wanted me to do in life.”
You see why I want you to go away into your own Arabia? There’s something else here. As you read the book of Galatians you begin to see it. This time away gave Paul the courage to face the tough circumstances he would have to face in life. He makes that clear as this letter to the Galatians unfolds. He reminds them and us that in those 25 years since that time away in Arabia, he had done all kinds of things. He had gone on one missionary journey after another. He founded churches all over that part of the world. He had been shipwrecked and beaten and stoned and imprisoned. He had done things that we could only dream about doing. He had made an incredible impact on the world of his day. He had had some frustrations along the way. Some of the churches he’d started hadn’t done very well. He’d fallen out with some of his friends. They’d separated along the way. He’d had some heartaches. He’d had a thorn in the flesh. He’d done battle with illness. He’d had frustrations that sometimes, well I think, simply probably would have leveled a lesser person. Yet in the midst of it all, he says to the Galatians later on in the letter. He says: “But you know, the Gospel that I learned way back there in Arabia is just as true now as it was then. And the Gospel that I preach to you now is the Gospel that I learned then. And if anyone preaches to you any other Gospel, let him be accursed.” For 25 years, the lessons that he had learned in his own Arabia, had been the source of strength and courage for him to deal with everything he had to deal with—and he had some tough stuff. I guess that’s what I’m really trying to say, is that going away into Arabia helps us as Christians learn how to be tough when the going gets rough.
Gladys Alward, great name, I want you to remember her name. One of these days when you get to Heaven I want you to search her out. You need to get to know her and to love her. Gladys Alward, she was one of our great missionaries to China, little bitty lady, little tiny lady. In fact, when she sat down in a regular chair her feet were four inches off the floor. She couldn’t even touch the floor. Tiny, tiny, little lady but ooh what a spirit. On one occasion while she was in China, she was summoned into the office of the Governor General of Yang Ching Province, the province where she was working. The Governor said to her that one of the prisoners in the local penitentiary had gone berserk. He had seized one of the weapons from the kitchen and was in fact just reeking havoc. He’d killed several of the prisoners. He’d killed one of the guards. The rest of the guards he had simply driven out of the prison so that he was holding forth in this place all by himself. It was a terrible crisis. The Governor said to Gladys Alward: “We want you to go into the prison and handle the situation.” She was aghast. “Why me;” she said in horror, “what do you mean?” The governor said: “You keep talking about a Jesus who never forsakes His followers. And therefore, we feel like you will have the protection of this Jesus, if you in fact believe that. And you therefore ought to have the courage to go in and handle this situation. Besides that, we want to see about this Jesus of yours.” Suddenly she realized that the whole significance of her life was in the balance right at that moment, that everything she had worked for and striven for and given herself for for all of those years was hanging right there in front of her. Everything was going to hinge on what happened in the next moments. Gladys Alward at that point then turned in her chair, bowed her head, closed her eyes and sat in frozen silence for a long, long time. During those long moments she went back in her own mind to all of the Arabias in her experience, to all of those times when she had spent time with God—coming to know God and coming to know herself and coming to know what God wanted her to do in life. She rehearsed all of those Arabias in her experience and from them she began to remember the: “Yes, my God will not fail me.” On the strength of that, she turned to the Governor and said: “I’ll go.” She walked into the prison, completely deserted, down the corridors. Tiny little lady whispering a prayer as she went: “Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me.” Suddenly out of the shadows there was a deafening roar and a man jumped out holding a meat cleaver in his hand, high in the air, ready to strike her dead. She never flinched. She looked him straight in the eye and she said: “Give me the cleaver.” He froze and then gradually he lowered his hand and he handed the weapon to her. The crisis was over. That’s a true story. It’s very well documented. You can explain it any way you want to explain it. You can say: “Well you know, it was the prisoner was so shocked to see such a tiny little lady in such an ungodly place that he made an unnatural reaction.” Or, you can say: “Well, he was put off by the amazing authority with which she spoke and with which she approached him.” You can explain it psychologically. You can explain it any way you want. I don’t really care. You see, the only point I want to make to you is this. Because Gladys Alward had been away to Arabia in her life and had come to understand what God wanted Gladys and God to go together, she was able to say to the Governor: “I will go.” And because Gladys Alward knew God so well, she could pray and know the prayer would be answered: “Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me.”
I went away into Arabia. Have you gone to your own life’s Arabia? If not, go. In a world like this, it’s a matter of life or death.