Jesus And Our Discouragement
I lift up for you just three verses from the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Here, Paul is speaking about his experience in the Lord, and we encounter these words:
“But when He who had set me apart before I was born and had called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. But I went away into Arabia. And again, I return to Damascus.”
May this be God’s word for each one of us this day and always, amen. Let us pray.
Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, amen.
Life in modern America has become too fast, too complicated, too threatening. And the stress resulting from that kind of lifestyle is wreaking havoc in human lives. It seems that wherever we turn these days, we encounter books, magazine or newspaper articles, television feature stories, workshops or seminars, all of them built around the subject: “How to Deal with the Stress of our Lives.” And yet I want to suggest to you today that the best way to deal with the stress of life in modern America can be found in some words written by the Apostle Paul to the Galatians. The words are these: “I went away into Arabia.” Now you may be wondering what on earth that has to do with the subject of stress. Well, I’m going to ask you right now to join for a few moments in digging into what is behind those words. And I think you’ll see what I mean.
Paul began his letter to the Galatians by outlining some of his credentials as an apostle of the Lord.
And in the course of that listing, Paul mentions the fact that after his conversion on the Damascus road and after all of the swirl and the twirl surrounding that significant event, that Paul then took some time – to borrow our modern term – to get his head on straight. And he sums it up in a single sentence. He says, “I went away into Arabia.” It was a time of quiet. We do not know precisely how long he was there. We know it was at least six months. It may even have been as long as three years. We do not know for sure. But this much we do know: it was a time when Paul sought to understand who he was and who God was and what the two of them had to do together. I can see Paul now, can’t you? Sitted in some Arabian desert oasis, far from the madding crowd. I can see him there listening intently for that sound which is far more subtle than the soft whine of the desert wind. The sound of the thin, small voice of God. I can see him sitting there following to the letter the prescription set forth in the Psalms where the the Lord says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
And it was there in Arabia. There, away from all of the strains and the stresses and the pressures of his life. Not writing, not reading, not preaching, not teaching, not traveling. But there, in quiet and in stillness, it was there that Paul began to build the strong beliefs, the deep convictions that would govern all the rest of the living of his days. And years later, in referring to that time, he says very simply, “I went away into Arabia.”
Today, I want to dangle that intriguing little sentence before you in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the grand truth hidden behind those words will, in fact, become a part of your life and of mine. I want to suggest that each one of us needs to go away into our own Arabia. Why? Well, first, this. Going away into our own Arabia and thinking deep thoughts about God helps us battle the barrenness of busyness. Busyness. There’s a problem. Busyness robs our lives of more meaning than anything else. Being caught up in the rat race of endless phone calls and appointments and duties and responsibilities, all of that wears us down physically and burns us out spiritually faster than anything else that I know. And psychologists have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that all of the stress associated with excessive busyness is terribly destructive to our emotional health. And that’s why I believe that a life which has no time in it for Arabia is a life that is in trouble.
Increasingly, I have felt the need in my own life to go away to my own Arabia. And that’s why every single day of the week, every single day without fail, I take just a few minutes. Just 15 or 20 minutes, that’s all. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your responsibilities may be, everyone can take 15 or 20 minutes a day. I take 15 or 20 minutes a day to do nothing more than simply to sit, be still, be quiet and listen for the whispers of the Almighty in my life.
Now, understand me please, this thought of going away into our own Arabia is not an invitation to sloth or laziness. It’s not a ‘taking it easy’ time. It’s not a time when you stretch out and fall asleep. It’s not even diving into a good book or a TV show. Those are just other forms of busyness. No, going away into our own Arabia means being quiet, being still, letting the silence begin to sweep away all of the litter that is in your mind; letting the calmness begin to soothe your anxious, troubled, stressful spirit. And understand this, too, I am not advocating here some kind of a return to nature. And I’m not suggesting that we should all go out and become 20th century Henry David Thoreaus. I’m not even talking about purposeless diversions like transcendental meditation. No. I’m talking here about simply having a place, a quiet place. It doesn’t matter where it is. It may be in your home or at your office or in the church or on a park bench. It doesn’t matter where it is, but having some place, some quiet place where you can go regularly to sit, to be still, to be quiet, and to listen for the sound of the thin, small voice of God speaking in your life.
You see, out of stress comes anxiety, but out of silence comes peace. You can see the truth of what I’m talking about here, clearly exhibited in the lives of the great men of Scripture. They knew how to be still. And out of that stillness there came not only a triumphant knowledge of God but also an amazing profound ability to be able to cope with all of the stressful circumstances of their lives. Look, for example, at Moses. Moses, who turned his back on the sophisticated debauchery of the Egyptian royal court and went off out into the wilderness to tend there the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. And there in his own Arabia, there in unpeople solitude and in quiet meditation, there and there alone, this very ordinary man was slowly but surely transformed into the extraordinary man of God. There and nowhere else, he saw the burning bush that ignited his whole life. There and nowhere else, he was able to so garrison his spirit that he could then go back into the tumult of Egypt and take a band of slaves, lead them to freedom, and then will them into nothing less than the chosen people of God Himself.
Or think about this. Far out on Judean Hillsides, a young lad keeps watch over his flocks by day and by night. There, the stillness of green pastures speaks to him of God. There, still waters refresh his body and his soul. There, eternal truths are nourished within him so that the day would come when he would pick up his heart and sing, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” It is said of David that he was a man after God’s own heart. If that is true, and I believe it is, it is true simply because David and God had come to know one another so well out there in David’s Arabia.
Or think of the Master Himself. Do you know that Jesus regularly stole away from life’s incessant crush to find some place filled only with the sound of hush? And do you also know that the Bible records that whenever Jesus returned from this silent, holy times, the people in the crowds would rush to touch Him? Why? Well, simply because there in the stillness, He became such a channel of divine energy that the power literally radiated from Him. When He returned to the multitudes, the people longing to know the same power reached out to touch Him that they might have some of what He had.
That’s the kind of thing that happens in a life when there’s time in that life for Arabia. For out of the stillness, out of the quiet, there comes a strength for dealing with the strains and the stresses of life. That can happen to you if you are willing to make the time and take the time to be still, to be quiet, and to listen closely for the thin, small voice of God speaking in your life.
But then, secondly, there is this. Going away into our own Arabia and thinking deep thoughts about God helps us build bulwarks against life’s buffetings.
The older I grow, the more convinced I become that the toughest battles in life are the battles that are fought not outside of us but inside of us. I think here – Paul, when he was writing these words to the Galatians about going away into Arabia – it was 25 years after the fact. And in all of those 25 years, a lot of things had happened. Some good things had happened to Paul. He’d been on one missionary journey after another. He’d established many churches. And he’d won countless numbers of people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
But some bad things had happened as well. He’d been beaten and shipwrecked and stoned and imprisoned. He’d battled constantly against ill health. He had money problems frequently. He lost a number of his friends. He’d experienced frustrations in his work. He knew that his days on this earth were numbered. The kinds of stresses that he had to live with would simply have killed a lesser man. But not Paul. And even after all of those 25 years of stress and strain, Paul could still say to the Galatians, “The lessons that I learned in Arabia back then are still true now. The Gospel that I experienced then and preach to you now is as valid now as it was then. And anyone who preaches to you any other gospel, let him be accursed.” I tell you that’s the kind of soul-centered, Christ-centered belief that will make us strong from life’s hard places. That’s the kind of soul-centered, Christ-centered belief that can be forged when there’s time in a life to spend time in Arabia.
Let me be very specific at this point. First a word to those of you who are older. Have you been to your own Arabia? And mind you, I’m not talking here about a conversion experience, not at this point. That was an experience that Paul had, yes, on the Damascus road, turned his life completely around. No, I’m talking about the other experience that Paul had. I’m talking about when he went away to think long and hard about the claims that Jesus Christ was making upon his life, and it’s all summed up in a marvelous question that rises from Paul’s lips addressed to the Lord. “Lord,” he says, “now, I’m Yours. What is it that You want me to do for You?” And there comes a point in every single Christian life when that question has to be raised. Lord, now I’m Yours. What is that you want me to do for You?
Have you thought about that question in your life? Have you thought long and hard about the claims that Jesus Christ is making upon you in your experience? Have you forged strong alliances with God in your life? And then made those alliances, the first order, top priority alliances of your life? Are you a professional person or a working man or a homemaker or a student who just happens to be a Christian, or are you a Christian who just happens to be these other things? If you’re not certain about your answers to these questions, those of you who are older, then I urge you to spend some time in your own Arabia, to spend some time in prayer and in meditation, in Bible study and in listening intently for the sound of the whispers of God in your life. That’s the way to get some certainty and some conviction into your life. And that’s the way to beat the stresses, the strains and the pressures that will batter you to pieces in a world like this.
But then a word to those who are younger. One of the joys of growing up is learning how to think for yourself. And those of you who are younger here today, I hope that you’re beginning to think for yourselves in terms of your own faith in Jesus Christ. I hope that your faith is not something that’s simply been passed down to you by your family. That kind of faith is rather like a priceless antique. It’s lovely to look at, but you wouldn’t want to put your weight on it. Now, I hope, young people, that you have won for yourself the sword of faith in Jesus Christ. Notice I said, “Won for yourself” because faith in Jesus Christ is not something that can be handed to you. Your family can’t give it to you. The church can’t give it to you. Well, the church can help you, guide you, teach you, encourage you and bind up your wounds when you come back from the struggle, but the sword of faith in Jesus Christ is something you have to win for yourself.
And the tragedy is that I see so many young people today turning away from making that kind of commitment to Jesus Christ. And what a tragedy it is because – young people, let me tell you something – the one defense that stands forever sure when every other defense in this life lies crumpled in the dust, the one defense that stands forever sure is one’s faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I call you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and your Savior now; to make that kind of commitment to Him. And then spend some time with Him, getting to know Him and let Him getting to know you, to work within you, and make some promises to Him that you intend to keep for as long as you live. For I promise you, if you do that in your life, then you are going to discover that you will be made strong for life’s hard places.
I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that Arabia is the place where Christians learn how to be tough when the going gets rough. And like Gladys Aylward, what a remarkable woman; she was a missionary to China. Very, very small physically. So small, in fact, that when she sat in an ordinary chair, her feet didn’t even begin to touch the floor. On one occasion, she was called into the office of the governor-general of Yancheng Province in China, the province where she was working. The governor said to her that she had been summoned because one of the inmates in the province prison had gotten hold of a weapon. He’d gone berserk. He’d killed several prisoners and one guard, and he’d driven the other guards out. And they wanted her to go into the prison and take the weapon away from him. She was aghast. “Why me?” she cried in horror. And the governor said, “Well, because you’ve been talking about this Jesus who never forsakes those who believe in Him. And so we thought you were the one. And besides that,” he said, “we want to see about this Jesus of yours.”
Suddenly she realized that the validity of her whole ministry was on the line. And so seated there – in the chair in the governor’s office, her feet not touching the floor – seated there, she simply bowed her head and closed her eyes. And she was silent for a long, long time. Just sat there in the stillness, in the quiet. And in those of moments of stillness, in her own mind, she began to go back across all of the Arabias in her own experience, all of those times in her life when she and God had been most personal. And she discovered, in thinking about all of those times, that the strength that she needed was beginning to build within her. And so after that long silence, she looked up and said, “I will go.” And she went. And with every step that she took in the darkened corridors of that dreadful place, she kept whispering a single prayer, “Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me.” And on she walked. Then suddenly, there was a deafening cry, and a monstrous man leaped out of the shadows before her. He had a meat cleaver in his hand. He raised it up, prepared to strike her dead. She didn’t budge. She didn’t run. She didn’t cry. She simply stood there and looked at him. Then she said, “Give me the cleaver.” There was a moment’s pause. And then very slowly, he lowered the weapon and handed it to her. And the crisis was over.
That story is true. It’s well documented. And I suppose you can explain it any way you’d like to explain it. You can say that the man was moved to respond that way, just the shock of seeing such a tiny lady in such an ungodly place. Or I suppose that you could say that the man was moved to respond like that by the sheer authority and the tone of her voice. I suppose you can explain it psychologically or any number of other ways. Explain it however you will. The point I’m simply trying to make is this: that when the moment of challenge came, she was able to say, “I will go” because there had been in her experience so many times spent in Arabia when she and God had been together, and her commitments had been made strong and sure. Because she and God were so well acquainted that she knew that she could pray and that her prayers would be answered. “Jesus, be with me. Jesus, be with me.”
Well, I want to ask you. Have you been to your own Arabia? If you haven’t, go because my friends, in a world like this, it’s a matter of life or death. Let us pray.
Gracious God, teach us the power to be found in just brief times of stillness and quiet. For when we are still, we come to know You and Your peace and Your power begin to fill our lives. And we begin to be able to cope with the circumstances we encounter. And we begin, like the great men of Scripture, we begin to be able to live victoriously in Christ. Amen.