A Charismatic Christian in the Desert
By Laurie-Ann Zachar Copple
How many of us have had a Ďhoneymoon periodí with the intimacy and love of the Father, the fellowship of Jesus, and the sweet wooing of the Holy Spirit? What happens afterward when we enter a period of Godís silence that seems to go on forever; a wilderness that stretches our trust? Is it a punishment or a test? Is it abandonment or a preparation for something wonderful in store for us? Is it Godís judgment or His infinite kindness that helps us grow spiritually mature? There are times of difficulty that seem like a Ďdark night of the soul.í However, this is also when we grow deeper in faith, are refined of hindrances, and gain the fragrance of Jesus by the fruit of the Spirit.
One of the cries of my heart as a Christian has been the desire for spiritual maturity. When I was a young Christian, newly baptized in the Holy Spirit and so enthusiastic that I embarrassed older believers, I begged the Lord for maturity. I experienced healing, love and empowerment, but tried to break through an unapproachable "more." Eventually, my prayer was answered when I was in Northern Ireland doing prayer walks. Unexpectedly, a hostess in Belfast gave me a prophetic word. She asked me if I had been asking God to take me deeper into maturity. I answered "yes." She told me that it would not be easy and that it required something that I did not expect. This requirement was suffering, not as a punishment, but as the necessary instrument to bring me past the shallowness Iíd been feeling even as a Christian. Godís relative silence intensified as I entered the desert of finding Him in a new way, and I learned identification with Christ (Phil. 3:10). I had to no longer live as if I was in control of my life, but to allow for a Christ-centred life. I was learning to know him in the fellowship of his sufferings, as well as the joy of salvation.
This desert has lasted over five years. Recently I audited a course called "Into the Wasteland" taught by Charles Nienkirchen at Tyndale Seminary. Not only did I learn that desert experiences are common, but they are also biblical! The desert is Godís gift that demands transformation. Isnít that what being sanctified is about?
God has written two "books": that of creation (Ps. 19:1) and that of His revelation in the Bible. Both show an abundance of desert imagery. The world has an abundance of deserts.1 The biblical lands are mostly desert2 or semi-desert.3 Many biblical characters encountered difficult Ďdesertí times, such as the Israelites in the book of Numbers, Elijahís sojourn in the wilderness while in danger (1 Kings 19), Davidís refuge in the "wild places" while hiding from King Saul (2 Sam 1) and Jesusí own temptations in the Judean wilderness (Matt. 4). There is also the Ďinterior desertí (solitude, withdrawal and seeming abandonment) such as the testing of Job and Jesusí experience in Gethsemane and Calvary. Desert experiences have also empowered and left Godís servants changed from divine encounters, such as the experiences of many in the Old Testament.4 Paul also experienced the beginning of his transformation while on the desert road to Damascus. His conversion was further strengthened during a three year duration in the Arabian desert (Gal. 1: 17-18). Antony of Egypt gave away all his possessions and depended on God in a fourth century desert. Many Christians desiring something more followed a similar call. Some lived in solitude or wandered the oceans as missionaries as did the Irish monks in the sixth to tenth centuries. Others were transformed during extended illnesses while waiting for a miracle. So why is it surprising when we enter our own wilderness?
Part of the reason is our North American materialistic culture which sees simplicity as a weakness. Even in the church, mountain experiences can be glorified and the grief of varied suffering is minimized. We want comfort in the midst of suffering and our one-dimensional ideas of God and all-encompassing self-experience are challenged. The desert calls us to transformation, yet we have a choice to make. We can turn to self-pity and bitterness5 during these hard times or call out to the Lord for purification. How does the desert make us more Christ-like?
Charles Nienkirchen, says that the humbling effect of the desert "becomes a transforming event in oneís spiritual development only as oneís idea of God and self-image are changed. In the process, faith, hope and love are purified." The desert can help to clear our senses of wrong illusions of who God is and who we are, although it is often a long process. Sometimes we struggle with faulty perceptions of God as a judge or angry parent. Other times we may struggle with self-condemnation and poor self-image (or vanity and pride). When these perceptions melt away, the truth can be more easily discerned. God is no longer what you thought He was, and He is now free to show you who He is! You are no longer what you thought you were, but are loved and accepted. God is allowed to be God, since you have realized that you are not God in your life.
The desert may give us four gifts if we co-operate with Godís purposes: spiritual transformation, psychological change, new roles, and new futures. The first gift can include salvation and the refining that comes after it. Much Afraid in Hannah Hurnardís book Hinds feet in High Places, was spiritually transformed by the love of the Shepherd, thus turning her lessons of her trials into glittering gems. This transformation is thus a difficult but very rewarding journey. The second gift can be the gain of a new confident humility in what Paul calls being content in all situations (Phil. 4: 11-12). This is a difficult gift to nurture, for it demands a trust in God that puts him at the centre of oneís environment. This is the desert gift that Iím grappling with right now. I believe He is teaching me to trust Him in all circumstances, even when He seems silent and I begin to doubt my calling. A good analogy for this is illustrated in how a poinsettia grows. Apparently these beautiful flowers require a time of darkness for them to even germinate. Perhaps we also need this barren time for essential spiritual growth in faith, hope and love. In the desert, we still experience Godís care and provision even if He is silent, although we may not see this yet with the eyes of our hearts.
The third gift can include such identity change as Abram/Abraham and Jacob/Israel in the Old Testament, and Simon/Peter and Saul/Paul in the New Testament. To the ancients, a name change signified a complete metamorphosis in a person and their role. Abram changed from a childless man to the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5). Jacob changed from a deceiver to Israel, one who wrestles with God (Gen. 35:10). Sanguine Simon became Peter the "Rock," one of the leaders of the early church. Law-loving Saul of Tarsus became apostle to the Gentiles and used his Roman name Paul (Acts 13:9). My own name Laurie-Ann means "Victory through Grace, Remember." I was often bullied as a child and had to move neighbourhoods because of the harassment. When I moved, I changed my name by dropping the ĎAnní (which means grace). After I did this, I tried to change my identity and became a people-pleasing striver. At that time, my name became Laurie Zachar (victory, remember) Years later as a Christian, I was convicted that I never should have changed my name, and with the Lordís help, I changed it back to Laurie-Ann. With the reminder of grace in my name, it shows me that it is His grace that is victorious, not anything that I can do on my own. After all, it is in the desert that I have learned that apart from Him, I can do nothing. (John 15:5) The fourth gift concerns our calling: whether great miracles or a quiet life of faith that draws others to Jesus. It is a gift that gives us hope; we know where we are going.
Are we willing to be changed? Do we want to go further? Perhaps the desert is the place for us. Donít be afraid, it is a road that many have followed in Christ. Just remember that He will never leave you and does not forget his promises.
1. Some of these solitary places include: the varied desert of the Sahara, the emptiness of the Arabian "Empty Quarter", the vast arctic wilderness and the wide oceans that span our planet.
2. Mesopotamia, Negev, Sinai, Egypt
3. The Judean wilderness
4. Elijahís still small voice and Ezekielís visions filled them with the hope that God was in control.
5. Self pity is a downard spriral that Leanne Payne calls Ďdescending into the hell of self.í Another inner healing teacher of mine has called it PLOMS disease, or Poor Little Old Me Syndrome. This effectively stops all growth and is like quicksand that pulls us down.
- Laurie-Ann Zachar Copple
Laurie-Ann is a Tyndale Seminary graduate and works in the ARM national office.
An abridged version of this article was published in Anglicans for Renewal, Canada magazine, Winter 2000 issue.