Feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and even jealousy overwhelmed me as I gazed around the room. The hubbub of pastors engaging in friendly banter, theological musings, and intentional networking were nothing unusual for the end of an evening at our yearly ministerial retreat. It was not that any pastor was giving me the cold shoulder. As a young pastor only six months into my first assignment, I just felt that I was lacking in all the gifts and talents necessary to succeed. In those first six months, I had come face-to-face with the reality that all of my dreams and visions for changing the world were being exchanged for an overwhelming sense of anxiety and failure.
I sat down with the impression that I needed to just pick up my Bible and start reading where I had left off that morning. As I began reading Exodus 33, I honestly was not expecting anything spectacular or life-altering. However, when I reached verse 11, my whole life began to change. “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle” (Exod. 33:11).1
It was not as if I had not read this verse before. It was just that only the first half had registered with me. I remembered the part about Moses speaking with God face-to-face, but what was this about Joshua? Why was that included?
Moses had just set up this temporary tabernacle “far from the camp” for anyone who wanted to seek the Lord (v. 7). At first, everyone’s attention was drawn to this sacred space as Moses communed with God. Then everyone, including Moses, went about their business. Everyone, that was, except for Joshua. Joshua, the Word says, did not depart from the tabernacle.
Of course, this same Joshua would one day lead Israel into the Promised Land, witnessing everything from the Jordan River standing still at flood stage to the walls of Jericho falling down to the sun standing still for an entire day in answer to his prayer. However in Exodus 33, he was just a young man. He was only a servant. He had seen some victories in battle, but now Israel had chosen a golden calf over God, and things looked bleak. But Joshua was focused on one thing—the presence of God. He would not leave. He refused to depart from the tent, albeit far from camp and all the responsibilities he likely had there, because that was the place where people went to seek God. And Joshua was passionate about seeking God.
A new revelation
As I sat there, I suddenly felt God rearranging my priorities. I realized that, as with Joshua, the transformation and equipping that I needed most for ministry would come from extended time in His presence. It was incredibly reassuring to know it was not about who I was but about spending time in the presence of the One who could transform me into just the man He needed me to be. It was not as if everything changed at once. The next six months were still stressful, and the successes still seemed few and far between. But now I had a new sense of peace. Now I knew that my inadequacies were OK. In fact, they could even be an advantage, as long as I allowed them to inspire me to seek the One who could supply all my needs.
A year and a half later, my wife and I moved across the country so that I could attend the master of divinity program at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I had dreams of being radically transformed during our time there as I continued to spend time in God’s presence, but honestly, I did not expect it to come through the classes. However, as Dr. Allan Walshe began to introduce, during my first class, the subject of biblical spirituality, I realized that this was going to be different from what I expected and exactly what I needed. Now I was receiving practical tools to accomplish the purpose God had set before me of seeking His presence.
The course focused on experiencing spiritual transformation through daily Bible reading, prayer, and journaling. Each day, our homework required us to intentionally focus on drawing closer to God through Bible study and prayer and to reflect on this through journaling. We were also expected to choose one classmate to meet with on a weekly basis in order to ask specific questions about our personal spiritual growth over the past week. This was an incredibly transformational experience for me as I began to meet with my good friend, Godfrey Miranda.2
One day during my first semester of seminary, I was deeply challenged as I read how Martin Luther, “besides his constant reading of the Word of God, did not pass a day without devoting three hours at least to prayer, and they were hours selected from those the most favorable to study.”3
Three hours in prayer? This was while his writings were under the most intense scrutiny and he was most in need of ably defending his work. I read on, “From the secret place of prayer came the power that shook the world in the Great Reformation.”4 That was exactly what I felt my ministry had been missing: power!
I did not want to just continue on for the next 30 to 40 years, pastoring with humdrum results, only to finally retire without ever seeing God’s power unleashed for the mighty revival and reformation He has promised. So, I determined that I, too, needed to spend at least three hours each day alone with God.
This sounded great, but there was a huge practical problem. Where was I to find three hours to spare in the midst of a full-time MDiv course load? I was not in the habit of waking up early enough for this each morning. I realized that I did not have the strength for this, so I asked God to do as He has promised to do in Isaiah 50:4, to wake me up morning by morning. Do not pray this prayer unless you seriously want God to do it!
As God began waking me up earlier and earlier, I still had a problem. I could not stay awake. One day, I mentioned this to Godfrey as we were discussing our spiritual growth. He suggested that I try drinking several glasses of water when I first woke up. This definitely helped.
Soon I began to learn some other simple things that also helped keep me alert, like jumping out of bed immediately when God first fully woke me up. If I hesitated, I found that I would drift off to sleep, and when I woke up the second time, I was usually far more tired than I had been earlier. I also discovered that taking a shower helped me feel far more awake. Eventually, I began to read while standing up and to alternate short periods of calisthenics in order to stay awake. The biggest help came from making a habit of going to bed by nine o’clock at night. I have found the early morning hours are far more inviting when I have slept about three hours before midnight.
I admit that this all could sound crazy, painful, and maybe even legalistic. But let us think of this in terms of a marriage. If I decide to go to great lengths to spend time with my wife, my motivation is what really determines whether or not such efforts are beneficial. If my goal is some sort of reward, such as earning her love, then it will not turn out well. However, if I am compelled by love and am simply delighting in the love that we share, then it is wonderfully enriching for our marriage!
Do not get me wrong. While pure love is the only healthy motivation, there have been plenty of times that I have lost sight of this. Yet that time continues to be the most joyful, peaceful, and life-changing experience of my life! Truly, in His “presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). The more that I have come to recognize this, the more delightful every sacrifice has become that furthers the purpose of drawing closer to His infinite heart of love!
At one point, I began to think about how I had been willing to change my diet to a strictly plant-based diet in order to have more energy for a particular sport as a teenager. Why was I not willing to do the same in order to have energy to seek a deeper relationship with Jesus? This bothered me. So, I took it to God and asked Him to change my appetite as I surrendered it to Him. Now I had a new inspiration for eating healthfully. It was no longer about me not getting cancer or dying young but about having energy to enjoy God’s presence. I have found this motivation to be far longer-lasting than the selfish focus of the diet changes I have undergone in the past.
Sidebar: Helpful tips for delighting in God
1. Ask God to wake you up as early as He wants, to spend time with Him (Isa. 50:4).
2. Ask God to cause you to hear His lovingkindness (Ps. 143:8) and see His beauty (Ps. 27:4).
3. Ask God to search your heart, convicting you of any sin (Ps. 139:23, 24).
4. Ask God to create in you a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within you (Ps. 51:10).
5. Ask God to open your eyes to see “wondrous things” from His law (Ps. 119:18).
6. Ask God what is on His heart for you today (Ps. 143:10).
7. Take time to allow Him to answer (Ps. 46:10).
I listened as Dr. Dwight Nelson, pas- tor of Pioneer Memorial Church, spoke about the importance of spending time with God. I felt pretty smug and confident as he came toward his appeal. I figured I was safe. He would not appeal that we spend more than three hours alone with God, would he? God has a way of humbling us and of opening our eyes to His desire for greater things than we can fathom. Dr. Nelson went on to appeal that we double our time alone with God. Surely that was impossible! That semester I was overloading on credits, and I just could not see that this was feasible. But I felt compelled to make the commitment.
Why am I so apt to limit God? Joshua called out to God, and He held the solar system in place for 24 hours so that the battle could be completed. God is able to create the time that we need when we put Him first. On the day of Pentecost, God gave the disciples the ability to speak as many languages as it would have taken them a lifetime to learn on their own. “Why, the Lord can do more in one hour than we can do in a whole lifetime.”5 That semester, it was delightful to witness how God was capable of handling all of my projects and assignments. And He did it with far better results than I could have on my own with those extra three hours.
As I entered back into the flow of normal pastoral ministry after my seminary experience, I knew I could not go back. Five years later, I no longer set the clock for six hours. But I have found that, just like George Müller, I cannot leave His presence until I am truly “happy in God Himself.”6 For me, this usually takes at least three hours, sometimes more. I think it is probably because my heart is harder than most.
You see, I expected power to come from a closer connection with God. But I am not sure what I expected this to look like. I think I expected to see phenomenal results in my pastoring. I hoped to see thousands flocking to my church. I wanted the miracles found in the book of Acts to be repeated in my ministry. And I believe God longs to do these things among us. However, what has taken place has been more valuable, and I believe actually more powerful, than any of these things. As I have spent time in God’s presence day after day, fixing my eyes on His beauty, I have come to recognize more and more of the ugliness of my own heart.
I can remember, time after time, where I have been deeply convicted about how my actions have hurt others. I began to see how my anger and frustration toward others, even when they were making mistakes, was so incredibly un-Christlike. Rather than bringing the healing that always attends Christ’s actions, my leadership in ministry had created wounds in hearts.
I began to see how my attitudes toward my wife had been selfish; I began to long to be a better husband. For example, because of my extreme competitiveness, she was afraid to have me play games with her family. She would have to step carefully, or help others step carefully, around saying things that might provoke me because of my sensitive pride.
I was reminded of how my antics in high school and college had misrepresented God in so many ways. But all of this, although it may sound painful, was so incredibly healing. Like a doctor digging the gravel out of an infected wound, God was applying His scalpel to my heart in ways that brought deeper repentance, humility, and ultimately joy. The phone calls and messages to those I had mistreated were not easy, but the peace that always came in knowing I had done my best to make wrongs right was delightful.
Day by day, as I continue to fix my eyes on Jesus, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that what makes God powerful is that He “is love” (1 John 4:8). And the greatest possible power in my ministry comes from allowing Him to exchange my hard heart for a soft one (Ezek. 36:26), creating in me a clean heart that beats in unison with His (Ps. 51:10). Without this, my preaching is just “a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1), and despite all of my knowledge, faith, miracle-working, and giving, “I am nothing” (v. 2). I find that the longer I stay in God’s presence, surrendering everything and asking Him to change specific areas where He reveals that I am totally unlike Christ, the more it unleashes His power to chisel away at those abrasive spots in my character.
I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy. I still question why I do not see greater results. But God is teaching me to use these feelings as fuel for seeking a more intimate relationship with Him. This is the only thing that truly satisfies anyway. And after all, it is only as I abide in Him that I will bear “much fruit” (John 15:5). There is incredible peace here. “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6, 7).
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
2 Our prayer partnership soon expanded to include a small group of seminary colleagues, which continues to be an inspiration for my walk with God five years later. Geography now separates us, but we have continued to earnestly seek God in prayer together using conference calls or Google Hangouts.
3 Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné and Henry White, History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub., LLC, 2003), 286.
4 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 210.
5 Ellen G. White, Sermons and Talks, vol. 1 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 306.
6 George Müller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, Written by Himself, Jehovah Magnified. Addresses by George Müller Complete and Unabridged, 2 vols. (Muskegon, MI: Dust and Ashes, 2003), 2:730–731.
7 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Ass.), 1901, 48.