Isaiah 52:12b For the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
I can’t remember a time when my audience more struggled to receive what I was teaching than when the group of 21 African pastors gathered under the shade of a large mango tree in the small village south of Mwanza, Tanzania. I was shocked when I heard that some of them didn’t own a Bible. How did they spiritually survive, much less lead God’s people in a spiritually hostile environment where witchcraft and Islam were engrained in the people? I thought it was important for them to understand jurisdictional principles so they could fight the spiritual fight with confidence in God’s sovereignty and in the flow of God’s Word. However, for two days, they struggled with the concept as it was presented and carefully translated into Swahili.
The Lord Set the Stage
Perhaps I wouldn’t have been surprised at the resistance had I known their backgrounds and the lack of exposure to the Bible and sound teaching, but I struggled with their resistance. I could tell they chafed at the idea that God works according to His purposes in all things in our lives, both good and difficult. For two days I watched their ignorance of who and what God is stumble them. As we sat on handmade benches with a slight breeze transporting the smells of the rice and beans some local women were cooking for us and the ever-present odor of African dirt and poverty, I grew frustrated with the dilemma.
The mission trip had been covered in prayer the previous weeks by my church family, the hosts, my family and a few friends, and the three of us who came to serve the small community of believers and the pastors. These men had been sent out to plant churches by the assembly that began under the mango tree in front of Pastor Samuel’s small mud brick home. The pastor’s conference was not going as I had hoped and prayed. All I knew to do was apply what I believed and was teaching, namely, that God runs the universe by His Word (Heb. 1:3) and that all things have been made subject to Him (Heb. 2:8). If we believe this, then we know that regardless of what occurs, God knows we need it so that we can know Him better and experience His presence and power. We definitely were all needy, and His presence and power were our only hope. What I couldn’t see then was that God sets the stage for displaying His glory and grace in the midst of difficulties.
Learn to Rely on the Holy Spirit
So with my companions, Andy and Gary, we prayed that God would break through the barrier (whatever it was) of their understanding and open their hearts to hear and receive the truth of His Word and ways. I could relate to Paul’s experience when he went to Corinth. I came in fear and trembling (which increased by the day), and persuasive speech and words of wisdom had been ineffective. God was teaching me, as well as my listeners, to rely on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-3). As for me, I expected God to come through for us. I reasoned that we were His, He had brought us together in amazing ways, and He promises to be faithful to those who humble themselves and pray. However, I was not expecting the incredible miracle that happened on that Wednesdaymorning in April of ’95.
When things go awry in our lives, it’s easy to wonder, “Does God know this is happening to me? Can He change this situation, or does He care enough to deliver me? How long, O, Lord, must I wait?” Have you ever been there? Spiritual amnesia may set in and the next thing we know, we find ourselves wallowing in despair and feeling alone and helpless. We’ve tried everything we know to try and have come up short. That’s when the Holy Spirit invites us to discover the source of our faith, love, and strength. “Who are you relying on? Are you relying on Me, the Helper, sent from the Father and the Son, to manifest the presence and power of God in your life? Do you believe that what God accomplished through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross is your only hope and source of contentment and joy, and the means of answered prayer?” By ten that morning, I had processed those questions and was relying on the Holy Spirit for help.
Waiting on the Lord is Essential to Growing Faith
I’m not thinking that I’m the only one who dislikes waiting for God’s answers to prayer. I think almost everyone suffers from the flesh-driven desire to be happy and comfortable—all the time. Our vision for comfort and the ease of heaven now isn’t God’s vision for us in this earthly life. He inducts His children into a sanctifying training program that requires testing, trials, pains, injustices, disappointments, and prolonged conflicts, as well as a plethora of good blessings. I can now look back on that experience in Tanzania and see the wisdom of God in setting the stage as He did with the barriers in the hearts and minds of those pastors. Furthermore, as usual, post-trauma, I can see that many of the reason for all aspects of the problem, as well as His timing in answering prayer, were essential for the growth in faith of everyone involved.
I wish I could remember that truth more readily when I’m going through trials; don’t you? More than likely, even as you read this, you find yourself in a trial where you are waiting on the Lord for deliverance. Let me encourage you, the answer from the Lord will come when His purpose for the trial is accomplished. James 1:2-4 reminds us, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” In hindsight, I’m so grateful that God produced a holy desperation in me during the first two and a half days of teaching. Are you feeling desperate and needy yet in whatever situation you’re facing?
The Lord Goes Before You
It never ceases to amaze me when I think of what God did to glorify His name that day. Before I had even left for Tanzania, God had spoken to a man in Uganda and sent him on mission. God was going before me. By His miraculous grace He informed him that a “man of God” was going to be speaking near Mwanza, Tanzania, and that he was to go to the group to whom he was speaking and give them a very simple message. Can you imagine the questions this man must have had? Where am I going in Mwanza? How near? Who is the man? How will I find him? What will I say? Lord, that is a long journey, how shall I get there? (He had no car or means of transportation). Notwithstanding all of his unanswered questions, he launched out in faith with reliance on the Holy Spirit. He hiked or hitch-hiked for more than a week, covering I don’t know how many miles. Finally, he found us in the small village, a half mile off the main road, and up a dusty, dirty path under that mango tree. He knew none of us, had no advertisements telling of our location, and had no way to discover our whereabouts except by the Lord’s guidance. He obviously was connected to the God who goes before His people. God had set his course (Heb. 12:1), and there he was!
We had taken a break after our first session and were having refreshments when the unkempt man, seemingly in his early 60’s and with no backpack or supplies for travel, arrived. He questioned someone in the group. “Is this where the man of God is speaking?” When he was told that there was a pastor leading a pastor’s seminar, he was satisfied that God had led him to the place to which he had been sent. To this day, I don’t know that I ever heard his name, but I’m sure he introduced himself to Pastor Samuel and told him that he had been sent by God to deliver a message to the pastors. He must have asked if would he be allowed to speak to them. I don’t know whether Samuel asked what his message was or else was so convinced by the man’s story that the inquiry was unnecessary. Regardless, as we started the next session, Samuel introduced the man to the group, and my translator gave me the following account.
To the best of my recollection, the man was from Uganda, a neighboring country, and had been traveling all week to find where the “man of God” was speaking. He rejoiced that he had found us and praised God for His faithfulness. Then he said to them, “I have been sent with a message to give to you. God told me to tell you to listen to him.” My translator was astonished as he conveyed the simple message. We sat on sections of wood cut from a tree trunk. The translator leaned over to whisper in my ear what was being said. When he told me, he paused, and we looked at each other in amazement. Everyone was stunned! He concluded with thanking Pastor Samuel for allowing him to speak, and then sat down. That was it! He had lunch with us and then disappeared down that dusty path. His mission accomplished, I can’t imagine the awe and satisfaction of God that he experienced as he made another weeklong trek home.
When I got up to speak, together we praised and thanked God for His wonderful grace and love for us that caused Him to send this man, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to minister to us. I’ve often wondered if he was the “angel of the Lord.” From that moment on, the entire spiritual atmosphere changed, and God opened their hearts to hear and understand what He had sent me to give to them. The man’s presence and message was an act of God displaying everything I had been teaching for two days about God and His working in the affairs of man by the power of His Word. The barriers disappeared, and for the rest of the week we were all carried by a wave of the presence of Christ and understanding of His Word. By the end of the week, God had knit our hearts together in the love of Christ and an amazing awareness that God not only is with us, but goes before us.
Unforgettable? or Forgettable?
You would think I would never forget that experience. And you’re right—I haven’t! When I am asked to share about the works of God in my life, this experience almost always comes to my mind first. However, on a daily basis, I have “forgotten” it. It is so easy for me to forget that God has proven that He not only is with me, but that He also goes before me. I’m guessing that you can relate. Perhaps you also have experienced God’s amazing grace and providence in your life that ought to settle your faith and lodge it unmovable on Christ, the solid rock. Do you also find yourself easily discouraged in the midst of a new trial or hardship? What’s with that!?
I think it is because God doesn’t want us living on yesterday’s grace and mercy. He has willed that we still live in the weakness of our fleshly existence on earth so we might learn that His grace is sufficient on a moment-by-moment basis. He sanctifies and trains us to put into practice what we say we believe. That’s what He was doing for us that week in Tanzania and continues to do every day in the lives of His children. We just need to be reminded, like many times a day, that God is with us and goes before us. Trust, rely, abide, and rest in Him. Just as He was to His people in Isaiah’s day, He will be to you today if you believe in Him. He will go before you and will also be your rear guard.