We’ve all had the experience. The faintly lingering sweetness, the dawning sense of reality returning upon us, and then the longing sigh, “It was only a dream.” How we wish we could go back! And then, how we wish we could remember. For very soon, the dream vanishes from memory as waking life floods our senses.
Christians often dream, so to speak, about what God might do in their lives for his glory. Sometimes, some of these good dreams begin to take root in our minds and foster hope in our hearts. We cling to them. We begin to count on them. But what happens when good dreams don’t come true? And why does God let us dream up good things that never happen? The answer is as wondrous as it is sobering: so he can crush our little ideas of greatness and show us something better.
Called to an Unlikely Place
Well, where to begin? Providence had spoken. I was called to this pulpit. It wasn’t the door I would have chosen for myself, but it was wide open, and other doors had been fastened shut. When I joined this little church four years earlier, I had done so in faith that if the Lord wanted to call me to the ministry, he would do so through the highest authority on earth, the local church. He did just that. And it wasn’t at all what anyone expected. Something Tookish awoke inside of us, and we went on an adventure.
“We are God’s work. We are his great concern. He sends trials our way to shape us into his likeness.”
Our pastor was not who he said he was, and we found out the hard way. His doctrine was solid; he seemed to be devoted to the glory of God. But as it is written, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24). God began to peel back the mask. People left. Elders left. Finally, the situation became clear for all who wished to see the truth. He stepped down with shows of repentance, but eventually backpedaled and fled.
What could be done? Here was a small flock, committed to each other. They stayed. I did too, and soon was appointed to preach. Some of my friends came to help; others withdrew from me for unrelated reasons. The spiritual warfare of the ministry had begun.
But no matter. Here at last, a clear path opened up before me. I prepared for this for years. Study. Meditation. Prayer. I had preached on street corners. I had exhorted the saints after last-minute calls to fill the pulpit. I had attended elder meetings and shepherded under their direction. I had exposited the word to these people. God had called me here, and kept me here, for this.
A Good Dream Dies
We would soon begin to grow, I told myself. We had everything against us, but God had shown himself to be our helper. The gifting and the calling were present, and the people were willing and believing. We prayed. We evangelized. Any month now, we would grow. But as the months stretched into years, I slowly but surely awoke from my dream. It was a good dream, but it was a dream. It was not to be. We were a little, hobbling church, a Tiny Tim congregation, and we might be that forever, if we lasted at all.
It’s difficult to describe the kind of suffering that slowly grew upon me. The torment took its time. Like the Chinese water torture, failure after failure dropped on my sensitive soul, and bruising followed bruising in the desolate places of that wilderness that men call the pulpit. It was a soul suffering that can only be described as humiliation.
“There are few things,” writes Paul Tripp, “that are as personally humbling as ministry is. There are few endeavors that have the power to produce in you such deep feelings of inadequacy as ministry does” (Dangerous Calling, 129). The strivings of my soul took place in a quiet corner, unseen by the world and barely visible to my own people, though at times they saw my despair. I was driven into the dust before an audience of one: me.
In that lonely place, God showed me what I was made of. I was nothing; I could do nothing. I knew what Paul said, but now I was tasting and seeing, and crying out with him, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
‘There May Yet Be Hope’
Did it ever occur to me that all this was God answering my old prayers for usefulness?
I had wrestled with him about this very thing long before. I begged him not to let me run my course in vain or waste my life. Could it be that all this turmoil was really the true answer to my prayers? Like every real story, it had all the parts they don’t show you in the movies, and all the parts they do show you in the Bible: the waiting, the longing, the silent suffering, the comfort of contemplating quitting. It was good for me:
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust —
there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:27–29)
I’ve learned something about patience, and more importantly, I’ve learned something about contentment in my Lord who loves me so. I’m still here. My situation is increasingly suited to me, and I to it. I’m learning to serve my God where I am, because I am the work of God’s providence. And now, slowly but surely, we are building his church together.
Rescued from Our Plans
Brothers and sisters, we are God’s work. We are his concern. He sends trials our way to shape us into his likeness. We worry about our success in the kingdom while God puts the emphasis on the kingdom’s success in us. We want to save the world, but God still has his mind on saving us. Can we for once let him be God? His providence guides our feet in the ways he has prepared for us to go. There is no resisting him. Why would we want to? He is altogether lovely and full of goodness toward us.
Let’s say God did let us realize our little dreams. In that case, our lives would become like the Dark Island of Narnia, which you may know by its other name, The Island Where Dreams Come True. We, like poor Lord Rhoop, would rush to that place in reckless abandon without any way of escape, not knowing that the island where dreams come true is actually the place where nightmares become real.
“We worry about our success in the kingdom while God puts the emphasis on the kingdom’s success in us.”
What countless horrors has he saved us from? How infinitely kind are his intentions with us? Whether we know it or not, when God saves us from our own dreams, we are like the Narnians who finally escaped the shores of that cursed island: “Just as there are moments when simply to lie in bed and see the daylight pouring through your window . . . and to realize that it was only a dream: it wasn’t real, is so heavenly that it was very nearly worth having the nightmare in order to have the joy of waking, so they all felt when they came out of the dark,” where their own dreams came true.
The Great Storyteller will have his freedom. His character development is exquisite. We are his masterpieces. He knows what he wants to do with us, and the joy he wants us to have. Can we not trust him? Can we not surrender all the good plans of our hearts to him, knowing that his plans are better? Embrace your situation where you are, and see what God does there. After all, we are more than conquerors in all these things, not out of them (Romans 8:37).