“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you,
as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ,
so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed”
(1 Peter 4: 12-13)
Every Christian circle has a few taboo topics. Here we are on the first day of a new year, and I’ve decided to take one of them on. Hmmm, I may be asking for a dangerous year. But it’s time to live bold. This topic is critical, and when Christians ignore it, they lose what could be one of the most significant opportunities of their lives – because they don’t know how address it. It’s a pattern that comes forth when spiritual development is on the brink: obstacle, prayer, victory. If we don’t know the pattern, we may miss the victory. What do some call this pattern? “Spiritual warfare.”
If I am to address such a topic, why would I choose to do so, of all days, on New Year’s Day? Shouldn’t this be a day of celebrating what is new? Why talk about something that sounds so evil? Even demonic? First, it will become clear that I see this pattern as neither evil nor demonic, but purely natural, as natural as labor pains, and, like labor pains to new birth, surprisingly appropriate for discussion as we begin a new year.
I came into the Christian Family at the age of 15, through a church that loved me into the healing I needed. A year later, I joined my first mission trip to build houses for the poor in Mexico, which touched a passion in me and began a decade of many more such mission trips. There was an understanding at this church that “spiritual warfare” often accompanies mission trips. Invariably, they’d warn us, the van may break down on the way (and do just fine on the way back, by the way), or the luggage won’t make it, or team members will get sick, or some other unexpected and obscure hitch will present itself that delays the mission or threatens it altogether.
My church group never expressed that such obstacles derived from some sinister entity, but explained the pattern as one permitted by God to strengthen our faith. Sure enough, the obstacles came. Thankfully, because our group was prepared, we knew what to do: circle up and pray. We didn’t let the obstacles discourage us, defeat us, or hold us back. Instead, they emboldened us and brought us to prayer, bold prayer. Then we watched the Spirit move in remarkable ways. I learned the pattern: obstacle, prayer, victory.
Meanwhile, I and my biological family traveled extensively for study and pleasure, I also noticed that such obstacles were less frequent and less intense on travels for other purposes. Such hitches did come for those too, but less often and less intense. And, please, before casting off these observations as unique to my experience, ask a handful of seasoned missionaries if obstacles are more likely on travels for missions than they are for other purposes, and the knowing ones will smile, nod, and say that obstacles, especially on the way, to mission trips defy the statistics. Seasoned missionaries know the pattern: obstacle, prayer, victory.
The pattern taught me that it held for moments beyond mission trips. When a spiritual development was on its way, so were the obstacles. And I understood the proper response: prayer. Bold prayer. To meet with triumph, I learned from this church that it takes bold prayer that calls upon a Great God to do Mighty works against any obstacle in the way of what the Holy Spirit is doing.
Thank goodness it was this church that led me into Christ. Thank goodness this church had prepared me for a spiritual battle many years later that was misunderstood by everyone around me and that otherwise could have led to the very breakdown of my marriage. Thank goodness this church had taught me about spiritual warfare and about bold prayer. My gratitude can no longer remain silent. Let me share my own battle.
During a 3 ½ month period of time, occasionally hinted at on this site, I lived through what I now affectionately call my “summer in the twilight zone.” I wasn’t calling it that then. The nightmares were terrifying, and my toddler was waking with them at the same time as I was. I’d wake in horror, sweating, heavy breathing, wide eyed and shaken, and seconds later, my toddler in the next room over would let out a blood-curdling scream, waking from her own nightmare. The sicknesses, the lost passports the day before they were needed, the for-a-separate-post trials facing our marriage, the subsequent wedding rings both my husband and I lost, the story I (Karina) shared here, the car accident, which was separate from but later in the week as the story just linked, and other bizarre trials hit heavy over a matter of six weeks, during which I was also awed by extraordinary spiritual glory. (See again the link just noted.) As I’ve expressed before, my “summer in the twilight zone” carried a remarkable mix of glory and terror, and it truly was the time of my own Awakening.
It wasn’t until I faced these battles that I discovered how ignorant most Christians are of these forces that come at peak spiritual moments in our lives. To everyone around me, all of the bizarre circumstances were chalked up to an odd mix of coincidence. Be they my Christian friends or my spiritual leaders, were the available during this time, they all found me to need psychological help and gave no credence to my cries for bold prayer against the forces terrorizing me.
I say “were they available during this time” because some friends and leaders were out of the country or otherwise inaccessible during this time, but once my twilight zone had passed, the Spirit blessed me with quite a few who understood. One, after hearing a litany of craziness, stopped me at “car accident,” cast her index finger out, and exclaimed, “That’s spiritual warfare!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you. Finally, someone understood and gave it a label it deserved.
I had been so exhausted trying to find anybody who could understand, both for the emotional support I longed for and for the prayer team I desperately needed. My friends could see that my marriage was in danger, so on their own, they prayed for that and probably for my psychological health, but they weren’t willing to pray with me. They wanted me to stay put at home at a safe distance from them, while they reported they were praying for me on their own.
So I truly had to learn what I heard Christ whisper and often repeat, “I am with you, My daughter. Come to Me. I am with you.” So I came to Him and I prayed, and I prayed boldly. I saw the pattern: obstacle, prayer, victory. I met the obstacles, I prayed, I kept meeting obstacles, I prayed more boldly, I still kept meeting obstacles, I prayed even more boldly, and I found victory. I still kept meeting obstacles. This is an important point. The obstacles persist even when prayers are uplifted, and even if we consider them bold, but victory sometimes comes only after we send up more prayers that are more bold than we could ever imagine to be necessary.
Obstacle, prayer, victory. I had learned the pattern, and I implemented it when it became necessary. Tragically, not all Christians understand this pattern. They see these obstacles at very pivotal moments in their lives, at moments when they see all the signs that the Spirit is about to do a great work in them and through them, and they think the obstacles are a cruel coincidence. And they moan, groan, and whine over the obstacles. And then the obstacles defeat them, and they cry, and they cry hard because they had “thought” they were on the brink of something great, but the obstacle held them back.
I have sat and listened in grief to such tragic stories of other Christians. To me, all the signs were clear: the Lord was about to do something great in them and through them. “So did you pray?” I’d ask. “Of course,” they’d reply, insulted. “No,” I’d say again, “Did you PRAY?” Then they’d look at me more insulted and shake their head, not at my question, but at me. I got my answer. They hadn’t prayed.
Obstacle, prayer, victory. It’s a pattern noted often throughout the gospels and epistles and in a few Christian circles. In these circles, it is a pattern that often comes under a label that seems to repel other Christian circles, “spiritual warfare.” I can see why the label doesn’t work for many. It conjures up images of angels and demons sword-fighting in Christian sci-fi novels. I get it.
Further, in some circles, the concept of “demons” is associated with the pattern, and I’d like to acknowledge here that this concept of “demons” can be a helpful way of perceiving it, as imagining “demons” can embolden people to become the very prayer warriors they need to be in order to have victory. The way I see the pattern, however, is neither sinister nor demonic, but natural. Perhaps we need a term that is less off-putting and more precise.
Labor pains. Isn’t that what is happening? We are on a path of birthing something new and, just when we’re on the brink of birthing it, obstacles and suffering come forth. We are laboring to birthing something new. Very little that is truly meaningful comes without labor and without hardship. So when we see the obstacles, may we not be defeated. May we not groan at what we’re told to call “coincidences” and, therefore, lack the boldness to fight. May we name the moment, perhaps as “labor pains” or the simple pattern of “obstacle, prayer, victory.” By acknowledging the moment for the pattern it carries, we prepare ourselves to pray with boldness and declare victory.
May any labor pains in our New Year usher in New Birth. May 2014 be a year of bold prayer and great victory. Amen.