By Sheri Ellington
Ever been in a dry place? A scorched place? A desert? Where things just seem to keep going wrong and no matter how much you pray, it feels like your prayers are going no further than your ceiling?
I have good news for you! “And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:11).
First of all, because we live in a world that is cursed by sin, we will have “scorched” places. Everyone goes through challenging times. But for those who know Jesus, we have some pretty awesome promises in this verse: God will guide us continually and satisfy our desire! He will make our bones strong. We will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail! This is good news!
How can it be possible that when our life feels “scorched,” we are like a “watered garden?” By faith in Jesus, it is possible! Jesus was speaking at a feast when He said these words: “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38-39). So, in Christ, we have living water, His Spirit, and that is how we can be like a watered garden in the scorched places of life.
My family has been in a scorched place, one defined by recurring losses over the course of about a year. If you include our extended family relationships and in-laws, we have been touched by death nine times in eleven months. But God has blessed us beyond measure, comforted us relentlessly and opened new doors for us to share about His love and faithfulness. He is using it all for our good, growing us to be more like Him, and teaching us about how truly wonderful and gracious He is. May He receive all the praise! He has taught me several lessons on this journey that have helped me not just cope with the grief but live with unshaken hope in Him! I hope these lessons will encourage you in your scorched places.
The first lesson was about my relationship with Him. I needed to know Him. I was already a Believer, but He was telling me to get to know Him on a more personal level. I regularly read my Bible and led Bible studies, but I sensed He was leading me to do a study that centered more specifically on knowing Him. Several different people had recommended a Bible study called Lord, I Want to Know You by Kay Arthur, so I finally gave in and said, “OK, Lord. I will do the study.” It was a study of the names of God (and I highly recommend it). I was still doing that study when we had a trilogy of life-changing events:
- My father-in-law had a stroke.
- My mom was diagnosed with glioblastoma (an aggressive brain cancer).
- My sister-in-law’s mom passed away after a long struggle with dementia. All of this happened within 10 days.
It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Over and over again. I was beginning to understand why God told me to know Him better. He knew what was ahead for me. He knew that we would be touched by death over and over this year, and I would need to know that He is good. He is there. He is Most High – there is no higher power to whom we can appeal. He is my Righteousness. He is my Savior. He is my Rock. He is my Shield. He is sovereign over all. He loves me. This was hard. But God is good. So, if you’re in a scorched place right now, one suggestion is to invest some time getting to know our Almighty God. The bigger He becomes in our eyes, the smaller our problems become!
Not only do we need to know God in order to face the scorched places of life, we also need to cherish Him. Shortly after my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, one of my sons told me about an article he had read called, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” John Piper wrote the article on the evening before his own cancer surgery! I took the article to my parents’ house and we read it aloud together as a sort of family devotion time. The article listed ten ways you will waste your cancer, but one really stuck with me: “You will waste your cancer if you think that ‘beating’ cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.” Wow. My mom might not survive this cancer, but even if she didn’t we needed to cherish Christ. What does it mean to “cherish” something? One definition is to “cling to it.” I needed to cling to Christ and He would see me through this. It wasn’t enough just to know Him, He wanted me to cherish Him, to cling to Him.
Abide in Him
During my mom’s illness, it felt like we were operating in “crisis” mode, and at times, it felt like God was absolutely silent. We continued to pray for her healing, but He seemed to be saying “no” from the very beginning. So, I kept praying, and I read books about prayer, and I asked others to pray; I even fasted and prayed. Whatever it took to save mom, I was willing to do it! If anyone suggested another book to me, I read it! One suggestion came from another of my sons, and it was life-changing. It was called, The True Vine by Andrew Murray. God spoke powerfully to me through this short book about John 15, where Jesus describes Himself as the Vine & Believers as the Branches. It changed my life. Instead of working myself to death serving the Lord, I have learned how to abide in Him and allow Him to work through me. I learned that the key to Him working through me is by nurturing my relationship with Him through fellowship (reading His Word, praying, and keeping Him at the forefront of my thoughts throughout the day) and through obedience. When He tells me to do something, I must do it in order to abide in Him.
To help us grasp what “fellowship” entails, think about the parent-child relationship. Parents and their children spend time together, talk to each other, and listen to each other. But if the parent tells the child to do something and the child ignores the parent or disobeys, then there is a hindrance to their fellowship. The disobedience must be addressed before they can return to the pleasant relationship they enjoyed before. The same is true for us with God. We listen to Him by reading the Bible, and we talk to Him (and sometimes hear from Him) when we pray. But if we ignore what He tells us to do in His Word, if we go our own way instead of His way, we should expect there to be some hindrance to our fellowship with Him. Abiding in Him so that there are no hindrances to our fellowship means we must spend time with Him in His Word and obey Him. The good news is that He gives us His Spirit to enable us to do that! (See Ezekiel 36:27.)
Mom spent a week in the hospital, then went to a rehab center for two weeks before starting chemo and radiation. I commuted about 30 minutes each day to sit with her, and although I love Christian music, I got tired of hearing the same songs over and over on the radio. So, I started listening to sermons on the Truth Network. I cannot remember which preacher said this, or I would give him credit. But God knows who he is! And he wouldn’t mind not getting credit for it…the statement was this: “Our prayer each day should be, ‘Lord, glorify Yourself today, at my expense.’” God had told me to know Him, cherish Him and abide in Him. Now I was to glorify Him…even if it was costly to me. “Glorify” is a churchy word – it means to bring attention to Him, to allow Him to use me and my life so that He gets recognition. The whole point of sharing this story is to glorify Him – to give Him recognition and honor and attention, even though I have personally suffered a lot of grief this year. I know on the basis of Romans 8:28 that He is using all of it for good! All of it for His glory! And THAT makes it worth any amount of loss.
I’ve shared some lessons I’ve learned and how I learned them – through a Bible study, an online article, a devotional book, and a radio sermon. The last lesson I learned came through a verse that I had read or heard at some point. I cannot remember when I read it for the first time. But it was one of those verses that God just kept bringing to my mind. It was Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” On the night of Mom’s surgery, I was all alone in the waiting room after everyone else had gone home and Dad had gone back to Mom’s room in ICU. I opened my Bible to take my anxiety and grief to the Lord. He reminded me of this verse, “Behold, I am doing a new thing…do you not perceive it?” NO! I didn’t!
A few days later I was to deliver a devotion at a meeting, and this verse became the focal point of that devotion. Two days after that, on a Sunday morning, Dad and I were with Mom at the hospital, and we watched the sermon airing from Duke Chapel. The pastor incorporated Isaiah 43:19 into his sermon! It caught my attention. This became a verse I held onto throughout Mom’s illness.
We kept watching for the “new thing,” hoping it would be healing. But that wasn’t God’s plan. Mom spent 2 months in Hospice care at home, during which time our family and friends served as her caregivers. There were many miracles along the way: God’s provision of caregivers, food, equipment, medication, wisdom about decisions we faced, but not the miracle of physical healing. On July 10, Mom left her cancer behind and met Jesus face to face. God gave me Jude 24 as comfort about her homegoing: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…” We read it over her lifeless body and rejoiced that Jesus was presenting her to God with great joy, blameless before the presence of God because of the blood of Jesus! Wow! Knowing Him, cherishing Him, abiding in Him, glorifying Him, and watching Him had caused me to have this eternal perspective. And it brought me incredible peace when she left us because I know where she is, and that we will be reunited one day!
God is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), and He surrounded us with His love through friends and family as we proceeded with the funeral arrangements. His presence was palpable. After the funeral, the immediate family went back to Mom’s grave, and as we stood there, I heard that verse again: “Behold I am doing a new thing….do you not perceive it?” At that moment, I couldn’t remember the reference, so I used my phone and Bible app to look it up. There it was, Isaiah 43:19. Daddy was talking, so I waited to share this exciting verse with the family. While I was waiting, he said to me and my sister: “You know, girls, I was reading in the Scriptures this morning from Isaiah 43:19, and I believe the Lord is doing a new thing. We are entering a new chapter of life without Mom, and I am excited to see what the Lord has in store for us.” WHAT? Isaiah 43:19? I almost leaped out of my skin! I held up my phone and said, “Look! Look! That’s the verse I was going to share with you!” It was like God was shouting it to us: “Watch me! I am doing a new thing in your lives!”
From that day forward, I continued to pray that God would help me perceive the new thing He was doing. I began to feel a call to full-time ministry, and in particular, taking Bible study to churches across different denominations, perhaps through short retreats or workshops. My mother-in-law, Patricia, suggested that my niece, April, would be great to lead the worship part. (Unless the Lord gives me a new gift of singing, I won’t sing into a microphone!!) April prayed about it and said, “YES!” God had also been working in her heart and calling her to ministry. For a month or so, we chatted and dreamed and wondered what to do first. But we had no focus to the ministry, no central purpose to drive us.
Then on October 2, 2017, my husband’s brother, Tommy, who is Patricia’s oldest son and April’s father-in-law, was shot and killed in the driveway at his home. We were stunned. But God wasn’t. During the week following his death, Patricia pulled me aside and said, “You girls needed your mission, now you have it. We must do something to get people in our town to pray against this kind of evil. This is a spiritual battle and the battle is the LORD’s, but our part is to pray.”
This was it. The new thing. At last, I could perceive it! Just 3 weeks after Tommy’s death, we went to the first church in their town to share our family’s story and to issue a call to pray like never before. I spoke about the fact that if we are in Christ, we are automatically soldiers in His army (2 Timothy 2:3)! He has given us the armor of God to wear (Ephesians 6:10-18), and divine weapons that can demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). He has equipped us with everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). He has told us to pray at all times, to be sober and alert, and to persevere. This is the message we have been sharing with churches. We have been invited into churches across several different denominations! The response has been incredible. Some have said that they needed to be encouraged in their own hardships. Some have said, “Now I know what to do – to PRAY!” At one church, we collected 76 response cards indicating a desire to join in what God is doing through us! God is doing a new thing!
Our new ministry is called Unshaken Hope Ministries. Our hope in Christ is unshaken because of who He is. Even though we have lost nine family members in the extended families over the past year, our hope is unshaken. Even though we didn’t understand why God didn’t heal Mom, our hope is unshaken. Even though Tommy died a violent and cruel death, our hope is unshaken. Even though we don’t know who killed him, or when it will be resolved, God knows. Therefore, our hope is unshaken. Our desire is that all believers will live with unshaken hope in Christ and that those who don’t know Christ yet will come to know Him through our testimony, and that they will stand firm in unshaken hope.
Are you in a scorched place? Do you know Jesus? Do you cherish Him? Do you abide in Him by spending time with Him and obeying Him? Are you willing to glorify Him at your own expense? Then watch Him! He may be doing a new thing in your life too! And in the scorched places, remember the promises of God in Isaiah 58:11: “And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”