Mud and Palaces

June 22, 2013

by Maria Fontaine

Do you ever wish that life could just be all those wonderful times when, in one way or many, your dreams are turning into reality before your eyes? Perhaps you’re learning new things or making progress in something that is important to you. Maybe finances are flowing in, or you are making connections with people who are hungry for spiritual truth, and purpose is pulsating through your life. You feel God’s warm sunshine filling you with a sense of being richly blessed. Even if it takes more effort than usual, the contentment and satisfaction of what is being accomplished through you is a thrill.

Though I’m sure we would all like to constantly enjoy times like these, life continues to move along, and we sometimes find ourselves having to brave the tumult of experiences that are harder to bear. What we have to face may try our patience and our faith. Finding a sense of value in what we are doing may seem elusive or even nonexistent. We may face dissatisfaction with ourselves or our circumstances if all of our attempts to do the right thing seem to end up caked in the mud of problems and troubles.

It’s easy under these circumstances to feel as if you’re abandoned or as if the Lord’s support and guidance is nowhere to be found. Our days can seem as hard to wade through as a mud pit. Our best efforts to do good seem to yield little or no results, and we feel like we’re sinking deeper into that miry hole of hopelessness.

But you can draw encouragement and motivation from the fact that you’re not alone. Many of God’s people from the Bible to the present spent time “in the mud” on their way to accomplishing important tasks that He had called them to fulfill.

Consider Paul. Here is a man whom many Christians look to as an example of invincible faith in the face of ongoing persecution and difficulties throughout much of his ministry. However, even though he was usually very positive in the face of his struggles, he must have had his share of “mud” times. One that comes to mind was the two-year period he spent back in his hometown of Tarsus.

In Damascus, after his encounter with Jesus and his subsequent conversion, Paul had burned his bridges to his past life. He’d thrown himself into the life of a disciple for Jesus. He’d given it his all, only to find that his passionate efforts and the turmoil that they evoked in many Jewish leaders had made him an outcast among his former Jewish colleagues. They were so enraged that they had assassins waiting to kill him before he could leave the city. Neither was he trusted by those he now counted as his brethren in Christ. His prior persecution of Christians caused many of them to doubt the sincerity of his conversion.

Abandoned and shipped off to his hometown,[1] I’m sure it must have been very difficult for him to avoid feeling that he’d failed somehow. But he didn’t give up trying to use the circumstances he found himself in, just because his witness there in Tarsus looked very small. He persevered with the little he could do for two years until the Lord sent Barnabas with the vision to spread the Gospel in Asia Minor and eventually throughout the Roman Empire.[2]

How about Elijah?[3] After his encounter with Queen Jezebel and King Ahab and predicting the drought and famine that was about to come on them for their sins, God sent Elijah to a remote valley to live next to a stream with no one to share God’s messages with. He probably felt pretty useless, sitting there with little more to do than skipping stones and remembering all he’d been and done up to that point. But it gets worse.

Try to imagine yourself in his circumstances. By this time he was probably itching to go and confront the king and queen with more messages from God, but his next assignment wasn’t the palace, nor challenging the prophets of Baal. It was the foreign town of Zarephath. No big witness, no crowds to inspire or enemies to overcome. Just a poverty-stricken woman and a child, with a hovel to share with him. How could he have fallen so far from what he’d been? Yet he obeyed and stayed faithful in spite of what must have seemed like total defeat.

He stuck it out through those lean times, and when the time was right, God called him to stand up in defiance of the hundreds of prophets of Baal. Calling fire down from heaven was more powerful than anything that God had done through Elijah before, but the end result wasn’t evident to Elijah while he was passing through his personal “mud” time of seeming uselessness. On the surface, everything appeared to be taking him in the opposite direction from what he wanted to do. Hiding away in another country must have made him look weak and cowardly. How humiliating that must have been. But when at God’s command he returned, in the power of God’s Spirit, it was apparent to all that God was doing the miracle.

It’s true that many great men of faith have had their moments when they were “flying high,” like Joseph with Pharaoh, or Elijah calling down fire from heaven, or Daniel in the king’s palace, but most of the time they were down there in the mud with everyone else, because that is where their faith was clearly demonstrated and strengthened.

One moment Joseph had been pretty much on top of the world, dreaming of even his older brothers bowing down to him.[4] The next he was waiting to be sold into slavery in a foreign land.[5] He eventually reached what he probably thought was the pinnacle of power, running the household of one of Egypt’s most prominent figures. But it was short-lived, as he found himself the victim of this man’s vengeful wife, who landed him in a prison cell for standing up for his convictions.

I can only imagine the depths of discouragement and defeat he must have faced. He looked like a total washout. But useless as he felt, he used what little he had to carry on doing his best, even if it was interpreting dreams for a mixture of criminals and some pretty unlucky souls like himself. He used what he had, down there in the “mud” of the prison, and one life that was touched in that place was eventually crucial in catapulting him into the position God had prepared for him as second in command in Egypt.[6]

The Lord’s power and love in His children’s lives has to be demonstrated in the worst of times as well as the best. It has to work in the mud, not just in the palace.

Sometimes those “mud” times may be preceded by what we might think is our greatest service to the Lord. But who can tell what the future holds? As someone has said, “If we’re not dead, we’re not done!”

Daniel[7] had stayed faithful in the face of many impossible situations and had proved God’s power to Nebuchadnezzar time and again. Yet he came to the point where his presence in the court of the new king, Belshazzar, was not welcome. But what looked like the end was only a time of preparation for something no one had expected. God stepped in to bring in a new world order, catapulting Daniel into a whole new task of mentoring the new Medo-Persian empire’s king, Darius.

What about Moses? Although God had allowed Moses to be raised in Pharaoh’s court for a reason, that wasn’t where his most important work was to be. Young and strong and confident, Moses was not yet ready for his “palace” time of being the instrument God would use to free His people.[8] God had to put him down in the mud of Midian, struggling for years in the wilderness, where he had to trust God for everything. But when you look at the man he became, old and stumbling in his words,[9] sent by God to live among the slaves in Egypt, but with the faith that God would fulfill His plan through him, you have the stuff of miracles.

Our “palaces” may not all look the same on the outside. In Moses’ case, it seems that his “palace” was the fulfillment of his heart’s desire to free his people from slavery. All that responsibility and the many struggles involved in leading God’s people might not sound like our idea of a “palace,” but God sees the desires of our heart and has promised to fulfill them if we’ll commit our ways to Him. What could be better than that?

And what about Jesus? He certainly had “mud” time! Here is the God of the universe, setting aside the glories of heaven to face the frustrations, the pain, the sorrows of our existence, forgoing His unlimited power to do all that He had previously done. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”[10] He spent most of His time among the poor, the sick, and the outcasts, because that was where His light was most desperately needed. It opened the door to our understanding the depths of His love for us.

Have you found yourself struggling through one of those “mud pits,” wondering why God would uproot you from some valuable things you were doing and put you face down in the mud or in a place that could hardly seem more like a prison cell if it had physical bars restraining you? Perhaps you are passing through one of those “prophet moments” in which He is just getting you ready for something that is going to reverberate in the hearts of others and whose echoes will carry on into eternity. Walking by faith only comes into full view when walking by sight is no longer an option.

If you’ve ever felt like things in your life have gone so wrong that God could no longer rescue you and use you for something He calls great, just remember what King David said. He’d done some terrible things, yet he knew that in his repentance he’d never be abandoned by the divine love that held on to him through everything.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”[11]

God’s examples of those He calls great all had one thing in common: they were determined to stay faithful through times when they couldn’t see the Lord’s plan for them. They each had their unique experiences that were designed by the Lord to help them develop a strong, godly character. Perhaps they had to learn humility, like Joseph, or to just obey in faith no matter how impossible something appeared to be, like Elijah. In Daniel’s case, one of the things God seemed to be teaching him was that as long as we are in this life, He has a purpose for us here, and we never fully know what the future holds.

Jesus works in each of our lives in a tailor-made way because no two people or the lives they live are ever exactly the same. Whatever the present and future hold for you, remember that you have His promise that He will walk through it all by your side, whether in the palace or the mud.

[1] Acts 9:22–31.

[2] Acts 11:25–26, 13:1–3.

[3] 1 Kings 17,18.

[4] Genesis 37:9–11.

[5] Genesis 37:28.

[6] Genesis 39–41.

[7] Daniel 5, 6.

[8] Exodus 2:10–15.

[9] Exodus 4:1–14.

[10] Matthew 8:20 NIV.

[11] Psalm 139:7–12 NIV/NAS.