You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know. Deuteronomy 8:2-3
Have you ever noticed that God isn’t in a hurry? If I were to create or work out a story of mankind, I don’t think I would include 400 year gaps of time, like where the Israelites stayed in Egypt between Joseph’s death and Moses’ exodus. Nor would I have another 400 year time of silence where no prophet spoke between Malachi and John the Baptist. The wilderness wanderings of Moses and the children of Israel might get shortened to maybe five years, and Jesus would have gotten to Bethany before Lazarus before he died, not after.
But I’m not God, and as Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us, our ways are not His ways and they are as far apart as the Heavens are above the earth. He works slowly and deliberately for a reason. Deuteronomy 8 lets us know it is a part of our growth process: to humble us, to let us know what is lacking in our character, to get us to learn to keep God’s commandments, and to cause us to hunger for God and God alone.
In JD Greear’s book Jesus Continued (Zondervan 2014), our women’s Sunday School class is on the chapter of “When You Can’t Feel God.” He calls the gaps of time that you experience silence from God “white space.” It’s the space in the Bible between one part of the story to the next. It’s the space between the call of God and the fulfillment of the dream. It’s also the white space of singleness; the white space of sickness; the white space of finishing out a prison sentence; the white space of unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations.
A Biblical example would be the time between when David was anointed king and the time he actually took over as king. There were a few years in-between, and quite a bit of drama. It’s easy to lose hope in the interim and doubt yourself or doubt God.
This white space time can be terribly confusing and the hardest part of life to endure. Greear’s encouragement is not to waste the white space. It reminds me of the story of Gracia Burnham. Gracia and her husband Martin were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels while on an anniversary trip in the Philippines in 2001. They were in captivity for over a year. On an episode of “Locked Up Abroad” Gracia told of this harrowing time. The interviewer asked if it had changed her in any way. She stopped and said something to this effect: “It has made me kinder and more forgiving. I hope it has changed me. Otherwise I have wasted 375 days in the jungle.” I don’t want to waste my jungles either.
It was while I was reading Jesus Continued the first time through in the summer of 2015 that God showed me the meaning behind a big white space in my life. Up to that point it was terribly confusing and just a dangling question mark for me. I had felt a yearning or a “call” of God for missions when I was in college. I certainly had a heart for ministry, if not missions. I went to this big missions convention at the University of Illinois at Urbana twice with 20,000 other students. Whatever capacity God would lead me to, I knew I needed to finish college, get some experience and Bible training, and then go.
Once I finished my second year of graduate school with a Bible degree I thought, “this is finally it.” I had pursued different missions boards and landed on one to apply for a three year stint overseas. I was accepted and went to their candidate school in Wheaton, Illinois. In the middle of this three week missionary and pre-missionary gathering, the green light shifted to a flashing red light with no advanced notice.
Part of it had to do with the leadership. They really didn’t communicate with me as they said they would and any time line that they set up where they said they would talk, they didn’t. I waited patiently at first, less patiently as time went on and as the weeks and then months went on from there, until I gave up. My attempts to figure things out weren’t met with solid answers and I went into an emotional spin for at least three months, if not longer.
As I tried to get a word from God, He was putting things on my heart about returning to my home state of Wisconsin, to a small town, working in a church full time, in the denomination I last was a part of in through college. I was living in South Carolina, on Hilton Head Island, and from there God moved me to the south shore of Lake Superior, in the middle of the winter–a very brutal winter. But it was with an old friend from college who was a pastor of a smaller church who needed a youth director.
That was over thirty years ago. I went from working in that church for five years, to feeling led to working in a school setting, which I have been doing full time for 26 years. The “call to missions” that has continued to ring in my heart has been that white space, with a few other details surrounding it. In the middle of most of that time, I was single and wondering what God was up to.
While reading the chapter in Jesus Continued, God helped me connect the dots, in an act of grace. Check out this passage in Ezekiel 3:5-9: For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel–not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to Me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Behold I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.
It was like He spoke it straight into my heart. This was the great “ah hah” for me, the answer to my white space. I was fulfilling my call to missions by being right where I am. God didn’t send me to a people with a foreign speech and a hard language. If He did, they would have listened to me. Instead, He sent me to my own people in my own home state. And they aren’t willing to listen because they have a stubborn and rebellious heart. I can vouch for that. It has been a time of much spiritual warfare and little fruit, many hard hearts and little response. In response to this, God has given me a face as hard as their faces and a forehead like flint. I can take what they dish out, and more.
Why the white space and the difficult assignment? Just as Deuteronomy 8 says: to humble me, and to show me what is in my heart so that I know I need God and I dare not trust in myself. It is also that I might learn to obey God and to hunger for Him as my true daily bread over and above anything else.
May God fill in the blanks on your white spaces and may you learn the same lessons of humble dependence.