Column: What Do You Do When Your Life is Stuck in a Rut?
By Drew Williams
So, it’s Monday morning and you are just coming to grips with a predictably long, difficult and tedious day at work when suddenly a poorly-dressed, wild-haired stranger barges into your office and bellows out with tremendous authority, “Burn all your files, throw your MacBook out the window, leave everything else behind—and then come, follow me! Come follow me and lead a life filled with suffering, poverty, scorn and derision. Come follow me to the middle of Times Square, stand on a soap box and declare a message that nobody wants to hear!”
Would you go?
I think we could turn down such an invitation without fear of regret. And yet what we find in the story of the calling of Elisha in chapter 19 of 1 Kings is something very similar. The great Prophet of God, Elijah, strode into Elisha’s everyday life and presented a hugely dramatic (and incredibly unappealing, given the life of a prophet in those times) call of God upon Elisha’s life. And in an instant, at a moment’s notice, Elisha gave up everything he knew and owned to follow Elijah.
At first glance, his response seems entirely spontaneous, but actually it was not. Nobody leaves behind everything at a moment’s notice unless that moment has been primed. What we are witnessing here is the end of a lengthy, arduous process that so often starts out in discouragement, is followed by endless waiting and crying out to God for deliverance, and finally settles into a long desolation. No doubt about it: God had been at work in Elisha’s life for a very long time before Elijah shows up.
Notwithstanding his humble circumstances as a simple farmer, Elisha may well have sensed God’s call on his life. Perhaps he had a dream that there was some greater plan for his life? A deep desire to be doing something very different?
As the youngest of twelve sons, it was Elisha’s lot in life to plow the twelfth pair of oxen across his father’s land. Typically, each of these sons would have his own yoke of oxen, with the oldest son leading the way as the other sons follow. Now just imagine 24 oxen tromping through the same furrow ahead of you as you walk behind them and steady your plow… with each subsequent plowshare digging deeper and deeper, and plenty of unplanned fertilizer being deposited at the same time. In no time at all, you’d be up to your eyeballs in dung and stuck in a rut! How could Elisha have any sense of God’s call upon his life in the midst of such a mess?
What does the Bible offer when we feel entirely ready to leave for a new assignment but feel completely stuck in a dung-filled rut? When we fear our dreams may never be realized? Reflecting on the story of Elisha, here are a few suggestions:
1. Stay exactly where you are: That’s probably not what we want to hear, and yet the Lord is magnificently clear. He said, “…each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called Him to” (1 Corinthians 7:24). And this is clearly the same unwelcome advice that Elisha got. Of course, if he had gone off on his own, Elijah might never have found him! But there he was, right behind the twelfth plow, faithfully getting on with what the Lord had currently called him to. In response to a question about discerning God’s leading for the future, Bishop Alfred Stanway offered: “80 percent of future guidance is present commitment.” In Elisha’s heart, I suspect that there was many a day when he felt like walking away. But thank God he did not. He faithfully applied himself to his position, and ultimately found his life’s true calling under Elijah.
When we feel that we are in a rut, there are often two false gods that compete for our attention. The first is the god of Deism. Distant, uncaring and unfeeling, this god may mean us no malice, but he/it is too busy running the universe to care about us. The second false god is the “rescuing” god, or “Deus ex machina” (Latin for “god out of the machine”). This theatrical device is deployed to solve a seemingly inextricable problem via a contrived and unexpected intervention. This could be as complex as a crane appearing from offstage to pluck the protagonist away to safety, or as simple as some contrived twist of the plot.
If I could choose between these two false gods, I’d much prefer the one who would immediately and supernaturally air-lift me out of every difficult circumstance the very moment life gets tough but I know, in truth, both gods are false and both will disappoint us. Instead, despite the depth and filth of whatever rut we’re in, we are called to entrust our dreams and lives to the real God, who knows our fears and our pain, who does care, and who will act in our lives, even when we cannot see Him—but maybe not right away.
2. Remain teachable: The second suggestion from the Bible encourages us to keep an open heart and mind, even when stuck in a rut. When our dreams and hopes seem to be fading, our current reality dominates our vision. Discouragement at this point can so easily overwhelm us, especially as we keep our eyes on just the rut in front of us, seeing only darkness and fertilizer. In those moments, the Bible has a critically important suggestion: look up! Don’t believe all your eyes can see.
Remember the story of Elisha and others whose dreams survived so much hardship over such a long period of time. Refusing to believe that his eyes were more reliable than his faith, Elisha found that ruts were also wonderfully creative places for God to teach us His ways. As he plowed the field, Elisha learned a lot about patience, humility and following—good lessons for an apprentice prophet of God. He remained open to the “still small voice” of God, even when his eyes and ears tempted him to believe otherwise.
3. Don’t let the fire go out: Notwithstanding the huge disparity between his present circumstances and the heroic call upon his life, Elisha did not let the fire go out on his dream. All his actions in this first meeting with Elijah demonstrate that he never gave up on his sense of destiny. He held on to hope. He trusted the Godly drive and passion within him.
Someone once said our futures do not happen by accident—they unfold through engagement with God’s will and purpose for our lives. A sense of destiny is what we begin to experience when we are filled with the Lord’s hope for us. And over the horizon, on a day much like any other, the Lord brought Elisha’s destiny to him. If he had lost hope, and quit his job on the farm or been at home in bed that day with the ancient eastern equivalent of a “mental health day” he might well have missed it.
4. Release the oxen and the plow: In his new life as apprentice prophet of God, and then as Elijah’s successor, God provided for Elisha in ways that he could never have imagined. But to get there, to receive this provision and walk in the fullness of his destiny, Elisha had to give up relying upon two things that had been very certain. The oxen and the plow had to go. So we are told that Elisha, “…took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant” (1 Kings 19:21).
What had been a blessing in one season would have ultimately impeded him from fulfilling his destiny in the new season. It was not that the plow and oxen were bad, it was simply that they could not provide for Elisha in the way that God could provide for Elisha.
Looking back, I realize that in every season of my life, Jesus has continually invited me to surrender more of my life to Him, all in order to have more of His. In this season of “rut” that has been my health, I find myself praying very hard about this. Which part of my life is Jesus asking me to surrender to Him in exchange for more of His life in me? What might He be asking you to surrender? As Andrew Murray points out, the good news is, “God is ready to assume full responsibility for the life wholly yielded to Him.”
Up to your eyeballs in dung and stuck in a rut!
Ruts can be wonderfully creative places for God to teach us His ways.
Eighty percent of future guidance is present commitment.
The Rev’d Drew Williams, Senior Pastor of Trinity Church, has been living with severe, debilitating chronic pain for more than three years. After five surgeries and innumerable neurological procedures, he knows the desperation that comes with wondering if he would ever be pain free. At the same time, he shares, “By the grace of God, that desperation has also brought an increased intensity and honesty, as well as a deeper intimacy, in my relationship with God.” He now shares something of his struggle in a series of devotional writings for the Greenwich Sentinel. One of the more perplexing features of the past three-year saga around my health has been the ongoing battle between hope and disappointment.