by John Dickerson, from I Am Strong
The five Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. These are not ponds. They are oceanic in size — and the water they hold is cool, drinkable, and life-giving.
While in high school, some friends and I took a day trip to one of these Great Lakes — Lake Michigan. We had heard about a sand dune, a small desert of soft beach sand that rolled on and on, eventually tumbling down to a scenic shore and remote stretch of waterfront.
We decided to walk through the sand dune toward the lake. After a three-hour drive, we arrived at a park with a sign that mapped the way. We set off with a few coolers of food and a whole bunch of energy.
Patches of grass poked through the sand when we began. Slowly the grass disappeared, giving way to the sand. If someone dropped you in that very spot, you might think you had landed in the vast Sahara or in Death Valley. But in fact, we stood less than one mile from the largest supply of fresh water in the world.
The sand dunes were a spilling stack of hills and mounds, sculpted by wind and time. Each time we saw the top of a hill, we imagined Lake Michigan on the other side. And time after time, we would crest another hill, only to find more sand stretching out before us.
Some hills were small, just ten or fifteen feet high. Others seemed like mountains, with little hills freckled across them. Carried along by a great hope that the lake lay over there some- where, we kept heading west.
The soft sand slowed our steps, and our legs grew tired. But we trudged along. After ten or fifteen minutes, it started to get hot. We grew thirsty. And some from our little group began doubting that we were still heading in the right direction.
Just when we all suspected this was indeed the Sahara — that we had been fooled, lied to, deceived in our faith — just then, a report echoed back from the front of the group.
“Water!” the shout ricocheted back to us. We lifted our heavy feet and made a run for it.
It’s quite a moment when you crest over the top of that final ridge. So many times, you have peaked over another sandy ledge, only to find more sand. But this time you rise over the edge to find a vast sea of cool, refreshing water. It laps against the sand in constant waves, small frothy whitecaps dancing on the midnight blue.
Fresh water. And more of it than anywhere else in the world.
In many ways, that journey through the dunes parallels our journey through this life on earth. It sometimes seems like we’ll never arrive in God’s Promised Land, where He will reunite us with lost loved ones, where He will heal our pains and illnesses once and for all, where every thirst will find satisfaction in His life-giving presence.
Our journey sometimes seems so dry and hopeless. We wrestle with the temptation to give up on our faith that something greater awaits us over the hills. Our legs strain under the weight. We crest yet another hill to find, once again, more sand on the other side. And we wonder if the promises of Jesus are true.
One of the great forgotten themes of Scripture is that God calls His believers “strangers,” “pilgrims,” “foreigners,” and “travelers.” Peter the apostle got this. He wrote a book to struggling and hurting believers. He did not encourage them that everything in their life circumstances would improve — if only they had enough faith. Instead, he encouraged them that everything here is temporary. He wrote,
My friends and I kept trudging through those dunes, not because we thought the burning sand was beautiful or comfortable, but because we had set our hope fully on Lake Michigan.
Peter says that you can choose to “set your hope” — and not only to set it but to set it “fully.”
We can choose to place our hope in Christ rather than in the shifting sands of circumstance.
We are “foreigners here” in a world where Satan has control over many of the earth’s strategic resources (1 Peter 1:17). We are making our way to a better land, with “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:4) And while we make our way through the dunes of this life, we are “shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).
We can find joy in the midst of our difficulty by fixing our hope and our eyes on the future deliverance we have in Christ: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
We continue clinging to our faith. We cling all the tighter as the suffering increases. We continue choosing God in the burning desert sands of life, trusting that He is leading us to the water. When we do that, our perseverance refines our eternal inner being, just as gold is refined by being melted down and then cooled (See 1 Peter 1:7).
From Genesis to Revelation, God’s people in Scripture acknowledged that this world was not their home. Somehow many of us have lost that way of seeing reality. Maybe because we live in a wealthy society. Maybe because the people around tell us and assume that this world is it, the best it will get, home and heaven.
But God encourages us to live like we’re headed to a better place. This world is not our heaven, our hope, or our home. We are making our way through the dunes of earth toward a better land with God.
The life-giving waters of Lake Michigan offer us another lesson. My lakeward trudge led to a place where the dunes ended and the water began. It’s a lot like the place where our own limits end and God’s limitlessness begins.
If my friends and I had given up in the sand, we never would have experienced Lake Michigan. Many Christians live their entire lives in the sand of their own limitations, getting as much pleasure, comfort, and security as they can find within the boundaries of their limited human capacity and comfort.
God is teaching us that our thorns, our pains, and our disappointments can prod us past the edges of our own capability.
Horrendous as our thorns in the flesh are, they have potential to become the agents that drive us out of the dunes of self-dependence. This is why Paul, as he looked back, could call his thorn a “gift.” If we will continue seeking God, our pains can drive us, hill after hill, ridge after ridge, toward the great, unlimited supply of God’s strength, refreshment, and living water for our lives.
I pray that in your inner being, the place accessible only to you and God, you keep choosing to move beyond your limits toward the Limitless One. I pray that in your inner being, you keep stepping toward the refreshing, life-giving water.
God knows your pain. And He does have plans, as you trust in Him, to fully heal you of your pain, to fully restore you and redeem whatever you have lost.
Until then, you can journey toward His strength with great hope. With each step forward, we trade our limits for His limitless; we trade our inability for His capability; we exchange our pain for His healing, our weakness for heaven’s strength.
Day by day, we clear hill after hill on our way to that place where our limits and sufferings end.
And ahead, a great cloud of witnesses has gone before (See Hebrews 12:1). Sometimes, if I listen closely, I think I hear their shouts of joy echoing back this way.
Excerpted with permission from I Am Strong by John Dickerson, copyright Zondervan.