As an idealist, I tend to be the person who gives a hearty yes to an invitation at the start, only to second-guess myself later as difficulties come. I knew writing this book was a hand-picked invitation for me. But I can’t say there weren’t times I felt like giving up. Along with the normal pull-your-hair-out moments in the writing process, I experienced strangely timed fevers, outages, a car accident, and other forms of intense resistance that felt like a series of targeted spiritual attacks.
This week’s chapter of The Yes Effect, Invitation 6: Stand Your Ground, starts with Luis and Doris Bush following the call of God to San Salvador, a city built on the sides of a volcano. Does your life sometimes feel that way? Do you feel like there’s always something bubbling underneath you, ready to erupt? What do you do when God calls you to a place filled with resistance and conflict? How do you know whether to stay or go, and what to do in the meantime? As Luis says, “The resistance you experience could be an indicator that God is doing something special and that His enemy wants to stand in the way.”
While we may not be standing on literal volcanoes, or living life in a real war zone, we may experience other types of resistance, efforts to slow down the good work in front of us. But as it always turns out, what our enemy means for evil, God redeems for good. I’m honored today to invite a dear sister friend, Denise Hildreth Jones of Reclaiming Hearts Ministries to share as part of our Yes Effect Book Club. Denise and I are both aunts to our three shared nieces, one of whom is mentioned in the story below.
We can’t choose a crisis-free life, but we can choose where to look and listen in the midst of crisis. Denise, a prolific author/novelist and teacher, is one of the most insightful people I know. I think that has a lot to do with her willingness to break toward God instead of away from God when crisis comes. If you want to know what it’s like to face a whole string of hardships (four medical emergencies in one family in one season, a call to use your gifting that is then interrupted by intense physical pain, plus emotional and relational difficulties, not to mention other big fears becoming reality) yet somehow come back stronger, you need Denise’s story.
It is one thing to stand your ground when you’re face to face with a little nuisance. You know the kind—the delayed flight, the unplanned guest, or even those challenging toddler or teen attitudes.
But then there are the moments in life where we know we are dependent on the Lord. Where the things facing us are so large, so real, so outside of our physical ability to fix or control that we come to the Lord desperate for help like Luis and Doris Bush in the war zone of El Salvador or Alex and Laly Philip when losing their team in Bihar. “Stand Your Ground,” Invitation 6 of The Yes Effect has felt like a parallel chapter to my own struggle from fear to full faith.
I entered 2017 with the word “brave.” I almost wish I had asked for another.
The only way to know if you’re brave is to face your fears, and I’ve been struggling with fear since I was a little girl. Fear stole many a peaceful night from my childhood. And eventually, fear stole my voice in my first marriage, which contributed to the loss of it.
After that divorce, I went to a place of surrender to claim back much of what was lost. But still, some unclaimed parts of my heart remained.
And it seems the way to reclaim those pieces was to press into pain.
My heavenly Father came at me with an invitation to persevere into greater life, greater truth, greater freedom, and greater experience of His love for me. Oh, the devil tries to reframe that, tries to convince us that God is punishing us. But that is not the heart of our Father. He invites us to push past our self-sufficiency, plans, dreams, and desires to experience His heart.
My inner circle of mentors and friends joined me at the beginning of 2017 for a vision casting night for my ministry. Reclaiming Hearts Ministries was beginning its sixth year of official non-profit status and it was time to look to the next five years. As we prayed and talked, one predominant theme rose to the surface—this was a season for me to begin writing again. After writing ten books in a very different season of life, it had now been four years since I had written anything longer than 500 words. But at the end of 2016 God began what felt like a download of book ideas. So, I had my mandate for 2017—I was to write.
Along with this call to write came an odd dream. As I slept one night, I dreamed that both my hand and my mouth were swarmed with ants. I could hardly breathe or move my hand. I called out for a woman nearby to call 9-1-1. She ignored me. Eventually, with my relentless begging, she made the call but did not tell them of my need. I continued to motion for her to make the request, and she finally communicated my need to someone who could help. Then, suddenly, I woke up. I recorded the dream right away.
There have been multiple times through the years that God has used dreams to speak to me. I didn’t know in that moment what the dream meant for me. But I asked the Lord to reveal the meaning to me when I needed to know.
Soon after that, I scheduled my first ever writing trip, two weeks on the coast. I had written ten books up to that point yet I’d never left my home to write. And as soon as I stepped my foot in the direction of the assignment I sensed God had for me, things began to get difficult. Really, that’s an understatement.
Halfway through my time away, migraines took over my days. I had never had migraines. When I returned from my writing trip, I waited on word about my youngest niece, 18-month-old Parker, who had lost almost half of her body weight in the previous six months as she aspirated and couldn’t seem to keep any food down. We had pressed for answers from our local medical community, but ended up having to take her all the way to a team of specialists in another state.
Some of my greatest fears had “come upon me.” It was then that I realized God had made me brave by allowing me to walk through things I thought would destroy me, only to find myself standing my ground in the very face of them.
-Denise Hildreth Jones, Reclaiming Hearts Ministries
A few weeks later, I headed back to the beach for our Pastors Only Weekend Experience. Having been raised in a pastor’s home I have always had a desire to serve pastors and help them fill up to serve others. In this free retreat, a gift for these precious pastors, we took the principles of my book Reclaiming Your Heart and unpacked the truths inside.
When you start serving pastors, you put yourself on the front lines of spiritual warfare right along with them. “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12 (NLT) says. I knew our ministry operated against the desires of the enemy. And the enemy attacks. The final morning of that indescribably powerful weekend I woke up with severe pain down my right arm, the same arm that had endured rotator cuff surgery two years prior. When I arrived home the pain increased. Diagnosis after diagnosis. Tendinitis, a script to visit my old physical therapist, plus a steroid shot.
And then, my favorite pastor of all, my dad who had just faithfully served at our pastor’s Weekend Experience, was put under for surgery to remove a potentially cancerous polyp. When the biopsy came back negative, we rejoiced. But then two days later, he woke up to severe pain in his eye. Friends on Facebook told us to get him right in to see the experts, or he could lose his sight. This man who read the Bible through 5 times in 5 different translations in 2016 alone was suffering acute glaucoma. His cornea was shriveled as a raisin. The pressure had been so great that another part of his eye had adhered to it. The doctors gave him the news that his vision wouldn’t be getting any better. We were heartbroken, but in the face of uncertainty, we stood on the only sure ground we knew.
We stood on the truth of God’s word in Psalm 138:8, “I will perfect all that concerns you.” We stood on the truth of Isaiah 53:5, “…by His stripes we are healed.” I know God heals a myriad of different ways. We were believing for a supernatural healing that would restore his eyesight. And then, the miracle—the raison cornea turned back into the grape it was supposed to be and soon he was back to reading without his glasses!
My own pain continued with no answers. My tendinitis diagnosis had now turned into a diagnosis of “angry muscles”. Whatever that is! My physical therapist was lost as to what was going on, as the pain didn’t match the determination. I was exhausted. The pain had progressed my productivity had virtually ceased. I could no longer write. I quit driving because driving wreaked havoc on my body.
Then came another call. My one and only nephew Jake had been admitted to the hospital. His already tiny frame was losing weight fast. The infectious disease doctor had been called in and they quickly diagnosed him with Rocky Mountain Spotted fever combined with Salmonella. As my body had shut-down and the normalcy of our life had become one of doctor’s visits and tears and waiting on phone calls from suffering family members, my husband was also walking through the diagnosis of his father’s Alzheimer’s.
This brought to the surface fears he needed to deal with and it brought our relationship to some hard waters that we had never faced in our eight years of marriage. By that summer, the pain in my body and my heart collided. Philly and I had gotten away to pray, to listen, and to figure out what God was asking of us in that next season.
We had pulled in three of our most trusted friends and mentors and they had agreed with us that we needed to pause everything. I needed to stop all ministry responsibilities that involved my direct involvement except my weekly video devotionals. That meant no fundraiser. No Weekend Experience. And I had already watched as writing, the one thing I felt certain I was directed to do, had been totally shelved.
As Philly and I spent those few days away, I had a moment of complete surrender to my pain and the circumstances it had left me with. “Father, you know me better than I know myself. I know you haven’t brought this pain. But you are allowing it to remain. So give me grace in it and remove it just as soon as you will.” Yet God was doing something mighty inside of me.
With no ability to work, no ability to work out, and no desire to go anywhere in a car other than where I had to, I was left with a LOT of time. That was when my entire quiet time changed. Every morning, usually before the sun, I’d get my hot tea, make my way to my new back porch swing and listen to worship songs that reminded me of the mightiness, the faithfulness, the tenderness, the goodness of my God.
No matter what my body was screaming, God’s love was louder and my heart was standing firm in the knowledge of the truth. God had me. God saw me. God was healing me, inside and out. God was with me. God was fighting for me. And God was working out good in every painful piece of my journey. As I worshipped and left it to Him, God was doing what only He could do.
By the time I got to the doctor who would correctly diagnose me, I had been in firework pain from the base of my neck to the bottom of my back to both shoulders. Simply living with the pain was exhausting. My only relief came through sleep and narcotics, which I tried to use sparingly, taking only four in four months.
I had come to believe that I either had MS, Parkinson’s or shingles. However, my doctor knew immediately it was my neck. The MRI agreed. Compressed nerves from C3-C7. That is what years of poor posture and two weeks of intense writing will get you.
The doctor prescribed two meds to help me “get ahead of the pain.” However, they also got ahead of my ability to think past them. For almost three months I simply existed. But the pain had finally stopped.
During the season of that pain, yet another deep heartbreak came my way. It had been an expressed fear of mine at the beginning of 2017, my year of facing fears, when I was contemplating what being “brave” actually meant. At the beginning of that year, I had expressed my fear for someone I deeply loved, my questions about whether their faith was strong enough to withstand any challenges that may come.
Challenges came unexpectedly soon, and as it looks now, those challenges have included the loss of that person’s marriage. The two people in this marriage are dearest to my heart. The knowledge of what their children would endure took the pain to an even greater level.
The husband came to live with us for three weeks and I shared with him the expressed fear I had for him. He said, “Interesting…before now, I didn’t even have a faith to walk away from.” The pain of this has been devastating, but God privileged me to walk alongside him, face one of my greatest fears, and see this person come to some deep truths that salvaged his soul.
One morning at breakfast, as I ended a 21-day fast for my physical healing, I said, “Wow, this season has looked nothing like I thought. Here, I thought I would be writing and I haven’t written since my trip.”
He replied with the kindest and truest words, “But babe, God has been writing on you…”
Later, as I was journaling, I thought back on the challenges with my health, marriage, the potential loss of family members, the devastating divorce of people I love dearly, and some potentially large financial losses. I wrote how some of my greatest fears had “come upon me” in 2017.
I heard God whisper to my heart. “Yes, they did. And what happened to you?”
I didn’t have any spiritual response. I simply said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t die.”
But then I added, “And you were present. And faithful. And real. And I am not the same person.”
It was then that I realized God had made me brave by allowing me to walk through things I thought would destroy me, only to find myself standing my ground in the very face of them.
God also had to deal with one final fear. One that would take me all the way back to the beginning of the year and my strange dream.
One day in prayer I sensed I was holding on to a fear of what God was inviting me to do for Him. I had seen firsthand the spiritual resistance that comes when you step out to serve in the way God has made you to. Oh yes, when I was young I wanted big things. But now I’m older. I know what those things cost.
My eyes were glued to the cost instead of the One who paid it.
I also battle a huge fear of not “rightly dividing the word of truth.” I study many hours a day, but still have to battle fear to speak the truths He’s placed in me, concerned that I may teach a doctrine incorrectly.
I remembered the ants that covered both my hands and my mouth. Now God was saying it was time to let the fear go. Fear of what I’ve called you to. Fear of writing and fear of speaking the truths I’ve placed in you.
Right there in my family room, I surrendered to the unknown. I trusted that the One who calls equips. I trusted that He knows my heart even better than I do. Scripture tells us He once spoke through the mouth of a donkey! Surely, He could use this southern girl who loves Him fiercely. I would not let the enemy keep my voice from teaching God’s word or my hands from writing His message.
2018 is bringing greater healing. I am starting to write and work again. My mind is back. Philly and I are growing and maturing and loving and leaning. My family is healthy and my dad just celebrated his 75th birthday. The book that began in me last March I have no doubt the enemy never wanted written. However, what he failed to take into consideration, as tends to be a pattern with him, was the fact that as I stood my ground through the pain and the fear and the loss, God was writing something far greater on my heart.
What about you? What story has God been writing on you as you’ve stood your ground?
Denise Hildreth Jones is the Founder and President of Reclaiming Hearts Ministries. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with her husband, one shih-tzu, and five bonus kids who are now scattered hither and yon. She loves Jesus, good friends, SEC football, her family, cold Coca-Colas. Every now and then she writes a few books.