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When God Whittles You Down to Size

We have two possible responses to our problems. We can be problem-centered or God-centered. The first reaction leads to anxious complaining while the second is the path to peace, even in the midst of suffering.

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My former neighbor, Mr. Campbell, loves to whittle. He has an amazing talent for taking the nothingness of a stick and turning it into something special. Shortly after the first Christmas of our daughter, Tristen, I was dragging the Christmas tree to our backyard to get rid of it.

Mr. Campbell saw what I was doing and asked if he could have the tree. It had no more value to me, so I gave it to him. After a while, I had forgotten he took our tree.

One Year Later

The following Christmas, Mr. Campbell knocked on our door. To my surprise, he was standing there with a beautiful hand-carved walking stick, about the size and shape of a baseball bat. At the top of the stick was a beautifully detailed carving of a Santa’s head. On the side of the stick were these words:

Tristen’s Very First Christmas Tree, 2001

Mr. Campbell took our used and useless tree and carved a beautiful walking stick to commemorate our daughter’s first Christmas. We were humbled and surprised by what he did. Mr. Campbell said,

I went down to the creek and sat on my bench. Then I began to ask, “What is inside this tree?” So, I sat and started whittling, and this is what I found inside your tree.

  • He sat.
  • He whittled.
  • He took off some good wood and some knotted wood.
  • He kept cutting until he came to what he was hoping to find.

The discovery inside our useless tree was a treasure nobody else could see (2 Corinthians 4:7). I did not see it. My wife did not see it. Tristen did not see it. Only the master craftsman had a vision of what it could be.

After months of curing the tree in the heat of the summer and a few days of carving through the fall, Mr. Campbell unveiled the previously hidden treasure.

The process was long and hard, but the woodcarver knew what he wanted, and he had the skill and patience to bring it to pass.

This Article Is From Suffering Well

Whittled Down to Size

There are no appropriate analogies for what Job experienced in the final chapter that documents his journey. My tree story is a small attempt to convey a big idea. This closing segment of Job’s journey gives us a transparent, humble, and vulnerable picture of a broken man.

His life had been stripped down to where there was seemingly nothing left that separated him from his Maker.

The losses were many. The complaints were bitter and unending. The advice was insufficient. Job had finally come to the end of himself. He was not attempting to manipulate God any longer. He was not living in a self-caused, self-deception. He said it this way:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. – Job 42:5-6

  • His family was gone.
  • His land was gone.
  • His cattle were gone.
  • His complaining was gone.
  • His self-righteousness was gone.
  • He had no more questions; those left him too. Job stopped talking, and God transformed his heart.

Job met God.

He was stripped down, naked, and prostrate in the dust from where he came (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 3:20). Job was finally ready to not only hear the Lord but to see Him in a way that few people experience.

The Father carried Job through a terrifying and complicated time. He brought him to a place in their relationship that words could not describe (Romans 8:26). Sometimes verbal-ness can complicate things. It was time for Job to be quiet and experience the terrifying greatness of God.

Watch More Videos

Tristen’s First Christmas Tree from Rick Thomas on Vimeo.

God and I Time

It was Job and God.

Alone.

The Lord had His man where He wanted him, and Job was content to be there–empty-handed, broken-hearted, and ready to learn.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17

Everything Job used to be was now gone. The old Job was dead. He was dead to himself. His dreams, needs, desires, hopes, and expectations were all demolished, flattened, and removed by God. Job, like Paul, could say,

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11-13

Job began his journey with many personal blessings. In time, God ripped all of those good things away from him. Job sinned in response to what was happening to him. He was understandably dazed and confused.

Even with the more profound needs of his soul not being met, his dismay and crying did not alter God’s plans for him. Through it all, the Lord persevered with Job.

Job could not perceive the things that were wrong with him. Only the Lord had the depth of vision to see what was wrong with his servant and what only He could change. And He would not release His servant until the job was done.

Exposed By God

Job and I are similar in that we both can be self-deceived. We cannot see what we need to see. We need someone looking into our lives, who loves us enough to do whatever it takes to change us. The Lord is such a person.

My problem is not only my self-deception. If I were honest, I would admit I do not want to be entirely known for who I am. Even under the light of God’s omniscience, I tend to hide (Genesis 3:10; Hebrews 4:13).

He who sees in the dark cannot be fooled. And He does not recoil with this knowledge of me or use it against me (Romans 8:1). The Lord is intentional and meticulous when it comes to the soul-shaping exercise of discipleship.

This truth is why He is compelled to strip me down from time to time. He wants me to see what He sees. He wants me to know what He knows. He does not do this because He is mean or because He has a desire to toy with me. He does this because He loves me.

  1. Have you ever been stripped down by God?
  2. Have you ever had the life-transforming experience of being hoisted upon the wood carver’s bench for a season of pruning and reshaping?

There are times in our lives when we need the hindrances in our lives removed for His glory and our good. The impediments I am referring to are not necessarily the external things we accumulate.

The removal of external things, as in Job’s case, was only the precursor to the more in-depth work the Lord wanted to accomplish in his soul. Imagine if the only thing the Lord did was to allow the devil to destroy Job’s family and possessions.

Those losses would affect him, of course. But there was a more profound work needed— an action designed to bring His servant into a more useful representation of Christ.

Beyond the Tipping Point

When the master Woodcarver begins to carve on us, He reveals the real person. Our disorientation, confusion, and anger are used to show the hidden and sinful elements of our lives. These wrong responses to the Lord’s work highlight secret sinful conditions that need His redemptive solutions.

The Lord has to push us past the tipping point to reveal to us who we are. Being pushed past our self-sufficient limits is the only real way for the Lord to expose us. There is a famous quote within the Christian community that goes like this:

Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay. – Unknown

What if you flipped the coin over and applied it to the Lord, as it pertains to the Sovereign suffering He allows in our lives? Maybe it would sound like this:

The Lord will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and the process will cost you more than you could ever pay. – Rick Thomas

From God’s perspective, He has no choice but to push us past the tipping point. We are too stuck on ourselves for it to be any other way. This concept was the message of Paul, as he explained to the Corinthians why his team felt pushed to the point of death.

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

Paul did not want the Corinthians to be ignorant of the despair they were experiencing. He had learned the lesson of Job: the Lord loves me so much that He will go to great lengths to save me from myself.

The Gold Standard

Job intellectually knew about the Lord–he had heard of Him by the hearing of the ear. He knew so much about the Lord that he could assume he would be okay (Job 23:10). He was confident the Lord would bring him through the fire (1 Peter 4:12). What he could not perceive was the difference between knowing the Lord, and a fuller, unhindered experience with the Lord–now my eye sees You.

Part of this process was the Lord taking Job from the subtle self-deceived thinking that he was something, to a person who realized he was nothing, deserved nothing, and could be satisfied with nothing but God.

For Job, the mission was almost accomplished. He had gone from a man who believed he deserved better, to a man who loathed himself. He was beginning to find spiritual wholeness in human emptiness.

  • Are you finding spiritual wholeness in human emptiness?

Job was stripped down naked. The Lord removed everything in his life that made him something. He fell apart, as God exposed his soul for what it was. The Lord permitted him to agonize in such a way that his well-hidden sin was revealed.

Through the agony of soul, Job was becoming a pliable man in the hands of his careful and loving heavenly Father. In time, he grew to the point of accepting and embracing the blessing of nothingness.

  • Are you accepting and embracing the blessing of nothingness?

Rather than complaining about his suffering, he could see beyond his pain. God had broken him enough so that he could rely on the Lord in a way that he had never experienced before. You could say he transcended his suffering. He was in the “God zone.”

It is hard for us to see beyond our suffering. We choose to be suffering-centered, as evidenced by talking more about our defeats than the Lord’s victories.

  • Are you living in the Lord’s victories that is beyond your suffering?

We tend to either get stuck at the future possibility of suffering or we get stuck in the current realities of suffering. Fortunately, the book of Job not only gives us a peek into the pain but a pathway through the pain.

What we learned about Job in the first chapter was correct: he loved God. What we see in this last chapter is that he still loves God. Job loved God when he had plenty, and he learned to love the Lord when he had nothing.

More importantly, God loved Job, and He would not let go of His servant. The lesson for us is to know that whatever the Lord takes us through, He will love us to the end. He will never give up on us.

This kind of love is more comprehensive than most of us realize. It is this kind of love that will motivate Him to whittle us down to size until He has removed all the things that hinder us from experiencing Him in full measure.

You may ask, “When will this process end?”

Only the Woodcarver knows how to form Christ in you, but be assured: He will complete this process one way or the other (Philippians 1:6).

A great way for you to self-assess your cooperation with Him through the process of personal suffering is to answer these two questions:

  1. Do I respond in faith to my problems–am I trusting and resting in the Lord?
  2. Or, do I respond in fear–am I anxious and complaining about what He is writing into my life?

How you answer these questions will give you a clue as to how much more whittling the Woodcarver has to do.

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