I read a lot of biographies and memoirs about inspiring people who place radical trust in God. (By “radical” I don’t mean reckless or imprudent, but am referring to the difficult, very counter-cultural act of recognizing God’s sovereignty over every area of our lives. More on that here.) From He Leadeth Me to God’s Smuggler, Mother Angelica to The Heavenly Man to The Shadow of His Wings, these true stories are about people from all walks of the Christian life: Catholic and Protestant, consecrated religious and lay people, men and women. And yet they all have distinct similarities in their approaches to life and the Lord.
I found it fascinating to see what common threads could be found in the lives of these incredible people who place so much trust in the Lord, and thought I’d share in case others find it inspiring as well.
1. They accept suffering
One of the most powerful things I’ve read in recent memory is Brother Yun’s story of being a persecuted pastor in China, as recounted in the book The Heavenly Man. After facing weeks of torture, including electrocution, starvation, beatings, and having needles shoved under his fingernails, he was thrown in a box that was four feet long, three feet wide, and four feet high, where he would stay indefinitely. The day after he was put in this mini cell, he felt prompted to pray for a Bible — a ridiculous idea, considering that many people were in prison at that very moment for being in possession of such contraband. Yet he prayed anyway. And, inexplicably, the guards threw a Bible into his cell the next morning. He writes:
I knelt down and wept, thanking the Lord for this great gift. I could scarcely believe my dream had come true! No prisoner was ever allowed to have a Bible or any Christian literature, yet, strangely, God provided a Bible for me! Through this incident the Lord showed me that regardless of men’s evil plans for me, he had not forgotten me and was in control of my life.
Now, the less saintly among us (cough-cough) might have reacted to that a little differently. Had I been tortured and thrown in a coffin-like cell, my reaction to receiving a Bible would have likely been more along the lines of, “Thanks for the Bible, Lord, but could we SEE ABOUT GETTING ME OUT OF THIS METAL BOX FIRST?!?!” I wouldn’t have even “counted” the Bible as an answered prayer since my main prayer — reducing my physical suffering — had gone unanswered.
Yet what I see over and over again in people like Brother Yun is that they have crystal clarity on the fact that suffering is not the worst evil — sin is. Yes, they would prefer not to suffer, and do sometimes pray for the relief of suffering. But they prioritize it lower than the rest of us do — they focus far more on not sinning than on not suffering. They have a laser focus on getting themselves and others to heaven. In Brother Yun’s case, he saw through that answered prayer that God was allowing him to grow spiritually and minister to his captors, so his circumstances of suffering in an uncomfortable cell became almost irrelevant to him.
2. They accept the inevitability of death
Similar to the above, people who place great trust in God can only do so with a heaven-centered worldview. They think in terms of eternity, not in terms of calendar years. Their goal is not to maximize their time on earth, but rather to get themselves and as many other people as possible to heaven. And if God can best do that by shortening their lifespans, they accept that.
The Shadow of His Wings is filled with jaw-dropping stories of Fr. Goldmann’s miraculous escapes from death during World War II, which begs the question, “What about all the people who didn’t escape death?” Fr. Goldmann would probably respond by saying that God saving him from death was not the blessing in and of itself — after all, every single one of us will die eventually. The blessing was saving him from death so that he could continue his ministry bringing the Gospel to the Nazis. He eventually died while building a ministry in Japan, and presumably accepted that God would bring good from his passing, even though there was undoubtedly more work he wanted to do.
3. They have daily appointments with God
I have never heard of a person who had a deep, calm trust in the Lord who did not set aside time for focused prayer every day. Both in the books I’ve read and in real life, I’ve noticed that people like this always spend at least a few moments — and up to an hour or two if circumstances permit — focused on nothing but prayer, every day. Also, they tend to do it first thing in the morning, centering themselves in Christ before tackling anything else the day may bring.
4. In prayer, they listen more than they talk
I’ve written before about my amazement that really holy people seem to get their prayers answered more often than the rest of us. I’d heard enough stories of people praying for something very specific, then receiving it, that I started to wonder if they were psychic or God just liked them more than the rest of us or something. What I eventually realized is that their ideas about what to pray for came from the Holy Spirit in the first place, because they spent so much time seeking God’s will for them, day in and day out.
So, to use the example of a famous story from Mother Angelica’s biography, she had a satellite dish delivery man at the door who needed $600,000 or he was going to return the dish, thus killing all the plans for the new station. She ran to the chapel and prayed, and a guy she’d never met randomly called and wanted to donate $600,000. Her prayer wasn’t answered because she had a personal interest in television and just really, really wanted it, but because she had correctly discerned God’s plan that she was to start a television station on this particular day.
5. They limit distractions
Of all the amazing stories in God’s Smuggler, one of the lines that jumped out to me the most in the book was in the epilogue, when the authors talk about how Brother Andrew’s work has continued in 21st century:
“I won’t even consider installing one of those call waiting monstrosities,” he exclaimed, “that interrupt one phone conversation to announce another.” Technology, Andrew says, makes us far too accessible to the demands and pressures of the moment. “Our first priority should be listening in patience and silence for the voice of God.”
Far too accessible to the demands and pressures of the moment. That line has haunted me ever since I read it. I love technology, but it does come with a huge temptation to feel a general increase in urgency in our lives: I have to reply to that email! Respond to that comment on my wall on Facebook! Ret-tweet that tweet! Read that direct message! Listen to that voicemail! Here in the connected age, we are constantly bombarded with demands on our attention. Periods of silence, where we can cultivate inner stillness and wait for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are increasingly rare.
One thing that all the people in these books have in common is that they had very little of this pressure of false urgency. It’s hard to imagine Fr. Ciszek coming up with the breathtaking insights about God’s will that he shared in He Leadeth Me with his iPhone buzzing alerts every few minutes, or Brother Yun seeing the subtle beauty of God’s plan in the midst of persecution while keeping his Twitter status updated on a minute-by-minute basis.
6. They submit their discernment to others
People who have a long history of watching the way the Lord works in their lives notice that he often speaks through holy friends, family members and clergy. If they discern that God is calling them to something, especially if it’s something big, they ask trusted Christian confidantes to pray about the matter and see if they discern the same thing. And when others warn them not to follow a certain path — especially if it’s a spouse, confessor or spiritual director — they take those indicators very seriously.
7. They offer the Lord their complete, unhesitating obedience
One of my favorite parts of God’s Smuggler is when Brother Andrew got a visit from a man named Karl de Graaf who was part of a prayer group in which people often spent hours of time in prayer, most of it listening in silence:
I went out to the front stoop, and there was Karl de Graaf. “Hello!” I said, surprised.
“Hello, Andy. Do you know how to drive?”
“No,” I said, bewildered. “No, I don’t.”
“Because last night in our prayers we had a word from the Lord about you. It’s important for you to be able to drive.”
“Whatever on earth for?” I said. “I’ll never own a car, that’s for sure.”
“Andrew,” Mr. de Graaf spoke patiently, as to a slow-witted student, “I’m not arguing for the logic of the case. I’m just passing on the message.” And with that, he was striding across the bridge.
Despite his initial hesitation, Brother Andrew discerned that this was something that God was calling him to do, so he learned to drive. It seemed like a complete waste of time, an utterly illogical use of his resources, but he was obedient to the Lord’s call. I won’t spoil what happened next for those of you who plan to read the book, but let’s just say that shortly after he received his license, it turned out to be critical to the future of his ministry (which eventually brought the Gospel to thousands of people behind the Iron Curtain) that he know how to drive.
I often think of how Mr. de Graaf responded when Brother Andrew was scratching his head about this odd message: “That’s the excitement in obedience,” he said. “Finding out later what God had in mind.”
Obviously we can’t grow closer to God by aping the actions of others, but I find lists like this helpful as a starting point for reflection on my own spiritual progress. I hope you found it helpful as well!