We don’t like the idea of staying put, do we?
On July 29, 2014, after four straight days of climbing, I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was one of the coolest moments of my life.
On summit morning I had to wake up at 1am, and walk straight up in total darkness for seven hours.
The whole way up I was in a kind of prayer trance. Only a few knew it yet, but I had decided to end my non-profit and start working at Grace. It was a huge life shift for me, so as I walked, I thanked God again and again for the incredible blessings he’d poured out on my life.
The spiritual encounters I had had.
The relationships I had formed all around the world.
The once in a lifetime experiences.
God had called me out into something amazing, and I was so grateful. As I neared the top of the mountain,
[PHOTO: KILIMANJARO 1]
the sun rose over a vast Tanzanian landscape and I burst into tears. My faith was on fire, my walk with Christ was deepening, and God was calling me forward.
[PHOTO KILIMANJARO 2]
It was a literal (and figurative) mountaintop moment and I knew I had been called by God.
Smash cut to one year later. July 2015. I was sitting in my dark, windowless office at Grace, staring into endless excel spreadsheets and databases, listening to the ding of unanswered emails piling up behind them.
My spiritual walk was slowing to a crawl. I was bored. I was irritable for no reason. I was frustrated all the time.
I used to always have the next big adventure to look forward to. Now, I just looked forward to the weekend. But wait. I work at a church. We don’t get weekends.
Ugh. I was certain God had called me here, but why was everything so… blah? What happened to the vibrant, thriving faith I had when I was still traveling the world? Was there any way to recapture the wonder of my earlier calling? Or was I doomed to just live in the grind from now on?
Being called out by God is great, but what do you do when God calls you to stay put?
Today we are looking at the story of Isaac, Abraham’s son. He’s the second “patriarch” mentioned in scripture as one of the forefathers of the Jewish people.
But here’s the thing. At first glance, Isaac seems like kind of a dud.
When you read the Genesis story, you realize that there is very little about what Isaac actually did with his life. I mean, there’s lots about things that happen to him: his dad nearly sacrifices him, his dad’s servant goes on this long journey to find Isaac a wife, and when he’s old and blind, Isaac’s son Jacob deceives him to steal his brother’s birthright…
But none of that is really about him. Isaac is like a secondary character in his own story!
Frankly, there is only one thing that makes Isaac notable compared to the other patriarchs: Isaac never left the Promised Land. Both his father Abraham and his son Jacob had to leave for one reason or another, but Isaac stayed put.
I know what you’re thinking. Wow. Cool story, bro. You mean Isaac’s claim to fame is that he didn’t go anywhere? He didn’t have any adventures? This is going to be a wild sermon.
Well, stick with me for a second. Because the more I’ve studied Isaac, the more I’ve come to realize that his story - mundane as it may seem - is actually a powerful reminder of how our lives can look when God calls us to spreadsheets, not mountaintops. When God calls us to stay put.
So let’s dive in and look at the one chapter where we learn what Isaac actually did. [House Bibles]
At this point in the story, Isaac has married Rebekah, his twin sons, Jacob and Esau have been born, and his parents, Abraham and Sarah have both passed away. So Isaac is now the father of the family, who has inherited both his father’s wealth and his father’s calling.
But in just a moment, God is going to give Isaac a calling of his own. Take a look:
A severe famine now struck the land, as had happened before in Abraham’s time. So Isaac moved to Gerar, where Abimelech, king of the Philistines, lived.
The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt, but do as I tell you. Live here as a foreigner in this land, and I will be with you and bless you. I hereby confirm that I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, just as I solemnly promised Abraham, your father. I will cause your descendants to become as numerous as the stars of the sky, and I will give them all these lands. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed. I will do this because Abraham listened to me and obeyed all my requirements, commands, decrees, and instructions.” So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
It’s important to note that God’s promises to Isaac are the same as those to Abraham. “Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky.” “Through you all nations will be blessed.”
But whereas Abraham was called to go, Isaac was called to stay.
Now, it might seem like this calling is a piece of cake for Isaac. “Just settle in, relax…” But that’s not the case.
First of all, this land didn’t belong to Abraham’s family yet. All three patriarchs are technically nomads living in occupied land. They are wanderers (their homes were tents, not houses).
And now there is a famine in the land. It would have made all the sense in the world for a nomad like Isaac to move his herds down to Egypt, the breadbasket of the ancient world. But God calls him to stay put. And this is not an easy thing to do, especially when the locals get restless.
Let’s see what happens. Skip down to verse 12.
When Isaac planted his crops that year, he harvested a hundred times more grain than he planted, for the Lord blessed him. He became a very rich man, and his wealth continued to grow. He acquired so many flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and servants that the Philistines became jealous of him. So the Philistines filled up all of Isaac’s wells with dirt. These were the wells that had been dug by the servants of his father, Abraham.
Finally, Abimelech ordered Isaac to leave the country. “Go somewhere else,” he said, “for you have become too powerful for us.”
So Isaac moved away to the Gerar Valley, where he set up their tents and settled down. He reopened the wells his father had dug, which the Philistines had filled in after Abraham’s death. Isaac also restored the names Abraham had given them.
Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. “This is our water,” they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means “argument”). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means “hostility”). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means “open space”), for he said, “At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land.”
Ok. That’s a lot of well-digging. What exactly is going on here?
Well, it’s important to understand just how vital water wells were for ancient people. All of this is taking place in the northern Negev wilderness in modern-day Israel. It’s a dry place. Rain is not reliable. Rivers are seasonal.
If you wanted to keep flocks or water crops in a place like that, you had to have a reliable source of water. The only real option for Isaac’s men was to dig wells.
But keep in mind - this was the middle Bronze Age. They didn’t have power tools. They had to dig wells by hand.
That meant removing a massive amount of dirt with crude shovels and buckets, pulling out giant boulders, taking turns down in the pit hoping that the sides of the well wouldn’t collapse on you. And being ready to quickly line the walls with bricks once the water started seeping through.
But you had to do all of that with no guarantee that the water table was high enough in that particular location. You might work for days only to find out there wasn’t any water there!
Ok? You get it. Digging wells was difficult, grueling work. Having the Philistines keep stealing or filling in his wells was like salt in the wound. But Isaac kept at it.
And as Isaac was faithful to his calling to stay in the land, God was faithful to his promises to bless him. Verse 12: “A hundred times more grain than he had planted.” Huge herds of livestock.
God called Isaac to stay put, so Isaac dug wells.
Let’s keep reading - verse 23 - and see how this section ends.
From there Isaac moved to Beersheba, where the Lord appeared to him on the night of his arrival. “I am the God of your father, Abraham,” he said. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you. I will multiply your descendants, and they will become a great nation. I will do this because of my promise to Abraham, my servant.” Then Isaac built an altar there and worshiped the Lord. He set up his camp at that place, and his servants dug another well.
And that’s basically it. That’s the story of Isaac.
Alright, so what do we do with this story? Does it have any relevance to us, today?
Well, let me remind you why it was written in the first place. As we’ve mentioned several times in this series, Genesis was written by Moses for the Israelites who had left slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land.
It was the same land their ancestor Isaac lived on. And guess what? There were still Philistines living there who still wanted them to get off their lawn.
I believe this story was as a reminder to the Israelites that even though God had called them to stay put, it wouldn’t be easy. They would need to dig wells - wells of perseverance, wells of faithfulness, wells of right living…
The story of Isaac was a reminder that when God called the Israelites to stay put, they had to dig wells to do it.
But if they were faithful, blessings were in store.
It’s not much of a stretch to see how this same principle applies to us today.
Sometimes God calls us out, out into grand adventures and far off locales. But sometimes God calls us to stay put just like Isaac, and frankly, it’s often a much more difficult task.
As someone who has experienced both Kilimanjaro callings and spreadsheet callings, I can tell you it is often far easier to develop a deeper spiritual life when you are forced to.
When you’re thrown in the deep end of the pool, when you’re facing uncomfortable and confusing and dangerous moments every day.
When that’s your calling, of course you pray. Of course you search Scripture to understand the heart of God. Of course you seek out moments of silence and solitude to listen for the Spirit’s guidance. You need it!
But when you’re called to stay put, to live in a culture constantly enticing you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show, a culture where the voice of God can so easily be lost in all the noise, it can be much, much more difficult to keep your faith vibrant and alive.
Just like Isaac, we are living in the land of the Philistines - the Philistines of busyness, of apathy, of comfort, of self-medication - and they would like nothing more than to fill up our wells to get us off their land.
Why else do you think so many of us are parched, thirsty, and wondering why we’re not experiencing the blessings of God? Our wells are all filled in.
So what do we do? What do we do when God calls us to stay put?
The answer is simple, but definitely not easy.
When God calls us to stay put, we must keep digging spiritual wells.
You know who was great at this? Jesus.
Now, I know we tend to think of Jesus Christ as this kind of magical God-wizard, who floated a few inches off the ground, blasting people with healing beams from his hands, right? In other words, he wasn’t really like us. He was God, so he didn’t have to struggle with the same stuff we do.
But I think that picture of Jesus is totally wrong.
When you read the gospels, the stories of Jesus’ life, and you look at what happens between the miracles and the sermons and all that, you realize that Jesus worked hard on his spiritual life. He was
constantly seeking out solitude and silence,
was constantly praying in public and alone,
was dedicated to simple and sacrificial living,
and intensely studied and meditated on God’s word.
Jesus was constantly digging spiritual wells.
Why? Because he was called to stay put! Think about it. He spent almost his entire life in a tiny portion of the world among a relatively small number of people. By the end of his ministry, Jesus was a very big fish in a very small pond.
Because of this, the Philistines of fame, of power, of wealth, of entitlement were always lurking right around the corner with buckets full of dirt. Think of how much the Evil One wanted to knock him off track with his calling.
This is why Jesus worked hard to constantly dig deep, deep spiritual wells. He wanted his relationship with his father to be abundant, refreshing, and life-giving at all times so his ministry could be effective. And it was.
But here’s the thing. Ours can be too!
In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard said this:
“We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.”
-Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines
In other words, we can take our faith seriously. We can work at it. We can develop habits and rhythms and routines which deepen our relationship with Jesus. We can stop coasting and make this our number 1 priority.
If we dig wells like Isaac - like Jesus - we will experience the blessing of God and so will those around us. It takes work, but it brings life.
SARAH AND ROB
So what does this look like, practically?
Well, I’ve put some very practical suggestions at the end of the app notes if you want some specific guidance. But instead of getting prescriptive, I just want to give you an idea of what this looks like for two people here at Grace who really get it.
First is Sarah. She’s a stay at home mom. She’ll be the first one to tell you it can be so hard to maintain a strong spiritual walk when she’s constantly got mouths to feed and diapers to change and dishes to wash.
Kids can be little Philistines, can’t they? Filling in all your wells.
And yet, Sarah is so good at hearing from the Holy Spirit. She feels like God has called her to be available, to listen, and to share what she hears with others. And she does! It’s amazing to hear the words of encouragement she receives for people.
Yes, God has called her to “stay put” for this season, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s crushing it.
So the other day I asked her, “How do you do it? How do you manage to stay in tune with God with so much on your plate?” One of the things she said really stuck with me.
Sarah has made it a routine to pray, aloud, when she’s driving her kids places. She has a full-volume conversation with God in front of her kids. And not just kid prayers. She prays what’s really on her heart and she listens to what God has to say.
How cool is that? Not only is she modeling prayer for her kids, she’s turned the daily drive to preschool into a time for digging wells.
The other person I want to mention is Rob. He works in the corporate world. Board rooms, emails, meetings. You get the picture.
Rob believes God has called him to disciple people who believe in God, but are kind of stuck in their faith journey. His job allows him to interact with a lot of people in that position. So, in essence, God has called Rob to “stay put” as well.
And let me tell you, Rob is practically overflowing with the fruits of the Spirit. He’s loving, gentle, kind, patient… He’s the kind of Christ follower that makes other people say, “Wow. I want to be like that!”
So again, just like with Sarah I asked Rob, “How do you do it? What wells do you dig to keep your faith so vibrant when your job demands so much of you?”
Among other things, he told me that last year he consciously chose to turn down a job at his company which would help propel him up the corporate ladder.
He looked at his life and family, he looked at his calling, and realized that staying where he was in his career would give him the margin to give his faith the attention it deserved.
Second, Rob discovered a way of praying which helps him stay engaged with God. He kneels in a specific spot every morning and prays aloud. He told me that by literally talking to God and by getting his body engaged, he’s created a rich routine which keeps him connected to his calling.
I’m sure Rob and Sarah would both tell you their callings don’t seem particularly radical. And I imagine they’ve both daydreamed about God calling them to some far-off adventure from time to time.
But let me tell you - their constant well-digging and discipline - their hard work to keep their faith rich and deep - it is producing a harvest of life around them.
Do you want a life like that? You can.
When I came down from Kilimanjaro, God called me to stay put for a while, so here I am. Since that day, I’ve had to work hard to develop rhythms, practices, and disciplines to keep my faith alive. It hasn’t been easy, but I can tell you it’s possible. My faith is deeper now than it was at the top of that mountain.
So what do you say? Will you join me in this mission? Just like Isaac, God is with us. He wants to use us. So take courage!
Now come on. Grab a shovel. Let’s go dig some wells.