Life is difficult. We all experience frustration, disappointment, loneliness, failure. What will help us hear Jesus' invitation to come to him and find help when we feel like giving up?
A friend once shared a story that’s given me a picture of what it looks like to turn north to Jesus when I’m overwhelmed by life’s problems. When my friend was about three years old, he got locked in the bathroom. Thinking he was trapped inside for the rest of his life, he panicked and screamed in despair. As he frantically banged on the door and pulled at the doorknob, his dad got a ladder, climbed up to the bathroom window, crawled inside, and unlocked the door.
There are times in our lives when we feel like we’re “locked in the bathroom”: the loss of a job, a troubled marriage, a wayward son or daughter, a malignant tumor, the loss of a friend—you name it. We panic. We get angry. We scream, weep, plead, “God please unlock the door!” As my friend's dad came through the bathroom window and unlocked the door, God sometimes answers our prayers in the way we want: we get a job, the marriage counseling works, our son turns to God, the cancer's cured, our friend apologizes. We’re grateful.
We should be grateful when God answers prayer. God loves to give good gifts. But he knows how easy it is for us to set our heart’s on those gifts. It’s easy to believe God's good when life goes well. It's dangerously easy to define God's goodness by his blessings. But we’ve all had those times when the door doesn’t unlock. Sometimes God allows our problems and frustrations to continue for weeks, months, maybe years. During my most frustrating experiences as a young counselor in the early years of private practice, I cried out to God for help. I felt afraid and alone. The next day, without warning, a courthouse courier showed up at my office. “Sign these papers,” he said. A former client was filing a lawsuit against me. I remember saying to God, "Is this how you answer my prayer for help?" What is God up to when he allows our struggles to intensify, when he refuses to “unlock the bathroom door”?
Imagine you’re “locked in the bathroom.” Maybe your locked door is an illness, financial pressures, or a difficult person in your life such as a friend, spouse or employer who criticizes, hurts or annoys you. Maybe your locked door is a crippling feeling of loneliness, inadequacy or worthlessness. What frustrates you or has the power to take you south? A locked door is anything, big or small, that blocks our path to getting what we believe we need to be whole or happy. Imagine the door stays locked for a long time. You’re frustrated and angry, demanding that it open. As you’re standing in front of the bathroom door, Jesus comes in through the window. He sits on the floor and says, “Come to me. I know how burdened you are. Sit here on the floor beside me. I want to be with you.”
You turn your back to him as you’re twisting the door knob and kicking the door. You continue praying, “God, I want you to make my husband be more sensitive to me! I need my kids to listen to me! I need my spouse to call off the divorce! I need you to make my job go better! I need to get my wife to respect me. God, what I need you to do is ______.” You plead in near despair.
Jesus continues to sit on the floor. He says, “I know you want that door to open. I hurt with you. I do care about your pain. But what I want right now is to be with you. Come to me. Sit here with me. Quiet your soul in my love" (Psalm 131). God grieves over our refusal to come to him:
“I reached out day after day
to a people who turned their backs on me,
people who make wrong turns,
who insist on doing things their own way.” (Isa. 65:1–2 msg)
Our greatest problem isn’t our locked door. Whenever we believe we need the door to open, our greatest problem is that we want something more than God and what he provides. I shudder to think of what I could have become had God given me what I wanted in place of him. The Bible says one of the worst kinds of judgment from God is when he gives us over to our own way. Romans 1:26–32 and Psalm 73:3–12 describe the type of people we’ll become when we get our own way.
Here’s a life-changing truth: Frustration and locked doors are God’s agents of change. Disappointments, annoying people, and difficult circumstances are all used by God to surface the lies we believe. They are his severe mercies. For example, throughout much of my life I depended on people’s affirmation to make me feel good about myself. I felt so energized when I heard encouraging words. I was easily deflated by criticism. So guess what? My wife Lisa did not have the gift of encouragement. By her own admission, she’s more prone to see and point out what’s wrong rather than commenting on what's right. For many years in our marriage, I resented Lisa for her lack of affirmation. I put a lot of pressure on her to encourage me when I did something well or when I struggled with feelings of failure. God used Lisa’s lack of encouragement to bring my lies to the surface. Lisa was being used in my life as God’s agent of change. Over the years, I’ve come to see that my grumbling emotions served as signals (see chapter four, True North). My anger at Lisa, my jealousy toward others who got affirmed by people, and my feelings of worthlessness when I got criticized, became so obvious and overwhelming to me that I had to face the lies they were alerting me to. I foolishly believed I needed people to give me life by speaking affirming words to me. I coveted recognition and applause. By facing my grumbling emotions, I’ve been able to identify my lies and false gods. I’ve seen how I’ve forsaken Jesus by putting pressure on Lisa and others to give me life. I’ve mourned and wept over my sin. And by God’s grace, I’m learning to intentionally make Jesus the treasure and center of my heart. He is with me! Jesus is for me! I don’t want to forsake him by going south into grumbling and grasping for life from false gods. Over the years as I’ve been learning to find my contentment in Jesus, Lisa has also changed. She is turning to Jesus too for her needs for love and acceptance. She is softer, kinder, and more approachable. She blesses me with her support and encouragement.
God uses locked doors to help us grow. Locked doors are God’s agents of change. They present us with opportunities to surrender to Jesus and say, “You are all I need.” Whenever we experience frustration, whenever a door isn’t opening, God is inviting us in that moment to "sit on the bathroom floor" and draw near to him. He's inviting us to relinquish lies and embrace the truth of his sustaining presence and unwavering faithfulness. There, and only there, are we truly safe, truly free. Then we can get up, lock arms with Jesus and do life together.
"One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock."