The Agony and Irony of Obscurity

Embracing God’s Gift of the Desert

It was a brisk autumn day as Tim and I walked into the restaurant for lunch and our weekly mentoring time. Tim was on the staff at a large church and by all outward appearance seemed to be doing well.  He was a sharp young man who had moved to the area from out east to become part of a big pastoral staff. He and I were doing a book study centered on the topic of leadership. 

As we sat down together, somehow the book we had been studying didn’t quite seem to be the way we needed to go with our visit. So I turned to Tim and said, “Where do you think we need to go with our time today?” He proceeded to share his struggle. 

I’ll never forget the forlorn look on his face as Tim made a statement that I had heard many times in my coaching/mentoring career. “I’m so discouraged, he said. “Sometimes I wonder if anyone even knows I am here?” As he continued, he poured out his deep feelings of obscurity and how it seemed to be eating him alive. The truth is he is not alone in this struggle.

One of the biggest fears that many leaders/clergy face today is what I call laboring in obscurity. The very thought strikes agony in the heart of the strongest of leaders. The notion that God might set them aside for a season is unthinkable for many leaders today. 

On the flip side, the irony of obscurity is that it is very often a method that God uses to prepare his choicest servants.  Dr. Bobby Clinton calls it Isolation. These seasons can refer to an actual time when God takes you aside for learning, or it can also be a season of psychological isolation through which God shapes his man or woman.

So we find this tension that exists between the agony, and the irony of obscurity

The Agony

No period of estrangement from our calling and destiny is ever pleasant. It doesn’t fit into the leader’s drive to accomplish. Believe me. The typical response from the average clergy is, “I really don’t have time for this,” or, “Things are going so well, why now.”  

I have discovered that often when a leader is going through his or her time of obscurity, it can feel like it is over for them. Discouragement, disillusionment, and fear of the unknown can leave the leader with the haunting trepidation that the end could be near. Very seldom is that the case.

Furthermore, this mindset has produced an unusual aversion toward obscurity in today’s church leadership. The result of this aversion is typically an impoverished leader. Part of the disdain is tied to our culture. Success demands visibility, hence it is imperative for accomplishment; at least that’s what our society teaches us.  

To add to the problem, our obsession with Facebook, Twitter, and social media has produced an unusual desire to be known and seen (by the way, this is not an anti-social media plug). Over the years, I have used social media to the max. Here’s the bottom line of what I am trying to say: there are many cultural norms that run counter to the biblical experience of obscurity. For these reasons, church leadership must take another look at the topic and how God uses it with His leaders. 

Obscurity and agony go hand in hand. It’s often painful and frustrating. However, it yields a great dividend to those who endure. 

The Irony

As odd as it sounds, God does some of His deepest shaping in our lives during times of obscurity. For that reason it is always important that we learn how to embrace it at all costs.

Moses sets the example for leadership when he leaves Egypt and soon finds himself in Midian, an obscure place (Exodus 2:16-21). Mark it down, there was nothing comfortable about Midian. As Chuck Swindoll states, “Moses seems to embrace the gift of the desert when in Exodus 2:16-21 the Scripture states, “… and Moses was willing to dwell with the man.”  

Think with me of other biblical leaders that exemplify this principle. Men such as: Joseph (3 years in prison); Daniel (19-20 years out of the king’s service during reign of Belshazzar); Moses (40 years on backside of desert); David (fleeing from Saul for over 14 years); Elijah (time at the Brook Chereth); Paul (15 years in Arabia, 3 years in prison). Others could be mentioned, but for time’s sake I won’t. 

Jack Hayford shares his story about God’s dealing with him years ago while serving as interim pastor at Church on the Way. He shares that his greatest fear was that staying at the church that might keep him in obscurity. It wasn’t until he was willing to serve God as an unknown pastor, that God released the move of the Spirit that transitioned the church and Pastor Jack, into a place of renowned leadership in the charismatic movement. 

God often uses times of obscurity to bring adjustment and change. 

Virtually all leaders used of God have been shaped at one time or another through the gift of the desert place (obscurity). You can never slay the giants until you’ve shepherded the sheep in the lonely place. 

Irony and obscurity are inseparable.

Remember this

As you pass through obscurity it is important to keep a few things in mind. Here is a short list for starters:

  • Obscurity is always a season. 

Never accept your desert exile as the final chapter in your life or ministry. As a matter of fact most of the time it is just the opposite.

Something new is transpiring, renewal is coming, and God is at work getting his man or woman ready. God never releases the ministry without preparing the man (or woman).

  • Obscurity always involves a shift in your paradigms.

God wants to change many of our lenses that keep us from seeing and knowing Him. This is done through what I call “spiritual paradigm shifts.” 

God goes to work on our personal lenses and typically it is done during obscurity. Maybe it’s a shift in the way we view ourselves, or our ministry.  Could it be that our view of God needs some tweaking?  Maybe so.   

  • Obscurity has no shortcuts

Time is no object with God. He demands quality at all costs. Chafing under the process only creates a cul-de-sac, a dead end street. 

The Prince of Egypt was changed to the Shepherd of Midian, and eventually he became Moses the Deliverer.

  • Obscurity is designed to create intimacy with God.

God grooms and shapes his leaders through intimacy. Obscurity drives you to God. It tends to produce fervency and at times, a sense of desperation.

You will be driven to intimacy with God by one of two ways: through your own intentionality or through your personal desperation. You choose.

  • Obscurity always gives way to recognition.

God’s work in us is never in vain. He’s taking us someplace. The season of obscurity is always for the purpose of preparation and promotion. 

I love the statement of Louie Zamperini in the movie Unbroken, “If you can take it, you can make it.”

Conclusion

Let’s recap with the story I started with. “I’m so discouraged, Tim said. “I sometimes wonder if anyone even knows I am here?” Yes, even people on ministry staff in the church can feel the agony and irony of obscurity. To Tim’s credit, he embraced what God was doing and received a life changing experience in the end. Maybe it’s time you and I embrace once again this ancient/modern biblical principle of growth and let God do His work in us.

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Dr. John Chasteen
Dr. John Chasteen
Dr. John Chasteen is the Equip Pastor at Victory Church in Edmond, Oklahoma.