I was 26, single, and had recently quit my full-time job to take a stab at a freelance writing career. In the days after my job ended, I went on my first international mission trip to Portugal with members of my church. During our two weeks there, our team worked closely with several missionaries, observing their church-planting work and providing manual labor for a building project. Through that work, God began stirring up something in me.
When I returned home, rather than jumping into the writing I had planned on, I felt God was using the trip to Portugal as the first of a series of steps to lead me toward international missions. Within a few weeks, I was offered a job at a church and took it, hoping the experience would help me with church planting overseas in the future.
A few months after that, I connected with another missionary family who was part of the same organization I’d worked with in Portugal. This new family helped run the training program for their mission board, and learning of my passion for overseas ministry, they invited me to come to the training center for a few days to see how the process worked. As I listened to the stories of new missionaries preparing to head out to the field, I decided I’d do whatever it took to be a candidate in that program.
I continued on at the church for a few more months, then took a job at Moody Bible Institute as a residence supervisor. The job opening and offer came out of the blue, and through prayer I felt this was God’s next step to prepare me for my call to missions. What better place than a Bible college to go deeper into God’s word, receive real-life ministry experience, and hear from God about his plan for me?
My experience at Moody was all I’d hoped it would be. The job of working with college students seemed like the most natural fit of any job I’d had. But after two years there, I received an offer to return to the church where I’d worked before. During my first stint, I’d been doing mostly administrative work; now I’d be leading the women’s and children’s ministries. With a career in missions still on the horizon, I felt the added responsibility and broader perspective about church ministry would be invaluable. But what followed seemed like the beginning of something else, a different kind of chain-reaction than the one I expected.
Though I loved the people there, the roles I took on ended up being a poor fit. Suddenly, the demands of full-time ministry felt draining instead of life-giving, and when I found myself crying every Saturday night at the thought of going to church the next day, I knew something needed to change.
About the same time, I began to sense a need to be more involved in the lives of my then-teenage siblings, whom I rarely saw given the demands of church ministry. I also felt a greater urgency for writing, which I’d continued to pursue on the side.
Through tears, prayer, and counsel from my family, I decided to leave the job at the church, just seven months after I’d returned. I didn’t have a plan, other than to return home to stay with my mom and step-dad temporarily as I figured things out. I felt defeated, having left a job I loved and a path I’d been so sure of, only to make one misstep into certain failure.
Had I misunderstood God’s leading to return to the church? Had the path of providence I thought I was following really been just a series of unfortunate coincidences? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I knew for certain was that full-time ministry–missions, church ministry, Christian college employment–none of those things would be my future.
In chapter 7 of The Yes Effect, we’re introduced to three families whose amazing stories of God’s work in their lives all featured moments like mine where disappointment, failure, and even doubt nearly sidelined them. Evgeniy and Svetlana Isaev met at a rehab center in Ukraine when they each were at the lowest point in their lives. They eventually earned the Ukrainian Pride of Country Award for their work in helping orphans, and particularly orphans with HIV.
Nam Soo Kim of South Korea was on the brink of suicide before God used him to draw his family to Jesus and eventually to go as a missionary to Vietnam and the United States, planting the Promise Church in Manhattan, New York. Then there was Yong Ki Kim, who also was from South Korea. He founded the Canaan Farmers Movement, a revitalization program that transformed the economy and well-being of South Korea from a desolate plot of land that had once been considered barren.
These stories of God’s faithfulness all began with small steps of obedience, often without a clear vision for what God was doing. They emerged from real difficulties not knowing where they’d end up. And God planted the seeds of something miraculous right in the midst of them.
That’s what happened in my life. When I left the church the second time and headed home, that wasn’t actually the lowest point of my story. Not yet. That spring, I suffered from a series of minor illnesses that resulted in a severe autoimmune reaction. My own body was attacking my spinal cord. For days, doctors thought I would be permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
I miraculously recovered the use of my legs, only to experience the same reaction three more times over the next three years. Eventually, a specialist put me on a medication to suppress my immune system, which prevented further autoimmune reactions. But two years later, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. My doctors believe all the health crises were related, and all likely the result of severe stress.
Ten years after I left my full-time job hoping to follow God to the mission field I found myself back to working full-time at the same company, hoping just to survive. When the cancer came back a few months after my initial treatment ended, I began to get my affairs in order. It seemed God had promised me the world only to take it all from me. At least that’s how I felt. I was ready to give in to the cancer, accept my defeat, and prepare for the end of God’s plan for me.
But a Christian doctor who’d been treating me since the first autoimmune attack challenged me to see my life differently, to treat every day as a gift. He challenged me to die, whenever that day came, with no regrets. In the days that followed, I started hearing stories of people who embraced life, who kept living despite the threat of death and insurmountable odds. I determined to do the same: As long as I’m alive, I will live fully, live for God.
When I think about the chain reaction of events that God has unfolded in my own life, I can’t help but think of the story of Ruth, a woman whose plan had also been interrupted. It’s easy to think of Ruth’s decision to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem as the beginning of God’s chain reaction in her life. But we’d be wrong to start there. We have to go back further. Back to when a young Moabite woman married a young man from the tribe of Judah and everything seemed to be going her way. The chain reaction took her through some devastating years in a direction Ruth never imagined. But this doesn’t mean the events weren’t connected. In fact, that’s often the way things unfold.
As Luis and Darcy write in The Yes Effect, “God opens us up to His transformation plan by first offering to transform us. Little by little, He presents us with new opportunities to grow. He offers to sensitize our hearts, to give us His vision, to push us out and move our feet forward, to show us how to do our part and leave room for others to do the same, and to strengthen us through long-suffering.”
When all is going well, the events seem to happen quickly. In these fruitful times, we assume this is when God is most active in our lives and our obedience counts the most. But when we hit more difficult times, we learn why it’s called “long”-suffering. The seasons when we need God the most and when our obedience most clearly shines through are often when the chain reaction seems to slow to a screeching halt.
In these times, it can become difficult to see God’s plan unfolding in our lives. But if we stick it out–if we lean in to God and rely on his faithfulness–eventually He “gives us an invitation to look back on what He has accomplished in and around us.”
As it turns out, that conversation 10 years ago with my doctor kept a chain reaction going that I thought had long since stopped. The chain of events was no longer leading toward the goal I’d been expecting 20 years ago, but it was a plan to live fully alive, a plan most certainly led by God.
Though I never again felt called to vocational ministry or missions, I’ve had a heart for the world and supported numerous missionaries and missions projects over the years. Four years ago, I once again quit my job to pursue writing, and this time, the Lord has graciously given me full-time work as a freelance writer. In that same season, five years after my cancer diagnosis, and three weeks after my last cancer recurrence, I went on to marry for the first time at age 42. That was more than five years ago, and I’ve been cancer-free since.
“We all have a chance to be part of a chain reaction,” write Darcy and Luis. “It starts with saying yes to the open invitation from God to lean into Him and find his heartbeat.” That heartbeat is what helps us live fully alive, step by step in the transformation story God sets before us. Our chain reaction rarely ends up looking like the plan we have in mind at the beginning, but leaning into the transformation story God has set before me, I’ve come to understand that when we say yes to God’s small invitations all along the way, we discover what it means to live fully alive and end up with something worth celebrating.
How has God led you forward in ways you didn’t expect? In what ways has He helped you to live fully alive? How can you honor that turn of events and celebrate your chain reaction this week?
Originally published at DarcyWiley.com as part of The Yes Effect Book Club on March 12, 2018.