Editors’ Note: This article is based on a “virtual” presentation given via Skype from Afghanistan for one morning of the Euro-Africa Division’s Week of Prayer readings in 2008. Elements of the oral presentation have been preserved.
here is a time when God’s voice is real, audible, and clear. He says, Go there. Say this. Do that. And along with that command is the promise that He will be with you, “even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20, KJV). So you go there, say this, and do that. Then suddenly, like Peter, you look around and find that the waters are deep and rough and you’ve completely forgotten the promises accompanying the voice, the origins of the voice, or that there even was a voice to begin with (Matt. 14:22-32).
Going to Afghanistan
Coming to live and work in Afghanistan has been no different. The order to “Go!” was a fulfillment of earlier hopes and dreams, and the excitement and anticipation of the possibilities energizing. No one or anything could get in the way. The assignment has been as Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) project manager of a health project located in one of the most remote areas of the country, the central highlands of Bamyan Province.
As you may well know, Afghanistan is a country that has been experiencing decades of war and conflict. It’s a country where people struggle for survival, not just because of war but also poverty, the severity of terrain, tribal and ethnic issues, lack of infrastructure, and many other issues. It is an Islamic nation with both Shiite and Sunni Muslims represented—often resulting in great turmoil and discrimination due to the combined complexities of four major ethnicities of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara. There are three major languages spoken in Afghanistan: Dari (Farsi), Pashto, and Urdu. Dari is mostly spoken in our project area.
But this article is not meant to convey the details of the project and its successes. It is meant to describe an ongoing dilemma of desiring even more oneness with God (in the midst of a Christless land) and rejoicing in His own desire for an intimate relationship with this child on the one hand, and the constant reminder that He is unseen and that other close friends are also far, far away. It is also meant to show how God determines to utilize a person in the smallest of ways through that very dilemma.
Where Are You Actually Alone With God?
For a sailor it might be at sea. For a farmer it might be in a field. For a truck driver it might be on the road. For a prisoner it might be in a cell. For me there is no place like the mountains to be alone with God, and being in the central highlands of Afghanistan has made this fact so much more vivid.
With the reality of endless mountains between me and a more familiar civilization, there are definitely times when “alone” feels more vivid. That is, when the Sabbaths are too quiet. All of my Sabbaths are spent alone with God—singing, praying, studying the lesson, or listening to a sermon—many times within the confines of my room while other times taken to a cleft in a rock somewhere on a mountain. That is the other time, when I’m walking in the mountains alone.
These mountains protect us from other unwanted fighting forces, so there is wonderful peace and security and my wanderings are far and free. Then there are the times when the project challenges reveal my insecurities and inexperience and I am nearly paralyzed by fear. Like the time when the community health committee was threatening to call the community to demonstrate against ADRA for what seemed to me unreasonable demands. Regardless of the safety of this mountain hideout, the e-mail inbox is constantly bombarded with news from around the country about explosions, death, and threats against foreigners or locals working for government or foreign organizations. These are those moments of “being alone.”
But the point is, when you’re alone with God, you’re not alone! How naturally human to have the tendency to stress alone instead of delighting in the presence of God! In fact, this is when we are in the best care possible. When you realize this, everything labeled or framed with fear fades away and everything else becomes possible.
Things Happen When You’re Alone With God
You begin to realize, and eventually accept, that blessings can be a distraction and troubles make us run to Him. The most basic of lessons is to narrow all your interests until your mind, heart, and body are focused on Jesus alone. Prayerful inner-searching results and God shows us what needs to change, what to do next, or simply surrounds and conquers fear with peace.
This is the ultimate message of Oswald Chambers’ book My Utmost for His Highest. In it he paraphrases Psalm 139, in which the psalmist takes all those places of “aloneness” and requests the Creator to search those same places that reside in his human heart:
“O Lord, You are the God of the early mornings, the God of the late nights, the God of the mountain peaks, and the God of the sea. But, my God, my soul has horizons further away than those of early mornings, deeper darkness than the nights of earth, higher peaks than any mountain peaks, greater depths than any sea in nature. You who are the God of all these, be my God. I cannot reach to the heights or to the depths; there are motives I cannot discover, dreams I cannot realize. My God, search me.”
One of my duties as project manager is to recruit personnel. While conducting interviews of candidates for various positions in the project, one of the questions asked is, “Please describe a strength and weakness of yourself that may help or hinder your ability to do this job.” More than any other question, people do not know how to answer this one. Often, we are not accustomed to self-evaluation and much less the piercing refining revelations of the Almighty. But if you are alone with God, inner searching is unavoidable, and He will show you what courage exists (because He is with you) or what shouldn’t be there or what hinders His ability to work.
What I Have Learned
Simply by being alone with God,
in the same way that inner searching is unavoidable, being transformed is also unavoidable. God is not satisfied to leave you the same person. As a testimony, being alone with God in Afghanistan has done the following for me: He made me aware of fear to meet the challenges of my work; He made me more aware of will power to continue step by step and reminded me of His courage that overcomes fear; He made me aware of pride and the humility provided by friends and colleagues who can support so that I can’t take credit for successes alone; He made me aware of my complaining attitude—by the simplicity of my colleagues who accept life as it comes much more willingly than I do.
There is still more that happens as a natural outcome of being alone with God. Not only are you transformed into someone new, your life naturally becomes an outpouring of blessings
for others. I like the way Mr. Chambers puts it: “Is my sacrifice living?” That is not what I am sacrificing in the sense of what I give up (being away from home, luxuries of running water, buying anything I want from the grocery store, safety of a secure government, etc.). It is the sacrifice of that other “person” you left behind. Now is the time of being a new and living creature and that can only be Jesus living in and through you. It becomes the little things you do. It’s not the time to think or talk about the big things, about running a project that covers this amount of population or manages this number of health facilities or utilizes this amount of funds. It’s good, rather, to stop and think about the simplicity of “being.”
Over the past two years I have learned that life is often about just “being there” and experiencing people’s lives with them. Here are a few ways that “simply being” became more real for me:
• Recently two of our custodians at the same hospital lost their husbands within the same week. They are middle-aged women, one with children, the other without. In this society both face daunting challenges to care for children or face the shame of not having any. My staff and I took some time one afternoon to visit with them in their separate homes as is the local custom and tradition. Someone recited some verses from the Qur’an as a prayer. We let them share their tears and I also spoke on behalf of our group, reminding them that we share the promise of “Another Hope-filled Day.”
• Normally the car comes to pick me up for work, but on occasion there is no vehicle available and I will walk in the snow and cold like everybody else. It means absolutely nothing to me, but apparently to those here it means a great deal to see this odd foreigner willingly braving the cold with them.
• One day I kept my neighbor company when she was sick and her 4-year-old too noisy, offering her warm broth to calm her nerves and settle her stomach.
• Making popcorn with a family of friends while their papa was away was great fun one day. We had a snowball fight and several sled runs down the hill with the neighbor kids—here, for an adult to spend time with the children outside seems unusual.
Being alone with God in Afghanistan, I thought, was meant to be a transforming opportunity for the people I came to serve. Based on many of the results and the response from the community, we seem to accomplish this. However, perhaps the other side of the equation, God wants to show me, ME(!), that His favorite work remains, and will always be, being the most intimate and life-transforming power in the life of each individual earthbound human. I wonder where you find your place to “be alone” with God and where you can discover the “little things” in your life? Don’t shy away from these moments of silence—they are truly life-changing.
At the writing of this article Rebecca de Graaf worked as the director of an ADRA health project in the central highlands of Bamyan Province, Afghanistan. This article was published January 21, 2010.