When God Whittles You Down to Size

When God Whittles You Down to Size

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We have two possible responses to our problems. We can be problem-centered or God-centered. That’s it. The first reaction leads to anxious complaining and fear-motivated comments. Been there, done that. The second response is the path to peace, even while we are suffering. It’s hard to tell how mature we are until the suffering comes, so it’s wise to pay close attention to our thoughts and words when difficult times arrive. Perhaps the suffering will necessitate the Lord to take action, like whittling us down to proper size so that He can build us back up into vessels for His use.

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Mr. Whittler

Shortly after our daughter’s first Christmas, I dragged the tree to our backyard to get rid of it. We had a lovely secluded backyard, making it the perfect place to lay it to rest. Our neighbor, Mr. Campbell, one of the most inventive men I have ever met, loved to whittle. He had a God-given talent for taking the nothingness of a dying Christmas tree and turning it into something special. Mr. Campbell saw what I was doing and asked if he could have our tree. It had no more value to us, so I gave it to him. After a while, I had forgotten he had taken our tree. The following Christmas, Mr. Campbell knocked on our door. To my surprise, he was standing there with a beautiful hand-carved walking stick, about the size and shape of a baseball bat.

Mr. Campbell took our used and useless tree and carved a beautiful walking stick to commemorate our daughter’s first Christmas. At the top of the stick was a beautifully detailed carving of a Santa’s head. On the side of the stick were these words: “Tristen’s Very First Christmas Tree, 2001.” We were humbled and surprised by what he did. I asked him about it, and he said, “I went down to the creek and sat on my bench. Then I began to ponder, ‘What is inside this tree?’ So, I sat and started carving. After a while, I found this inside your tree.” He lifted the pole to me again, beaming.

He sat. He whittled. He took off some good wood and some knotted wood. He kept cutting, carving, and customizing until he came to the proper stopping place. The discovery inside our useless tree was a treasure nobody else could see but Mr. Campbell (2 Corinthians 4:7). I did not see it. Lucia did not see it. Tristen was clueless, too. Only the master craftsman had a vision of what it could be. After months of curing the tree in the heat of the summer and a few days of carving through the fall, Mr. Campbell unveiled the previously hidden treasure. Only the master whittler knew. The process was long and hard, but the woodcarver persisted, and he had the skill and patience to make it happen.

Whittled to Size

There are no appropriate analogies for what Job experienced in the final chapter that documents his journey. My tree story is a small attempt to convey a big idea. This closing segment of Job’s journey gives us a transparent, humble, and vulnerable picture of a broken man. God stripped down his life to where nothing was left that separated him from his Maker. The losses were many. The complaints were bitter and unending. The advice from friends was insufficient. Job had finally come to the end of himself. He was not attempting to manipulate God through his praying, and he had already placed his hand on his mouth. He was not living in a self-caused, self-deception. He said it this way: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

  • His family was gone.
  • His land was gone.
  • His cattle were gone.
  • His complaining was gone.
  • His self-righteousness was gone.
  • He had no more questions; those left him too. Job stopped talking, and God transformed his heart.
  • Job met God.

He was stripped, naked, prostrate, and whittled down to size, as though he had returned to the dust from whence he came, waiting for God to put him back together again (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 3:20). Job had ears to hear and eyes to see what the Lord had in mind. The woodcarver had an idea and a subject, but Job was rough around the edges. Few people experience this kind of handiwork from God. Job was one of the lucky ones, though getting to this place of true confession and humble rebuilding was devastating. The Father carried Job through a terrifying and complicated time. He brought him to a place in their relationship that words could not describe (Romans 8:26). Sometimes, verbal-ness can complicate things. It was time for Job to be quiet and experience the terrifying greatness of God.

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God Alone

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17).

It was Job and God. Alone. The Lord had His man where He wanted him, and Job was content to be there—empty-handed, broken-hearted, and ready to learn. We can become so distracted with the cares of this life that we drift from the shores of God’s love, faithfulness, and protection. As we slumber through life, we need a wake-up call to navigate back to our first love. Our hearts are prone to wander, and our minds quickly forget the essential things to live well in God’s world. Everything Job used to be was now gone. The old Job was dead. He was dead to himself. His dreams, needs, desires, hopes, and expectations were all demolished, flattened, and removed by God. Job, like Paul, could say,

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).

Job began his journey with many personal blessings. In time, God ripped all of those good things away from him. There is no other way to say it, though it cuts against the grain of our spoiled and privileged lives. Job sinned in response to what was happening to him. He was understandably dazed and confused. Even with the more profound needs of his soul not being met in his unwittingly deceived spiritual stupor, his dismay and crying did not alter God’s plans for him. Through it all, the Lord persevered with his devastated servant. Job could not perceive the things that were wrong with him. Only the Lord had the depth of vision to see what was wrong with his servant and what only He could change. The woodcarver would not release the bruised reed until He completed the task.

God Cares

Job and I are similar in that we have gone through seasons of self-deception. Sometimes, it is deceit from ignorance as a newborn baby unfamiliar with meat. Other times we can be more premeditative, knowing what we’re doing wrong but lacking the courage or humility to change. In either case, we’re not seeing what we need to see. We need someone outside of ourselves looking into our lives who loves us enough to do whatever it takes to change us. The Lord is such a person. Of course, my problem is not only my self-deception. If I were honest, I would admit I do not want to be entirely known for who I am. Even under the light of God’s omniscience, I tend to hide (Genesis 3:10; Hebrews 4:13).

Mercifully, the Lord does not recoil with this knowledge of me or use it against me (Romans 8:1). The Lord is intentional and meticulous regarding the soul-shaping exercise of discipleship. The irony is that we cannot fool the one who sees in the dark. This worldview compels God to strip me down from time to time. He wants me to see what He sees. He wants me to know what He knows. He does not do this because He is mean or because He has the desire to toy with me. He does this because He loves me. Have you ever been stripped down by God? Have you ever had the life-transforming experience of being hoisted upon the wood carver’s bench for a season of cutting, carving, and contouring?

Sometimes, we need the hindrances removed for His glory, our good, and the benefit of those He wants to reach through well-carved servants. The impediments I am referring to are not necessarily the external things we accumulate, such as, “You have too much stuff.” In Job’s case, the Lord was removing external things as the precursor to the more in-depth work He wanted to accomplish in his soul. Imagine if the only thing the Lord did was to allow the devil to destroy Job’s family and possessions. Those losses would affect him, of course. But a more profound work was needed—an action designed to bring His servant into a more useful representation of Christ. Typically, it’s the things in our external lives that we value that God rattles or removes, so our inner lives begin to open us to more meticulous soul surgery.

Tipping Point

When the master woodcarver begins to carve on us, He reveals the natural person—the hidden man of the heart. Our reaction is disorientation, confusion, and anger, only affirming those covert and sinful elements that are resident in our idol factories. These expected but adverse reactions to the Lord’s work highlight that He was correct: we need redemptive solutions that transform. The Lord has to push us past the tipping point to reveal who we are. If we only operate within our strengths, we will live with an inflated ego—a representation of ourselves, never realizing our vulnerabilities. It’s the person lifting a ten-pound bar at the gym, impressing the fifth-graders. What is so sad about him is when the weightier challenges come, he is ill-equipped to handle them.

God gives us a divine nudge that pushes us past our self-sufficient limits, the only way for the Lord to expose that we’re not as impressive as we might want others to perceive. A famous quote within the Christian community goes like this: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” What if you flipped the coin over and applied it to the Lord regarding the Sovereign suffering He allows in our lives? Maybe it would sound like this: “The Lord will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and the process will cost you more than you could ever pay.”

From God’s perspective, He has no choice but to push us past the tipping point. We are too stuck on ourselves for it to be any other way. This perspective was the message of Paul, as he explained to the Corinthians why his team felt pushed to the point of death, despairing of life. He did not want the Corinthians to be ignorant of the trouble they were experiencing in Asia, so he set the record straight for them and us. He had learned the lesson of Job: the Lord loves me so much that He will go to great lengths to save me from myself. To do that, he has to bring me to a place where I cannot fix my problems, giving me the motivation to lean into a higher power. Paul talked about going past the tipping point this way:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

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Transcending Suffering

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6)

Job intellectually knew about the Lord—he had heard of Him by the hearing of the ear. He knew so much about the Lord that he could assume he would be okay (Job 23:10). He was confident the Lord would bring him through the fire (1 Peter 4:12). What he could not perceive was the difference between knowing the Lord, and a fuller, unhindered experience with the Lord—now my eye sees you. Part of this process was the Lord taking Job from the subtle self-deceived thinking that he was something to a person who realized he was nothing, deserved nothing, and would only find authentic satisfaction with God alone. For Job, the mission was almost accomplished.

He had gone from a man who believed he deserved better to a man who loathed himself. He was beginning to find spiritual wholeness in human emptiness. What does it mean to you to find spiritual wholeness in human emptiness? Job was stripped down naked. The whittler had whittled. God removed everything in his life that made him something. Job fell apart as God exposed his soul for what it was. The Lord permitted him to agonize for a season, remaining quiet during most of his struggle in the crucible, expecting him to see things in his life that he had to change. The temptation for me would be to rescue him. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m saying. It takes sturdy parents, sturdy friends, and a sturdy God to love someone with such wisdom and courage.

Through the agony of the soul, Job was becoming a pliable man in the hands of his careful and loving whittler. In time, he grew to accept and embrace the blessing of nothingness. What does it mean to you to accept and embrace the blessing of nothingness? Rather than complaining about his suffering, he could see beyond the misery. God had broken him enough to the point that he wanted to rely on Him, who raises the dead, a new experience that transcended human strength and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:25). You could say he rose above his suffering. He was in the “God zone.” It is hard for us to see beyond our suffering. We choose to be suffering-centered, as evidenced by talking more about our defeats than the Lord’s victories.

Love of God

These other-worldly thoughts are worth our reflection. Imagine living in the Lord’s strength rather than ours. It sounds nice, but if you’re like me, getting to the place of simplicity on the other side of complexity is terrifying. We tend to either get stuck in the future possibility of suffering or the current realities of suffering. Fortunately, the Book of Job gives us a peek into the pain and a pathway through it. What we learned about Job in the first chapter was correct: he loved God. Job loved God when he had plenty and learned to love the Lord when he had nothing, which is the hard part for most of us. I’m glad God lets us follow the story arc, so we can see how Job loves Him when everything that was of value to him was gone.

However, it’s more crucial to recognize that God loved Job and would not let go of His servant. The big lesson here is that whatever the Lord takes us through, and no matter how much we fail, He will love us. He will never give up on us. This kind of love is more comprehensive than most of us realize. This kind of love will motivate the Lord to whittle us down to size until He has removed all the things that hinder us from experiencing Him fully. You may ask, “When will this process end?” There are two answers. Only the woodcarver knows how to form Christ in us, and we will experience rest when these depraved bodies no longer bother us, at glorification.

The better question is, do we want God to complete what He started when He regenerated us? It would be best to want it since He will complete what He began as salvation (Philippians 1:6). We can go kicking and screaming to the woodcarver’s bench, or we can ask for the grace to accept the call to die to ourselves as we make our way to His lathe. An excellent way to self-assess your cooperation with Him through personal suffering is to answer these two questions: Do I respond in faith to my problems—am I trusting and resting in the woodcarver’s work in me? Or do I react in fear—am I anxious and complaining about what He is whittling into my life? How you answer these questions will give you a clue as to how much more whittling the woodcarver has to do.

Call to Action

  1. Please talk with a friend about the suffering you have gone through and what you learned from it. What were some of the things the Lord carved out of your life? How did you mature?
  2. Do you have more respect for God because He loves you so much that He perseveres with you, even when you complain from inside your crucible? Think about a child with more respect for a strong and loving parent than a weak and catering one.
  3. I asked, “What does it mean to you to find spiritual wholeness in human emptiness?” Will you take time to discuss your response with a friend?
  4. How are you imitating God—the woodcarver—with your spouse, children, or friends? Don’t you want to be a friend to others like the Lord befriends you? What’s the advantage of having these friends in your life?

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