Island of Hope

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On an island off the coast of Belize, God finally found me. I was the lost sheep that the Shepherd left ninety-nine other sheep to find (see Matthew 18:12). Only instead of being an innocent lamb, I was a happily ignorant human in a life focused on the next adventure.

I was in the process of settling permanently in Colorado when I got hit with an undeniable gut conviction to halt and reassess. I seemed to have it all—the rugged outdoor guy, the dream job, the endless extreme adventures—but it was time to choose between that life, and God. I turned down the job, said goodbye to the guy, to the extreme adventures that defined my life, and returned to my Tennessee hometown.

Still in a daze, I took an unplanned vacation to Belize with two friends. After eight days of blissful travels, dread about my future surfaced and finally boiled over. Walking down the sandy beach road on the island of Caye Caulker, a heaviness settled over my soul. Burdened with a sudden desire for solitude, I slipped away into the stillness of a tropical night.

As I walked down the beach, calypso music and town lights faded. A bold Belizean moon reflected the white foam of waves lapping against a narrow sea wall of crumbling concrete that jutted out and disappeared into the dark swells. Gingerly taking steps, I followed it to the end and sat under the weight of my regrets.

I had given up what seemed like every good thing in my life. And what was it for? Instead of moving forward into a successful and exciting future, I was returning to the  hometown I’d spent so long trying to escape. I loved the place of my birth, but it felt symbolic of starting over at the bottom of a mountain while everyone else was halfway up. Besides the pride-humbling necessity of moving back in with my parents while I waited for God’s leading, the circle would be complete when I returned to a job in the hospital where I was born.

Stars hung low in a sky that reflected midnight waters.  I looked up, knowing God was somewhere in the big expanse while I sat there feeling quite small. Was He tired of constantly redirecting me? Had it really been His Spirit leading or was it just another one of my poorly planned life decisions? I felt like a useless and wayward child, endlessly trying and failing to do the right thing.

If it really was His guidance that had changed my heart, then why was I suffering for it? Those in the life I had left behind were prospering in their continued ignorance. I chose God, and yet it looked to the world as though I was choosing failure. I felt a surge of frustration and despair. I was angry that I couldn’t feel His presence.

Pleading up to the night sky, I said, “I know You’re up there, but do You really care about me? I did what You asked and yet here I am, once again, with nothing. I know I’m the least of all Your creatures and that my problems are insignificant, but I can’t see where I’m going next and I feel like I’m struggling alone.”

Emptied of words and energy, I sat with shoulders slumped and arms wrapped around my knees. I couldn’t shake the heaviness. With the dark sea around me, I clung to my island of despair.

A movement startled my reverie and I turned to see a stray dog sitting calmly by my right side. Motionless, he gazed up at my eyes with a strange serenity. His scruffy fur of black and white splotches gave him the appearance my dog back home. Overwhelmed by a sense of something beyond explanation, the hardness in my heart released, and I began to sob.

Filthy though the dog was, I stroked his ratty fur and was comforted. Unspoken words from above seemed to say: Don’t worry, I’m here. You’re not alone. I know you want something to happen right now, but just wait. I didn’t forget you. I have a plan for your life.

I sat on the jetty petting my pooch pal as time sunk away, letting peace pour over me. The sinking weight lifted, and I felt like I was floating peacefully on the sea with stars wrapped around me in a heavenly embrace. Ready to face my unknown new chapter with a calm trust, I finally made my way back to shore. The faithful Caribbean canine followed me to the edge of town and then disappeared down a side street, gone as silently as he had arrived.

God’s approach in reaching my desolate heart that night was so gentle and familiar that I began to see Him for who He really is—the most loving and tender Father. He didn’t show up in a blazing light or speak in a loud voice. He sent comfort I could recognize.

When He sought me in my own space, a permanent inward change came over me. I gained a deeper trust and ability to wait in faith, even without visible evidence of His working (see Hebrews 11:1). I learned to move forward as He showed me one step at a time, even when things didn’t make sense according to human reasoning (see Isaiah 55:9).

That January night in 2016 was only the beginning of my journey. After my major life turnaround, the challenges only seemed to increase. The enemy was a sore loser.  Thankfully, Christ was true to His promise in John 16:33, which says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (NKJV).

My newfound faith and trust would soon be put to the test. While on a mission trip with four other young adults to the remote Alaskan island of St. Lawrence, I observed something: my companions had clearly fostered their spiritual gifts for ministry, where mine were lying dormant and unnurtured. They had even managed to balance outdoor adventure and world travel while making God and ministry their top priority.

I should have been inspired, but instead returned feeling frustrated and full of envy. I remembered God’s comfort in Belize and recognized that even with my imperfections, God could finally start using me in ministry now that I was following His lead, but I felt so far behind. I knew God had plans to give me a hope and a future (see Jeremiah 29:11), but I would need to surrender my own plans, desires, and stubborn independence in the process.

A seed planted in Alaska helped God draw me into a supportive church family where my spiritual gifts began to bud and blossom. I observed people who consistently followed their beliefs and lived “set apart” (see Psalms 4:3), while still maintaining a welcoming and nonjudgmental spirit. It created a spiritual accountability network that I hadn’t experienced in a church before.

Through that network, God led me to a seminar where I learned to pray more effective and Holy Spirit-filled prayers. As I put this into practice, I began to recognize God’s leading very quickly, but I wasn’t prepared for how much He was waiting to do when I was ready.

He showed me where I needed to more boldly ask Him for help with things that were crushing my spirit, the most remarkable of which was a whopping $137,000 of outstanding student loan debt. With a 6.7% interest rate on a single income, it was like a prison with no doors.

I was driving along on an August day in 2017 and praying to God about my suffocating debt, when I received a clear impression that He would wipe it out within three years. I accepted it—but didn’t see how it was possible. Over the next year, every time I would try to fulfill His promise by my own efforts, God would take away my peace until I relented to His reminders that only by decreasing my efforts could He increase and receive glory (John 3:30).

A flame of hope sparked when an anonymous donor paid off $30,000 of my student debt in June 2018. But the flame died out as the remaining $107,000 continued to steal my pennies and my peace. I gained a sense of what Joseph must have felt when he saw his opportunity to get out of jail, only to remain imprisoned for another two years (see Genesis Chapters 40, 41). Despite this, I followed God’s direction to demonstrate my faith in His endless resources by paying tithe on my gross income, instead of on the after-tax net.

At lunchtime on October 10, 2018, I was sitting in my car outside the hospital where I worked. I had just completed reading an inspired compilation on recognizing God’s leading, when conviction struck. I saw that going into debt for my physical therapy Doctorate was never God’s leading (see Proverbs 14:12) and that it was also unbiblical (Romans 13:80). He had not opened the circumstances financially or given me peace at the time, yet I had pressed forward. I confessed that I was to blame for my circumstances. I had always placed blame for my circumstances on everything and everyone else, except myself.

That evening I drove home in tears of self-loathing. I was tempted to complain that God had forgotten His promise to me and that I didn’t deserve it anyway, when a verse popped up on my phone. It read, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live” (Psalms 116:1, 2, NIV).

Though my tears continued, I resisted the urge to complain. Instead, I began to praise God in faith by acknowledging aloud that I trusted Him to fulfill what He had promised (see Psalms 105:19). Twenty minutes later, I received word that the anonymous donor couldn’t find peace until they decided to pay off my remaining student debt. God had fulfilled His promise in half the time.

While this miracle became a testimony to people in the church, it also reached an entire hospital full of my non-Seventh-day Adventist coworkers as they watched events unfold. I had been open with them over the previous year that I sensed a calling away from physical therapy, and that only my student loan debt was keeping me there. Many of them had in turn begun to divulge their own career or spiritual struggles.

Exactly three weeks before the end of 2018, I came across bible texts about Daniel’s twenty-one days of fasting (see Daniel 10:2, 3). I was impressed to cut out unhealthy foods and to pray with a partner every night for three weeks over the future of my career. It wasn’t easy or convenient.

At the end of the twenty-one days, I was in the Great Smoky Mountains with friends for New Year’s Eve. Nothing happened. I drove home solo at sunrise back from the Smokies to work my New Year’s shift, and though disappointed, I began praying words of faith that God would still lead in His own time.

A sudden peaceful conviction came over me that I was to quit my job. I asked, “Really Lord? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t have anything else lined up or any money saved. Shouldn’t I save up first?”

The more I drove and prayed for confirmation, the more a peaceful conviction filled me. That night, I typed up a notice with January 22 set as my last day. Even with Hebrews Chapter 11 as encouragement, stepping out in faith without a safety net was incredibly scary. I could never have done it without the assurance that it was God’s will.

Over the next three weeks, God created so many opportunities for ministering to my coworkers that I was almost overwhelmed, but seeing God work powerfully filled me with boldness. Knowing how unworthy and spiritually unlearned I was, it gave me hope that He could do anything for and through anyone, if only they would surrender to Him.

I began to recognize how many people God wanted to have witness what He was about to do next, and I feared my own weakness. Would I be able to hold on, even if financial circumstances became desperate? In the past, He usually waited until conditions were nearly unbearable before opening a window. I prayed that I wouldn’t ruin His testimony by running back to my secure career if times got tough.

I think God delights in surprising us though, and I was certainly surprised when exactly one week after my job ended, another job dropped directly into my lap through a volunteer church position. Even more significant was that it was in writing and communications—an area far from my formal training but in the very field where I had told people I sensed God calling me.

In the months prior, I had applied and been turned down for countless communications jobs, and even a missionary career. It was only when I followed the Spirit’s guidance to step out in faith, without money saved or a job offer, that God opened the door. Perhaps only through impossible circumstances could He receive the glory.

This is just my story, though. Some people God allows to prosper while others He asks to set aside stability. The key is in trusting Him enough to know that wherever He places us is for our own good and for the good of others. This present Earth is only a fading battlefield anyway. I look forward to “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10, NKJV, abbr.).

Those things He asks us to give up, He will replace with things we didn’t even know we needed. If we hold onto God’s promises with the expectant faith of a child, while relinquishing our own desires, He “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20, NKJV).

In the end, giving up the money, the man, and the mountains, really wasn’t that much for Him to ask of me. God’s reassurance on the Caribbean Sea did not create fruitless hope. He was working behind the scenes all along. Only by stopping my struggle against Him was He able to fulfill this promise: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Psalms 37:4, NKJV).

His desires became my desires, and instead of requiring me to give up happiness and adventure, I now echo David when He said to God, “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11, NKJV).

~

Olivia Hale works as an author advisor assistant at TEACH Services, in Georgia. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, she has lived everywhere from Thailand to Hawaii. You can read more about her travel and outdoor adventures with God at: https://olivadventure.wixsite.com/travelwritingblog.