I was ten or eleven years old the first time I had what I would consider a prophetic dream. Not that I am a prophet or in anyway make claims to that, but this particular dream was recurring. I lost count of the number of times I would wake up in a cold sweat and silent tears running down my face throughout my teen years. I can’t remember sharing it with anyone at the time, but I may have and just don’t recall it. What I do remember is the feeling of being trapped in this endless cycle of dreaming and feeling like I had no control over it when I closed my eyes. It was so vivid and I dreamed it so many times I still remember it 20 some odd years later.
I hear yelling. Not screaming exactly, but yelling and chaos. Suddenly I’m gripping the side of this sloping hill. My hands held tight to a clump of grass and my knuckles are turning white from exertion. The yelling hasn’t stopped, but all around me I see people tumbling down this hill into a pit below. The pit is engulfed with flames, sometimes they look like a campfire, and sometimes they glow blue. I can’t feel the heat and I’m too afraid to look down, but I know it’s yawning beneath me and waiting for me to let go. Next to me, someone else falls. It’s someone I know; I can’t see their face, but I somehow know that I know them. I reach out to try to catch them, but our fingertips barely touch and they fall away. This happens again and again, person after person falling into the pit. My fingers ache and I feel like I’m slipping. But I never fall. I always wake up, scrambling away from the pit and watching everyone I love slip away.
I type the dream now and my palms are sweating. Just reading it probably makes you wonder what about that dream was so traumatizing to me as a kid. It’s not really graphic and there are more unknowns than knowns within it, but the palpable, choking fear I couldn’t shake at the time, still feels tangible somehow.
I blame the Left Behind series. They were super popular at the time, and a kid version even released when I was about 13. Fiction? Sure, but for some reason I really internalized this fear of being one of the ones left behind. I feel pretty certain this is where the fear began, but where it ended, I didn’t quite expect.
Not a lot is known about Joel, but this short book (only 3 chapters) reveals a lot about the Lord and our relationship with Him. During Joel’s time, the people of Isreal experienced a literal invasion of locusts that ate up their food supply and threatened to wipe them out entirely. It was devastating for the land and the people. And it wasn’t just one instance; it was recurring. Joel lays it out for them in chapter 1 verse 4 when he addresses the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the destroying locust. Some scholars even believe it was multiple years, as it may be addressing the life cycle of the locust. Others say it’s just multiple swarms back to back to back. Either way it’s not just 1 devastation, but 4. FOUR.
Utter destruction of everything.
Loss. Heartache. Tragedy.
The people want to know why. They are begging for an explanation.
And God heard them.
God chose Joel to speak to the nation in their time of crisis and give them a deeper understanding. He didn’t explain why the locust destroyed everything and left them with a lack of food or provision. I mean, we already know why the world experiences such devastation and loss, don’t we? Natural disasters such as these are a direct result of sin and death being introduced by humanity for humanity, and because we live in this broken world we will sometimes experience tragedy and loss that are inexplicably hard.
No, asking God “Why are you doing this?” in the midst of tragedy is not our best question. That gets complicated, and messy and because we don’t know the bigger picture and we aren’t God. Even if He answered us and broke it down into cause/effect, we would likely not understand. The better question is, “What is God teaching me through this”? Because no matter what we experience in this life, God always has something to say to us if we just shut up and listen.
As it turns out, this book really isn’t about the tragedy at all. Joel addresses it, but it is less about that and more about the people and their heart postures toward God.
You see, the people had gotten distracted. They were sinning and disobedient. They were ignoring God and doing whatever they wanted. Whatever felt good.
Then, when tragedy struck, they wondered why God wasn’t there? They kicked him out of their lives…and then wondered where He was.
God didn’t send Joel to give an explanation. He sent them to offer the people restoration.
Despite their attitude and sin, God still claimed them as his own. One of the great things about our God is that no matter what, God over and over again proves how He loves and cares for His people even when they repeatedly screw up.
Even when they don’t love Him.
Through Joel, God uses the locust tragedy as a symbol for what awaits the people if they do not turn from sin and return to Him. It encompasses the bigger picture, and as such applies beyond this one tragedy. As humans we sometimes let our pride blind us from the truth: Life is fragile and we cannot control it.
And the real message is this: Return to me.
Joel 2: 12-13 is worth your time to memorize. I’m still working on it, but it is a direct promise from the Lord to His people:
Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.
Joel used the locust tragedy for his message, but doesn’t it also apply to financial ruin? Lost jobs? Global pandemics? Chronic illness? And a myriad of other tragedies that exist in this world. The things we use as excuses to separate ourselves from God’s love and care? The things we blame on God?
This isn’t to say that their specific sin caused this to happen. Please hear me when I say I don’t believe that sinning will give you cancer etc. I’m speaking overall, sin in general, the introduction of this into our world broke it and even the best of humanity suffers as a result.
It also doesn’t promise that if they stop sinning and return to God that they will never experience tragedy again.
No, it’s not saying that at all; really returning to God isn’t about us or what we get out of it. It’s more about the character of God and acknowledging that he is worthy of our devotion.
The flip side of that rings true too. Because God is good and worthy of our devotion, He chooses to bless us and give us new and abundant life in spite of the tragedies we face (and sometimes cause through our sin) in the world. Ultimately, returning to God will redeem us and, though not always in this life, will reward us beyond our wildest dreams.
Joel even gives us a road map, a process by which we can return to God:
- Acknowledge sin
- Be sorry about it
- Confess and pray/fast
- Bring in accountability to avoid sinning again
- Cry out to the Lord
By doing this we can be prepared to fight our real enemy. Spiritual warfare rages all around us all the time, and our weapons are fasting and praying — together in a holy assembly— everyone calling out to the Lord and placing God at the head of the army. We need to be prepared so the Enemy can’t turn us away from what is right and important to God. The Enemy strikes when we are the most vulnerable, when these tragedies threaten our very souls. BUT if we are prepared we can stand up and stand strong behind the Lord no matter what the Enemy throws at us. When we are operating outside of his protection, when we are caught off guard, that’s when we are rendered powerless and we fail. That’s when the real tragedy happens.
Separation from God.
Sometimes…and most tragic of all…Forever.
My dream seems pretty straight forward, right? A lot of people I know falling into a pit of fire? Come on, that’s straight out of symbolism 101.
Except, things aren’t always what they seem.
I don’t remember how old I was the last time I had the dream. I’m not sure, but it ended differently. Do you want to guess?
This time…I let go.
That’s right, I let go and fell right into the fire.
I didn’t wake up in fear, though. I wasn’t burning up or in hell as you might have suspected (as I might have suspected). Instead, I woke up feeling calm and reassured.
And that taught me something important.
That dream taught me that sometimes holding on is a mistake. We think we know what is right and true. We think we see the bigger picture. We think we have to save everyone around us, when all along we just need to let go.
Let go of our anger.
Let go of our pride.
Let go of our hurt.
Let go of our need to know why.
Let go and let God consume us. Let him refine us. Let him redeem us so no matter what we can rest assured that He is good. He is worthy. He is in control.