Spiritual Heart Surgery

My sabbatical was fast approaching.

About a year of planning had gone into it and I was in chronic need of rest. In the lead up to the two month time away from normal leadership responsibilities, I was running on adrenaline more than the Holy Spirit. I was addicted to doing more than being, and now my body was expressing itself very clearly as I had developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This meant I would preach on the Sunday and then I would pretty much crawl into bed with agonising stomach cramps. 

The sabbatical had been a year or so in planning and I was expecting something of a 'heavenly backrub'. Clearly, I had served my guts out for 7 years leading the eldership at City Church and God's duty was now to restore and refresh me. My expectation of the upcoming two months was for a kind of 'well done, good and faithful servant'.

I could not have been more wrong.

The way I could describe the next 8 weeks is that it was akin to heart surgery, like a surgeon completely reconstructing the chambers of my heart and realigning every blood vessel that made it pump. Although painful, His knife was always perfect in its precision.

Through a dramatically clear incident, right at the start, God made it abundantly clear He wanted me to cancel virtually all of my plans for the sabbatical. He wanted me to Himself, not to spend my time networking, scurrying around learning a million different techniques, or making plans to further the Tom Shaw Empire. But rather through the, at first agonisingly difficult, spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude, sabbath, journalling, He wanted me to simply learn to hear Him - not primarily for the sake of others, but because, as a Christian, I'm now His son.

A Dad wants his son to be able to hear him....that sounds pleasant, doesn't it? But all I can say is that as those weeks ticked by, and I let the Holy Spirit reveal to me what needed to be revealed, I started to see the more subtle sin in my soul that I never imagined. It's not that God was harsh, or nitpicking, it's just that I hadn't been listening to God at any deep level for so many years that there were quite a few home truths he had to kick off with! God was showing me an array of sins that actually were causing my exhaustion; it wasn't the devil or obvious 'bad things' out there. The problem was me: it was how I was carrying the fruit He was giving.

At heart, God showed me three core sins:

  1. Chronic Impatience
  2. Crippling Perfectionism
  3. Life-destroying Over-Responsibility

All subtle, but all more lethal than carbon monoxide. I was more addicted to fruit than to the Father. I was not mature enough to cope with even the relatively modest amount of fruit the Lord was bringing.

But, and it is a big but....I cannot express enough how although all I'm saying was vital for the process, it's only part of the story, in fact the inferior part. Key as it has been for me to start to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit's conviction about my sin, oh my, the far greater thing He does is flood my gaze with the contrasting wonder of Jesus!

The power of all this is in the contrast: the contrast between my weakness, limitedness and sinfulness, and the kindness, mercy and greatness of Jesus! Yet I had been (and often still am) plagued by self-obsession. I was too big in my own gaze and Jesus too small and it was through my sabbatical that graciously this began to be reversed. It is almost comical when I see how unimpressive I am and yet how much I can and did find my identity in the things I attempted to do to feel significant. 

What I'm learning is that the great secret of life is yes, being aware of what's going on in my heart, but more so, to have the ultimate gaze on Jesus: His wonder! His kindness! His cross! His resurrection! His glorious coming judgement! His making of all things new! His sending His spirit to change me forever!

As Paul puts it, "far be it from me to boast (i.e. what we think and speak about) except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" - Gal 6:14. 

And so, over the last two and a half years, I have begun to live so very differently. The sabbatical was something actually of a true deliverance. And through it, I have become deeply convinced that the area of our emotions as leaders is so often an overlooked realm. It is my deep conviction that for many leaders the issue that could cause them not to finish the course God has for them is not lack of gift, or even 'character' in the general sense, but the arena of emotional health.

What is really going on in our souls? What emotions are dominating our hearts? Why is that? What is God saying through that? What, in all of this is 'us' and what the Holy Spirit? How can we learn to both look beneath the surface of our hearts without getting our eyes off Jesus and His mission?

And so one of the three areas I plan to write about here, over the coming months, is this subject: emotionally healthy spirituality. It's something I am really just a baby beginner at, but a subject that moves me to tears as I consider the kindness of God in His loving breaking of me. He is teaching me why 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted' and 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 5: 3-4). I'm learning that it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).

So my heart is that for those leaders who may be somewhat unaware of why it is that even though there's some real fruit in their ministry something feels not quite right, it may be that what we speak about here enables your own journey of deliverance and freedom, and you can genuinely say "I love my Father more than the fruit".

If you want to know more of the story of my sabbatical, you can watch this google hangout: