Into the Valley of Dependence: Season 2 of My Calling Journey

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30/09/2023

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30/09/2023

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My Calling Journey Season 2: The Valley of Dependence

In Season 1, I shared about the early years of my calling journey from conversion, and how God’s hand guided me in finding my life’s purpose. At the same time, the dark seeds of my spiritual pride and insecurity threatened to undo me.

In this post, I will be sharing the Season 2 of my journey, which took a turn into the deep valley of dependence. Yet at the same time, God’s presence has never left me, but He used the valley years to break the idols of my heart and mold me to embrace my calling more fully.

What is Season 2 about?

Tony Stoltzfus named the second season of our journey the “Valley of Dependence”.

The Valley of Dependence is a season of adversity intentionally orchestrated by God to shape our Life Messages (calling) and foster a deeper reliance on Him. On average, this valley lasts around 2.5 years. It begins when the success and prosperity we experienced during the Mountaintop of Natural Promotion suddenly come to a halt, often due to the presence of pride.

Stepping into this valley can be quite unsettling. We’re caught off guard, shaken by the unexpected turn of events. We may even be overwhelmed with a mix of emotions like fear, doubt, resentment, and anger. It’s during this time that the harsh realities of failure and unfulfilled expectations become all too real.

However, amidst the challenges, God is at work to deepen our dependence on Him. Often, He addresses a negative event or a flaw in our character, such as arrogance or self-sufficiency, that leads us into this valley. Initially, we might resist entering this season and grappling with the discomfort it stirs within us.

Yet, it is through this journey of dependence that we begin to experience a whole new level of reliance on God. Our life is no longer centered around our own strength and abilities, but rather, we learn to place our trust in His guidance and provision.

This valley becomes a transformative period where false beliefs about God are confronted and replaced with a deeper understanding of His sovereignty and unwavering faithfulness.

Characteristics of the Valley of Dependence

According to Tony Stoltzfus, here are some characteristics of the Valley of Dependence:

  • Averages 2 and a half years in length
  • A negative trigger event often leads us into the valley
  • Our character flaw (such as arrogance or self-sufficiency) may contribute to the crash
  • Difficult time of failure or adversity
  • Formation of Key Life Messages
  • Life not meeting expectations causes doubt, fear of missing it, feeling lost, anger at God or cyncisim
  • “Kicking against the pricks” — we fight against entering the valley
  • We ask God to get us of our circumstances and He explicitly refuses
  • Isolation or rejection by friend or authority figure

My Valley of Dependence – Overview

Based on the description above, I outlined my Valley of Dependence journey (2007 – 2014) in the following chart. It was first triggered by a traumatic event in my life, followed by a series of tragedies that led me into depression.

My Valley of Dependence - an overview
My Valley of Dependence – an overview

Negative Trigger Event: Church Split in 2007

As my late twenties unfolded, the landscape of my journey took a somber turn. In 2007, my church, a cornerstone of my spiritual upbringing, fractured under the weight of internal conflict. This rupture was heart-wrenching for me, almost like a child going through a parental divorce. Our Senior Pastor left the old church, leading a group of people to establish a new church.

My wife and I, grappling with this painful decision, chose to embark on this new church plant as part of the pioneering team. It meant, however, parting ways with lifelong friends who had shared our spiritual voyage. My previous church was one in which I grew up. It was like an old family to me. Leaving it in

The Early Years of Church Planting

Starting our new church was anything but simple. I took on the role of interpreter, translating Chinese sermons into English, and for a time, I served as one of the elders in our fledgling congregation.

During this time, I saw that God was with us. We could see His presence in what we were doing. The size of the congregation grew, and many new believers came to know the Lord and were baptised. We even merged with another Chinese national church. My ministry focus was dedicated to the youth, and in 2008, I delivered my first sermon at a youth evangelistic rally, exploring the themes of relationships and the meaning of life. Concurrently, I embarked on my theological education with the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) in 2008.

But, beneath the surface of all this activity, there were problems in my own life. I started losing my patience more often, and I began to feel a sense of pride creeping in.

Deep within my heart, the memory of the church conflict continued to haunt me. Every time I thought about my previous church, I felt a mix of guilt and sadness over how things had ended. I remembered the faces of people who were once friends, now separated by differences and disagreements. The emotional wounds ran deep and seemed to never heal.

I tried to find some kind of reconciliation in my heart, searching for a way to heal the division between the two churches. I am still praying for a spirit of unity and love so that we can move past our differences and rebuild what was broken.

A Season of Parenthood and Transition

In 2008, the dawn of a new chapter arrived with the birth of my daughter. The subsequent years unfurled as a tapestry woven with the joys and stresses of parenthood.

In 2011, my son joined our family, deepening our sense of happiness and, simultaneously, the demands of family life. Juggling the roles of parent, breadwinner, and serving in church, I found myself experiencing an inward burnout. I started to make mistakes in my judgment calls. I was also serving with a wound from the church split. All this was unhealthy for the youth group I was leading at that time.

Stepping Down from Ministry

Sensing that I needed to do this inner work, my senior pastor diplomatically allowed me to pause my ministry so I could focus on my family and theological studies. I was no longer a youth mentor, the church’s interpreter, or a Sunday School teacher.

While it was good to see new people rising up to take these roles, I couldn’t help but feel sidelined. I had defined my identity by my ministry roles for so long. Now that these roles were taken away, I was not sure what to think of myself anymore.

Oasis in the Valley of Dependence

A Revitalizing Spiritual Retreat

After carrying the wounds of the church split for a few years, I came to experience healing during a spiritual retreat. It was conducted as part of a course in BGST. My spiritual director introduced me to Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. The book is about the author’s reflections on Rembrandt’s painting of the parable of the prodigal son. Both the younger and elder sons were depicted in the painting.

Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

My spiritual director shared with me that, in many ways, I resembled the elder son in the parable. I was bitter, angry, and resentful that God did not seem to love me as much as I deserved.

This was a wake-up call for me. All along I thought I was the younger prodigal son. But I realized that my hypocrisy and spiritual pride was more similar to the jealous elder son. I tried so hard to serve God, to live up to the Christian code, to do things for me. Yet all this while I did not trust that He loved me unconditionally in Christ.

During the retreat, we visited a cemetery to reflect about the brevity of life. I was impressed by an epitaph on a tombstone that read,

Jesus loves me, this I know.

That’s all. 6 simple words. Yet the memories of the childhood song came back to me:

Jesus loves me, this I know.
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.

Notes from the retreat

Here is an excerpt from my journal of that retreat:

Just came back from a weekend retreat organized by BGST at the Singapore Vision Farm. It was a time of rejuvenation and rest in the Lord, a time to be silent and solitary–a time to be still and know that He is God (Ps 46:10).

I came to the retreat with many emotional burdens. Personal failures, mounting distractions, ministry inadequacies, escapistic exasperations, and a sense of apprehension towards my future.

The Lord is gracious to lift them one by one. I wish I could write out every journal entry on the blog, but many are rather private struggles of my own heart, and only He and myself and probably my wife can understand.

Still, I would like to center on a particular passage that I believe the Lord impressed upon me, John 15:9-11:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

To know that I am a beloved child of God in Christ, that despite my past, my failings and my inadequacies He loved me, and calls me to remain in His love–is the greatest treasure I ever have.

In the past few months (or even years) I used to think lightly about the love of God. I thought I had grown out of it, as if it was one of the basic foundations of our Christian life, and went on to pursue ‘greater things’–wisdom, service, effectiveness, etc.

But for the Lord Jesus, there isn’t a greater thing than this–“As the Father has loved Me”. This is His very source of joy, this is His identity: the beloved Son of God. God the Father has set His love for God the Son from all eternity. He declared this audibly in His inauguration (Matthew 3:17) and in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), what He had always held in everlasting love with His Son.

And now the Triune God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit, extends this divine love to us. “So have I loved you”.

Herein lies the secret of the Christian joy. Not merely the thrill of uncovering the gems in God’s Word, not merely the marvel of doing His work, not merely the wonder of being in the center of God’s will–but being the very beloved child of God.

As one brother shared, our personhood is tied to our being, belonging and doing. Our being–who we are, is defined by our belonging–who we belong to, and that in turn determines our doing–what we do.

We belong to God our Father, therefore we are children of God, and so we walk as children of God.

Herein also lies the motivation behind Christian obedience. We are not following a legalistic system of do’s and don’ts, our allegiance to the Ten Commandments is not ‘for it’s own sake’. No, it is the motivation of a child who rests so securely in her Father’s bosom that she whispered, “I obey, Father.” The hollowness of a disobedient life shuns her; she knows of no other bliss than to obey the voice of her Father.

Herein, I believe, also lies the question and answer behind my quest for inner peace. Since I am beloved of God, what can man do to me? Since I am beloved of God, my acts of service are not tickets to earn my Father’s favor, but a love expression. Since I am beloved of God, no event nor circumstance, no matter how dire and horrible, can shake me. Oh, there are much that men can taunt and scoff, where guilt and shame can rage and tear, where disasters and pain and suffering scream for vindication! But all is at rest in the inner sanctuary of my soul.

For Jesus loves me, this I know.

Tragedy Strikes – Sudden Passing of My Father

In 2010, life dealt a crushing blow. My parents, on vacation in China visiting my younger brother, confronted a calamity. My father suffered a stroke at the Pearl Tower, a stark twist of fate that plunged us into grief’s abyss. Only the previous night, we had shared a joyful Skype call, celebrating my brother’s birthday and sharing the news of our impending second child.

I vividly recall that Saturday afternoon. My world crumbled when my brother’s call conveyed the news of my father’s heart attack. Desperation fueled our family’s fervent prayers. Yet, within half an hour, another call shattered our hopes.

My father had departed to be with the Lord.

The shock and devastation that followed were indescribable. The Bible passage we had been reading that day, Psalm 91, resounded in my mind—especially the verse, “He who dwells under the shadow of the Almighty.” It felt as though the Lord had impressed this verse upon me. However, it also ignited a profound struggle within me: Why had God chosen to take him so suddenly?

Over the next 3 years, the dark seeds of doubt festered and grew. I was not doubting the existence of God. I was doubting His goodness. My faith went through a crisis as I wrestled with these doubts and bouts of depression.

One of the songs that comforted and sustained me during this period of grief, was Michael Card’s The Silence of God.

Michael Card’s The Silence of God.

A Second Tragedy – The Passing of My Senior Pastor and Mentor

In 2011, another heartbreaking event shook my world. My dear senior pastor, Reverend Lai, lost his battle with cancer after fighting for over a year. His passing was a heavy blow, casting a deep shadow over my already depressed soul.

Losing my senior pastor wasn’t just about losing a friend and mentor; it felt like I was losing my dreams too. I began to question my calling. Am I still qualified to serve God in a full-time capacity? The path that he had planned for me earlier now seemed blocked since he passed away at a time when I was still in depression.

The following 3 years were the darkest period in my spiritual life. I discontinued my theological studies, partly because of parenting demands, and partly because my heart became so discouraged and disillusioned from the recent events.

Seeking Out Broken Cisterns That Cannot Hold Waters

As I realized how fragile life could be, I felt compelled to secure my future. It seemed logical—if life was unpredictable, I needed financial security.

So, I ventured into the world of personal finance. I became determined to build a safety net for my family and myself, wanting never to be in lack again.

The problem with this motivation is that it was driven by a lack of faith in God’s provision. I had wanted to carve out my own security. Looking back, I was committing the sins mentioned in Jeremiah 2:13,

“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Jeremiah 2:13

Exploring Investments and Risky Ventures

In my pursuit of financial freedom, I explored investments and even speculative ventures. I met an investment coach during one of my courses who agreed to mentor me. What started cautiously soon became an obsession.

Urged by my so-called mentor, I delved deep into the intricacies of fundamental and technical analysis, trying to navigate the unpredictable financial markets. When he formed an investment group, he asked me to join up. Together, we coached other learners on investing in the various financial markets.

Soon, investing to provide financial security became an unhealthy obsession, to win as many trades as possible. Fear has turned to greed.

person holding a smartphone
Photo by Anna Nekrashevich on Pexels.com

At one point, I became so engrossed that I executed a trade while driving, closing it before I even stopped. My mind was consumed by financial news and this whole idea of passive income. But trading my time, and my life away, is anything but passive.

Inner Conflict: This is Not What I Value!

In my pursuit of financial success, I found myself torn internally. I questioned whether my actions aligned with my core values. Had I traded the message of the cross for the shallow promise of financial freedom?

I couldn’t escape the story of the rich young ruler, which resonated deeply with me. Had I fallen in love with the wealth I was accumulating, forsaking my devotion to the Lord?

The struggle I faced was an internal battle—a conflict between my true calling and the pursuit of financial security. As I ventured further into investment, this inner conflict intensified.

At work, my role as a teacher, once a source of fulfillment, started feeling burdensome. The idea of financial freedom, echoing in my mind, overshadowed my profession, suggesting that work was undesirable.

Desperate to balance my commitments to work, church, family, and finances, I felt torn apart. In the process, I lost touch with my initial sense of purpose and embraced emptiness.

Amidst this turmoil, my investments proved far from successful. I watched tens of thousands of dollars disappear into non-performing assets. Money, I discovered, could be a diligent worker but a terrible master.

As I continued down this path, my inner conflict grew more pronounced. My work as a teacher suffered, and my principal noticed that I appeared “distracted.” That was an understatement; I had completely lost my way.

A Turnaround in the Valley of Dependence

Finding Solace in Theological Studies

My turning point came through theological studies at BGST. After a hiatus, I decided to resume my studies and complete my graduate diploma in Christian Studies.

During this period, I immersed myself in church history, reigniting my faith in God. Stories of transformed lives touched my heart deeply. Augustine of Hippo, with his story of repentance and rededication, became a source of inspiration. His narrative reminded me of God’s enduring grace and the potential for personal transformation.

St. Augustine of Hippo. By Sandro Botticelli. CC.

Emerging from the Valley of Dependence

Gradually, the Lord restored both my ministry within the church, as well as my sense of purpose as a teacher. In the process, my pastors and elders helped me work through some of my erroneous thinking about wealth. I realized that I was really depending on myself to find security and fulfillment in life. From this I repent, and I still continue to repent to this day. This is going to be a recurring theme in my life.

In 2014, I resumed my duties as one of the church interpreters. I also began to speak in some of the newly launched youth services. The return to ministry also reignited the fire for evangelism within me.

At work, something unexpected happened. I was leading an overseas immersion trip with my students to China. One night, I was unable to sleep. I prayed and meditated on 2 Kings 22, and a profound realization struck me like lightning.

The text was about how King Jehoshaphat (the godly king of Judah) agreed to ally himself with King Ahab (the ungodly king of Israel) to wage war on Aram. Jehoshaphat did so in spite of the warning of the prophet Micaiah, and foolishly agreed to disguise himself as King Ahab. This almost got him killed until he cried out to the LORD at the last minute, and the LORD delivered him.

What I came to realize was: that I was no different from King Jehoshaphat. I ignored the warnings from God and listened to the advice of greedy people. I put myself in spiritual danger through the foolish decisions I made.

With newfound clarity, I made the decision to sever ties with the mentor who had encouraged me to engage in risky trading.

This decisive break was significant in that it cemented my decision to shift my dependence from worldly wealth to God. From this point, my passion for teaching returned. I rejected the false idea of gaining financial freedom to be free from work. Work is an avenue for me to serve my God, through teaching the students He entrusted to me.

Forming a new Life Message

The years in the Valley of Dependence taught me many things.

Firstly, it revealed to me that my insecurity can be a deadly character flaw that leads me to trust in money and not in God’s provision. This is a slippery slope. By dabbling with speculative investment, I am inviting greed and fear to rule my heart. The root of my insecurity is my refusal to trust in God’s loving purposes behind all He sends our way.

Secondly, it showed me how easily I can get influenced by what I read and feed on. The kind of content I consume can fill my mind and alter my priorities and values. I need to be very careful what I read. When I resumed my theological studies and filled my mind with the truths of God, the lies of this world lost its grip on me.

Thirdly, it marks the budding of a new Life Message in me: true contentment cannot be found in material wealth, but in the inheritance that is ours in Christ. The world will continue to preach its gospel of financial freedom. But this kind of freedom without God is a dead end. True freedom can only be found in Christ.

Fourthly, the key to overcoming our insecurity is to be secure in God’s love. “Jesus loves me, this I know” is the most rudimentary Christian song, but it is so foundational to our spiritual life. When we trust that whatever God wills for us is ultimately good and loving, we can set our hearts at rest. Since God loves us, He is fully trustworthy, and we can depend on Him.

Finally, it gave me a new perspective of work and calling. The whole premise of using passive income to replace work is based on a flawed assumption that work is evil. Work is not an evil to be shunned. The true meaning of work has been redeemed for us in Christ, when we work for Him and not for ourselves.

More importantly, my understanding of calling expanded during this period. I no longer think of God’s calling as limited to serving Him in full-time Christian ministry. Whatever job we hold, we are serving Him full-time. I am walking in my calling as a teacher when I direct my efforts into pleasing God. Not others, and certainly not myself.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Colossians 3:23

Conclusion

This is one of my longest posts to date, and I thank you for reading so far! My years in the Valley of Dependence were longer than average (it took me 7 years instead of the average 2-3 years), because I took so long to learn to depend on God and not myself.

Because it was written in broad strokes, there were many details that I grossed over. For example, I choose not to delve too much into the details of the church split, but rather my personal experience of it. Also, it was not all dark and groomy, as there were many oases and uplifting moments that the Lord gave me during this period.

I also did not fill in some of the positive things happening at work, but instead chose to focus on the turmoil that threatened to derail me. God’s grace had kept me safe from shipwrecking my work, but that same grace had also blessed me in several big ways as well.

In fact, as I emerged from the Valley, one of the key events was a sudden and unexpected promotion to be a Head of Department in another school. This marked the beginning of a new season of growth, and the deepening of my sense of calling.

That will be the topic for Season 3. Till then, see you!

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