23 Oct Outside the Camp: Suffering, Sacrifice, and the City to Come
Hillary Williams is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the Summit College Student Leader Team.
Since I’m one of those people who likes to “be involved,” I’ve been to my fair share of weekend retreats, conferences, camps, and leadership meetings. There is a certain level of expectation hanging around each one, and a certain level of predictability. The trip up will be long; we’ll probably get caught in traffic, but it will be fun because of the good company of friends on a road trip. I will check in and receive my typical lanyard (my name might possibly be missing an “L,” but that is a common enough occurrence), then sit in the large group and listen to an inspiring message. There will be times when we break off into smaller groups, some mandatory and strategic teambuilding activities or games, and then some downtime in which I can get to that homework that’s been nagging me since I arrived. Overall, I expect these kinds of weekend to be something like a very fun, enlightening, and informative experience with a few good memories and a funny journal entry to take away.
This was the attitude I carried in with me to our Summit College Leadership Retreat. I’ll confess it to you now because it’s important to see how, as usual, God completely exploded my expectations and did something incredible instead.
Our theme verse from the weekend should have been the first indication that this was going to be more than I expected: “Outside the Camp,” drawn from Hebrews 13:12-14 (or so, we talked about more than this). “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Once that was explained, the metaphorical gears in my head aligned and the wheels started turning. Every sermon, breakout session, and group discussion orbited around the idea that we, as followers of the risen Christ, should follow his example and go outside our comfort zone, social circles, and habitual lives to better witness to those who don’t know Him and grow in our own faith as well. There was no one-size-fits-all formula to go about doing this, but for many it would be confessing sins, intentionally leading an evangelistic small group, or sharing the gospel with a family member.
All of these things sounded fantastic to me, and I was so excited to return to school and start stretching my limits, going outside of what was normal, expected, and comfortable and start reaching out to those around me. Little did I know that my “Outside the Camp” experience would start before I ever left the retreat.
Things were set into motion Friday night, when I found myself distracted. You know how something/someone can become such an obsession, that your mind wanders to it when you aren’t thinking about something else? Yep, that was me. I struggled to listen and pay attention to the sermon, or even make it through a praise song without wandering away to my little fantasyland where things were exactly the way I wanted them. It looks a little something like this: perfect grades, in a strong, godly relationship, thriving ministry, life of the party, and so on…I would consciously and deliberately have to wrench my mind away from the fantasy and back to reality time and time again. Unfortunately, my heart was just not in it, and I began to feel that nagging in the back of my mind that we sometimes call “conviction.”
We talked about how going “outside the camp” involved sacrifice. It was following after Christ with everything you have, on His terms and for His glory, not our own. The happy little life I was imagining for myself was all about me. None of these things were inherently “bad,” but it was beginning to drive a wedge between my Father and me, and therein resides the idol. In that way you just know that something has to change, that something must be done before it gets out of hand (and y’all, it was getting extremely out of hand. I’d been struggling with this since the end of the summer), I knew that God wanted this from me. The image of Abraham offering his own son up to God in faith, knowing that the best blessing of his life didn’t actually belong to him, came to my mind. I had to make this idol my Isaac, and it was going to have to be continually sacrificed.
This wasn’t some golden statue I could place on an altar and leave behind. This was my dream for the future. This was something I had been envisioning for an extremely long time, and something that I still daily devote to God again and again as a way of going “outside the camp,” and dying to myself so that I can live for Christ. This was not exactly a happy sacrifice, either. I had to mourn a little bit, but I was comforted by Mark 6:36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” What I desired was the world, but Jesus Christ is his own reward, and a life following his example will be more fulfilling and joyful than anything I could ask for or imagine.
Happy ending, right? The weekend was much more difficult than I imagined, but in the end I learned a valuable lesson and grew in my faith. Yay Jesus! Well, it doesn’t stop. And it hasn’t stopped, even after so many weeks have passed. On Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from my roommate back home that would set into motion a series of events that would lead to one of the most heart-wrenching situations of my admittedly short life. After that phone call, it became very clear to me that “outside the camp,” in this case, was going to be in the heart of my own apartment, in the middle of two of my closest friends. I won’t go into specifics, but that battle outside the camp has waged on for about three weeks, and we are finally, by the grace and glory of God, reaching equilibrium.
I mentioned that last instance to give you a realistic picture of what “outside the camp” entails. Jesus suffered outside the camp, he hurt, and he felt truly alone. It was not a glorious suffering like we might imagine, but one that rendered him totally and completely helpless and dependent on the Father. It’s an ugly picture that I’m painting, and yet there is something so beautiful that I really want to emphasize.
Dependence on the Father in the middle of the storms of life is when He is at His most glorious. As I’ve been fielding phone calls, stifling down catty comments and dealing with the loss of friendships since retreat, I’ve had to sink to my knees in prayer more time than I can remember. God has proven to me that He is the ultimate source of love and joy, and despite all that has happened, I can now find rest in Him. Where I live right now is not perfect, but remember that last verse from the theme of the weekend? “We are seeking a city that is to come.” There, in that heavenly city, we can finally be restored to our Creator. We will know joy forevermore, and there will be no more pain. We will live in peace with all of our siblings in Christ. Our idols will be cast aside, and we will spend our days giving the Father the praise He was always due. We will no longer have to go outside the camp, but we will dwell in the city overflowing with the presence of the living God, Holy and worthy.
It is that image I am striving towards. It is that image that makes giving up my idols worth the sadness and the struggle. That image is what got me through times when I felt completely inadequate to handle my own problems. It is that promise that shows just how much He loves us.
On Saturday night, we had a time of praise and worship, where we cast away all fear, sadness, stress, and pain, and raised our hands to our Lord and Father. It was like an echo in my bones that knew that we had found, in a sense, a little glimmer of what our eternity will be. That one small step outside of the camp put us one step closer to eternal joy, by the grace of God for the glory of God. When we sang together I knew, no matter what I had just given up and no matter what problems faced me at home, that I am loved, I am saved, and I am, eventually, going home.