Last week during Week of Prayer, our news writer Gloria Oh sat down with Pastor Debleaire Snell to discuss his sermon series “Unrealistic Faith”.
What aspect about college students made you choose to serve them?
Knowing that you can be a part of the spiritual development of the next generation. I spent four years at Oakwood, and then I spent two years at Andrews. And all those years had a lasting impact, especially spiritually, on who I became. Students are like clay, still molded and formed into who they will become. And I gain a lot of joy from making a positive impact on the spiritual aspect of the person in that journey.
Why did you choose "unrealistic" as the week of prayer topic? In other words, why did you think this was an especially relevant topic for people in the stage of life you described?
The theme is actually based on the book I released last year, Get Unrealistic, which I wrote out of the need to challenge our church in the area of faith and belief in God. There are times when we start dreaming big, praying big, and thinking big, someone, sometimes even a pastor, would say, "Okay, that's cool, but we've got to be realistic." As I wrestled with that tension, I realized you can't be a realist and a believer simultaneously. Faith is not realistic, belief in a God that you can't see, hear, touch, or detect through empirical means—all of this is unrealistic. We try to make faith have a practical element to it, but the truth is that Scripture is not about being practical. It wasn't practical for Moses to walk the open sea, it wasn't practical for Joshua to expect the sun to stand still, and it wasn't practical for Peter to step out on the boat and walk on water. It wasn't realistic to use two fish and five loaves to feed 5000 people, or expect Jesus would rise from the tomb when Jesus died. And that's what drives the content this week. If we're going to operate in faith, we cannot allow ourselves to think according to the norms and the axioms of this world. Those things need to be influenced by our faith.
Wow. That's deep. Did you have any of those unrealistic experiences during your time at Oakwood or Andrews that helped you put faith in God?
There are just so many different things, but one experience comes to my mind. It was my second year at Oakwood, and I had come to the end of my financial resources in terms of school, whether that be pell grants, financial aid, or taking as many loans as possible. It was the last Wednesday night of the school year, and my financial advisor had to come and tell me I should take out a semester to work. At the time it was customary to share a testimony with the person next to you at the end of church, and I was trying to be positive and hold it together. And there was this tall and older gentleman sitting near me. As we started sharing testimonies, I said I was thankful to God for the time I had spent at Oakwood for the past two years, which has been an amazing and growing experience, although I won't be able to make it much further and take a year out. As I shared that I was praying God would allow me to have the resources to get back to school, the gentleman looked at me strangely and asked, "Do you know who I am?" I was confused. Then he proceeded to say, "My name is Mark Washington." He was the director of financial aid for the university. He said he was impressed by the spirit of my testimony, and offered me to come to his office and find a solution to my problem. So I went and met him. Although my advisor said there was nothing much we could do, he was able to connect some dots and open up doors to resources. That helped me finish my last two years, and it all happened because of randomly sitting next to him.
That's a really cool story. And even though you experienced all those guidance, is there still something you wished you had known or experienced before you graduated college?
Yes. In Matthew 6, Jesus says do not worry about your life, what you eat, what you drink, all that stuff. One thing I realized is that all the things I worried about—whether or not I'll find the right wife, whether I'll be hired, whether I'll make it as a pastor, any school needs—were all such a waste of energy! It was a wasted stress, because God ordered my steps. Everything was planned and assigned for a particular season at a certain intersection. So that would be my answer, because sometimes we get really worried about life: grad school, job, affording life, finding the right person, or whatever in our lives. But I think that doubting is an absolute waste of time if you are on the course that God has planned for you. Worries and anxiety only serve to bring discouragement, because one day, you will look back on it and tell your younger self not to worry about all that stuff. God already has His plan.
Thank you for your advice! I think many people will find it relevant. But I think a lot of those worries come from disappointment. You mentioned that disappointment, specifically regarding people, is inevitable in the faith journey, and I think college is when we all experience that. But would it not be the same for God? Why should we maintain high expectations towards God and wait for the unrealistic experience? In other words, why should we have expectations of God or the church despite the disappointment it can cost?
I have high expectations for God, not necessarily for people. Jesus did not commit himself to any man because he knew what was in there. At the end of the day, people are destined to disappoint you and fail you because we are all finite beings. No person can supply all your needs. No one can make you happy.
But God works through circumstances, and people often become the mean. In your case, it was through the financial director that you experienced the unrealistic experience. So I think it's a bit hard to distinguish or remove that human aspect from faith, because we're human.
I agree with that, but I think it's more so understanding the roles. God uses people, but people are conduits. God is the source. The person who is the conduit in one season of life may not be in another. But the one constant, no matter what season of life, is God, who oversees and orchestrates all things. God used the director of financial aid in one season of my life. That's the last conversation I ever really had with him, except to say thank you. God has used other people in my life at different points in time, but it was God behind all scenes to send help and supply along the way. We all know there have been people who, at one point, were very helpful but then, at another point, very destructive. There are just times when people let you down because people are all faulty. That's why my expectation and faith ultimately have to be in the God who does not fail and does not change.
Now, part of our disappointment with God comes, depending on where we set our beliefs. In my book, I talked about how real faith is not wish-based but word-based, because I think a lot of spiritual disappointment comes when we establish expectations that are not based upon things that God said. God's actions are based on the promises of Scripture, or the things he has revealed through vision or dreams like Joseph. And yes, there were disappointing circumstances during the fulfillment of that dream. But God ultimately fulfilled that promise he made through Joseph's vision. So I believe our expectations have to be based on Scripture, not our wishes or desires, because that's where the disappointment lies.
That answer brings up my next question. Pastor Snell, what led you to believe in the Scripture?
Hmm, I've never been asked that question before. It's a long story, but I'll keep it short. I didn't grow up in church. I joined the church when I was about 11 or 12. Coming from a world where some habits lead to results getting stuck in certain cycles, I was able to see in the Scripture a more excellent way that led to lasting peace, real joy, and contentment that does not fluctuate with circumstance. So my belief in Scripture is born out of my experience of coming from outside the church, without Christ, to find peace.
And the contrast between the two was very distinct.
Yes, and the Scripture really made sense. Sometimes, when you grow up surrounded by religion, Scripture may feel like a restriction, but when you come from a culture outside the church, you see the protection and the wisdom in everything God says.
And how do you think we should cope with tragic events as individuals with faith?
Tragedy is always hard. It is always painful. And faith doesn't take the ache out of pain. My wife and I went through a season before we had our first kid. We actually lost four kids through miscarriage before we got him. When you find yourself amid tragedy, you've got to go through the grieving process, whether it's a loss of a job, relationship, or a person due to death. They differ a bit on the surface, but it is the same at the core of the experience. Unlike what many believe, part of faith is actually allowing the grieving process because you don't get to avoid grief. All you can do otherwise is store grief, but it comes back in unhealthy ways. You have to go through the grief cycle, no matter what the loss is.
The other thing is, you have to guard the influences of your mind when you're in tragedy, because sometimes the pain it causes can move you away from faith. You have to make sure that faith is reinforced by the content you absorb on a routine basis by barricading your mind with the promises of God, the songs that encourage people, and with good people around you. And then, you have to wait on the Lord, which is one of the things the Bible says with great repetition. There are times when I don't understand why, but sometimes you have to be still and let it play out. Then I will see how God works all things together, although it's hard now. There's no way around the hard part; It has to be endured.
But how do you let the tragedies, like your miscarriages, play out? Because they are…lost.
Yes, we went through the grief cycle, but there were some promises we held on to, like Psalm 139. It's one of the promises my wife claimed, as it talks about how God blesses the barren woman and he fills her with children. During this process, faith looked very different for each of us. In my mind, there was never a world or a scenario where I would not have children. So faith for me was being willing to say even if my life's journey looks different from what I expected, I will accept it. For my wife, it was trusting the promise as it was something He planted deep in her heart in the way He spoke to her. Her faith was trusting despite the circumstance and claiming the promise in the Bible since the first miscarriage, second, third, to fourth. It looked like it just wasn't going to happen, but we had to let it play out.
God blessed us. My oldest son, he's 12 now. We named him Jaden, a name from the book of Nehemiah, and it means Jehovah has heard. Then we got our daughter, who's nine now. And even when we thought we were done, God added a third, and he's my youngest. He had just turned eight, and it was definitely an experience in a place where things did not seem feasible.
Was there no disappointment with your first four?
Oh, heavy disappointment. It was an immense disappointment. It was a season of repeated grief.
Would you not call that disappointment to God?
Very much, very much. It was a time where I questioned God a lot. It was especially frustrating when I'll be seeing people getting pregnant when they wouldn't even want the kids, teens getting abortions, or when seeing my peers having kids, and things of that nature. But in the Bible, when you read Hebrews 11, it's filled with people with major disappointment. Abraham and Sarah, who did not have a child for a long time, or Elijah, who got so discouraged after Mount Carmel that he went under the juniper tree wishing for death, are a few examples. On the faith journey, nobody evaded disappointment, heartbreak, or hardship because, as mentioned during the talk, faith doesn't make you storm-free but stormproof.
So would it be fair for me to say that disappointment was present, but you still maintained your expectations towards God because when everything is played out, you can still see God's goodness behind all things?
Yes, and that's one of the hard parts. You've believed once, but it happened. You believed for the second time, but then it happened again. Believe and trust, and it happens again. You give it another try, and it still happens. One of the hard parts of faith is to believe and trust when you have that repeated disappointment because you believed and trusted the last time.
Thank you for your powerful words. I have some questions coming from the student body. The first question is: How do you pray for a future partner?
There's nothing wrong with expressing that desire for God, but I'll add that instead of just praying to find the right person, pray to become the right person. Sometimes, we're ready to be married, but there's a difference between being ready and being prepared. Ready means having the desire to, but prepare means certain inward and outward traits have developed that now make you wife or husband material. So I think praying that the Lord will prepare me so that I'll be ready to take the next step when the person arrives is important. Another thing to pray about is that the Lord would show all of us how to be content in our given space of life, instead of treating being single as a curse. We all have to recognize the work or focus each of us has to devote during our given season. Don't pursue a person; pursue the path that God has for you, as the Bible talks about how God orders our steps. He has everything assigned so that your road will bring you peace, joy, fulfillment, and spiritual anchor. Rushing or hurrying will not make God change his plan. If the person is supposed to intersect with you when you're 27, God is not going to push them up to 24. You just got to stay on that path. And if you stay on the path, God has for you, every person, every friend, every romantic partnership, every job or grad school. Everything will come in the right season.
But how would you know you're on the right path or that you are living right?
So I think part of it is seeking Him for direction. In Proverbs 3:5, it says that first, you have to trust in the Lord with all your heart. Number two, it says lean not to your own understanding. Number three, in all of your ways, in ALL of your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths or make your paths straight. So I think it begins with getting to a place where I trust God with all of my heart, where I'm willing to distrust myself and not lean to my own understanding. It is to say that I will set aside my preferences and what I think was right or how I was hoping it would happen, to supplant those things with God's leadership and direction. It is to acknowledge Him, seeking his direction over every decision. So like, even when it came down to my wife, it was a decision made after submitting myself to God that I'm done choosing according to looks or this or that or whatever interests, but that I need Him to shepherd me. It's not so much about the signs, the evidence and the burning bush. It's more so about our posture, whether we have complete trust in God, which comes in the form of distrust of self, and acknowledgment to God in every way. So ask yourself, am I trusting him with all my heart? Am I choosing not to lean to my own understanding and acknowledging him in all my ways? If you do that, the promise is, He will direct.
The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.