When You Are Down to Nothing, God Is Up to Something

Discovering Divine Purpose and Provision When Life Hurts


By Robert Anthony Schuller

With William Kruidenier

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Everyone gets “down to nothing” at some point in life, whether in relationships, finances, vision and courage for the future, physical or emotional exhaustion, or disappointment with God–everybody at some time comes to the end of their rope. It’s exactly at those points that God does His best work. When we’re down to nothing, God is up to something–truths to teach us, answers to satisfy us, assurance to bolster us, resources to supply us, or directions to guide us.

In this book, Robert Schuller chronicles a particularly dark period in his life and shares with the reader what he learned God was up to in his relationsips, meeting his needs like health and finances, providing guidance in his emotional life, but most of all, in learning to know and trust God more.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


Saint John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes Álvarez) was a sixteenth-century Spanish friar—a member of the Roman Catholic Carmelite order. Today he is perhaps best remembered for his classic work Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma), a poem that describes the trials and suffering the soul goes through in this life. Because of his work as a reformer, John was arrested by his superiors, imprisoned, and tortured before he escaped nine months later. Dying before he reached the age of fifty, his writings have been a comfort to many who have endured their own "dark night of the soul."

While I in no way compare myself to Saint John of the Cross in spirituality, in insights, in suffering, or in contribution to Christendom, the title of his classic poem serves me well as I introduce this book—as do the circumstances under which he wrote. John used his own strained relationship with his superiors to write of the journey of the soul through the difficult darkness of trouble in this life—as do I. My dark night of the soul can in no way be compared to his except in this way: Trouble is life's wisest teacher; suffering is the schoolmaster that leads us to humble submission; trials are the tutor that explains the difference between life as we would like it and life as we are given it—and how the latter is the gateway to a deeper knowledge of God. In short, trouble teaches us that God is always up to something in our life.

My own dark night began in July 2008 when my superiors—specifically, my parents and other extended family members involved in leading "the family business," decided I was not the right person to continue in the positions they had asked me to fill two and a half years earlier: Senior Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral church and pastoral host of the international Hour of Power television broadcast. My sun set, and the dark night began, in July and lasted through October of 2008. It was like an eclipse—something that occurs in a matter of minutes with little or no warning. And the four months of darkness that followed were like a school in which I discovered that when we are down to nothing, God is always up to something.

This book is not about me and what I experienced. It's about God and what He does when we are in the dark corners of life. What happened to me is what has happened to millions of other people: the loss of a job, the death of a dream, the confusion about what to do next, the questioning of one's value, the questioning of God, and all the rest. I won't insult you by saying, "If you've been through something similar…" because I know you have. We are "born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward" the book of Job tells us (5:7). If you have a pulse, you've seen trouble. And if you're reading these words, you've apparently lived to tell about it.

Or perhaps you're in trouble right now. You may feel you are down to nothing in one or more areas of life. Maybe you have lost a job or a marriage or an important relationship. Or maybe you've lost the faith and hope and confidence you need to pick yourself up and continue the journey. In truth, it doesn't matter so much why you feel you are down to nothing—the reasons are as innumerable as the people who name them. What matters is that you know what I learned in my own time of trouble: God is always up to something good in your life.

Yes, trouble can make us think we're down to nothing. But when we get to that lowly place we find what the point of trouble is: our ongoing growth in grace leading to a place of deeper maturity.

I've done lots of hiking in the California mountains, and this image comes to mind when I think of what I've been through—and what you may be going through: It's as if we're standing on a mountain peak. The view is great, the weather is fine, and we can't imagine wanting or needing to be anywhere else. But then God speaks to us out of the clouds (a true biblical image!) and says, "I know you are content on this mountain, but if you will cast your eyes over that way you'll see a peak that is slightly higher; a peak where I know you'll be wiser and happier and more mature than where you are." Taking God's word for it, you say, "Fine—put me over on that peak. If you say that's better, I'm willing to be moved."

"Sorry," God says. "To get there you need to move yourself. You need to go down into that valley and climb up the other side to reach the place I want you to be." One look down into the valley gives you reason to reconsider. You can't even see the floor of the valley because storm clouds and dark fog obscure your view. But you can see flashes of lightning and hear the low rumble of thunder from your place on the peak—and it looks none too inviting. It's sunny on your peak and it looks sunny on the peak God has picked out for you. But the path through the valley is a path of trouble for sure. You wonder whether you can trust God on the way. You don't know how long the trip will take or what you'll encounter in that dark valley.

Life, of course, doesn't look like that. God doesn't map our journey out in a "Point A to Point B" fashion. Indeed, we often don't even know the journey has begun until we find ourselves in the valley, surrounded by darkness and trouble. Only then do we realize we're down to nothing and wonder what God is up to.

I went through that valley for four months in 2008. I am far enough up the side of the distant peak to be able to look back and see what God was up to in the days when I thought I was down to nothing. I haven't arrived—do we ever arrive?—but I have traveled far enough to extend a hand to you as others farther along have extended a hand to me. I want my journey to count not only in my life but in the life of at least one other person who finds themselves down to nothing in a valley they didn't choose to enter.

I have divided this book into four parts that summarize the categories of comfort and change I experienced: Relationships, Needs, Emotions, and Knowing and Trusting God. When I thought I was down to nothing, all four were critical in realizing what God was up to:

  • Relationships: with God, with self, and with others.

  • Needs: "down to nothing" means we have serious needs.

  • Emotions: fear, disappointment, guilt, search for peace—a roller-coaster ride.

  • Knowing and trusting God: God is always there, always up to something good.

There are twenty-four chapters allocated among these four parts, and each part begins with a vignette about an aspect of my own transition out of leadership at the Crystal Cathedral and the Hour of Power television broadcast—just enough to set the stage for that chapter's theme in light of my own experience. The chapters themselves are about your life, my life, and how God works in our circumstances to prove Himself faithful regardless of why we find ourselves in need.

Even though my trouble at the Crystal Cathedral involved being on opposite sides of key decisions from my parents and other extended family members, in no way do I mean to cast aspersions on their character or motives. Even though I disagree with the decisions they made, they are my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I honor for their desire to be used by God to do the best for the ministries under their oversight. The days of our dialogue and disagreements, and their ultimate decisions, were difficult, and writing about them has surfaced old emotions. But more than anything, it has reminded me of where I am now—called of God to pursue a new vision and ministry for His glory and thankful He would give me a new task, on a new mountain peak, on the far side of the valley through which I have come. The dark night of my soul—at least this dark night—has seen the rising of the Son in my own sight.

May God use this book—the telling of parts of my story and much of His—to remind you as it has reminded me: When you are down to nothing, God is up to something.



Every person has three kinds of relationships in life:

With God

With others

With self

And God is always up to something in all three areas of life.

Chapter 1 speaks to our relationship with God.

Chapter 2 talks about love, life's indispensable factor.

Chapter 3 covers the benefits of living in community.

Chapter 4 addresses the importance of proper self-identity.

Chapter 5 delves into forgiveness as a source of freedom.


God Is Always with Me


"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."

Deuteronomy 31:6–8

My Story

In spite of what I knew to be true theologically, I felt alone—completely alone. To this day, I marvel at how one's feelings can take precedence over one's true convictions. But it happened to me. What I had preached to thousands of people—"God is always with you"—I began to question. Intellectually, I knew I was loved by my wife, my children, my church's congregation, the worldwide audience of the television broadcast on which I appeared weekly, and many good friends. And yes, I knew God loved me and was with me. But I still felt alone. If you have ever been in that "alone" place, you know how I felt—and what a scary feeling it is.

The story of how I arrived at such a lonely place is a complicated one, the details of which I won't go into. Besides, the details aren't really that important. They are just another verse in the long song of human drama that has been written through the ages, a song that tells of conflict, hurt, power struggles, betrayal, and not always successful attempts at closure and reconciliation.

When these dramas play out in corporate boardrooms around the world, we're not surprised. But when they happen in Christ's church, our hearts are broken—and we wonder why God allows it. That's what I wondered during the latter half of 2008 as I struggled to make sense of what was happening around me—to me and to my family.

I pastored an internationally known church in California that was founded by my father. When I was invited to become the senior pastor of the church, and the speaker on the church's worldwide television broadcast, I gratefully accepted the call, honored to follow in my father's footsteps which had been laid out for me my entire life. But after thirty-two years of being affiliated with the broadcast, and several years of fruitful ministry as senior pastor of the church, my family members, and some other board members loyal to them, felt it would be appropriate for me to drastically curtail my responsibilities and activities. (There were differences concerning vision and governance.) In spite of having the support of the congregation and television audience, I was told that my role was to be greatly reduced in the church and the television ministry.

I was stunned by this decision and spent August through October 2008 wrestling with what to do. It was during those three months that I had to consciously remember that "the Lord is my shepherd" who promises to walk with me "through the valley of the shadow of death." The shadows were huge and pitch black in the valley where I walked, and I have never felt so alone.

I was confused and frustrated. And yes, I was angry. Every fiber of my flesh wanted to fight for what was legally and ethically "mine"—the right to continue a ministry that was bearing fruit. But to make a three-month-long story short, I resigned in November realizing that I couldn't fulfill my responsibilities to the church and the broadcast under the new restrictions. Positioning myself in a protracted battle with my own parents and other associates would have only sullied the name of Christ further. I didn't know why God allowed things to happen as they did, I only knew it was not God's fault. If removing myself from the situation would allow wounds to heal more quickly and allow the family and board to do what they felt was necessary, then that was what I needed to do. My prayer became the second half of the prayer of Jabez, "Oh… that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" (1 Chron. 4:10 NKJV).

If I had felt alone from August through October, in November I was alone! Not literally, of course—the support of my wonderful wife, Donna, and my four grown children (and that of many, many friends) was never failing. But my entire vocational support structure—that which I knew how to do and was good at doing—was gone. I had no job, no prospects, and only modest amounts of hope. But my confidence in God's presence began to return. I regained my trust in what the Bible says, that He never leaves us nor forsakes us; that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

What I had learned many times in the past began to echo in my heart: "When you're down to nothing, God is up to something!"

Like the man described in the famous Footsteps poem,1 I can look back now and know that when I thought I was alone in that dark valley, I really wasn't; that the single set of footprints in the sands weren't mine, walking alone, but His as He carried me through that period. God hadn't abandoned me. Rather, He was with me all along—something I see more clearly today than ever before; something I want you to see as well.

My "nothing" was all too plain to me in November 2008, but it wasn't long before God's "something" began taking shape as well. I'll tell you some of that story in this book to encourage you to believe with me—that when we're down to nothing, God is always up to something. And that something is always good!

In a perfect world, you would never be alone or feel alone. You would enjoy the psychological satisfaction that comes from being in the physical, emotional, or spiritual presence of another person who you know cares for you. Note: physical or emotional or spiritual presence. Loneliness is not just the absence of another body; it is also the absence of a spiritual or emotional connection.

In a perfect world, even if you found yourself physically alone for a time, you would not feel alone. Whether you were in the presence of no one, one person, or a crowd, you would feel "accompanied" in life. If you were physically alone, you would enjoy the security of trust, knowing that others on whom you depend were faithful or loyal to you in your absence; that their love, companionship, and mutual care was not defined by physical location. Trust alone can be as reassuring as the physical presence of the person you long for. Indeed, any healthy person would rather be alone with trust than be in the presence of suspicion.

In a perfect world, you would receive constant affirmation of your existence and value. Being physically, emotionally, or spiritually alone makes it difficult, if not impossible, to receive the feedback that matters to us all. The presence of others—their physical, emotional, and spiritual presence—is a way of us hearing life's most important words: "I want to be where you are. I have come to this place because of you. If you were not here, I would not be here. That's how important you are to me." While that sounds like something romantic lovers might say and feel, that kind of affirmation is not limited to romantic love alone. Affirmation is a human need, not just the need of lovers. Affirmation is an antidote to loneliness.

God created a perfect world for His creatures, human and nonhuman, to inhabit. He created pairs of creatures to solve the need for physical presence and created "soulish" bonds for creatures that they might enjoy emotional presence. But for those created in His image, He created a higher dimension of togetherness—the presence of spirit. That presence allows us to live securely in God and securely in one another—in a perfect world.

But God's perfect world, in which no one should ever feel alone, is not the world in which we live. So we have to address the needs that arise when physical, emotional, and spiritual presence is broken. We have to discover how not to be alone in a world that sometimes feels very lonely.

Proof of God's Presence

Fortunately, we have (almost) the entire Bible to draw upon for insights into God's presence. Only the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two of Revelation are based on God's perfect world (plus some visions of perfection by the Old Testament prophets). Everything in between is the world we live in—the world where loneliness is a reality.

One of the great ironies of the biblical story of creation is that God said to Adam, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18)—when God and man had been partners in the Garden from the beginning. God saw there was no one to tend His creation, so He formed man "from the dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7) and put him in the midst of the Garden as a steward over it all (Gen. 1:28). As usual, science continues to corroborate God's design—in this case, why it is not good (healthy) to be alone. A new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging has proven that loneliness can dramatically increase blood pressure. "Loneliness behaved as though it is a unique health-risk factor in its own right," one of the primary researchers noted, increased blood pressure being a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease.2 No wonder God said it's not good to be alone!

The very nature of stewardship involves relationship and interaction between master and steward. When Potiphar, the Egyptian official, made young Joseph steward over his house and property, that assignment involved instructions and interaction: "Potiphar put [Joseph] in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned" (Gen. 39:4). Potiphar and Joseph were not face-to-face continually; indeed, as Potiphar's trust in Joseph grew, "he left in Joseph's care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate" (v. 6).

And therein is an illustration of why physical presence is not the only ingredient in combating loneliness. The element of trust is central—the bond that says, "Our relationship carries us forward even when you are absent. My trust in you, and yours in me, affirms our relationship." Whether Potiphar and Joseph were in the same room was not an indication of the level of trust they shared, which Joseph validated in Potiphar's absence by resisting the temptations of Potiphar's wife (vv. 11–20).

Back to the Garden of Eden: God and Adam had a master-steward relationship in which Adam no doubt felt affirmed as a person. In spite of being in a close, affirming relationship with God, Adam was still, in God's opinion, alone. Did Adam feel lonely as the only human on earth? We don't know—but it's obvious God wanted Adam to know that there was another dimension to his humanness.

As an object lesson, an illustration in loneliness, God assigned Adam the task of naming the animals (Gen. 2:19–20a). As the animals paraded before Adam—in pairs, no doubt—he gave them a name. At the end of the process, it must have been painfully obvious to Adam that he was the odd man out in the world: "But for Adam no suitable helper was found" (v. 20). He now understood why God had said that it wasn't good for him (man) to be alone. God solved Adam's problem by creating Eve, the first woman.

So man was created with the capacity for togetherness (the opposite of aloneness) in two dimensions: vertical and horizontal. Adam had the vertical relationship but was still alone until Eve joined him in the Garden, supplying the horizontal. The biblical implication is that human beings need vertical and horizontal togetherness in order not to be lonely. The person who says, "I don't need God" or "I don't need you" (to another person) is denying the essence of humanity: the need not to be alone. On the other side of the coin, the person who experiences a profound or debilitating sense of aloneness is manifesting a disruption of one or both dimensions of togetherness. The Catholic monk and author Hubert van Zeller wrote, "The soul hardly ever realizes it, but whether he is a believer or not, his loneliness is really a homesickness for God."3

That disruption may or may not have been intentional; the person may or may not be aware of how to remedy his or her aloneness. But at the basic level, there is a vertical reason and a horizontal reason for aloneness—and there is a priority between the two.

Though I can't prove it scientifically, I am going to say in this chapter that the cure for aloneness begins with restoring one's relationship with God. And that is not difficult to do because God is always there and willing. (More on that in a moment.)

Obviously, establishing togetherness with another person or persons is not easy. When imperfect human beings attempt to establish a relationship that satisfies the security, togetherness, and affirmation needs, the attempt is fraught with peril. People are imperfect, undependable, immature, unfaithful, and they change over time. And therein lies the reason that beginning with God is a better course of action. To put it simply, everything that makes human relationships hard—the imperfection of people—makes a relationship with God easy. It is God's perfection that allows us to come to Him and never be disappointed. God is perfect, dependable, mature, faithful, and He never changes.

In later chapters, I'll talk more about what God promises and advises about relationships with others. But for now, it's important to know that Step One in not being alone is to put yourself in Adam's shoes: God created Adam and wanted a relationship with him; God created you and wants a relationship with you. He wants you to have a relationship with "Eve" (with others) as well, but He wants you to start with Him.

Here's the simplest reason I know for beginning with God: In order to have a meaningful togetherness with another person, you must know who you are. And to know who you are, you must know who you were created to be. And to know who you were created to be, you have to know your Creator-God. If life should ever deposit you on a desert island to live for the rest of your life, you should be secure in that future simply because you know who you are and that God is always with you. That fate is unlikely, of course, and your life would be diminished for lack of the horizontal dimension. But knowing God means you would not be alone.

In a famous sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London on June 10, 1880, pastor Charles H. Spurgeon began his sermon with a desert island illustration:

Were you ever in a new trouble, one which was so strange that you felt that a similar trial had never happened to you and, moreover, you dreamt that such a temptation had never assailed anybody else? I should not wonder if that was the thought of your troubled heart. And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, "I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me"? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, "If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!"4

When I was on my own desert island a few years ago, I began to see signs—footprints in the sand that meant I was not alone. I began to believe again that God had been with me all along.

Even though it feels like God is billions of miles away in heaven and we are on earth, if our relationship with God is strong and mature, then the trust factor—the love, loyalty, and promises factor—takes the place of His physical presence. When lovers part for a time with professions of love for one another, it is that intangible promise of love that keeps them company, that keeps them secure, until they are reunited. Love, loyalty, and friendship almost become personified, so powerful are their effects in keeping loneliness at bay.

But how do we know that God is always with us? Because He has said as much to many people just like you and me through the ages, and those conversations are recorded in Scripture. One can choose not to believe what the Bible says, of course. But for someone who is at all inclined to accept the reliability of God's revelation of Himself to humankind as recorded in the Bible, there is plenty to go on.

Take Joshua, for instance—the man whom Moses groomed to take over the leadership of Israel as they entered the Promised Land of Canaan. Joshua certainly wasn't physically alone. He was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Israelites and a group of lieutenants and aids. Yet it would have been a perfect time for Joshua to think, "It's lonely at the top."

Think about his task—leading an entire nation of people into a land populated by people who would be none too hospitable. It's no wonder that Moses said to Joshua, "The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged" (Deut. 31:8; italics added). Moses died, and it was time to enter the land. This time God spoke directly to Joshua: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:5, 9b; italics added).

This is such a profound promise from God—so direct, so undeniable—that nearly fifteen hundred years later the early Christians were repeating and depending on that promise. Not that they were going into military warfare, like Joshua. Indeed, they were wrestling with a battle much more akin to the ones we fight: contentedness—the temptation to resort to the world's solutions to meet their needs instead of God's solutions. The writer to the Hebrews wrote to his readers, "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you' " (Heb. 13:5).


On Sale
Mar 28, 2012
Page Count
272 pages

Robert Anthony Schuller

About the Author

Robert A. Schuller is the former senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral. He has written twelve books, including the bestseller Walking in Your Own Shoes. His most recent book is entitled Leaning Into God WhenLife Is Pushing You Away. Schuller has four children and resides in Laguna Beach, California, with his wife, Donna.

Learn more about this author