Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a famous quote: “When lust takes control, God seems most unreal.” Sure, it’s easy to talk about that sort of thing. Most of us over the age of eleven have some sort of experience with that, and it is even easier if we’re talking about someone else’s issues than our own.
It is much less comfortable to talk to something everyone, of every age, feels, and that is the whole host of problems that come along when life goes poorly, when we hurt, we suffer, we feel worn down, or we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, when the real pains of life come along it is often hard to see the bottom of the tunnel beneath us, much less the light from a way out.
A buddy asked for a reference to a devotional for when times are hard, because Google had failed him.
My short answer would be: Go read On The Anvil by Max Lucado. I do not have a copy because every time I purchase a new one I end up giving it away to someone who is going through hard times.
I suppose that copyright laws fall under the list of things about which we are to respect God-established authority, so rather than simply quote a ton of other things, I thought I ought to sit down and have my say.
God Has Not Lost You
One of the biggest problems with the popular theology in Western society in the 21st century is the idea that God wants you to have a good, easy, and happy life here on Earth! It is intellectually fun trying to squeeze that idea through the lives of the martyrs and persecuted believers since the time of Moses and Pharoah, because I can giggle for hours. When the demonic aspect of that false teaching shows up are days like this, when people who believe God has somewhere promised us earthly comfort, financial prosperity, relational victory, and warm fuzzy praise and worship bands come to a place where the band is not playing, no one is jumping up and down to cheer, and the problems that surround them are not just capable but likely of taking them out in some sort of permanent way: suddenly this means that Something Has Gone Wrong with God’s plan. The evil world, our enemy the devil, and our own sinful natures jump right up to curb stomp God’s beloved children with messages like these:
- Look around you! This isn’t the victorious life that you were promised! God LIED TO YOU! (Truth: The victorious life that we already have is won in Christ and guaranteed in heaven, but nowhere promised in this mortal setting, ask a believer recently eaten by lions.)
- God gives good gifts to the people that he loves. You don’t have good gifts here on earth, and that proves that God does not love you. Of course he doesn’t love you. Here is a parade of your doubts, weaknesses, failings, bad choices, and flat-out willful sins that prove that God could never love you. (Truth: God loved you enough to die for you when you were a sinner and his enemy, so your sin or hostility can’t change that equation one bitty bit. Romans 5:6-11 sums this up nicely. More truth: Jesus warned us that we would have trouble in this world in John 16:33)
The truth is that you can never be beyond God’s knowledge and plan. Ephesians 1 teaches us that he has looked forward to the days of our lives, and knew what they would be, since the dawn of time. I promise you that includes whatever you are going through at this moment!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us 2 for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ,according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known 3 to us the mystery of his will,according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee 4 of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:3-11 ESV
None of your circumstances can change the facts of this text! 1] God chose you to be his before the world was made. That means that you-in-Christ, your identity and relationship to the greatest power in the universe, is older than the cosmos itself. God’s love for you predates carbon-based life, and there is nothing that life can do to change that! 2] God works all things, even this pain, stress, and the dark days according to his plan. That does not make everything good, or pleasant, but there is nothing so bad that God’s counsel, his wisdom, cannot judo-flip it around until something good comes out of it. 3] Even in the dark times, we have a promise, a guarantee, a sealed deal: We are saved in Christ because of God’s choice, and the Holy Spirit that creates and sustains our faith is the certain indication that the inheritance is waiting for us.
God’s Everlasting Love
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God,who indeed is interceding for us.10 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, when we realize that God has loved and looked forward to us with such fervor since before time that the cross seemed worth it to have us live with him, and that there is nothing on earth, under the sea, or drifting through the void of space that can separate us from God’s love, then Jesus’ words about worry and stress start to make even more sense!
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
You Are Not Alone
Predators like to cut their prey out of the protection of the herd in order to have lunch one-on-one. Our Enemy who goes about like a roaring lion doesn’t appear to work much differently. Whenever I feel down, I feel alone, even if there are a hundred of people around me. It is easy to believe that no one feels the way that I do, or understands my lost hopes, fading dreams, worries, pains, or illnesses quite the same way that we experience them.
Once again, The Enemy lies. The truth is that we’re not alone. We’re not unique in our suffering. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say? I mean, I’m already feeling down and now you’re telling me that I’m Not Special?!?! That’s a 21st-century self-esteem transgression, Mr. Monk!
Quite the opposite.
First of all, we are never alone in our suffering because God is always with us. I have already shared that no troubles can separate us from God’s love, and Jesus’s command not to worry about tomorrow, because God knows our needs. But there is so much more!
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
God will never forsake us. He is always with us. We are never alone.
It is easy to feel that our down periods, our stress, worry, and pain make us worse than the people who are waving their hands in the air during worship (if you go to such a church) or wear the perfectly-pressed 3-piece suits with their picture-perfect family in order by their side in the pew (for the high-church types). Leaving aside that since we’re all sinful human being it’s probable that a great number of those people are faking it in the hopes that they can somehow make it, the truth is that the great pillars of the faith have gone through dark valleys at one time or another.
Israel believed that he was going to die at his brother’s hands on the night he wrestled God. Moses, Job, Jonah, and Elijah all prayed and asked God to end their lives, and it doesn’t get much lower than that. St. Paul lived with the knowledge that life in heaven was better by far than living on earth, but he stuck around for the good of others. Jesus sweat blood and asked for his cup to pass from him.
God is Here For You
Even though God already knows everything you’re thinking and going through, he cares about you so much that he wants you to tell him all about it:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. -1 Peter 5:6-11
Did you catch the points that sandwich this teaching? First, we aren’t to sit down and shut up in our sufferings, we are to carry them to Christ, confident that we will be heard not because we are righteous and suuuuper worthy, but because he loves us. At the end, we are to look up from the things that drag us down and have comfort in the fact that they aren’t just temporary, but they are insignificant compared to what comes next.
Shall I repeat that? There’s no need! God repeats it like a drumbeat, a heartbeat of his ongoing presence and relentless love.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. -Galatians 6:9-10 ESV
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:4-7
I have always found that Philippians passage to be like a martial arts kata for the soul. First, pray. Second, tell God about your cares. Third, thank him for the things he has already given and maintained in your life (Can you see, walk, talk? Those are great starting points.) Then ask him for what you want or need. Whether he answers with a yes or a no you can trust that God has heard you, and that his will is going to be done. In case you doubt what that will is, see the above verses, and I’ve got more for you below! That’s my prayer kata when I’m deeply troubled, follow the instructions God gave. A series of moves, step by step, a set order for a set result, not because we are spiritual ninjas, but because God has done everything necessary
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because 7 the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8 for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. –Romans 8:18-25 ESV
This whole passage is worth memorizing. Every time I try to summarize a point from it, I end up repeating the passage all over again.
God doesn’t just want us to pray in our trials, but he’s also doing the translation on the prayer?! That also blows me away. Jesus searches our hearts and minds? That’s deep, and while it doesn’t excuse sins of the heart or thoughts, it does remove the barrier of shame. We can bring our doubts, lusts, anger, and everything else to God for forgiveness and help, and we have no need to shy away from him because he already knows them anyway!
And as for my suffering? It is part of the natural order that I, like all creation, am groaning for what is to come. Let me bring that back around to my original point about “prosperity” preaching. The natural order is for me, like the creation itself, to be groaning and pained until the world is redeemed. This is not where my hope lies, but it lies in the new heaven, the new earth, the new and eternal life, and compared to those things all of my current problems, well, they simply don’t compare.
(For context, Paul is writing this to Christians in Rome during the reign of Nero. It doesn’t get much more FUBAR than that, and still it doesn’t compare to the glory that awaits us through Christ Jesus.)
Now, there are a few things that you won’t catch me saying. I am not here to tell you that everything is going to work out here in this world. We’re Christians, for heaven’s sake! We get our heads chopped off, burned at the stake, sued out of business, silenced in colleges, etc. That is beyond the normal human suffering that Adam brought into the world when he sinned. There’s no promise that the relationships will get fixed, that the estranged will be reconciled, that the disease will be cured, or that our jobs will last. Sooner or later, either we will lose everyone or everyone will lose us. This world is temporary, fragile, worn-out and breaking down.
But God’s Word included the history of a man who lost everything and how he kept his faith. Job isn’t just a Hebrew vocabulary workout, or a great piece of wisdom literature. The book of James uses it as an example of what can happen on Earth and will happen in heaven.
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. -James 5:7-11 ESV
If you haven’t read Job lately, he ended up with twice the sum of everything he lost in the first place. But the whole world can’t compare with what waits for us.
When the dark days come, we are never alone because God will never forsake us. When our health breaks down, we know that God will remake our bodies perfectly and eternally in the new heaven and earth. When we cannot see what lies ahead, we know that God has already foreseen our entire lives and he can turn the worst of things around for good. When we feel isolated or ashamed, we have a God who eagerly anticipates hearing from us in prayer, and has provided his own translator.
When we bring it back together, and put our suffering in context of God’s presence, the Holy Spirit creating and supporting our faith, Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the Gospel’s promise of eternal life, the comfort of God’s Word, and the hope of what is to come, then it gets really freaky. That is when we realize it is possible to agree with St. Peter when he said:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. -1 Peter 1:3-9 ESV
It all comes back to Jesus. In this world we will have trouble. Take heart! Jesus Christ has overcome the world for our sake, and has promised us and sealed the promise that in him we are destined for eternal life.
Don’t fall away. Endure with the help of God, the release valve of prayer, the hope in God’s wisdom, the assurance of eternal life, the ever-present truth of God’s love, and know that you are never alone. He who endures to the end will be saved.