Things I Am Thankful for During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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These are certainly unsettling times. I have never seen anything like the coronavirus or the mass panic buying.

We all have a number of concerns—the spread of the virus, health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones, availability of supplies, the economic impact of closed or reduced businesses, and so much more. I’ve cycled through feeling mildly ill-at-ease to full-blown panic to peace and back again. Perhaps you have, too.

As with any other crisis, we remind ourselves of what we know to be true. This situation has not taken God by surprise. He knows our needs. He cares even about a sparrow falling. All our worrying can’t add an hour to our lives and will only make us miserable. If God allows us to suffer in some way, He will provide the grace to deal with it.

As I calm and quiet my soul, I have found plenty to be thankful for.

  • The speed of communication. The Spanish flu, the “Black Death,” and other epidemics spread quickly far and wide before anyone could get on top of them. Even though the current virus spread through our global traveling, global communication got the word out quickly. Every day we can get new information and recommendations almost immediately.
  • Medical technology. We live in unprecedented days for medical research, testing, sharing knowledge and equipment.
  • High levels of sanitation. We’ve come a long way since the plagues of yesteryear in our basic knowledge and practice.
  • Easy ways to sanitize. Though supplies are short right now, most of us already had hand sanitizer, wipes, etc. on hand.
  • Many ways to keep in touch. Social distancing is hard on several levels. But we have phones, texting, FaceTime, social media, and other ways to keep in touch with and check on each other. Churches and other groups have found a way to “virtually” meet. Even though all these are not quite the same as being together, they are far better than nothing.
  • A number of ways to keep busy and entertain ourselves at home. Books, home projects, games, program streaming—we’ve never had more access to more means of entertainment than we do now.
  • Time. I’ve seen friends on social media mention time to slow down, to just hang out with their kids.
  • Humor. Even though the virus is serious, a bit of humor diffuses tension. I don’t know if I ever enjoyed America’s Funniest Home Videos more than I did this week. Clever memes and comments on Facebook and Twitter about the realities of a socially distanced life bring a smile.
  • Courageous and generous people. We’ve been frustrated by those who hoard needed goods and then try to profit by selling them or by price gouging. But many other people are going the extra mile, like health care workers. I read of authors helping other authors whose book launch events were canceled. I’ve heard individual stories of ways someone showed a bit of kindness here or there in stores or other places.
  • The ability to work and take classes at home. No, not everyone can work from home. But everyone who can helps “flatten the curve” that much more and helps all the rest of us. Online teaching ensures that the academic year isn’t lost.
  • Better economy and stewardship. I’ve had a tendency to use some supplies as if they will always be available. Putting more thought and care into how I use things will hopefully carry over when life gets back to “normal.”

All of us face degrees of disappointment in our current situation. Long anticipated commencement services, trips, conferences, and outings have all been cancelled. But comparing what could have been, what has been in past epidemics, to what’s going on now will give us a better perspective.

And some of the systems I mentioned still have room for improvement. But better minds than mine are working on those issues, and we need to give grace that most are doing the best they can in unprecedented circumstances.

Much is out of our control. But we can trust God and take measures to help, to foster safety, and to love our brethren.

Have you found anything to be thankful for during the current crisis?

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(I don’t mean to minimize the pain some are going through from illness, loss of someone they loved, or dire need. My heart goes out to those folks. Certainly we need to reach out and support them. But in one sense, that’s all the more reason to be thankful for the steps that are being taken so that as few people as possible will experience this virus.)

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Let Trouble Draw You Nearer

Let troubles draw you to God

When loved ones go through hard things, I pray that they may be drawn closer to God in all that is happening to them. I know that trials have the potential to turn people away from rather than to God.

In thinking through some of the reasons God allows suffering recently, part of me marveled that God would risk the negative reactions some people would have. Some get angry and rail against God or the universe or their loved ones. Some fear and panic.

But faith is strengthened by testing. And some people won’t turn to God until they are put in a position where there is no other choice.

Thankfully, as the psalms indicate, many work through the bad reactions, remind ourselves of what we know to be true about God, and rest in Him

As we experience this current pandemic, I’ve seen a variety of reactions already. Many are tense and on edge in the face of uncertainties: health of self and loved ones, possible lost time from work, shortage of supplies.

Hudson Taylor once said, “It does not matter how great the pressure is. What really matters is where the pressure lies — whether it comes between you and God, or whether it presses you nearer His heart.”

Let these current trials and pressures draw you to Him. Don’t let them come between you. He knows what’s going on in the world. He is wise, kind, loving, and good. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). He has promised to supply all our needs.

Do the practical things: wash hands, disinfect, avoid crowds. etc. But in faith. And, as Laura said, watch out for others who night need extra help in times like this.

A stanza in Henry Lyte’s hymn, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” says:

Man may trouble and distress me, ‘twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me; heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me while Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me, were that joy unmixed with Thee.

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Biblical Reasons for Suffering

Biblical reasons for sufferingA little boy falls and scrapes his knee. His father runs to him and . . . gives him a science lesson about velocity and gravity and a lecture on safety. Right?

No, of course not. The father comforts his child and tends his wounds.

I’ve heard some people say that’s all they want when they’re suffering. They don’t need to know the why behind it: they just want their heavenly Father’s comfort and assurance of His love.

But some of us do want to know why. The question of why God allows suffering is one of the biggest issues people wrestle with.

Some think it’s wrong to ask God “Why?” Elisabeth Elliot said in her book, On Asking God Why:

I seek the lessons God wants to teach me, and that means that I ask why. There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for his meaning, or whether it is a challenge of unbelief and rebellion. The psalmist often questioned God and so did Job. God did not answer the questions, but he answered the man–with the mystery of himself.

When we lived in GA, a man in our church had Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which caused tumors to grow throughout his body. The tumors weren’t cancerous, but their growth caused multiple problems, especially when they began in his spine and brain. He once said, “I could bear this if I knew God had a reason for it.”

We may never know exactly why God allows hard things to happen in our particular cases. But the Bible gives some general reasons why God allows suffering and how He uses it.

Sin

No, suffering doesn’t mean the person experiencing it is being punished for sin. Job’s friends mistakenly thought that of him and God soundly rebuked them. When Jesus’ disciples asked him whether a certain man was blind due to his own or his parents’ sin, Jesus said neither (John 9:1-3).

But sin and suffering entered the world when sin did. Man’s inhumanity to man falls here. Sin, sorrow, sickness, etc., will be eliminated for believers when they get to heaven (Rev. 21:4), but not before. So some degree of suffering is just due to living in a fallen world. That doesn’t mean it’s random: God still is in control over what He allows.

Yet sometimes God does chasten His children, and He may use suffering to do it. Proverbs has a lot of corollaries about the consequences of certain actions. Discipline is actually a proof of our sonship. The psalmist said affliction helped him learn and obey God’s Word. Hebrews 12:1-12 says: “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

In Revelation, God brings calamities to get people’s attention and accuses, “yet you still did not repent.” At least one purpose behind the events was an attempt to bring them to repentance.

Growth

One of the most meaningful metaphors concerning suffering for me is described in John 15. Jesus said He is the true vine, His Father is the vinedresser, and we’re branches in Him. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (verse 2).

I’m not good with plants. But even in my limited experience, I’ve learned that some plants grow fuller when they are cut back. I’m told that expert rose pruners don’t just cut off the dead blooms: they remove perfectly good blossoms as well. Energy and nutrients are redirected to where they are most needful.

Somehow, when God “prunes” something in our lives, we grow in ways we would not have otherwise. Romans 15:3-4 says our suffering produces endurance, character, and hope. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 says sorrow teaches our hearts things that could not be learned by feasting and laughter.

Refining

James 1:3-4 says, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Malachi 3:2-3 speaks of God refining and purifying the sons of Levi. The Hebrew word for “refine” there means to smelt, to apply heat to separate impurities from the ore. Hebrews 12:25-29 speak of God shaking the earth “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (Spurgeon has a wonderful devotional on this here). Trials and suffering have a way of clarifying what’s important, of burning off any excess in our lives. 

That we may learn who God is

Nebuchadnezzar went through an extensive trial through which he learned that God was God and Nebuchadnezzar was not. Though Job knew God, after his ordeals, he knew Him in a much more intimate way. Many people testify that, although they would not have chosen their trials, they don’t regret them because of how much better they knew God after  the process.

That we may learn what we are and what we trust in

Moses told the children of Israel that “the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word  that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). God knew what was in their hearts, but He had to bring it out so they could see it.

One of the reasons God caused the events in Exodus was to get people’s attention and to show that their gods were no gods, that He alone was God. He did get their attention, and there are signs some believed (Exodus 18:5-11; Exodus 14:18; 14:31; 11:9).

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re trusting in something other than God until God removes it. Though that process is painful, it’s ultimately kind in turning us from a false hope to the only true God.

To humble us

As mentioned above, part of God’s purpose for bringing Israel through the wilderness was to humble them. Nebuchadnezzar had to be humbled before he would see his need of God. Paul’s “thorn” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7 was partly to keep him from being too proud because of all the revelations he had received.

For the sake of others

Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Paul mentions several times that some of his suffering were for others:

  • Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10).
  • And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14).
  • If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (2 Corinthians 1:6).
  • “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:5-6).
  • Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).

Joni Eareckson Tada has suffered for 50+ years since her diving accident. God may have had reasons unknown to us for allowing this, but her suffering has opened a ministry to untold numbers of people.

To glorify God

I mentioned earlier Jesus telling the disciples that a certain man wasn’t born blind due to sin. He went on to say that the man was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 1:3). When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, He said this illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:1-4).

I admit I have wrestled with this one. When I was about 38, I read about the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and imagined his being paralyzed my whole lifetime. Part of me wondered how God could ask this of him. But 38 years is not that long compared to eternity. Paul said, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Paul didn’t use the word “light” lightly: he had been speaking of excruciating suffering earlier in the chapter. But compared to the “eternal weight of glory,” it was light.

It’s like pregnancy: expectant mothers go through a range of discomfort all through pregnancy, culminating in the pain of childbirth. But they count all the suffering worth having that little one in their arms (John 16:21).

After speaking about the inheritance laid up for us in heaven, Peter says: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 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” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

That the world may be shown what love and obedience mean

I’m grateful to Elisabeth Elliot for this one. In John 14:27-31, Jesus said, as he was preparing for the cross, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” Elizabeth wrote in Keep a Quiet Heart:

The disciples’ worst fears were about to be realized, yet He commanded (yes, commanded) them to be at peace. All would be well, all manner of things would be well—in the end. In a short time, however, the Prince of this world, Satan himself, was to be permitted to have his way. Not that Satan had any rights over Jesus. Far from it. Nor has he “rights” over any of God’s children… But Satan is permitted to approach. He challenges God, we know from the Book of Job, as to the validity of His children’s faith.

God allows him to make a test case from time to time. It had to be proved to Satan, in Job’s case, that there is such a thing as obedient faith which does not depend on receiving only benefits. Jesus had to show the world that He loved the Father and would, no matter what happened, do exactly what He said. The servant is not greater than his Lord. When we cry “Why, Lord?” we should ask instead, “Why not, Lord? Shall I not follow my Master in suffering as in everything else?”

Does our faith depend on having every prayer answered as we think it should be answered, or does it rest rather on the character of a sovereign Lord? We can’t really tell, can we, until we’re in real trouble.

Paul said that somehow “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8-10). So we don’t display His working and wisdom only to other humans, but to beings in the heavenlies.

To learn that His grace is sufficient

Paul had asked God to remove something troubling in his life that he called a thorn. God said No. Instead, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

I believe it was Corrie ten Boom who said, “When all you have is Christ, you find that Christ is all you need.” The times in my life when anything I normally depended on was taken away and I felt the rug pulled out from under me were the  times I came to know by experience that Christ truly was sufficient for every need.

As children grow up, they depend on their parents less and less until they are able to stand alone. But Christians grow more and more dependent on God as they mature.

To spare us from something harder

We tend to overlook this part of Israel’s journey from Egypt. Exodus 13:17-18 says God didn’t bring Israel a nearer way through the land of the Philistines because the people might be tempted to turn back when they saw war. Instead, He led them through the wilderness to the Red Sea—where they were stuck between the sea and Pharaoh’s army. God already knew how He was going to deliver them, and they should have been able to trust Him for that trial.

To teach us to depend on His Word

In Deuteronomy 8:2-3, mentioned earlier, God says He led Israel through the wilderness and gave them manna partly to “make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Psalm 119:67 says: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.”

To identify with Christ

This is one of Scripture’s mysteries. I have several passages on this topic, but since this post is long already, I’ll just share a couple:

  • “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
  • “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:8 10).
  • “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Conclusion

These truths from Scripture help, but in some ways they don’t satisfy. Elisabeth Elliot said once, in a source I have not been able to retrace, that even though God accomplished great things through her first husband’s death, he didn’t necessarily have to die to accomplish those things. God calls people to salvation and service all the time without requiring someone’s death. Yet He chose to work that way in this case.

Even when we don’t know why, we know God. We are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). We know His character. We know He is wise and good. We know He is with us (Isaiah 43:2; Daniel 3:24-25) and loves us. He is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). He promises His grace is sufficient. and He will bring good out of everything He allows. As Joni Eareckson Tada says, God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief,
he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
(Lamentations 3:31-33).

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

From “How Firm a Foundation,” attributed to “K”

(Revised from the archives)

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Longsuffering Is Hard

A former pastor, an older, distinguished Southern gentleman with a deep bass voice, used to pronounce longsuffering with an extended “o”: looooooooooongsuffering. His point was, of course, to illustrate that longsuffering is suffering long.

Newer Bible translations render this word “endurance” or “patience,” and both of those are perfectly accurate. But I like the old word, longsuffering, because it’s a reminder that suffering of whatever nature is hard.

That last thought was a bit of a revelation for me (more like a “duh” moment, actually). I realized I’d been thinking that if I endured something hard for a while, then it wouldn’t “feel” hard any more. Longsuffering would give way to sweetness and ease. When whatever I was enduring still felt hard, I wondered what was wrong with me.

But “longsuffering” indicates it is still hard. And we still need grace to endure. Praying for it doesn’t make it easy, but bearable.

Like long-term physical issues. Or caregiving. Or trying neighbors or coworkers. Or difficult circumstances with no resolution in sight. Or extended loneliness.

Or even our own selfishness. Does anybody else get discouraged by the thought that our selfish nature will always be with us and we’ll have to keep fighting it until we get to heaven?

Sometimes my worst reactions are to little things hardly worth the name of “suffering” and certainly not long. Amy Carmichael once wrote:

The hardest thing is to keep cheerful (and loving) under little things that come from uncongenial surroundings, the very insignificance of which adds to their power to annoy, because they must be wrestled with, and overcome, as in the case of larger hurts. Some disagreeable habit in one to whom we may owe respect and duty, and which is a constant irritation or our sense of the fitness of things, may demand of us a greater moral force to keep the spirit serene than an absolute wrong committed against us. (1)

Thankfully, God is longsuffering with us.

The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6).

Thankfully, we can pray for His longsuffering in us:

For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness (Colossians 1:9-11).

Longsuffering with joyfulness, it says. Yes, there will be great joy when whatever we’re suffering is over. But God gives joy in it as well. Maybe not joy for whatever it is in itself, but joy that God is with us, helping us, teaching us through it. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

Wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t Jesus say His yoke was easy and His burden light? Yes, He did, in Matthew 11:28-30. One aspect of His yoke being easy is that the Pharisees had added on or expounded upon the Old Testament law, making it extremely burdensome. People couldn’t keep the OT law as it was. Jesus’s yoke was easy in the sense that He kept the law in our place and took the punishment for our sin upon Himself. Another aspect of His yoke being easy is that He helps us bear whatever He allows. He calls us to cast all our cares on Him and come to Him for help. Those who don’t know Him don’t have that help.

But He never indicated the Christian life is a bed of roses.

There are several reasons in Scripture why God allows suffering of various kinds. And it’s okay to say it hurts or it’s hard. But “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:3-4a). All things.Through the knowledge of Him. Get to know ever better our great high priest who “sympathize[s] with our weaknesses . . .who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4: 15-16).

I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11, NASB)

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(1) Houghton, Frank. Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur. (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1983), 86-87.

All Bible references are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

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Book Review: Suffering Is Never for Nothing

Suffering Is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot is “a very slight adaptation” of a series of talks Elisabeth gave at a conference. Someone had given a set of the conference CDs to Jennifer Lyell. She was so blessed, she gave copies to others. Finally she met and befriended Elisabeth and her husband, Lars, when Elisabeth could no longer speak. Later she obtained permission to transcribe the talks and have them published.

Though this volume wasn’t published in Elisabeth’s lifetime, if you’ve read her books, listened to her radio program, or heard her speak, you’ll hear familiar themes.

Just a bit of background for those who might not be familiar with Elisabeth: she and her husband were missionaries to an Indian tribe in Ecuador when several of the missionary couples were burdened to try to reach a tribe then known as Aucas ( later it was discovered they called themselves Waorani). The Aucas were thought to be a savage tribe: their every encounter with any from outside their world ended badly. After several seemingly friendly encounters, the men thought the time had come to try to meet the tribe in person. The first visit went well, but then the Aucas speared all five of the men to death. A few years later Elisabeth, her young daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister to another of the men, Nate Saint, went to live with the Auca/Waorani. Elisabeth shared that story in Through Gates of Splendor. In later years, Elisabeth remarried, but her second husband died of cancer. Before that marriage, Elisabeth lost almost the entire body of the translation work she had painstakingly labored over in the jungle. Along with these major losses in her life, she’s dealt with the everyday ones we all face.

I don’t know if Elisabeth intended to start a writing career when she published her first book: she was still a missionary in the jungle at the time. But God led her to write several more. I was one of many who considered her a mentor from afar, appreciating her no-nonsense, straightforward style and firm foundation on the Word of God.

To come back to this book, after naming several examples of suffering, Elisabeth boiled it down to this definition: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have” (p. 9). That’s well and good, but what do we do about it? Elisabeth says, “I’m convinced that there are a good many things in this life that we really can’t do anything about, but that God wants us to do something with” (p. 8).

Probably our biggest struggle concerning suffering is wondering where God is in it and why He allows it. Verse after verse assures us that God is right there with us in suffering. And some passages give us a few ideas of why He might allow it. Elisabeth says, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and hottest fires have come the deepest things I know about God . . . The greatest gifts of my life have also entailed the greatest suffering” (p. 9).

Still, “There would be no intellectual satisfaction on this side of Heaven to that age-old question, why. Although I have not found intellectual satisfaction, I have found peace. The answer I say to you is not an explanation but a person, Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God” (p. 12). She shares that when she first heard the news that her first husband was missing, she didn’t hear anything more about his condition or whereabouts for five days. God brought to her mind Isaiah 43:2-3: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.” She realized God wasn’t promising anything about her husband, but He promised to be with her.

“The questions remains, is God paying attention? If so, why doesn’t He do something? I say He has, He did, He is doing something, and He will do something” (p. 13).

She discusses the perspective of the cross and the two different kingdoms, the one on this world and the kingdom of God.

It’s He who was the Word before the foundation of the world, suffering as a lamb slain. And He has a lot up His sleeve that you and I haven’t the slightest idea about now. He’s told us enough so that we know suffering is never for nothing (p. 16).

We are not adrift in chaos. To me that is the most fortifying, the most stabilizing, the most peace-giving thing that I know about anything in the universe. Every time that things have seemingly fallen apart in my life, I have gone back to those things that do not change. Nothing in the universe can ever change those facts. He loves me. I am not at the mercy of chance (p. 43).

Faith is not a feeling. Faith is willed obedience in action (p. 45).

She then discusses our response: acceptance, gratitude, offering whatever it is back to God, and the transfiguration He works in us, with a chapter devoted to each of those.

Now if I had had a faith that was determined God had to give me a particular kind of answer to my particular prayers, that faith would have disintegrated. But my faith had to be founded on the character of God Himself. And so, what looked like a contradiction in terms: God loves me; God lets this awful thing happen to me. What looked like a contradiction in terms, I had to leave in God’s hands and say okay, Lord. I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. But I only had two choices. He is either God or He’s not. I am either held in the Everlasting Arms or I’m at the mercy of chance and I have to trust Him or deny Him. Is there any middle ground? I don’t think so (pp. 26-27).

Many years ago I read a different book by Elisabeth on this topic, A Path Through Suffering. At first I thought this was a republication of that book by a different name. It’s not, though. Some of the information probably overlaps, but they are two different books, both worthy to be read and extremely helpful.

I enjoyed reading this book over the last few weeks with the True Woman Summer Book Club and looking through the comments and study questions there.

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

When Your World Is Shaken

Has your world ever been shaken? Has you ever experienced the rug being pulled from under you and everything going topsy-turvy? An unexpected serious diagnosis, a betrayal, a financial failure, a massive, destructive storm?

My own world was shaken once when I was 15. My parents divorced and we moved from a very small town to a humongous city. On one hand, my parent’s breakup was not a surprise: circumstances had been leading to that conclusion for a long time. But it was still a shock to the system when it happened. On top of family issues, I had to process the loss of friends, familiar neighborhoods, and school and face the culture shock of a totally different area, new school, etc.

Another shaking occurred in my thirties. One morning my left hand felt a little funny, like I had slept on it wrong. Within three hours, my left arm, both legs, and my lower torso were numb, I couldn’t walk on my own, and I was having trouble going to the bathroom. I thought I was having a stroke. After eight days and multitudes of tests, I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Would it get better . . . or worse? Would I walk again? How could I live in my split-level house when I couldn’t get up the stairs? How could I take care of my 2-year-old? No one could tell me.

I don’t remember when I first read C. H. Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, but his meditation on the evening of June 22. was eye-opening for me. The verse for that evening was Hebrews 12:27: “This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” Even though that passage is talking about the ultimate “shaking” at the end of the age, we can apply some its truths to our comparatively smaller shakings.

Spurgeon says:

We have many things in our possession at the present moment which can be shaken, and it ill becomes a Christian man to set much store by them, for there is nothing stable beneath these rolling skies; change is written upon all things. Yet, we have certain “things which cannot be shaken,” and I invite you this evening to think of them, that if the things which can be shaken should all be taken away, you may derive real comfort from the things that cannot be shaken, which will remain.

What are some things that cannot be shaken? These truths are all through Scripture, but I’ll share a representative verse or two for each.

  • God’s sovereignty. Nothing that happens to us is a surprise to God. Well, then, why didn’t He prevent this calamity? That’s a question for another post. But He has a purpose in what He allows.

I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'” (Isaiah 46:9-10).

“The LORD is constantly watching everyone, and he gives strength to those who faithfully obey him” (2 Chronicles 16:9a, CEV).

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:29, NIV).

God’s power, might, and knowledge are all still in force though circumstances are in an upheaval.

  • God’s presence. One of the first things people ask in a crisis is, “Where is God?” He’s there.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

 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” (Hebrews 13:5).

  • God’s love. We might not understand how the turmoil we’re facing fits with God’s love, but we can rest in the fact that His love never leaves us.

 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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” (Romans 8:38-39).

  • Our salvation. Tumultuous circumstances do not indicate that my salvation is in question.

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29).

  • Our home in heaven. Spurgeon concludes his devotion on this topic this way: “Our country is Immanuel’s land, our hope is above the sky, and therefore, calm as the summer’s ocean; we will see the wreck of everything earthborn, and yet rejoice in the God of our salvation.” Sometimes trials remind us of this very thing: we seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” This world is just a temporary dwelling, a tent.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-3).

This is one reason it’s so important that we mine the bedrock truth from the Bible. So often we seek affirmation or warm fuzzy spiritual feelings. But nice feelings will evaporate in hard times. We need to know God’s character and Word are true no matter how we feel and how circumstances seem.

If you’re familiar with Elisabeth Elliot, you know that her world was shaken in a major way a few times. Her first husband was killed by the Indians he was trying to reach with the gospel. Her specialty on the mission field was translation, and years of painstaking work was lost in an instant. Her second husband died of cancer. A recently published book, Suffering Is Never for Nothing, is transcribed from her sessions at a conference. In the third chapter she says:

We are not adrift in chaos. To me that is the most fortifying, the most stabilizing, the most peace-giving thing that I know about anything in the universe. Every time that things have seemingly fallen apart in my life, I have gone back to those things that do not change. Nothing in the universe can ever change those facts. He loves me. I am not at the mercy of chance (p. 43).

Sometimes it’s not the big things that shake us up. It’s the little accumulated everyday frustrations. I never read the book If God Loves Me, Why Can’t I Get My Locker Open, so I don’t know if it’s good. But I’ve had similar thoughts! I love God and I am trying to serve Him here, so why am I stuck in traffic/is my computer not working/is what I need unavailable. Elizabeth wrote in another book of the frustration of spending an inordinate amount of time in the jungle on a stove that wasn’t working. Couldn’t God “make” it function so she could get back to the more important translation work? He could, and sometimes He does. But we live in a fallen world, and He doesn’t take away all the effects of that yet. She wrote in A Lamp For My Feet:

Whatever the enemy of our souls can do to instill doubt about the real purpose of the Father of our souls, he will certainly try to do. “Hath God said?” was his question to Eve, and she trusted him, the enemy, and doubted God. Each time the suspicion arises that God is really “out to get us,” that He is bent on making us miserable or thwarting any good we might seek, we are calling Him a liar. His secret purpose has been revealed to us, and it is to bring us finally, not to ruin, but to glory. That is precisely what the Bible tells us: “His secret purpose framed from the very beginning [is] to bring us to our full glory” (1 Cor 2:7 NEB).

I know of no more steadying hope on which to focus my mind when circumstances tempt me to wonder why God doesn’t “do something.” He is always doing something–the very best thing, the thing we ourselves would certainly choose if we knew the end from the beginning. He is at work to bring us to our full glory.

Sufferings and trials have a way of clarifying for us what’s most important. As the things which can be shaken fall away, the things which cannot be shaken come more clearly into focus. Many of the psalmists go through this process: they come to God shaken by a problem: an enemy is after them, they’re troubled by the prospering of the wicked, etc. But as they pray and remind themselves of the truths they know, they’re brought back to a place of peace.

As Samuel Rutherford said, “Believe God’s word and power more than you believe your own feelings and experiences. Your Rock is Christ, and it is not the Rock which ebbs and flows, but your sea.”

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
    though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.

“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46:1-5, 10-11

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It’s okay to say it hurts

Several years ago someone stood up in a church prayer meeting and requested prayer for a young couple. The husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the wife reportedly “wasn’t taking it very well.”

I wondered what was meant by this comment on the wife’s reaction, and I wondered how in the world one does take such news well. If she threw over her faith because she didn’t want to believe in a God who would do such a thing, yes, that would constitute reacting poorly. But I doubt this mutual friend was conveying such a severe response.

Perhaps she got upset, cried, even got angry. But are those responses wrong? Is the Christian life one of perfect serenity and beatific smiles no matter the circumstances?

It doesn’t appear that way in Scripture. The psalms show a range of emotions: grief, confusion, anger, despair. Paul speaks of being with the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3) and being “hard pressed on every side . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down” (2 Corinthians 4:8). He reports being “in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger . . . through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). Even the Lord Jesus wept (Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35) and sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). We don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but we do grieve.

I was once subscribed to an email group of transverse myelitis patients, back in the days before forums, message boards, or Facebook groups. I was conscious of wanting to glorify God and be a good testimony there, both of which were good goals. But I felt that in order to be a good testimony, I had to present myself as always victorious and overcoming and positive. At some point another Christian lady joined the group, and I was blessed as she did not gloss over the hardship and pain and frustration, yet she glorified God in the midst of all of that. Not only did her testimony ring true, but it also made her more relatable. We might admire the people who seem like they’ve always got it all together, but we’re not likely to go to them for help. We’re more drawn to those we can identify with, who’ve been in the trenches we’ve been in and yet survived them with grace.

On the other hand, it’s not good to wallow where the Lord extends grace to overcome. I’ve read people who readily admit to weakness, fear, pain, and grief, yet never exhibit God’s grace in dealing with those things. They seem to glory in their perpetual “mess.” Paul admits being “hard pressed on every side . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down,” but he doesn’t stop there. He says he is “not crushed . . . not driven to despair . . . not forsaken . . . not destroyed” ((2 Corinthians 4:8). He is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He doesn’t “lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Why? Because “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) And later on in chapter 12:7-10, Paul shares that God did not remove something grievous in response to Paul’s prayers, but instead  promised “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

We do need to distinguish between lament and complaint. We see lament all through the psalms and in some of the prophets, a crying out to God in the midst of painful circumstances. But 1 Corinthians 10:9-10 says of Israel during their trek from Egypt to Canaan: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” One of those incidents of complaint occurred in Numbers 11:1-3. The people had previously grumbled about lack of water and food (Exodus 15:22-25; 16; 17;1-7), and God just met their need miraculously. He was longsuffering with them, perhaps because they had not been out of Egypt long and had not been taught His ways. But by Numbers 11, God responded to their complaints with fire and a plague. Did God just run out of patience with them? No, but by that time they had seen His miraculous deliverance from Egypt and provision of water and food. They should have gotten to know Him better and exhibited trust in Him at that point, plus grasped the larger picture of what He was delivering them to. What are the differences between lament and complaint? I don’t know all of them: that’s something I would like to study out more. Tim Challies points out the difference in one’s posture of either pride or humility. Complaint in these cases seemed to include a lack of faith, as I mentioned, and even an attack on God’s leadership, and by way of implication, on God. The laments in the psalms honestly admit the dire circumstances and hardships, but there is an element of faith running through them.

In George H. Guthrie’s book Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word, Michael Card says:

Lament teaches us that we have to go through the process of dealing with our suffering before God. You don’t just stuff your feelings down and put a good face on it, like a lot of us tend to do. You need to go through the process of pouring your heart out to God. And if you don’t have the language for it, the Bible will give you the language.

Almost all of the psalms of lament involve the psalmist reminding himself of the truth he knows. God is good and righteous. He loves us. He sees and knows what’s going on. He will bring about justice in His own time. He has the power to deliver us, and at some point He will. But in the meantime we can rest in Him. Through prayer and praise, the psalmist exhibits faith that God hears him and will do what’s best.

So when our friends are going through a hard time, we don’t need to add to their burden by judging their tears and lamentations. We can lend a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and gently remind them of God’s truth.

Enduring hardship as a Christian is not just a matter of a stiff upper lip or a smile that glosses over painful circumstances. When we’re in the midst of pain and sorrow ourselves, we can “take it to the Lord in prayer,” as the old hymn says. Sometimes we can cry out to Him in ways that we could not before others. We remind ourselves of the truth we have gleaned from His Word, that He knows all about it, He cares, He has the bigger picture in view, and He has promised His grace for our every need. And He’ll be glorified as others see His grace in us through the hard times.

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Psalm 3:3-4, ESV

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth.
Linking does not imply full endorsement.)

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Book Review: The Scars That Have Shaped Me

ScarsWhen Vaneetha Rendall Risner was a baby in India, she contracted polio before her inoculation. The doctor had never seen a case of polio before, misdiagnosed it, and prescribed a wrong treatment which left Vaneetha paralyzed. Vaneetha had twenty-one operations from age two to thirteen. She spent much of her young life in the hospital and felt safe there and at home,  but was “openly picked on at school.”

She wanted “nothing to do with God because he had allowed all this to happen,” but when she was a teenager, He drew her to Himself.

Vaneetha’s trials weren’t over, though. After her first daughter was born, she had three miscarriages. Her son was born with a heart defect which surgery corrected, but a doctor’s mistake led to her baby’s death at the age of two. Then she contracted post-polio syndrome,  which causes “increasing pain and weakness, which could potentially result in quadriplegia.” There is no cure. Then her husband left her.

The magnitude of any of one of those trials weighs heavy, but all of them together are crushing. How does a person cope with all of that?

Vaneetha tells her story in short order in The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering and then spends the rest of the book  sharing what God has taught her through her trials. Her words, like Joni Earecksn Tada’s, carry weight because they are based on Scripture and they’ve been tried in the trenches.

It’s hard to summarize a book like this, so I’ll just share a few quotes:

Our faith is not a facade we erect to convince ourselves and others that pain doesn’t hurt—it is an oak tree that can withstand the storms of doubt and pain in our lives, and grow stronger through them.

I’ve often been devastated when he tells me no, but as I submit to his will in those situations—even with disappointment and tears—he assures me he’s working for my good. I see only part of the picture. He has a purpose in his denials. The Father said no to the Son [in Gethsemane]. And that no brought about the greatest good in all of history. God is not capricious. If he says no to our requests, he has a reason—perhaps ten thousand. We may never know the reasons in this life, but one day we’ll see them all. For now, we must trust that his refusals are always his mercies to us (emphasis mine).

In this life, I may never see how God is using my trials. But one day I will be grateful for them. All I can do now is trust that he who made the lame walk and the blind see, who died on a cross so I could spend eternity with him, is going to do the very best thing for me.

This is the most precious answer God can give us: wait. It makes us cling to him rather than to an outcome. God knows what I need; I do not. He sees the future; I cannot. His perspective is eternal; mine is not. He will give me what is best for me when it is best for me (emphases mine).

Replacing “what if ” with “even if ” in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God. We see that even if the very worst happens, God will carry us. He will still be good. And he will never leave us.

So what do we do when we feel drained and empty? When no one understands our suffering and no one seems to care? When we feel discouraged and tired and unbearably lonely? Read the Bible and pray. Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall. Does it sound simple? It is. Does it also sound exceedingly hard? It is that as well. But reading the Bible and praying is the only way I have ever found out of my grief. There are no shortcuts to healing.

When I say read, I don’t mean just reading words for a specific amount of time. I mean meditating on them. Writing down what God is saying to me. Asking God to reveal himself to me. Believing God uses Scripture to teach and to comfort me. To teach me wonderful things in his law (Ps. 119:18). To comfort me with his promises (Ps. 119:76). Reading this way changes cardboard into manna. I echo Jeremiah who said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” ( Jer. 15:16).

I mentioned yesterday the concept she brought out that what we think of as the lowest points of our lives are actually the highest, from God’s viewpoint, because that’s often where the most change and growth occurs in our lives. Another concept she described was that we often feel our prayers have not been answered when God doesn’t deliver us out of a situation, but His grace sustaining us through a trial is just as much an evidence of His power as a miraculous deliverance.

In waiting for the huge, monumental deliverance—the kind where I can put my issue to bed and never have to pray about it again—I’ve overlooked the grace that keeps drawing me to him. The prayers that may appear unanswered, but actually are fulfilled in ways that keep me dependent, tethered, needy.

I’ve often wondered about the difference between Biblical lament, such as what we see in the Psalms and other places in the Bible, and complaining. These thoughts helped:

Scripture never mandates that we constantly act upbeat. God wants us to come to him in truth. And so the Bible doesn’t whitewash the raw emotions of its writers as they cry out to God in anguish, fear, and frustration when life ceases to make sense. People like Jeremiah and Job, Habakkuk and David have all poured out their honest feelings of sadness and disappointment to God.

The Bible is shockingly honest. And because of that, I can be honest as well. I can both complain and cry, knowing that God can handle anything I say. The Lord wants me to talk to him, to pour out my heart and my thoughts unedited because he knows them already.

This conversation is different than the grumbling of the children of Israel. They complained about God and Moses to each other. I am talking directly to God. Telling him my doubts. Asking him to help me see. These saints I quoted all talked directly to God, which was the first step to healing. They named their disappointments and voiced their struggles before him. They needed to know that God understood them. And that they could be truthful with him. No pretense or platitudes. Just raw honesty, acknowledging their pain before God.

Like most of us, I would rather learn from others about suffering than have to go through it myself. But some portion of suffering is allotted to all of us, and I am so thankful for a godly example like Vaneetha’s. Much of what she said spoke to my heart even though my trials have been different.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Our trials are not just for us

Some sermons, the gist of them or a particular point or illustration, stay with us forever. One such message for me took place some 25-30 years ago. Our pastor at that time began describing some of the creatures Ezekiel saw in his vision, like the wheel within a wheel full of eyes, and went on to detail various other heavenly beings. Then he read from Ephesians 3:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:8-10, ESV).

The pastor probably brought several things out of that passage, but the one that most struck and remained with me was verse 10: somehow God teaches and displays to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (“principalities and powers” in the KJV) something about Himself through how He deals with us.

We’re going through Job in the church we’re visiting now, and we see an example of this in the first two chapters. Though the events in this book occurred before the church itself was born in Acts, the principle is the same. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6; 2:1). God’s conversations with Satan about Job seems to be before the rest of the assemblage, though they could have been private. Either way, God displayed truth to a non-human being through an earthly one.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus told His disciples:

 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father (John 14:30-31, ESV).

In this case, one reason for Jesus’s obedience to the Father’s command was that the world might know that Jesus loved the Father.

Some years after the sermon I mentioned, I read this from Elisabeth Elliot in Keep a Quiet Heart:

The disciples’ worst fears were about to be realized, yet He commanded (yes, commanded) them to be at peace. All would be well, all manner of things would be well–in the end. In a short time, however, the Prince of this world, Satan himself, was to be permitted to have his way. Not that Satan had any rights over Jesus. Far from it. Nor has he “rights” over any of God’s children… But Satan is permitted to approach. He challenges God, we know from the Book of Job, as to the validity of His children’s faith.

God allows him to make a test case from time to time. It had to be proved to Satan, in Job’s case, that there is such a thing as obedient faith which does not depend on receiving only benefits. Jesus had to show the world that He loved the Father and would, no matter what happened, do exactly what He said. The servant is not greater than his Lord. When we cry “Why, Lord?” we should ask instead, “Why not, Lord? Shall I not follow my Master in suffering as in everything else?”

Does our faith depend on having every prayer answered as we think it should be answered, or does it rest rather on the character of a sovereign Lord? We can’t really tell, can we, until we’re in real trouble.

Any trial we have undergone has probably fallen far short of what happened to Job or to Jesus. Even still, our first thought, our consuming thought is usually for relief. We want it to end, we want things to go back to normal, we want to be out from under whatever the pressure is.

First we need to ask God to help us learn what He is trying to teach us – usually something of His grace, provision, strength, and love in contrast to our limitations and our need to rely on Him. But we need to remember the bigger picture. Maybe our trial isn’t just for us. Maybe creatures in the heavenlies are learning something about God through His dealings with us. Maybe the world, or at least our children, family and friends, acquaintances, need to be shown, to see in action, genuine faith and loving obedience even in difficult and mysterious circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot went on in the piece above to write:

I never heard more from the young woman [mentioned earlier in the piece]… But I prayed for her, asking God to enable her to show the world what genuine faith is–the kind of faith that overcomes the world because it trusts and obeys, no matter what the circumstances. The world does not want to be told. The world must be shown. Isn’t that part of the answer to the great question of why Christians suffer?

May God enable us as well.

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“Let patience have her perfect work”

Sometimes when people are going through a hardship or loss or suffering in some way, we want to “fix” it. And that can be good: sometimes the very reason God allows something to come to our attention is so that we can help in whatever way He has prompted us and gifted us to help.

But sometimes in our attempts to fix or set things “right,” we can seem to minimize someone else’s concerns or brush off their situation as not really that hard. Many of us are familiar with Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Too often we want to make those who are weeping rejoice instead. That’s not wrong in itself: there’s certainly time for encouragement, for gently helping someone restore their focus, for cheering someone up. But there are also times to just sympathize.

We run a few risks when we don’t take that time to sympathize. The person might not feel heard and validated, and in that case, nothing we say is going to register. Or, we might make them feel somehow “less than” an ideal spiritual Christian for having such a struggle. We not only fail to help them, but also they’re sure not going to open up to us next time.

Here is an example: a single person says she sometimes struggles with loneliness and discontentment. Most Christians rush to point out that we need to find our contentment in Christ and not a human being, that no human being can totally meet our needs, that Paul says being single provides many more opportunities to serve the Lord. And those are all true. But we’re bypassing the cry of her heart: loneliness is hard. And it’s not unspiritual to feel lonely. God is the One who said it wasn’t good for man to be alone and who inspired Solomon to write “two are better than one.” He knows the hardship, yet He allows it for other purposes.

Or someone’s husband dies. We rush to assure that her loved one is in a better place. True, if they’ve believed on Christ. And we’ll see them again. True. But it hurts like everything until that time comes. It hurts when a loved one is away for a week, even with smartphones and Skype and texts and all the ways we have to keep in touch: how much more when they’re away for years with no contact? The Bible calls death an enemy. So while death has lost its sting and we don’t sorrow like those who have no hope, we do still sorrow.

Sometimes we find grace by acknowledging the pain and working through it rather than by downplaying it. I so appreciated the pastor speaking at a funeral of a young mom of five children: he said publicly to her husband, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. You’re going to need God’s grace.” The husband was probably thinking the same thing, that he had no idea how he was going to carry on parenting five children without his wife while also missing her companionship. How refreshing to have someone acknowledge that rather that quote Romans 8:28, pat him on the back, and go on his merry way. The pastor pointed to the available and needful grace of God without minimizing the hardship.

James 1:3-4 says, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. The ESV says, instead of patience, steadfastness: the NASB says endurance. If God allows trials to help us grow and strengthen our faith, among other reasons, we need to let it do its work, to work through grief and pain rather than bypassing it. We need to offer comfort and assistance, yes, but without short-circuiting or brushing away the depth or effect of it. Acknowledge it. Empathize with it. Someone once said Job’s friends did more for him when they sat in silence with him for a week than by saying all that they said to him.

True, sometimes we whine or wallow and need to adjust our perspective. Sometimes our thinking is wrong and needs adjustment. James even says to count it joy when we experience trials, not that the trial is joyful, but that God is using it to do a work of some kind in us. Sometimes as a friend or counselor, it’s not easy to know just what to say or how to help. That’s why I am so glad the next verses in James assure us that we can ask God for wisdom. He also reminds us a few verses later to be swift to hear and slow to speak. We need to hear people out and seek God’s wisdom rather than presuming or assuming or rushing in to “set them straight.” Sometimes God does guide and give us something to say in the moment. Sometimes all we can say is, “I don’t know why God is allowing this, but I know He has a reason. It’s hard. I don’t know how to help. But I can listen and pray with you.

When we go through a trial of some sort, usually we just want relief, preferably from a change in circumstances, or at least by finding some way of making the situation easier. And that’s fine, both to pray for and seek for relief. And when people sometimes say the wrong thing, we can avoid bitterness and appreciate that at least they were trying to help. When people don’t understand, we can encourage ourselves in the Lord. Sometimes that lack of understanding is part of the trial. But in the midst of all of that, we need to remind ourselves that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). We can let them do their work; we can trust in and work with God’s processes and purposes; we can ask Him what He wants us to learn through it all. And knowing that God is working something in us, even when we don’t understand, we can “rejoice in our sufferings” (verse 3).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Writer Wednesday, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)