Scripture is clear, that God uses times of trouble and pain in our lives to sanctify us- making us more like Jesus. As Romans 5:3-4 says “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” But sometimes that truth gets presented as if suffering is a magic pill you swallow, making you grow at rapid fire speed.
It is also clear that suffering can cause us to rely on God more wholly, and draw closer to Him. As one of my favorite psalms says: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).” People often experience that God’s presence seems nearer to them, and their fellowship with Him is sweetened, during times of great pain. But is that always the case? Do sufferers live on a perpetual mountaintop experience of closeness to God?
It’s not a super hard question really. I mean, have you ever had a stomach flu? Or even a bad head cold? Did you feel super close to God all day, every day, while you walked through that? When your head was hung over the toilet, were you amazed with the godly attitude that just seemed to rush over you the more you vomited? Probably not, right?
Because suffering is still suffering, and it feels like suffering. It doesn’t often feel like magic and mountaintops.
I’m sharing this because I’ve wrestled with it. Christians, myself included, talk a lot about the deep things they have learned through suffering, but sometimes our talk might leave people with a sanitized view, like suffering draws a tidy straight line towards Jesus and holiness, and those who walk the path are always glowing. During the most challenging year of my life, when I felt anything but glowing, my number one question was: Why doesn’t it feel like God is bringing anything good out of this? Continue reading Suffering is Not Magic and Mountaintops→
I was reading Psalm 44 this week, and at verse 22 I noticed the familiar words from Romans 8:36, “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
In Romans 8, I knew the context was that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that through Christ we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” It is a section that stands out as victorious and triumphant. It is the kind of text that evokes praise and brings comfort.
So it really stood out to me, to find these words here in Psalm 44. You should read the Psalm, but to give you the basic content I will break it down in sections. I’m not quoting the text here, just doing summaries.
Verse 1-3 “We have seen your faithfulness of old, and how our people conquered through You.”
Verse 4-8 “We also trust God alone to give us victory over our enemies.”
Verse 9-16 “We are slaughtered, disgraced, and ashamed before our enemies.”
Verse 17-22 “We have not turned away from God or forgotten Him, yet we are still killed.”
Verse 23-25 “God please wake up and help us.”
So the context of Psalm 44 is basically being conquered, while innocent, and in addition to that, not understanding why it is happening, or where God has gone off to.
The context of Romans 8 and Psalm 44 are not as different as I thought at first. Paul asks “Shall tribulation, distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword,” be able to separate us from the love of God? That question and context sounds very familiar to Psalm 44, so no wonder it came to Paul quoted it here.
As I read these texts, a phrase came to my mind: “Being conquered, we conquer.” I started to think about how this could be possible. I asked, “So even if I’m killed for my faith, or debt sinks, cancer spreads, natural disaster strikes, or armies attack- the bible says I conquer? We conquer, even when it looks like something, or someone else overtook us and won? How does that work? Continue reading Being Conquered, We Conquer→
I have probably never referenced a hymn more often on this blog, than this one. It is without a doubt my most loved hymn, and so I thought it deserved its own post. Here’s a brief article by Tim Challies about the author William Cowper, and you will find a link to a lengthier audio biography by John Piper here as well if you are interested.
Call it odd, but I love William Cowper as a brother, although he died centuries ago. I can’t wait to meet him in heaven and thank him for how his hymns have impacted my life.
All I wanted to do here is go through the hymn line by line and share some thoughts to encourage people who are struggling to make sense of God’s plan for their lives. Perhaps tragedy has struck and you are left reeling, or maybe you struggle with depression and have no idea why it does not leave you. Or maybe you look around at this sin cursed earth and wonder how God’s hand is ruling over this at all. This is a song to sing from the pit, a song that moves us from doubt to faith. Maybe God would use it for you as He has so many times for me.
I waited patiently for the LORD; He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Sometimes God moves in a way that we cannot understand, in a way that doesn’t seem to make any sense. But out there in the turbulent seas, where you are not able to go, but can only imagine their fury, God has planted His footsteps firmly in the midst of the waves. He is in full control. He rides upon the storm like One controlling its’ every move and direction; Because He does.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill He treasures up His bright designs And works His sovereign will.
We stand as frail humans, confined by time. We have no idea what is ahead for us, or for our loved ones. Although we make our plans and imagine our futures, all can change for better or worse in an instant can’t it?
There is a secret, hidden mine of God’s wisdom and knowledge that we cannot comprehend in this life. The Lord alone knows the beginning from the end. What I love in the above lines is the acknowledgement that God is working all things out with “never failing skill,” foresight, and power. He is stacking the events of history and of your life, one on top of another, and He is building for Himself and for us a perfect and “bright design,” even when we stand blind to it.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Psalm 31:24 “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!”
It is imperative to my faith, to hope in the Lord. We have eternal hope, hope of Heaven and being with the Lord, but we need hope in our circumstances too. It makes a difference during dark and oppressive trials to look for the light. This reminds us not to lose heart and believe that God has nothing good for us, even today. Anticipate that the God who loves you has blessings in store, even when life hurts, and let your eyes search for them. Sometimes your eyes grow weary of searching, but these lines remind us not to quit.
Psalm 27:13 is another verse I quote often: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”
God is good when life is bad. And He will, with certainty, break the skies with blessings on your head in time, even if that happens in dying. Christians who hope in God will never be put to shame (Psalm 25:3), God will see to that.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
If you have never been here, you might be some day, and if you are, you need a song like this to sing. When everything in your body, mind, and circumstances screams out at you that God is angry with you, punishing you, and that He has turned His face away from you, then you lose sight of Him. You think of God and you see a frown.
Psalm 88:6-7 says “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” Many believers have had times of feeling this way.
It is a horrible place to be friend. You need to sing this to yourself. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower.
I’ve sung this in time’s past, and thought “not fast enough Lord,” but sang it anyway. There is great faith at work here. Life might taste awful now, but one day it’s going to blossom into something beautiful. There’s an eternal weight of glory being stored up in Heaven while I’m down here being weighed down by trials- and it is going to be far weightier in glory than this was in pain (2 Corinthians 4:17). You can’t even imagine the work God is accomplishing through your pain, in this life and the next. That beauty will supersede your grief in such a magnificent way, you can know that one day you’ll say: “It was worth it.”
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
These are some hard, but kind lines, and they have put me in my place at times. Some trials in this life seem worse than worthless don’t they? They don’t seem to accomplish anything at all other than heartache. Maybe you have gone through something that has made you feel robbed of a very good and pure thing. That’s hard. You say that there is no way God could ever use this for good, because it is bad, very bad.
It’s ok to acknowledge that some seasons and events in life are bad, and sometimes the trials we are in make absolutely no sense to us. We live in a fallen world, full of sins that hurt us, poverty, disease, and death, and God never told us that we had to call those things good. We weren’t meant to be fallen creatures in a fallen world, and the result can be depression and confusion- yes even for Christians. The pain we are going through isn’t good on its own. It wasn’t part of God’s original design, and only through Him can it be redeemed and turned it into something beautiful in time.
You can run freely to God when life hurts and your mind is troubled. He already knows. This hymn helps me to remember that, and to remember that God is good; He is in control even when life makes no sense, and one day, whether in this life or the next, He is going to make His purposes plain to us. “Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.”
I’m glad the bible doesn’t shy away from these themes, and I’m glad old hymn writers didn’t either. We need more songs today that doubting and downcast Christians can sing. Here’s a version of God Moves In a Mysterious Way that I enjoy, and I hope this has been encouraging for someone.
God has moved in my life in mysterious ways, to teach me lessons I would not have learned by any other means. I have a wandering heart; I have an idolatrous heart. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above,” is a song that I can sing and mean.
After Liza was born (you can read about that treacherous pregnancy here), I was done with suffering. I needed a chance to breathe, settle, heal, and adapt to life again with a newborn. The trials were behind me, and it was onward and upward, or so I thought. We had sleepless nights (of course) and nursing difficulties (again), but those things were expected, and I was just content to finally have my girl in my arms. That first month was hard, recovering not only from a C-section, but from the horrific pelvic separation I get during pregnancy. I remember having NO idea how I was going to care of this baby, but my resourceful husband tied a sturdy basket to my walker with soft blankets inside, and that is how I got her around our house the first month. It was difficult, but it was happy, so happy.
I don’t think Liza was more than a month old when my church split. Blogger Land isn’t the place to divulge all that, but let it suffice to say it was sudden, unexpected, and drastic. It was upheaval that I certainly wasn’t looking for at the time, and it shook me.
I was tired then, really tired, but who isn’t tired with a newborn who has her days and nights mixed up? But then one night, when Liza was 2 months old, I fainted and my husband couldn’t wake me up. He called 911 and I woke up by the time they arrived, but fainted again when I got to the hospital. My hemoglobin had crashed dangerously low, and I needed a blood transfusion.
I continued to be tired, and honestly, I have been tired ever since, and have especially struggled to raise my iron levels.
Somewhere in the mix of this, I realized Liza was not meeting her milestones. At three months old she still couldn’t raise her head off my chest at all, and wasn’t able to turn her head to look to the side well either. I didn’t handle that realization well at first. Why couldn’t I move past these long years of difficulty? Why would God put me through all these difficulties, and then place me in a situation where I worried daily for the baby I had waited so long for? I felt like all my happy moments were being tainted by the foreboding that hovered in the back of my mind, and I was driving myself crazy over it.
But you know what? God taught me about surrendering while I waited for that little peach to lift her head. He worked in my heart to accept whatever His hand had in store, and not to worry or be afraid. He took that worry from me, and when she was four months she finally lifted her head. And guess what? At 15 months old, she has started walking. She is doing great, and I have had extra joy at all of her milestones.
I turned 30 last September, and wrote about some of the lessons I learned in my twenties here. What I didn’t say, is that I really hoped, and even believed, that somehow the dawn of my thirties could mean the start of easier happiness. I don’t know if that expression makes any sense to you, but it does to me. Maybe my health issues could stay behind me. Maybe I could succeed in some of my goals. Travel somewhere. Further my education. Publish a book. Run around freely with my kids. Hike mountains with my husband.
Man I hate when the things I hope for in this life turn to disappointment. But I’m still just 30 right? There’s a lot of space between here and 40. Hoping can be such a difficult and painful endeavor.
Well, I think we have found the reason for my ceaseless exhaustion. I had a scope done through my throat and into my stomach before Christmas, which showed blood in the stomach and a large tumor which can be seen pressing into my stomach, changing the shape- kind of like how a fist pressing into a balloon would appear on the inside. The doctor said it has likely been developing for years, and it will need to come out. Continue reading Still Learning Through Suffering (A Life & Health Update)→
It’s been awhile since I wrote one of my lengthier poems, Job: A Champion of Faith by Grace. I read it again recently and found myself turning back to this great book of the bible. Once again, I was amazed by Job’s response in chapter three. It is so dark, so utterly sorrowful and desperate. Why am I amazed? I don’t think it is because his response is strange. It isn’t strange. In fact, it is kind of what you might expect from a man whose property, herds, servants, and children were just lost and destroyed to two sets of violent raiders, fire from heaven, and wind strong enough to collapse a house.
And then, as if his pain wasn’t great enough, he was smote with “sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head (Job 2:7).”
I mean, this scenario is insane. I would write more about it, but since I already have in the poem and here I will let that suffice. I just wanted to zero in on chapter three.
After seven days and seven nights of silence, and pain which made him unrecognizable to his friends, he finally opens his mouth and starts by cursing the day of his birth. He wishes he had died as a stillborn child, or been miscarried and discarded. The imagery here is graphic and disturbing. He believes that to have died and been at rest would have been better for him than to have lived and suffered this excessive loss.
Then he asks “Why?” as most people who find themselves in suffering do. “Why is light given to him who suffers (Job 3:20)?”
But it was the last three verses of the chapter that stood out to me the most recently.
Job 3:24-26 “For my groaning comes at the sight of my food, and my cries pour out like water. For what I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes.”
Try that out as a Facebook status.
I’m being cheeky of course, but how comfortable are you with those verses? How would you respond if a friend said this to you? Picture a person too grieved to eat their food, too distraught to sleep, who cannot be quiet, but cries out loud about their woe? Someone who says “there is no rest in me. I have no peace. I am undone.” Continue reading Job’s Dark Response→
Romans 5:3-5 “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing 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.”
“We rejoice in our sufferings.”
We have here a totally unnatural response to suffering. Only God can produce that. It isn’t hard to be angry or frustrated with suffering. If we just give way to our fleshly, automatic responses, this is likely where we are headed. Nobody wants to suffer. I don’t want to suffer. I want an easy life; I want goals met without roadblocks, I want plans carried out without interruptions, I want pleasure that is unhindered by pain, I want choices that are dictated by pure want and not scribbled out by limitations. I want myself and everyone I love to be healthy and happy.
I suppose we call that hedonism. For the Christian, we might not want to attain this “easy” and “pleasure-filled” life in the same way the world might, or at least we shouldn’t. Many of the pleasures of this world Christ has made ugly in our eyes. But if that is the case it doesn’t mean we are free of self-indulgent want. It doesn’t mean we are free of the idolatrous and entitled thirst for easiness.
Simply put, we want a smooth road and pleasures by the wayside. Comfortable and enjoyable friendships, respectful children, loving spouses, a healthy church, steady income, hobbies, health, vacations, laughter- simple things. Not ungodly things. Good things. And it is so easy to make them all idols.
So I’m preaching to myself. Suffering can lay its hand on so many avenues of life. It can interrupt our “good things,” or turn them upside down. It can even destroy them completely. And who wants to rejoice at that?
No. It is not a natural response. In fact, many circumstances call for what I have called “fitting sadness.” Rejoicing does not mean there must be the absence of sorrow, for the bible says we are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2Corinthians 6:10).”
Trials have a way of killing smugness. I suppose some little wave crashes upon a boulder and he doesn’t feel it much. But there are waves that beat upon a stone without relent, and sometimes he thinks “I’m surely going to crash into this sea like so many tiny pebbles do.”
It’s the long relentless trials, often repeated, in which desperate men cry out for deliverance with parched throats and eyes that dim of scanning the horizon (Psalm 69:3)- these are the trials which put a knife to smugness.
To be smug is to “be contentedly confident of one’s ability, superiority, or correctness; complacent.” You can see it in the life of people who store up their treasures and say to themselves “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry (Luke 12:20).” We see it in those who simply live without acknowledging God or His ways, fill up their measure of sin, and tell themselves “He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us (Jeremiah 5:12).”
It’s easy to identify smugness in unbelievers isn’t it? And we might have some patience for that, since after all, they don’t know God. But there are some sins, or struggles the smug believer thinks he or she would never be tried with. The things “good” and “real” Christians just don’t do, or even think of doing. Good Christians don’t get divorced. They don’t curse, or hit things, or hit others. They don’t hurt themselves or have “mental breakdowns.” Good Christians aren’t tempted to use alcohol or drugs to dampen the pain and difficulties of life. They don’t get bitter. They don’t experience large scale moral failures. The “true” Christian doesn’t question God’s purposes and never thinks- “perhaps a different path would have led to a happier, easier life.” That “real” Christian never has doubts about His God or His faith.
The smug believer thinks he doesn’t do those thing because he simply couldn’t do those things. He is too good a Christian in fact. It would be impossible for him because he has climbed too high for such a heinous, ignorant, and disgraceful stoop. He knows too much truth and has too pure of motives. His reasons for coming to Jesus were right; he follows Christ for Christ alone, and nothing else that might be gained. Take the world but give him Jesus, and he will be just fine. He is sure.
The problem is not that he despises the thought of ever sinning or struggling in such ways, but rather that his trust is in himself, and his attitude towards failing believers is one of quick readiness to judge and deem them cut off. But trials are not so easy and glamorous a tool of refining believers as sometimes they are made to sound. People talk about their victories but we often don’t hear how trials will prove you ugly before they start to make you pure. Consider this excerpt from a poem I have written reflecting on this topic:
“Did you think
To put you in a furnace
Would not scorch your skin?
To come out gold
With easy glee
And not the surfacing of sin?
Or that boiling water hot
Would like a warm bath
Scathe you not?
Like sinking in so comfortably
To fire should come easily?”
When a Christian goes into the boiling pot and stays in it for a long time, God will undoubtedly grow and refine that Christian. I look back on this long trial with chronic pain and I see a hundred idols slain. But it is not as if they crumbled down themselves. They’ve been slain through tears, constant battle, and much travail in prayer. The longer I go through the trials, the more I see that there is no temptation uncommon to men (1Corinthians 10:13), and there is no temptation or sinful thought too sinful for myself. I see those idols slain, but I know their root lies in my own heart and when my eyes go off my God how quickly they resurrect. I see that this battle isn’t won until I finally find myself safe in the arms of God. I will overcome and conquer one doubt or one sinful wish, but it will rear its head again. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as killing a sin (including smugness!) once and for all. When you’re living in a trial it is constant war and you must kill the flesh daily or quickly lurch towards destruction.
If it were not for God you’d find my faith somewhere dashed upon a rock. I’m certain of it. Trials have had their way of desolating smugness in me, but there is (thank God!) a higher rock than I (Psalm 61:2). Smugness and security are not the same thing. Eternal security- the promise of God that He who began a work of salvation in me will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)- is my hope and joy. It is my confidence in the day of trouble.
My confidence is a person. My trust is in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll echo these words from hymnist John Berridge:
“Thou poor, afflicted, tempted soul,
With fears, and doubts, and tempests tossed…
What if the billows rise and roll,
And dash the ship-
It is not lost;
The winds and waves and fiends may roar,
But Christ will bring thee safe on shore.”
About the smug heart, I have written previously:
Did you think endurance
Meant to never fall?
So with steady steps
To conquer all?
So worthily you might
Win the crown?
And say at last
“Was me who won
By never falling down”?
The valiant and strong
Shall win the prize!
All Heaven will esteem me
With their eyes!
Do you see how that attitude differs from the Christian who has seen they are a ship who left to their own will drift off in the turbulent seas and be dashed? Oh, but even if he drift for a time, even if the winds, and waves, and fiends assail him, and he approaches his shore as one almost sunk- be it certain, Christ will bring him safe on shore. He is not lost.
That is the hope I’m clinging to, and am learning to embrace with godly fear- fear that takes seriously the warnings in scripture that urge us not to fall away, while clinging to the only Savior who can sustain our hope, our faith, and our strength. Eternal security is not a doctrine that leads to sin, unless we have careless hearts which cast ourselves on a doctrine rather than a person (Christ), with an attitude of smugness. That is dangerous, and a real threat. But when shattered hearts lean into the Everlasting Arms, resting safe and secure from all alarms, that indeed, is a beautiful thing. God who sees the heart knows the difference.
I end with a portion of scripture that seems fitting:
1Corinthians 10:12-14 “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
What will I do with satan’s thorn
Lodged deep in weakest access point?
No pill to take
No treatment makes
It well, no method has supplied
Steps stumble; Backward falls
The soldier, boldly with a limp
But limping on
He goes, he goes,
A carefully crafted grin
All turmoil within.
Paul called his a tormentor,
Assailant of the flesh,
A harassing messenger
Its’ agent being death.
What wickedness with cruel intent
Should drive the thorn so deep?
What does he gain
From this my pain?-
But not my soul to keep.
A year into my salvation I started to recognize the falsehood of the prosperity gospel, or more specifically the Word of Faith Movement. Since rejecting it, I have held it in contempt, regarding it as dangerously deceptive. For several years I’ve cast it away, not really feeling its lure.
Since that time (over 6 years ago), I have battled with many forms of chronic pain, one form brought on by pregnancy and still part of my daily experience even as I chase my now two year old daughter. I’ve tried many therapies, spent plenty of money, and had little success. The treatment I am trying now is the most expensive and the most painful.
After so much pain, limitation, and failed efforts, I found myself desperately wishing for a guarantee. Searching the scripture for hope I came across Psalm 27:13: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” This verse convicted me and challenged my thinking. I had, after all, become somewhat of a pessimist. I went into treatment expecting it to fail, simply because there are few feelings in life worse than disappointment after high hopes. Then again, I’d tried giving up, and that felt even worse. I thought “I can only bear to hope again if there’s a guaranteed outcome.” For the first time, a thought came to me: What if I’m missing something? What if there is some promise of health and success that I’ve passed over? What if God could guarantee my healing based on the certainty of my own faith?