The Jolting Reality concerning our Circumstances
Last year, one of my theology students opened up before the class. He said that his circumstances lately had become so difficult that he no longer is able to discern the Lord’s leading in his life. He had no idea whether the Lord even was leading.
I had to admire his courage. Every Christian struggles with this question at one time or another, but few ask it out loud. The question has to do with the complete disconnection between our purposeful obedience to God’s word and the results that emerge from it. To put our thinking crassly, “If I am doing my best to follow God’s commands, why does my life look like a crash and burn?”
Unraveling the Tangle
Part of the struggle comes out of our tendency to interpret “faith” as a cause-and-effect relationship with God. We want to draw a hard line connection between faith and circumstances. That is, strong faith causes God to bless us. Weak faith misses God’s blessings.
This kind of thinking says, “Keep on keeping on. Don’t give up. Persevere and God will give you success. Remember, Thomas Edison experienced over a hundred failures before he succeeded in finding a working light bulb filament.”
The Fallacy of a Works Relationship with God
Faith of this nature holds a close connection between outward circumstances and inward blessing. It tells us, “If your circumstances are difficult, just work a little harder. You must not be there yet.” Of course, “there” means the place where our cars run smoothly, government stimulus checks pay all our bills, everyone gets the COVID vaccine, and….
You get the picture.
Let me say at the outset that there is nothing wrong with personal comfort. If we watch the oil level in our vehicles, learn to live within our means, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, we usually can avoid unpleasant surprises. And yes, these are blessings from God.
The place where our thinking tips the scales occurs when we say, “If I do this good thing, than God must respond with that blessing.” This kind of thinking puts God in a position where he owes us.
A works relationship with God occurs when we try to do things that make God want to reward us. The practice can become a by-your-bootstraps philosophy that judges everything by outward circumstances. Faith equals success, while failure implies disbelief. Therefore, if something is unsuccessful, it must not have been motivated by faith.
Those places are not where we meet God.
So what about my student’s question? Where can we find God when life crumbles around us and our circumstances drive us to despair?
Let me say at the outset that the students that I teach manifest personal characteristics that I happen to love. They are all older individuals who have enrolled in Bible college because they feel a sense of calling from God. They struggle financially, but they are serious about their studies. And they all love God deeply.
Those facts make my answer easier, because I know that I would not have to romanticize the facts.
[Change the narrative section to past tense.]
When my student asked his question, I related two examples from the biblical narratives. First, Joseph’s saga in Genesis begins with the exciting news that God wants to make Joseph a powerful man (Genesis 37:1-11). To a seventeen-year-old, that is pretty heady news. We know that God ultimately elevated him to the office of Vice-Pharaoh, but he took him through slavery and prison first.
Why? Because he would have to learn to balance compassion with an iron-fisted sense of consistency, and those skills could come only through the kind of hardship he endured.
Second, the story of Moses in Exodus 1-2 makes the fact clear that knew he was called to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage. However, he killed an Egyptian man and had to flee the country. For forty years, he tended his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert. He thought he was a washout, but during that time the LORD taught him the survival skills he would need to lead his people through the wilderness wanderings.
God was with both these men during their darkest times. He is not tied to our circumstances. He is bigger than the events that pummel us. In Joseph and Moses’ cases—and I am convinced ours as well—during our dark days he does far more to shape us than during all the good times.
The eighteenth-century English hymn writer, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), expressed the truth this way in his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Cowper understood God’s “mysterious ways.” He suffered from depression so severe that he spent the last third of his life indoors, apart from any human contact. He was unable even to attend church, but managed to pen some of the most meaningful statements of truth in hymnody.
The line in the first stanza about God planting his footsteps on the sea comes from Psalm 77.
Your way was through the sea;
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
-- Psalm 77:19
The psalm is penned by Asaph, David’s chief musician. It too relates a time during which God’s presence was undetectable. Concerning his own circumstances, Asaph wrote, “When I remember God, I moan; / when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3).
In simple words, Asaph is saying, “Thoughts about God make me feel sick.” Yet he has to interpret his experience by what he knows to be true. God’s footprints through the sea may be unseen, but he is still there.
When we burn these truths into our being, we begin to realize that obedience is more than a list of dos and don’ts. Our happiness does not have to be tied to results. We can draw two truths from this:
Truth number one: God never promised that he will make our walk easy if we only remain faithful.
Truth number two: Invisibility does not mean absence. Our Lord is always there with us.
This frees us from the tyranny of ideas like, “5 Sure Ways to Guarantee God’s Blessings.” Our motivation for following God stems from relationship, not results.