Hindsight may well make small what now looms large. Perspective minimizes life, Fits disparate chapters into stories, Draws from our griefs new glories. So do not lose heart in sadder stories. These too contribute to true life. By grace, such tests make little faith grow large.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”
On multiple occasions over the last year or so, I’ve caught myself wondering what God was doing in my life. In part, I’ve wondered this because his recent methods don’t fit my expectations. It’s as if his focus has shifted from particular actions to internal motivations and desires.
In the past, spiritual growth seemed closely tied to my external behavior. Don’t do this, avoid that, make a habit of practicing these things. Such a focus makes tracking progress somewhat simple, because you can clearly see your successes and failures. Trials, in such seasons, seem to affect those external behaviors. As I seek to build a spiritual discipline, I’m tempted by busyness or distraction or circumstance, and I have to respond either by surrendering to the Lord or to my desires. While the pursuit of holiness in outward actions isn’t easy, you can get used to it a bit. Distractions may become more complicated and temptations may increase in strength or in frequency of appearance, but you still appear to have a clear choice between two paths. You grow accustomed to the type of trials you face.
Now, however, the Lord’s focus seems to be on the internal side of life. As healthy habits have formed and external behaviors aren’t as difficult to manage as they once were, it’s as if God has moved below the surface, showing me that my motivations, desires, trusts, and hopes aren’t as grounded in the Lord as I may have once assumed. I may do the right action, but I may do it for the wrong reasons, acting out of selfishness, fear of others, pride, or any number of motivations rather than acting in faith and obedience to God. My desire may be for my own glory rather than for God’s. Trials, then, are not so clear cut. When the focus shifts to my desires and motivations, the situation is a lot more confusing and complicated.
At first, a shift in trials discourages you. You move from a place of confidence to a place of uncertainty. What once felt like known territory suddenly becomes foreign and unfamiliar. But the change is good, as is the work God is doing. When you meet a new variety of trial, an unexpected and unknown test, you’re reminded that you can’t weather such tests in your own strength or wisdom. Rather, you need the Lord, as you always have. Growth and progress only come as a result of submission to him.
In this way, no matter how trials may change throughout your life, they remain constant in their function: to drive you to the Lord. Trials reveal our weaknesses, uncover our insufficiencies, and highlight our need for further sanctification, further surrender, and further help from above. And thankfully, the Lord is faithful in every trial. Indeed, though the variety of trials seems far more vast than we ever anticipated, the grace of God remains sufficient for them all.
I don’t mean to suggest that God might fail to provide for his people, that he may somehow lack the power of sufficiency to be for us all we need. He possesses all power and glory, lacking nothing. Objectively, he is enough for us. I’m asking instead whether I recognize his sufficiency and rest in that truth. And the answer, sadly, is that I often don’t.
I’m reading Deuteronomy, and I found myself challenged by a thought I had when reading through chapter ten. After some description of Israel’s journey, Moses writes,
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God said to him.
The tribe of Levi was given a special role, a particular ministry. God provided for them too, but he did so in a different way than he provided for the other tribes. He was Levi’s inheritance.
I realized as I read that I would have likely felt a bit discontent with my lot if I was a Levite. Instead of considering what might be meant by “The LORD is his inheritance,” my mind fixated on “Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers.” I focused more on what would be withheld than on what would be given, more on the difference in provision than in the provision itself. I read the words “The LORD is his inheritance” and thought, “Would that be enough for me?”
One great benefit of this year has been the shaking of every shakeable foundation. For so many of us, our sources of comfort have been exposed and lost, some for a time and some forever. What once kept us content and happy can do so no longer. And as we panic at the loss of security, we face afresh the question I returned to in my devotional time: Is the LORD enough for me?
I confess that I don’t trust him like I should. I don’t rest in him like I could. I look more to what he’s withheld or taken than to what he’s given. I cling to fleeting things in the face of the eternal. But he gives more grace, allowing further setbacks, further confusions, further losses. And with each new challenge, I’m given the opportunity to love him, trust him, wait for him, hope in him, rest in him, and live for him. He tests my faith that I might grow, shattering all insufficient idols out of love. I’m tired and I’m torn, but I’m thankful, and I pray that I’ll pass the test, that faithfulness will be my response no matter the trial. He is enough. Let me learn to trust him.
Some hopes are dashed upon the throne of grace, Are lifted up in pray’r to be denied. And though it seems the Father hides his face, We need not fear that he will not provide. But his provision oft is of a kind Perceived unkind while in the midst of loss. What he deems “need” is diff’rently defined. Sometimes the crown is traded for the cross. But crosses borne in faith will always form Our souls as needed, so we need not fret. His grace suffices for the fiercest storm. None who trust full in him shall feel regret. But it is faith—not sight—that shows the way. God is our shepherd. We need ne’er dismay.
I fear loss. The loss of direction, the loss of security, the loss of peace. When I’m at risk of losing something I value, I quickly grow fearful, uncertain of the future. I don’t like the thought of loss.
Loss is strange. You hold so tightly to something, afraid to let it go, afraid to be without it. But loss is a part of life. As seasons change, you move to new places, meet new people, accept new jobs. As you engage the new, you often lose the old. The comfort of the old regularly gives way to uncertainty as you move forward.
Sometimes, however, loss is a great grace. The fear of loss shows me what I value, often exposing idolatry in my heart. From the loss of a working cell phone to the loss of control over a schedule to greater, deeper losses, loss reveals where my treasure lies.
Loss also drives me to the Lord. As I lose my grip on people and things around me, I’m reminded that all that I fear to lose is found in God, fulfilled in him. Comfort, security, direction, purpose, friendship, love, life—all flow from the Lord, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-18).
I know this to be true, but I regularly forget it. Loss, then, is a good thing in my life as it reminds me that the grace of God is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). I can’t keep all that I wish I could keep in this life, but I have all I need in him. So I need not fear loss, though I’m sure I still will. The Lord is good, and, should all else be lost, he will remain good.
Verbal camouflage: the art of saying enough to blend in but not enough to stand out from any conversation where you don’t know the subject matter well.
I like to think I’m pretty well versed in this type of speech. For example, I know just enough about sports to blend into an average conversation. With my limited arsenal of roughly one to five facts or anecdotes per popular sport, I can sort of follow a conversation, insert a comment when relevant, and make it through the discussion without my ignorance showing too clearly. As a bonus, if I can maintain my cover long enough, I can sometimes pick up an additional bit of info I can use in a later conversation. If all goes well, nobody knows how little I actually understand.
Verbal camouflage works for many subjects: sports, coffee, fashion, politics, music, internet controversies, etc. The practice can work in at least two ways. The first way is the way of humility. Stay silent, listen well, and learn. The goal here isn’t to appear more knowledgeable or to hide our true selves (most of my friends recognize how little I know about most things). Rather, the goal is to learn without distracting from ongoing conversations.
The second way is the way of pride. Here, we try to share what we know in order to look better in the eyes of those around us. We attempt to bluff our way to acceptance, hiding our weakness behind a mask of knowledge. Maybe we’re afraid our ignorance would deny us friends or would keep us from the circles we want to inhabit. Maybe we’re just insecure with our limits. For whatever reason, however, we choose talking over listening, assuming rather than learning. Sadly, we can sometimes get away with it. Sadder still, we sometimes try this approach with God.
I’m learning that we can’t fake things with him, though. I may know the right words to say to convince a friend I’m doing alright. I might be able to fake my way through a conversation about spirituality. But I can’t do such things with God. He knows my heart better than I do. He sees my weakness, my ignorance, my pride, my insecurity. He sees where I’m falling short in my love and my obedience. He sees it all. And while I may be able to hide from others, I can’t hide from him. If I sing about surrender or pray about dependence, he knows whether or not I really mean it.
Thankfully, God gives mercy and grace in great abundance. He reveals my ignorance, my weakness, and my need of him, and he meets me with instruction, strength, and help. He disciplines me for my good, convicting me of sinful ways and leading me in righteous ways. He provides, protects, and keeps his promises. I am weak. He is strong.
I’m trying to be more open before him, more sensitive to his Spirit, more humble in my walk. I’m beginning to learn, slowly, where before I would assume knowledge and speak hastily. I’m beginning to grow, slowly, as I learn to trust him more. I’m beginning to operate with a better understanding of my limits, looking to him for help. I’m not good at any of these things, but, by his grace, I think I’m getting better. And I pray he is pleased with me.
As Hopkins saw, your grandeur does not pale, Does not diminish though we sin and stain Ourselves and earth. We work in pride and pain. And through it all, your purposes prevail. How can it be that we, so foul and frail, Do not exhaust your grace? For grass and grain And goodness still persist. You give us rain And wrap us in provision. Though we fail To follow, you forgive and give us love, Your character conveyed in ev’ry sign And ev’ry word, a freshness undefiled. Decay, despair, and death touch not the dove Who brings in darkness brightness so divine And choicest comforts for the fearful child.
This poem was inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” drawing on some of his themes and imagery and asking some further questions.
To know your grace suffices e’en for me
Requires that I must be
Convinced of my inadequacy.
In weakness, I am free to see
I fear to pay the price, but I fear too
The cost of trading true
Hope for futility. Help me to
Accept the things I cannot do
And trust in you.