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.
When I consider pain in relation to theology, my mind often runs to James 1:2-4. There, James calls Christians to “count it all joy” when tests of faith arise, for such tests produce steadfastness leading to maturity. Closely related to James’s words there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5, where Paul traces the process from suffering to endurance to character to hope. In short, God works all things for good, even difficult things (Romans 8:28).
Until recently, my understanding of this process has been somewhat simplistic. Pain arises, faith is tested, and we respond, either passing the test and growing in maturity or failing the test and remaining where we are. In theory, the process shouldn’t take too long.
But what do we do when the season doesn’t end? What happens when uncertainty or sadness or pain last longer than anticipated? What might God be doing in extended periods of difficulty?
I don’t claim to hold every answer to such questions. The answers may well vary based on the specifics of each situation. But I think I’m starting to see a piece of God’s purpose for ongoing seasons of difficulty and discomfort. I think God, in part, uses such times to redirect our hopes.
I’ve noticed, for example, that distress drives me to seek comfort somewhere, often in a person or a place or a thing that makes me feel safe. At times, however, God removes such sources of comfort from my life and, in their absence, leaves me with only my pain and with himself. Then, and perhaps only then, I begin to understand the sufficiency of his grace, his provision, his comfort. By removing my earthly securities, he reveals my over-reliance on them, disciplining me as he leads me to rest in him alone. He lovingly tests my faith to show my faith’s weakness. Then he begins to strengthen it. But the process takes time. As James highlights steadfastness, so Paul highlights endurance, both emphasizing the ongoing nature of the lessons.
It isn’t just that God knows what is best and has a better plan for us than any we can conceive, though those statements are true; it’s that God himself is best. When the Lord’s work includes the death of a dream, the loss of a hope, or the absence of a security, his goal isn’t merely to shift our gaze from a good earthly thing to a better earthly thing; his goal is to get us to shift our gaze to himself. He is the best thing, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-17), the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). Our needs and our desires ultimately find their true fulfillment in him. And our hearts may not learn this lesson quickly. So he makes us wait, working through the suffering and the waiting to produce character and hope. “And hope,” Paul writes, “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 5:5).
C. S. Lewis wrote of the way the Lord uses pain to show us our weakness as well as to show us the insufficiency of any earthly thing to satisfy us (see his books The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed). Furthermore, because God is good, he will not stop until his work is finished. Though painful, the work will result in healing. Though extended, the suffering will be proven worthwhile. Through the testing of our faith, the Lord makes us more like Christ and draws us closer to himself, doing us a greater good by far than if he simply granted our wishes or met our demands. His is a work of love, deeper and truer than we may presently understand. So hope in him. Trust in him. And find comfort in him.
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
As we now learn to welcome and embrace, We recognize that sin still will infect Our hearts and homes and homelands, and we face The difficulty, striving to connect What oft is torn asunder, faith and works, With faith our present work is not in vain. We serve the one who neither shuns nor shirks His sheep, and he will soon remove the stain Of sin, for he in justice shall return, And all that now is wrong he will set right. We wait and hope, our hearts within us burn- ing for the dawn’s approach, the end of night. All our division then will be undone, The broken brought together by the Son.
Over the last number of months, I’ve met a strange combination of events that have produced a state of tension within my soul. On one hand, I’ve faced more disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement than I can remember facing before in life. My plans and God’s plans for me did not agree, and I wrestled long and hard (and still do) to discern what faithfulness looks like for me at this time. The season has been uncomfortable, embarrassing, and isolating.
On the other hand, I’ve seen fruit from the steady plodding of previous months and years. I received a Master of Theology, marking roughly the mid point of my pursuit of a PhD. I passed the one-thousand mile mark on an app that keeps track of my running. I’ve finished reading books I set aside months ago. I’ve made progress on some new projects I’m excited about. I’ve been encouraged. The season has brought affirmation, support, and hope.
Seeing both types of experiences in the same season confuses me a bit. One moment, I feel like I can’t do anything right; the next moment, I’m affirmed in the work I’m doing. One day, I feel lost; the next day, I feel content and secure. I feel hopeless and hopeful, lost and found, faithless and faithful. I’m learning to rely on friends while worrying that I annoy them with my needs. I’m learning to boast in my weaknesses while wishing I could grow out of them. I feel a bit like a living paradox.
During this season, some biblical passages have come to life in fresh ways. The tension between suffering and steadfastness, between death and life, at play in 2 Corinthians 4 holds new meaning as I’m stretched by the trials and joys of this time. Hebrews 12 also challenges and comforts me as I see afresh how God is disciplining me, a painful process, to produce the fruit of righteousness, a pleasant result. I’m learning to hope in and rely upon the Lord, thinking often of him as my Shepherd (Psalm 23). I’m learning to long for the Lord, realizing in new ways my need of him (Psalm 63).
As I reflect on this season, I confess that I desire its end. I want to move past this present state, to learn the lesson and be done with the trials. I don’t enjoy living in the tension. But I recognize that lessons are learned through the testing of faith, that sanctification is accomplished through the long seasons of discipline. So I pray for faithfulness, for endurance, for hope that will not put me to shame. I pray for the Lord to accomplish his work in my life and for him to sustain me on the path he’s called me to walk. And I trust that he who began the work will not fail to complete it (Philippians 1:6).
What good are words, and what will they achieve? For they are small before the might of hate And faulty too: they bend beneath the weight Of generations. Can we e’er relieve The burdens under which our brothers heave, All hoping against hope that soon the wait Will end in rest, in justice, in a state Of peace and love and welcome? Now, we grieve, For hope remains a hope, a thing unseen, Desire unsatisfied, dream unfulfilled. Bring justice, Lord, grant peace, and intervene. Convict and humble us till we are stilled. Let tragedy be not the final scene. Let now the hard soil of our souls be tilled.
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.
The topics of peace and division have been on my mind lately. In part, this is due to some of my research along those lines this semester (see last week’s post for more on that). But the themes are present outside of the classroom as well. Online interactions show us that division is prevalent in our world, and the bitterness with which people divide makes peace seen almost a myth. And sadly, the church isn’t immune from such struggles to live in unity.