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!
You wake up feeling refreshed, motivated to get outside in the cool morning air and run. As you work up a sweat, you feel the chill of the breeze on your brow, cooling you as you make progress down the road. The stillness of the morning, dimly lit but ever brightening, holds a kind of peace. Exercise is a joy, a blessing, on days like this.
Some days, however, jogging is more difficult.
You know you need to exercise, but you already feel tired, sluggish at the thought of the heat and humidity. You lower your goals as you run because you know you don’t have the energy to do all you’d intended to do. You struggle to catch your breath, struggle to keep the pace, struggle to find the motivation to keep running. Exercise doesn’t feel like a joy on days like this.
As much as I’d like every run to resemble the first one, the reality is that the second type of run seems to occur more frequently. But both types of runs must be completed for the exercise to produce results. If I only ran when running was easy, I’d rarely run, and I’d see very little benefit from it.
I think the same is true of faithfulness in the Christian life. Sometimes faithfulness seems almost easy. Everyone around you agrees, all obstacles seem manageable (if any obstacles appear at all), and your walk with the Lord fills you with motivation and excitement for the work before you. Other times, however, faithfulness feels much more difficult. Disagreement and division seem to persist around you, obstacles seem unassailable, and your spiritual life feels dry and cold.
As with jogging, so with faithfulness. Faithfulness isn’t only for good days or for easy roads. Faithfulness is for the hard days as well, for the difficult seasons of life, for the “trials of various kinds” James talks about (James 1:2-4). Though we can, and should, count the testing of our faith as joy, the path of faithfulness will not always be pleasant or painless. But the Lord produces fruit in the steadfastness and faithfulness of his people.
So go for that run, even if it’s more difficult today, even if you don’t feel motivated, even if you don’t beat your personal record. And pursue faithfulness, even if it’s more difficult, even if you don’t feel motivated, even if you don’t accomplish all you hoped you would. Let us be found faithful, and let us trust the Lord to produce fruit through our faithfulness.
I do not want this weakness anymore,
This want of strength, this will so rife with lack.
I tire of always falling further back,
Forgetting truths I knew just days before.
Corruption keeps its hold upon my core,
Each fault of mine another little crack,
Each inability a grave attack
In this, the never ending inner war.
But at the end of my ability,
Your grace, sufficient for my ev’ry need,
Reminds me of the testifying host
Of those who grasp their own futility
And trust instead your ev’ry word and deed,
So trials become their joy, the cross their boast.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
I love the book of James. I’ve spent more time in this little book than I’ve spent in many other places in Scripture, and I’ve found that further study and meditation often leads to fresh discoveries within the text. Even after years of reading these same words, I keep finding new things. The discoveries aren’t always comforting, though.