Some things are lost never to be recovered. Some absences are gifts shrouded in grief. Apart from pain, some truths stay undiscovered. Some losses point the way to true relief. But future glory does not make less real The sufferings we meet from day to day. Christ does not minimize the pain we feel; Christ knows it best and shows there is a way For loss to pave the road to greater gain, For suffering to serve a holy end. We mourn in hope, for nothing is in vain In service to the ever-faithful friend. Count it all joy no matter what you face. Feel deep the loss, then rest in perfect grace.
“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.
Let now the hard soil of our souls be tilled, And let us not resist the needed change. Let not another be unjustly killed. Let what is common now become most strange. Lord, show us our responsibility And lead us in compassion. Let the cries For justice not end in futility But further freedom as our pray’rs arise. Let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, And slow to anger with no room for sin. Let those with power learn to live as meek, And let this lifelong journey now begin. Teach us to meet all souls with love and grace As we now learn to welcome and embrace.
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).
Joy to all the world, to ev’ry creature:
God has come to dwell with his creation.
He who knows us – ev’ry fallen feature –
Put an end to our great separation.
Now his presence leads to our rejoicing
For he turns our mourning into dancing.
In the depths of darkness, we are voicing
Victory: the kingdom is advancing.
Joy now grows in souls steeped in the Spirit,
Joy still true when trials stand before us.
Steadfast, nothing e’er can steal or smear it.
It now fuels the everlasting chorus.
On our journeys, this is holy leaven:
We are strengthened by the joy of heaven.
Haunted by the fear of what comes after
That hard resignation of all hoping
In all plans of mine, the feeble groping
For a road that will not warrant laughter.
Rip a wall down and remove a rafter–
So it feels when dreams begin to crumble.
“All is lost!” – the thought when you but stumble.
Can we lose and not despair thereafter?
Faith and patience: bittersweet but proven.
Bitter, for they bid us leave our hiding
In the safety of our sight and timing.
Sweet, for we, though limited, yet move in
Sov’reignty’s provision, e’er abiding
In his goodness, t’ward him ever climbing.
Harsh battle cries and cries from battle blows
Break full upon the ears by helmets hidden.
The enemy’s assaults—always unbidden—
Besiege the soldiers. All around them, foes
Fling flaming arrows ‘gainst the humble few.
These few still march, past bodies spoiled and sodden,
In search of captive souls. These, the downtrodden,
Still march, unbroken, victory in view.
They taste their own blood, wear blood not their own,
Press forward by a blood more diff’rent still.
They war to see the day the war will cease.
Though sore-afflicted, fire burns in their bone.
They march with life no enemy can kill,
Their ev’ry step in war, a step t’ward peace.