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.
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).
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.
A dove is nesting near the stairs in the apartment building where I live.
Doves have long captured my attention. When I was a boy, doves would often nest in a hanging basket in the backyard of our house. From the back door, you could see them clearly, and you could hear them cooing during the day as you moved throughout the house. The doves always seemed so gentle, so peaceful, so patient as we watched them. I’m sure our presence made them nervous, but they remained fixed in spite of our movement.
As I passed the dove the other day, I noticed an egg next to her in the nest, a small sign of new life. At the close of a month filled with murder, mourning, and madness, a month when the world seemed to be coming undone all around us, the sight of this dove and her egg were a relief to my weary heart, a reminder that all is not lost. In a world steeped in death and darkness, new life still springs forth.
The scene reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur” (see the link to the poem below). Hopkins begins his poem with a captivating assertion: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur of God goes largely unnoticed, however. Men do not heed him, do not seem to respect his good creation. The constant plodding of the generations has desensitized us, wearing on our souls as well as on the earth itself. Hopkins recognizes that a world of grandeur has grown almost dreary. It isn’t difficult to understand his point. Our world feels hopelessly lost. We feel hopelessly lost.
But Hopkins finds hope in this world as well. “And for all this,” he writes, “nature is never spent.” No sear, blear, smear, smudge, or smell can kill the freshness of the Lord’s world. Every nightfall is soon followed by a daybreak. The Lord remains at work, bringing life and light to our death and darkness.
Admittedly, the death and the dark seem unconquerable at times. When our news feeds are filled with injustice after injustice, when our homes are invaded by sickness and sorrow, and when our souls are shaken by chaos and storm, we can lose sight of “the dearest freshness deep down things.” But, like the dove, “the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” God has not forsaken his creation. The promise of redemption still stands. “The light shines in the darkness,” John writes, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In spite of all appearances to the contrary, the daybreak will come.
Past midnight, pen in hand and mind awake. I write line one but draw a blank at two, Unsure of what to do. Imagination bade me start to make This brief display of words, but I must do Some work to see it through.
Not ev’ry line is given. Directed, but not driven.
But so it is with you. You work in us to will and work yet do Not call us to inaction. We must take Our crosses, follow you, And trust when we can’t see because you do. And you will ne’er forget, fail, nor forsake.
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.