(A Reflection based on Psalm 71:1-6)
I don’t know where it started. Maybe it was one of those lazy summer days of my childhood when I was lying in the cool clover in the shade beside our house thinking of nothing. Maybe it was one of those Sunday mornings of my youth when I thought I heard the preacher say that if you were bad you’d get bad and that if you were good you’d get good. Maybe it was during those dark days of my sixteenth year when, in a period of two and a half weeks, my mother and her father both died and something in me concluded that such things really ought not to be and that such pain was almost too much to bear. I don’t know where it started. But somewhere along the way I think that I began to believe that easier was better. Maybe I started believing, at least partly, that good things ought to happen to good people.
I was wrong. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Leisure has its place and it’s a good place. Having a time that is worry-free and pain-free and doubt-free is wonderful and I’ll take it when I can get it. I’d still rather not grieve than grieve. My favorite sensation is still the one that could be called “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”
But we live in the real world where real life has to be lived and where real problems emerge and where real doubts appear. The real world calls for real faith, and real faith struggles with what is happening; real faith does not stick its head in the sand and hope it will all go away. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. God certainly never promised that. What God has promised is that he will be faithful to his children and that he will never forsake them and that he will be there to help them.
If we will pay attention, experience will teach us that God is with us through all the trials of life. So the psalmist says, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (v. 6). Experience teaches us that God is dependable in all the circumstances of our lives. Hopefully we can trust in that truth and depend on it as we go along. We certainly can see it as we look back over our lives.
The prophet Jeremiah didn’t have it easy. He was called by God to be his prophet while only a youth. And he was told right up front how hard it would be:
But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you. (Jeremiah 1:17-19)
There we see two great truths of the life of faith: (1) “They will fight against you”; and (2) “But they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.”
Jeremiah surely remembered. He surely remembered when his enemies were plotting against his life (18:18). He surely remembered when he was arrested, beaten, and placed in stocks (20:1-2). He surely remembered when he dictated a scroll only to have the king cut it up and burn it as it was read (36:20ff). He surely remembered when he was thrown into a muddy cistern (38:1-6). Jeremiah knew what it was to face the hard times; he knew that his hardest times were coming exactly because he was a person of faith. Did it all bother him? Of course it did. When God called Jeremiah he said to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (1:5). But listen to what Jeremiah says later in the midst of opposition and struggle: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad” (20:14-15). But this same struggling prophet said, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (17:7-8).
So nobody said that it was going to be easy. And the testimony offered by the lives of the faithful ones in the Bible is that the most faithful ones might just have it the roughest. I have used Jeremiah as an example, but we could trace the reality all the way through the book, even and especially into the life of our Savior. So what do we do with the hard times and the difficult days and the harsh realities?
First, we can hope and pray and trust and, if possible, work that things might get better. The psalmists and Jeremiah did not hesitate to ask God to get them out of what they were going through and even to make it clear to the world that they were not in the wrong. Such a prayer is absolutely appropriate and absolutely proper. And if we’re in a fix that we can do something about ourselves then we should do it. One of God’s greatest and most underutilized gifts to humanity is common sense. It is an unbalanced person who wants to suffer or who wants to remain in a state of suffering. Asking God to take it away is all right; it is not weakness to ask. Even Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be thy will, take this cup from me.”
Second, we can experience the Lord’s strength in the midst of our weakness. As Paul said,
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
The experience of God’s strength in our lives is for our benefit. He loves us and he wants to help and strengthen us. But the exercising of God’s strength in our lives is also for his glory. As God works in our lives and his strength is made obvious in our weakness we bear witness to the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We die with him and he died for us. He rose from the dead and that resurrection power is present in our lives. He overcame and now he overcomes through us. You know, sometimes we wonder about how something looks to people. We’d be better served if we wonder how God can be seen in what’s happening to us and in how we’re dealing with it.
Third, we can know the redemption of our situation. Some cups will pass from us but not all of them. Then what do we do? Do we abandon faith? Or do we keep on trusting and looking for the ways in which God can work through what is happening in our lives? Alice Flaherty is a neurologist who published a book called The Midnight Disease in which she examines an obsessive behavior known as hypergraphia, which is an overwhelming desire to write. She knows of it from firsthand experience. Not long after she finished her residency she delivered twins prematurely and both of them died. As she dealt with her grief she had a strange thing happen. One night she woke up with a tremendous sense of clarity and an equally tremendous urge to write. She would write two or three word sentences on those small post-it notes and stick them on her wall. It was a real problem and a serious obsession. Eventually, with the help of the right medications, Flaherty harnessed her obsession and channeled it positively so that she got a good book out of it. She also later gave birth to a set of healthy twins. She says that people will ask, “What’s it like now that you’re cured?” Her reaction is, “I certainly am better controlled but what I’m hoping is that I’ll never actually be cured.” [This information came from Renee Montagne’s interview with Flaherty on NPR’s Morning Edition on January 29, 2004. The book is Alice Flaherty, The Midnight Disease: the Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).]
Nobody said it was going to be easy. So what do we do? Just live with it? No, more than that. We live in it. We live through it. We live in God’s grace and with God’s help. We find God in it. Such is the life of faith.