Trusting God in Trying Times
When Michelangelo finished his statue of Moses in the sixteenth century, he was flooded with questions of how he made this chunk of stone so life-like. Michelangelo is said to have responded: "I simply kept chipping away at everything that wasn't Moses."
In the midst of suffering and trials, if you feel as though you are being chipped and hammered away at, it's because you are. If you feel as though hard blows are being dealt to integral parts of your body, it's because they are. Trust God enough that, when He puts out His hand and says, "Give me ______, my child," your first response is not why, but the loosening of your hand on what you hold dear. You are being refined, beloved (Zech. 13:9; James 1:2–4).
As you read this guide, it is our prayer that you would lean heavily on God in trying times. We pray that you would suffer well. Our God is not, nor ever will be, surprised. He orchestrates all things to the glory of His name. May we, with Job, cry out, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (Job 13:15). For our loving Father works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28).
Table of Contents
How Could a Sovereign, Good Cause Allow Suffering?
The sovereignty of God is a challenging truth to grasp. It is difficult to accept the reality that God has ordained and arranged every moment of our lives, including those filled with pain and suffering. When we think of the sovereignty of God, our tendency is to remove all responsibility and obligation from man, but the Bible doesn’t allow for such thinking (Rom. 9:19–20). How does this work? The Bible is clear: God does not passively allow things to happen, but instead actively ordains them for His own sovereign purposes.
But every evil in this world is still thoroughly evil. We are not saying evil somehow is no longer evil. Bombings are evil. Cancer is evil. Pandemics are evil. We weep over these things. But even in the darkest and most dumbfounding moments, God is sovereignly working—so that even the most evil acts must finally, in the end, serve to advance His sovereign plan in the universe.
If God means (i.e. intends, plans, purposes) for these things to happen, and He doesn’t just regrettably allow them, what is His purpose for intending them?
The reason for our trials is not merely that God threw up His hands and allowed them, but that as our Physician, He graciously prescribed and ordered them to rid us of the lingering corruption in our hearts. Trials are the sovereign medication
that mold us into the image of Christ.
There is not a moment nor mile on this earth that does not rest in the sovereign hand of God. Thus we can trust that He knows our pain, and even more, that our suffering is not meaningless. He is a kind, loving doctor—curing the infirmities of our hearts. Sometimes medicine and procedures are painful, but they are always done for a good reason. God is working for our good: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
When Everything Falls Apart
One of the biggest mistakes believers can make when facing a tragedy is to minimize it. I think so many of us do it because we lack a robust theology of suffering. So, our first reaction to a tragedy is to attempt to explain it away. “Hey, it could be worse!” “Everything will be okay.” “This is just a season.” Like a doctor slapping a smiley-face sticker over a cancerous tumor, all some Christians know to do in the face of true calamity is to pave it over with platitudes.
Clichés like these persist in Christian circles because niceties are usually sufficient for life’s smaller sufferings. We use them because they do offer a modicum of reassurance when we are feeling down. A lost job, a temporary illness, or a financial crisis can be softened by a kind reminder that it truly could be much worse. But such brotherly condolences are wholly insufficient comfort for the truly tragic events of life. And their impotence to soothe is exposed when you try to apply them to the victim of sexual assault, the young mother who has just been blindsided by the suicide of her husband, or the man who has recently been rendered a quadriplegic in a horrible motorcycle accident. How out of place would a "Things will look up again soon!" be in situations like these?
In these situations, people are asking much bigger, more foundational, questions. And minimizing those grievous circumstances is simply not a sufficient balm. They can’t pretend it is not as bad as it looks, and neither should we.
Be Who You Are to Me, God
When reading the psalms, it is easy to read quickly over a word like “rock” and think little of it. We might think that this is just the common language of the day. But the psalmists were theologians, especially David. And packed into this little word is a mountain of theology that travels all the way back to Moses.
Moses was the first to speak about God like this. He was searching for a way to say that God is solid, that He wouldn’t collapse under pressure, that He would always remain the same, that He is stable and reliable—and so Moses called God his rock. He writes in Deuteronomy, “Ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock!” (32:3-4)
The word rock is the word used for the face of a mountain. Mountains don’t move. They are strength itself. There is no fear of collapse. They will always hold you up. And Moses said, That’s my God. He will hold us up. He will never break under the pressure. He won’t move.
David read Moses and said, That’s the perfect word for my relationship with God.
We often assume that every psalm-writer refers to God as my rock, but if you actually study the psalter, this is David’s personal name for God. No other person in the Psalter uses “Rock” as a title for God. Why?
What C.S. Lewis Would Say About Covid-19
Our present situation brings to remembrance an important lecture given by C. S. Lewis in October of 1939. The lecture, “Learning in War-Time”* was delivered to a crowd of Oxford undergraduates questioning the purpose of education and learning in general in the midst of a world war. Lewis was himself an ex-soldier and was believed to be the right man to put things in the right perspective—and indeed he was.
Lewis draws in his undergraduates, and us, with several questions:
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in this placid occupation when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns? (47)
Lewis is addressing the question, “Why pursue education in the midst of a war?” Although, we are not at war with another country, make no mistake, we are at war. The enemy in the current case is not a nation state outfitted in military gear flying a flag. Our enemy is a silent killer—a killer that makes no judgments about gender, ethnicity, or social class. In recent days Queen Elizabeth II said the world faces an “enemy that brings death, not in terrifying bombing raids, but in the ordinary encounters of people transmitting a dangerous pathogen.” We are at war with an enemy that seeks to kill from the inside, that seeks to systematically infect and destroy us cell-by-cell. Make no mistake about it, we are at war with COVID-19.
“War creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice” (49), says Lewis. Here’s the main thrust of Lewis’ lecture: war time helps us to see something that was there all along—our fragility. James put it starkly, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Lewis is reminding us that war time doesn't make the words of James true—wartime enables us to see and feel the words of James anew.
Overwhelmed by God
Overwhelmed is a strong word that many of us can resonate with. Written into this word is imagery of capture—of being crushed. The word overwhelmed itself paints the picture of a boat being careened by a wave of water: completely submerged, buried, and smothered in drowning and disorientation.
But the sense of this word has expanded beyond waves and boats. Armies are said to have won an overwhelming victory when they overpower a weaker opponent. A man who loses his wife to cancer can rightly be said to be overwhelmed with grief. A small child surrounded by strangers in a crowded terminal can be overwhelmed with fear. Whatever the context, this word creates a sense of going under, of losing control, and of being subdued beneath something or someone stronger and bigger.
But does being overwhelmed have to be negative? Can you be overwhelmed by positive emotions, thoughts, or affections?
Anyone who has been on the water knows that a boat’s stability depends primarily upon where its bow is facing. In the same way, what you are overwhelmed by is primarily determined by what you are focused upon. It’s a matter of perspective. Of course, when you are focused on the troubles in front of and around you, feelings of despair can begin to overwhelm. But if you are able to set your mind on things above, the nature and character of God may begin to overwhelm you.
Worshiping in Pain
It's difficult to recall the number of perplexed looks I've received over the past two-and-a-half years as I have explained to people my doctoral research project. Some have mused that wrestling with lament for this long must be disheartening.
I have experienced the opposite.
My intrigue with lament in the psalter was born from deep grief in my life. I was struggling to adore God with my soul while my wife and I were wading through a miscarriage—the loss of a child that had long been anticipated and prayed over. As this season of struggle continued in my life, it became obvious my trials were not unique. It became apparent that most in our church were in pain, in some form or another. The psalms of lament became something of a somber, unifying anthem for my congregation and I.
Nothing is more helpful to the human soul than to grasp theology that bears immediate impact. As hurting people surrounded by hurting people, our hearts should yearn to connect the Word of God to the hearts of His people. In a culture of consumerism and neo-positivity, the psalms of lament bring a refreshing balance of reality to our lives as we seek to treasure God from the darkest of valleys.
Loss and the Christian Life
Paul had an impressive resume. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He even goes as far as to say, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). I’m not sure exactly what Paul would have gained with such a resume. I can image it would have garnered a lot of respect from his peers. People might have gathered to hear him teach in public. Others may have been interested in his travel schedule, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I assume he might have taken comfort in his deeds. He met every requirement the law had. He could stand blameless before the law of Moses.
Yet, Paul says in Philippians 3:7, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul is willing to dump his inherited and earned achievements for Christ. He takes it further, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . .” (3:9). He is eager to give them up and count them as garbage. And, what of the profit? “That I may gain Christ!” Paul saw what he could gain only when he considered the loss. It was counting as loss, suffering the loss of all things, and counting all things as rubbish that equated to gain. Paul’s profits were measured by the extent of his losses.
Should I Be Optimistic?
Optimists. You know the type. For them everything is always looking up, it will all work out, and life is consistently rosy. Their joyful attitude can be an encouragement to other believers, but for others, the optimist's perkiness can be downright grating.
These are the pessimists, they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always looking for the rain in the cloud, and constantly expecting the worst. They might not call themselves pessimists—perhaps realists. Life has brought them pain, and they expect more of the same in the future. They reason: why be gullible like the optimist and risk getting caught flat-footed by another calamity?
Should Christians be optimists or pessimists? Is one more inherently spiritual than the other? I am going to argue that Christians, of all people, ought to have the most positive outlook on life. The reason Christians should be positive is not that we are blissfully unaware of the pains of life, but in the midst of pain and confusion, we have a hope grounded in the promises of God.
What the Book of Daniel Teaches Us About Living in Uncertain Times
I want to address, perhaps, the most pressing question on our minds this week. To quote a text I received yesterday, “I am trying to understand God’s next steps.” Aren’t we all? The question on all of our minds is this: what is God doing?
We may never know the answer to that question. Romans 11:33 is clear, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” Though we might not know “God’s next steps,” we do know that He is infinitely wise, aboundingly good, and absolutely sovereign.
And in unpredictable times, such as the one in which we find ourselves—with a virus controlling the news, with our government taking unprecedented measures, and with our economy on the brink of great loss—there is assurance, hope, and certainty.
In the book of Daniel, we are reminded that in the midst of great turmoil, our God reigns. And He is to be turned to in faith, trusted without fear, and worshiped in praise. The book of Daniel speaks profoundly to us this week.
Fasting Was Made for Days Like These
These are unprecedented times. Our world is paralyzed with fear over the outbreak of a new strain of virus known as COVID-19. Not only are there concerns about its dangers and ability to spread quickly, but its impact on the financial and political spectrums are enough to raise alarm. The church plays an important role at this crucial time in our history. We have a wonderful opportunity to introduce frightened people to the hope of the gospel. But fear is more contagious than the Coronavirus, and our hearts often grow as uneasy as our unbelieving neighbors’. How does God want us to respond to the melee before us?
There are many biblical responses we could talk about, but I want to highlight one that is often overlooked: fasting. That may sound strange to you, because while fasting was routine for believers in the Bible, most of us do not fast regularly—if at all. If you were to count up how many Christians you know who are regularly fasting today, would you use more than one hand? Dare I ask, would you use even one finger? Fasting just isn’t that common anymore. But I think that’s a shame, because a theology of fasting was built for moments like these. Fasting is designed to walk us through trying times, like a Coronavirus outbreak.
Now is the Time to Equip for Gospel Ministry
Times of crisis move us to contemplate what truly matters in life. For believers, God uses a crisis such as this to humble us, refine us, wean our souls from this world, and deepen our devotion to Him. For unbelievers, God uses the fear and uncertainty to draw them to Himself. Around the world, people are hurting, hopeless, and in need of comfort. They need the Word of God, and they need a pastor who will deliver its truth with conviction, compassion, and accuracy.
Now is the time to equip for gospel ministry. The Master of Divinity program will prepare you to handle God's Word precisely and shepherd God's people effectively. If you are considering the call to ministry, schedule a meeting with one of our counselors. We'll help you think it through.