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It is not unusual to doubt God’s love and protective care for you or wonder if He is in your mess at all. Some of the most reliable, most courageous, and faithful people in the Bible struggled with these kinds of thoughts. Listen to Job as he tries to perceive the presence of God during his season of suffering.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat…behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. – Job 23:3, 8-9
Though Job eventually righted the ship of his thinking, there was a time when his thoughts were tossed like a wave of the sea as the winds of destruction blew through his life (James 1:5-8). He was a righteous and mature man, but he doubted God when things went wrong for him.
As you know, Job’s reaction to suffering is not the exception to the rule. How he responded is how all of us have responded to our troubles, though few of us have ever experienced anything on the scale of his calamities.
Job is a picture of every man and woman; we all flinch in the face of danger. We’re people of the dust (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 103:14), and when our clay pots are on the verge of breaking (2 Corinthians 4:7), it is so easy for us to plummet into despair. This reality is why we need to learn how to fortify ourselves. Suffering does not come only in big Job packages, but it comes in ordinary brown wrappers too.
The person who learns how to respond correctly to the Lord during the ordinary disappointments in life will be more likely to respond well when the big disappointments come knocking. And this is where God excels on our behalf—in the mundane, in the ordinary.
He provides ordinary disappointments for us to live out our faith while taking those ordinary moments to do extraordinary things. We see the most profound iteration of this idea through the gospel narrative.
There was a man who was put to death on a tree 2000 years ago. He was a regular guy killed in an ordinary way. When Isaiah thought about the life of Christ, he said it this way,
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (See Isaiah 53:1-2)
Isaiah began by asking an important question that has a practical application for us. He asked, Who has believed the report about Christ? Who has ears to hear and eyes to perceive how the Lord can use ordinary people to bring about extraordinary accomplishments? Christ was not majestic, nor did He have beauty to desire. He was ordinary; He looked like His peers (John 1:19-28).
Do you believe the Lord can take your ordinary life and typical troubles, and do extraordinary things? Do not move too fast from that question. How you think about and respond to that question can impact people around the world, as well as around your cul-de-sac.
I’m sure that is how the disciples felt that day when they saw a common man dying commonly. Even though He debriefed with them about how His death was the beginning of the best days of their lives (Mark 8:31-33), the actual end of their friend was so overwhelming that it smothered the future predicted goodness by the darkness of their disappointment (Matthew 27:45).
My goal here is not to give you a plan or seven steps to leave your pain behind, though I’m sure that would be preferable to you. I can’t do that, and in your more reasonable moments, you know that I cannot, and possibly should not remove your suffering (John 12:24; Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 2:21).
But what I can do is give you hope—a hope that is grounded in God’s Word. It is authentic hope. It is “persevering-giving-hope” because it is not only born out of Scripture (John 17:17), but it is given to you by the illuminating Spirit of God, who empowers and enables you to find fortification through your trials (Luke 24:49; John 16:13).
As you reorient your mind around this concept of being used in extraordinary ways through an ordinary life, it may be helpful to frame your thoughts by these two theological terms: primary and secondary causes.
When Isaiah thought about God being the primary causal agent of all things that happen to us, he said it this way:
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. – Isaiah 40:22-23
Do not be deceived: It is the Lord who sits on the circle of the earth, and He brings princes to nothing (Psalm 149:6-9; Proverbs 21:1). You must fix your mind on this truth. God is the primary cause/change agent. No matter what is going on in your life, God is the controller of all things—a truth that will either cause you to swell with hope or shrink in despair.
Understanding the practical reality of primary and secondary causes can set your soul free. That is what the disciples had to grapple with: is God the transcending power over all things, or is there some other power that can thwart His perfect purposes?
By properly (biblically) affirming and adapting their thinking to these truths changed how they responded to what was happening to them. They went from despair and denials (Matthew 26:75) to confidence in Christ, along with an action plan that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
The two things to remember about primary and secondary causes are “sequence and responsibility.” The sequence is always God (primary cause) first and you second (secondary cause). Meaning, it’s essential for your first thoughts to be about God and what He’s up to in your life before you start considering your responsibilities in the task that is set before you.
After hearing the news about my brother’s murder in 1987, I first asked the Lord about His purposes and plans for that tragedy. My questions to Him helped to establish my starting point, which determined the path forward. The correct sequence is essential.
When tragedy, big or small, comes into your life, you must direct your first questions to the Lord. You must grapple with His purposes and plans for your disappointment. He is the Author of your script; it would be foolish to not talk to Him first.
This perspective is not a hollow religious requirement so you can move on to the problem-solving stage. No, these are real and legitimate questions that require you to settle on God-centered answers, even if those answers do mitigate or remove your suffering.
You must discern, as much as you can subjectively understand the Lord’s will for your disappointment (Deuteronomy 29:29). And as you are discerning, it is essential for you to filter your queries through the grid of God’s goodness, mercy, and unstoppable love for you.
(If His perfect attributes and character are not the lens through which you are studying the Lord’s ways, you will not be able to discern Him correctly.)
As you are reshaping and transforming your mind by God’s perspective on your troubles, you are positioned to respond to your circumstances with God-centered faith. Now you are ready for the call to action in your life.
Note to Self: You are not a passive responder to the Lord’s sovereign acts. You have an active and living faith (James 2:14-17). You don’t “let go and let God.” The Lord will do His good pleasure in you while expecting you to work out what He is working in (Philippians 2:12-13).
With this understanding and respect for the primary cause/change agent in your life, you are now poised to proceed (James 4:17). As a secondary actor in the narrative that the Lord is writing in your life, you have a job to do.
It would not be enough for the disciples only to have fixed their minds on a God-centered worldview regarding the death of their friend. Though they did come to the right place regarding how they thought about the death of Christ (Isaiah 53:10), they had to go one step farther.
They had to respond according to their newly minted God-centered worldview. Mercifully, that is what the disciples did, and the Scripture narrative did say they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). They did not sit, belly gazing, philosophizing about the goodness and greatness of God. They girded up their loins like men of action and got busy.
While the disappointment broke their hearts over their loss, they were bolstered by the good plans that the Lord had for them (Jeremiah 29:11-13). Thus, they launched out in faith, knowing God was with them (Genesis 39:2) and for them (Romans 8:31).
With these things in mind, here are a few reflective questions that may serve you. And because we are talking about suffering, I recommend that you sit down with a trusted friend to talk about these things. Pain is one of those things that can so easily cloud our judgment.