Let me go ahead and say what many of you are thinking: trusting the Lord does not mean everything will go okay for you. There is a thing called “disappointment with God,” and if you do not know how to navigate this truth when your difficult time comes, you will have a hard time recovering.
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The preacher blared from his pulpit, “You follow God and He’ll take care of you.” And there were a smattering of hearty “Amens” throughout the church building, followed by, “You preach it, brother.” Everyone went home happy and confident that life was going to be okay because God takes care of those who give their lives to Him. That was the message Biff heard as a 20-something-year-old new convert. Biff is 43 today.
He’s divorced, hurt, and angry at God. The Lord did not take care of him, at least not the way that he expected. How many of you can relate to Biff? Maybe you were not divorced, but your life took turns that you never expected, especially after you made your decision to follow Christ.
Biff’s story is most definitely my story. I was a 25-year old biblically illiterate young man who trusted Christ. Somehow I picked up on the notion of God taking care of me and things would be different–according to my expectations.
At the beginning of my walk with Jesus, life was refreshingly different, and mostly positive. I came out of an abusive family structure and the drug culture. I guess looking back on it reflectively, how could religion miss? I mean, anything was better than the life that I was living. And so it was. God was new, fresh, alive, and pure. For once I was living a preferred life.
Then there was a bump in the road, and I fell off the “God will take care of me” bandwagon. When things began to go bad for me, it revealed an unprepared heart that could not accommodate these new turn of events. It caught me by surprise, as I fell between the regretful tension of a “would’ve-should’ve dream” and the actual story that God was writing in my life.
Mist Life and Future Life Are Different
Biff was not prepared for the pain either. Somehow he slipped into the mindset of thinking that he could have his best life now. He confused life on earth as though it was supposed to be like living in heaven. He wanted to experience heaven on earth rather than fallenness on earth.
He blended this two-part Christian life into a hybrid of his own making. Though he believed in the two parts: the earth part and the eternal part, he got them blended and twisted in his mind. James talked about the earth part as a mist when he gave us this quotable line, “What is your life?”
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. – James 4:14
The Hebrew writer gave us his big thoughts about the future when he fixed our gaze on our permanent dwelling–the eternal part. That part has very little in common with our life on earth.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. – Hebrews 11:13
You can find scores of other passages that separate the “mist-life” from the “future-life.” The keys to remember about this perspective are (1) you will live both of these lives, (2) in a particular order, and (3) the two are connected, but not overlapping.
- The mist life is on earth, which has battles, wars, evil, sin, and casualties.
- The future life is in heaven, which has no war, evil, sin, or casualties.
A Theology of Suffering
If you don’t have this dichotomy and order fixed in your head, you will be set up for a lot of disappointment. And from there you will fall into the traps of discouragement, discontentment, disillusionment, and possibly disbelief.
This confusion is what happened to me. I had a future hope for my present evil world but did not realize how the danger that this kind of thinking would wreak havoc on my soul. When I fell, it was hard, and when the numbness wore off, I was discouraged, discontented, disillusioned, and on the verge of unbelief.
I mused, “Why should I follow God? I was doing His bidding, and He couldn’t keep me from being hurt.” Do you see the problem in this kind of thinking? My understanding of suffering in an evil world was immature and incomplete.
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 2:3
There were passages that I had read and taught, but did not personally and practically apply. These verses were the ones that talked about suffering in an evil world. Every New Testament book has the verses. And they make great preaching texts, albeit hard living texts.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. – Philippians 1:29
For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:21
Do What Jesus Did?
The Peter passage is one of the most difficult and challenging passages you’ll ever read. The context goes from 1 Peter 2:18 to 1 Peter 3:7. It’s important to get the context, because of how he takes his preamble on suffering (2:18-25) and applies it to marriage (3:1-7).
In 1 Peter 2:18-25, he develops a robust theology of suffering as he connects the heart of your “mist-life” to the Savior. He says that there is a call upon you to suffer, just as your Savior lived out His call to suffer. He then appeals to you to walk in His steps. The irony here is this verse was the premise for the book by Charles Sheldon called, “In His Steps.” You may not know of Sheldon’s book, but you probably remember the slogan that came from it–WWJD.
Back in the ’90s, the Christian community went bonkers over WWJD. The context for that idea was all about suffering. You are called to suffer. The slick bracelets were cutesy, but the reality of genuinely living that kind of life is like thunder and lightning in the soul. Dying a martyr’s death is far more traumatizing than wearing a high-gloss bracelet or making millions by placing it on T-shirts and hats so the Christian community can sport their relevance and herd mentality.
You’ll know if your WWJD bracelet is authentically working for you the next time someone breaks your heart. When you step out onto the courthouse steps, just after the judge declares you divorced and in a matter of seconds you lose your wife and children.
That is the moment when the evil in this world crushes your life and either your faith will carry you through, or it will disappear like a worn out novelty bracelet. Though WWJD was a cool fad, it won’t help you in trauma. Your help won’t come from what’s on your wrist, but what is in your heart.
Problem-Centered or God-Centered?
Biff was a relevant Christian, but the power of the gospel did not shape his heart. The gospel talks about someone murdering a man who came to earth to live a Christian life–or in this case, that man was the Christ.
The mind-bending other side of the gospel talks about a heavenly Father permitting those evil people to murder His Son. Isaiah said it was the will of the Lord to crush His one and only Son (Isaiah 53:10). We have two ways to look at this problem.
- On one side we see a man being put to death by cruel people–all true.
- On the other side, we see a man being crushed by His Father–all true.
These two concepts are essential for you to know. Both of them are true. Yes, God allowed sin to happen to a perfect person. Yes, God can use sin sinlessly. It would be interesting for you to diagnose how you think about the problems that come into your life.
- Do you see your problems primarily as what is happening to you on earth, by evil people or evil circumstances?
- Do you see your problems primarily as your heavenly Father being up to something profound in your life?
Both of these things are true, but one of these ideas should have primacy in your heart. Which one? Sadly, if you are problem-centered and can only think about the evil that is happening to you at this moment, you’ll miss the truth of a kind Father working in your life.
If you primarily see the bad stuff happening to you as part of God’s story that He is writing for His glory, you will be right in line with His thinking. This perspective will also position you to receive “amazing grace” that will assist you through your ordeal.
Your heart perspective about the Lord will set your life trajectory. Jesus had a higher and greater worldview than just this life. He had a vision for a great ending, which gave Him empowering endurance for the suffering He went through on earth.
Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:2
Do You Believe God?
Jesus believed His Father and was willing to come to earth to endure harsh suffering because He knew there was a greater good. Do you believe in God? More than likely you’re going to say, “Yes” and well you should.
But I’m asking a more in-depth question. I’m talking about a faith that transcends your pain and suffering. I’m talking about an enduring faith, not a Sunday school faith. The only thing that will give you the power to endure these kinds of trials is this kind of faith in God.
Only God can sustain you through your trials. Your job is to believe (faith) Him. You must know (faith) that He is working for you, even when you can’t see Him (Hebrews 11:27). You must be confident (faith) that He will not ultimately let you down.
You must hope (faith) that no matter what comes your way, God is there and He is working out a better future for you. This confidence is the kind of faith I’m talking about for you. It’s faith alone in God alone.
You may not get your self-defined best life now, but if you rightly position your faith in God alone, you can have a surprising and satisfying experience. The real question is, “What do you want?” What would make you happy?
The way you answer that question is by asking a better question. It goes like this: “I could be happy if __________________.” There is only one right answer to that question. It is something like: “I could be happy if God were my King. Period.”
“This is the first and greatest commandment: You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Nothing else can be equal with God or more significant than God. It is God alone. This truth was why Christ was willing to give up His life. He knew that He would be okay.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. – Matthew 10:28
Enjoying Your Future Today
Here is some irony for you: when you can find satisfaction with God alone, and you don’t need anything else to make you happy, you can have a “piece of heaven” on earth. This soul condition is the heavenly jewel of contentment in your terrestrial life.
You can experience the “future life of rest and contentment” today. This kind of experience does not mean God will protect you from all present evil trouble. Christ was able to sleep in the midst of a storm and you can too (Mark 4:38).
But you must not fall into the trap of thinking you’re not in a war here on earth. Rest and contentment come from God-centered confidence that He is ultimately in control, even if you lose your earthly life.
Our problem is that we love our earthly lives too much while making claims for some of life’s pleasures and perks as though that is all that matters. If that is how you think, you will be an unstable and disillusioned Christian. You cannot serve two masters.
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:24
Do you want peace on earth? You can have it, but God may have to kill you first (John 12:24). Only when you die to your selfish ambition, secret desires, pet preferences, and expected outcomes will you be able to enjoy peace on earth.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? – Luke 9:23-25
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:26-27
The preacher should have blared from his pulpit, “You follow hard after God and it may cost you the dearest things you have, even your own life, but there is an inexpressible grace for this entrance into the depths of the knowledge of the sufferings of Christ. Even in your greatest losses, you will never be disappointed with the Lord because He is all you need.”
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:8-11
Also published on Medium.