Christians tend to like their reality sweet and sugar-coated.
We don’t like the discomfort of talking honestly with one another about the all-too-real mess in which we all-too-often find ourselves. Marriages are not bliss; strangers share an address and maybe a Sunday School class– and little more. Kids rebel and don’t come back, even when we claim that promise about “training up a child in the way he should go.” Depression doesn’t lift, and joy doesn’t come — even when it is morning. Stress is unrelenting. Jobs are lost. Bosses are unfair and office politics rule the day. Finances stay in the red. Sinful actions recur. Sickness lingers. Relationships are continually marked by conflict and anger. Even churches full of Jesus’ people get infected with the “self flu”—self-promotion, self-protection, self-pleasing, etc. Our lives can be as burdened and broken as any pagan we know.
That’s our reality. And yet, we plaster on Sunday morning smiles and echo “God is good all the time and all the time God is good” to each other. If someone expresses their burden, we tell them to cheer up or stop with all the negative, bitter talk. Then we quote verses about overcoming victory.
It’s enough to make you gag.
And it’s not even true to the Bible most of us claim to believe. Yes, the Bible does tell us that our God is good and loving. It is full of encouragement that those who are God’s children will emerge from the difficulties of life as victors and that God works all things together for our good and His glory. (Rom.8:28-39) Yes and amen!
But that’s at the end of the story. Many times, it will not be evident until the last sentence in the last chapter of our story.
In His Word, God is remarkably honest that most of us will walk through the mess of life for most of our lives. There may be long segments of our stories marked by pain, stress, conflict, struggle, questions, sickness, loss and more. The psalmists use the language of lament and talk openly about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps.23:4) and having a “downcast soul” (Ps.42:9) and feeling like a “tottering fence” about to tip over. (Ps.62:3) Jesus said, “in this world you will have trouble” (Jn.16:33) and in the ignored beatitude, promised blessing “when others revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt.5:11). Even faith’s Hall-of-Fame records God’s people whose stories include imprisonment, torture, burning, floggings, stonings, destitution, affliction, mistreatment and more. (Heb.11:34-38) From what I can tell, the only “get-out-of-jail-free” card to avoid the trouble comes when we stop breathing and go Home.
If that is our reality, how do Christ-followers talk about it honestly and encourage one another in the difficult parts of our story? Listen to James:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:2-4,12)
I don’t think that means that when life is hard, Christ-followers are called to paste on a smile and sing reggae songs like “Don’t worry, be happy”. There’s a word for that: schizophrenia. It doesn’t deal with the reality of the troubles.
Look closer. The trials are an opportunity for faith (trusting God). Repeated moments where faith and trouble intersect produce something very specific in us: steadfastness. Or as other translations put it: perseverance or endurance. Or as my dear old grandmother would call it: “stick-to-it-ive-ness”. The constancy of trust in God and His good promises by the gospel has a way of building up in our souls over time. And that has an effect or impact on us: we are made complete– lacking in nothing.
Troubles remind us that life is too big for us and that we don’t have what it takes to handle it. Constant faith builds hearts confident that our God is big enough and always has what it takes to handle it. And it is this constancy of faith that the Father promises to reward at the end of the big Story, because it shows such deep love for Him.
Here’s the deal. When we deal with a friend slogging through troubles, sometimes the best thing we can do is to not suggest a solution that will fix it; not spout another verse; not encourage busy-ness to take their mind off it; not encourage another Bible study; not tell a story about somebody who else who faced the exact same thing and got their miracle.
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is applaud the fact that they simply made it through one more day, trusting God. Isn’t that what “steadfastness” implies? One foot in front of the other, moving forward and trusting, no matter how troubling this chapter of the story is. Moving forward and trusting, even when we have no clue how this will all turn out.
Steadfastness in faith is more heroic than most of us dream. It doesn’t make the headlines or get the book deals or an interview spot on “Focus on the Family”. But steadfast, simple, day-by-day faith marks loads of teenagers and retirees, boomers and millennials, young parents and empty-nesters. That story is the norm for most Christ-followers.
So, let’s scrape off the icing and dig down deep into the real stuff of life. Let go of the pressure to be a “victorious Christian” and assure each other that it’s ok to just make it through another day, trusting God. It’s ordinary, steadfast faith that makes the Father smile — and changes us in remarkable ways.