Imagine you’re a real pessimist. Eeyore’s got nothing on you. You have to periodically fight through major depressive storms that are fueled by the conviction that you’re SCREWED. Period. You’re the only person on God’s green earth that he doesn’t love, who can hit one-in-a-trillion odds when it’s a bad thing, but who misses the sure thing when it’s something good. This is part dark imagination and part real life experience, like a great morbid magnet that works on psychical energy and pulls in every crummy thing in a fifty-mile radius — also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mechanism has deepened and extended countless seasons in the abyss for you.
As if all that isn’t bad enough, the moment you’ve prayed and clawed your way out of the gloom and doom and your energy returns, your focus shifts imperceptibly. Without knowing it, your pursuit of Christ (which was amazingly strong and singular because of the horrendous things you were experiencing before) has been overtaken by the concerns of your material life, which has begun to really start clicking, thanks to your renewed energy. Suddenly, the little psychopath inside you sits up, smiles ear-to-ear, starts rubbing his hands together and humming, “I’m in the money, I’m in the money…” and you turn into an unbearable jerk. You believe you’re perfectly entitled to material success because you’ve been obedient to God. This goes on for a while, and you really start to rack up the goodies. But inevitably, reality crashes in like a horde of FBI agents to notify you that you’re Not All That. Everything you’ve worked so hard for implodes as if on cue, and you’re back into your Eeyore uniform for another round in the crapper.
Then it gets worse. You’ve identified this pattern, renounced it, fought it, begged Almighty God to take it away, but he doesn’t. Can’t or won’t, for reasons he doesn’t share. So you go on bouncing around like a pinball in the bumpers.
This is me. I wish it weren’t. Oh, I’m not in legal trouble; I’m not strung out on drugs. I don’t drink — not a drop. I’m not in a lousy marriage, racking up adulterous affairs. There is nothing going on in my life that looks like a crisis from the outside. I’m just working ten times as hard as I ever have in my life, for both temporal and eternal things, and I can’t make anything come together the way it’s supposed to. Even — especially — the things God has commanded me to do. If I expect anything to materialize, it is the things God has said he intends to help me accomplish. When I’m pushing harder than I ever thought I could and still come up with nothing, I have to wonder if I haven’t missed the boat completely.
I haven’t given up, by any means. I can’t. There is no Plan B. It’s like the moment in John 6 when Jesus tells his listeners that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Everyone starts leaving in droves. Then Jesus asks the Twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Simon Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:53-68). No matter how excruciating my days become because of my commitment to Christ, no matter how impossible it seems, there isn’t another option. It occurs to me as I write: Hey, that’s worth a lot, right there. That’s really a mouthful.
I wonder what it really means to trust Christ. I’m sure it doesn’t mean to feel confident of his goodness and love, his intent and ability to bring you safely through all the gauntlets of life. I don’t think it even means to think it consistently. Maybe trusting Christ means staying the course. Going back to the drawing board as many times as I have to, even if I never do anything more noteworthy than flail about like a lunatic on the side of the road until I die, and this cursed flesh is finally stripped away from me.
Ray Stedman, author of Authentic Christianity, writes: “Notice the marks of these who drop out from the Christian cause: First, it is clear that they take offense at difficult truth…”
One example of avoiding difficult truth is the disciples who left because Jesus told them they’d have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I’ve always wondered if Jesus told them that as a test of their resolve. It was like he was saying, “Yeah, this is pretty weird stuff, and it makes absolutely no sense to you. You can’t see how you’re going to actually do something so repugnant, or even see how it’s possible. That’s fine. This won’t be the last time I tell you to do something strange, completely beyond your understanding, altogether outside of your paradigm, something you are viscerally opposed to, and that you believe will actually be impossible for you to pull off. Yeah, I’m going to be telling you to do all sorts of stuff like that. You might as well get used to it.”
The thing Jesus seems to be telling me to do lately is to keep going, even if I don’t succeed in anything I’m trying to accomplish, if everything I touch turns to dust against astronomical odds, in apparent contradiction of all the laws of physics, when I seem to have failed as a Christian in every conceivable way, and I can see nothing but rot and ugliness inside of me and my entire life looks like one big heap of rubble. Even then, keep going.
This is what I call the Job Principle. Job, as many Bible scholars know, was put through what was possibly the hardest test of faith ever visited upon a human being in all of history. This was a man who, in God’s own words, was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8) In a single afternoon, he lost all his worldly possessions and his sons and daughters were all killed in a freak accident. (Job 1) After Job PRAISES God for this turn of events, he is inflicted with boils (literally “painful sores”) from head to toe, and then his friends show up and tell him he’s a sinner. His own wife tells him to “Curse God and die!” (Job 2). But Job says famously, “Though he [God] slay me, yet will I trust him.” (Job 13:15)
Another Biblical figure, Habakkuk, complains right in the text of Holy Scripture about the injustice of his suffering. He declares, in essence, “I’m a good guy! I don’t deserve this!” (Habakkuk 1:13) But by the end of the book, he has reaffirmed the Job Principle:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
Though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
This ordeal of mine has shown me that, until recently, I have merely been giving intellectual assent to the truth that God is worthy of my worship and service, even if I end up with nothing. Now, somehow, I am faced with actually staking my life on it — like someone who travels across the country to work when he hasn’t even been promised a paycheck. I am reminded that I have often prayed for life-changing faith and a transformed heart, no matter what it takes. I have actually spelled it out more than once: Send me through your refiner’s fire, Lord.
It has taken me thinking all this through, looking up the Scriptures and articulating it in writing, to see the value of what is happening to me. Oh, I’ll probably grumble and complain again tomorrow, but for the moment, I’m getting a glimpse of it: This is how great faith is apprehended.