How can you answer troubling questions about God that have no easy answers? How can you talk about God’s love to traumatized people in a war zone, when God seems so distant and disengaged from their suffering? During my weekly Bible study that I conduct for a group of 20-30 doctors (pictured below) in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I’m often asked, “What should we say to our patients, whose family, friends, or neighbors have been driven from their homes or brutally murdered?” In Eastern Congo, some six million people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease over the past 25 years. Their nightmare has raised earnest questions about God that are difficult to answer, such as, “Does God care?” and “Why didn’t God protect us?”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian troops are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, thousands are being injured or killed, and over three million people have been forced to flee the country in a matter of a few weeks so far. In Asia, as you well know, the crisis in Myanmar continues unabated and the suffering keeps multiplying. Everywhere there is great suffering from injustice and violence, the same kinds of questions keep arising among Christians. Even my Burmeses theological students want to know, “Are we suffering because God is punishing us?” “Is God ignoring us?” “Should we expect any help from God?”
In my role as seminary professor and Bible teacher in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia over the past 15 years, I’ve been asked these kinds of questions repeatedly by people who are being traumatized by genocide, war, or oppression. However, rather than try to make up answers to unanswerable questions or offer up false hope, it’s been far more helpful to admit the limitations of human understanding about God and to focus practically and realistically on how we know that God works in the midst of great evil.
As I have struggled with my own understanding of what to expect from God, I have longed ceased to put my hope in God’s sudden appearance out of nowhere to save the people. I’d be delighted for any miraculous intervention God may choose to make, and I pray for God’s help and deliverance daily. But most of my hope rests on how God works in, among, and through those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, but I see Jesus in his body of believers all the time—in their compassionate acts of kindness, self-sacrificial service, hospitality, and generosity. They are riddled with all sorts of imperfections and failings, yet they treasure their relationship with God. They keep drawing from the well of God’s love and grace for light and life in the midst of their darkness. They love Jesus, and they genuinely want to share Jesus’ love with others. And do so, sometimes even at great personal cost.
It’s been inspiring to me to see the outpouring of support for those who are suffering in all the places where I serve— including, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Congo—both from faithful followers of Christ within the countries and from a wide variety of caring people internationally. This is surely part of God’s plan to minister to those who call upon the name of the Lord in their distress.
There are no easy answers to the cries and confusion of people in a war zone. Nevertheless, when we, as the body of Christ, fulfill our purpose to be the heart, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus, the world will know that there is a God who cares. The power, presence, and love of God will be evident for others to experience through us. And we who serve in Jesus’ name will be less overwhelmed by the evil all around us, because our eyes will be focused more on what we can do and less on what we can’t; on what God is doing through us, and not on just on what we hope and pray that God will do for us.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
When my mother slowly lost her mind due to dementia (Alzheimer’s disease), I was heartbroken. Then, I was angry. As the months turned into years, I started to become resentful and bitter toward God. Why didn’t God spare her and us from so much suffering? Why did he fail us?
In the final chapter of my book, What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times, I tell my own personal story of grief over many losses in my life, including my mother’s heart-wrenching demise. During those years, I almost lost my faith. But one day, something surprising happened that saved my relationship with God. I understood that I needed to make a choice, a very important choice, with huge potential consequences.
In short, I finally understood what Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, meant when he wrote about his “leap to faith.” As a thinking-oriented person, ironically mired in resentment and bitterness, I had just about lost all hope for healing and renewal. But, what happened that day, and the decision I made, turned out to be a huge turning point in my life, for which I will always be grateful.
If you’ve been struggling with your faith, or feel resentful or even bitter toward God for something God did or didn’t do when you were suffering, I hope that something in this chapter will be life-giving and healing for you.
What’s your strategy for dealing with anxiety? Do you have a good one? Is it working?
In this chapter, I talk about my own experience with anxiety and some of what I have learned that has been most helpful to me over the years. For example, when I face my anxieties directly, they lose some of their power over me. When I use a practical tool that I developed to help me whenever I feel overwhelmed with anxiety (which I explain in detail in the video), I feel more peace and am better able to redirect my energy in positive directions. When a situation is completely outside of my control, I get strength by waiting on God. Most of the examples pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I hope the application to the current political and social crises will be obvious.
I know that there is a lot to be concerned about in these troubled times. I pray that the teaching in this chapter will be practical and helpful for you. As you put your faith into action and apply this spiritual wisdom when you feel anxious, you will see the difference. You will grow in many ways, be more useful to yourself and others, and God will give you greater peace, strength, and confidence to face all that you must face and endure.
When we are so cruelly mistreated or suffer tragedy, or whose lives and hopes have been severely disrupted by abusers or threatening forces, we will naturally experience the typical symptoms of grief (shock, bargaining, anger, depression). Consequently, it is no surprise that the people who are writing to me from Myanmar this week are stunned, angry, confused, discouraged, or simply terrified over the wanton destruction in Chin State and elsewhere in Myanmar.
Just a week ago, one of my former students, Pastor Cung Biak Hum, was shot to death as he rode his motorcycle into the town of Thantlang (Chin State, Myanmar) to help families whose homes were being burned to the ground by occupying forces. Any death is painful, but senseless, cruel, and brutal killings of those who are trying to help others in their time of need, and who leave behind a loving spouse and small children, are especially distressing. He’s now an inspiration and hero to many, but he will greatly missed.
Right now, you may be feeling the same way about suffering or oppression in your own life or about someone you care about. You may be nearly out of your mind with distress, worry and fear. You’re wondering, what’s going to happen next? How should you be praying? If God is not going to spare you from suffering, why should you pray at all? What are some practical ways to deal with fear and anxiety about the future?
In this week’s chapter, the spiritual truth addresses these questions. Though it was originally written to help readers to deal with their anxiety over COVID-19, the spiritual truth in it applies to all kinds of fears and worries.
I cannot fully answer why God is allowing you to suffer as you are. But I can assure you of Jesus’ love and care for you, and of his desire to minister to you in your time of loss and suffering. After I finish reading the chapter, I offer some additional, personal words of encouragement, especially for those suffering in Myanmar right now.
It’s such a disturbing and frightening time in so many other places around the world right now. The past weeks have been especially terrifying for the Burmese people in Myanmar. More brutality. More death. More uncertainty. More and more displaced people are on the run, fleeing for their lives. The spiritual question on the minds of many is, what is the relevance of faith and one’s relationship with God in the face of such horrors and challenges? What is the role of prayer when we all we are experiencing is oppression, deprivation, and suffering?
This week, in the chapter I’m reading from my book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times,” I share some biblical answers to these extremely important questions. In it, I talk about how the Apostle Paul encouraged other followers of Christ who were facing great suffering, deprivation, and even death in their day. His teaching is both reassuring and practical for all those who looking for more strength, courage, and confidence to sustain them throughout their long dark night, whenever and wherever it comes.
Though you may experience much suffering in this life, nothing can separate you from the love of God which comes to you through Jesus Christ. This kind of love is nothing less than God’s presence with you through his Holy Spirit, who consoles you in your suffering and enables you to live, to love, and to experience the love and support from other brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s enduring love and presence also guarantees that no matter what happens in your life, suffering and death are not the final chapters for followers of Christ. Once this life is finished, you will spend eternity in God’s loving presence.
Suffering. It’s so often unfair, unjust, and wretched. No one wants to suffer–ever! Yet, everyone suffers, and suffering is nothing new, particularly for those who seek to honor God and serve him faithfully. Jesus himself suffered horribly in order to fulfill his mission.
As hard as it is to hear or accept, suffering was promised to all his followers, as well. But here is our hope: so was his glory.
In this chapter, I talk about the promise that those who share in Jesus Christ’s sufferings will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). So many questions arise from this simple statement. For example, what kind of suffering did Paul have in mind? What did he mean that followers of Jesus will share in Christ’s’ glory? Why is this message so important for all followers of Christ, especially for those facing persecution, oppression, disease and possible death?
Not all questions can be answered definitively, nor is it clear how normal human suffering relates to suffering for Christ. Yet, the witness of the New Testament is clear that suffering is a certainty in life, greater suffering awaits those who follow Christ faithfully, and our great hope lies in trusting God to make all things right one day and to reward those who choose to live by their faith in the midst of their suffering.
My prayer is that God will speak to you through this video to give you more hope, strength, and courage to face whatever you must face in these very difficult days.
In this third chapter, I talk about three types of responses to the COVID-19 crisis: there are the
• positive-thinkers, and
• overwhelmed observers.
Which type of person best describes you? Which kind of person do you want to be?
On your own, you may feel very weak and afraid sometimes, especially when you are suffering so much. Yet, the biblical writers teach that if you put your faith in God’s working in your life, you can expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. God will bring good out of your experiences, which God defines as our becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
In times of crisis, many of us instinctively respond with a Fight, Flee or Freeze response, which can lead to poor decisions and ineffective leadership. So, how can we go beyond these instincts to make good decisions, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit?
In this second chapter of my book, I talk about my struggle to discern the will of God when I was conducting leadership workshops for ministers in Myanmar, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, back in March 2020. Through this difficult time, and in many situations since then, I have seen the wisdom and effectiveness of a “both-and” approach to decision-making, which I explain in the video.
I pray that each one of these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day, and that God will use these videos to strengthen and encourage you in many ways to live better by faith in the midst of your hardships and suffering.
NEW VIDEO SERIES ON TRUSTING GOD IN TROUBLED TIMES!
(Produced in ENGLISH with BURMESE subtitles)
I’m very happy to now be able to share with you my most recent book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times.” I originally wrote the book to offer a biblically-based perspective on how to live by faith in the COVID-19 crisis, but the spiritual truths are relevant in any time of uncertainty, hardship, and suffering. In this eight-part video series, I will be reading the entire book, chapter by chapter, as well as offering some additional words of encouragement each week.
In this first video in the series, I read Chapter One and talk about the impossibility of understanding all of God’s ways with our limited human minds. However, when Jesus opens our eyes, we can see God’s presence among us, and we can reach out to receive and benefit from all that God offers to us. I hope these videos will strengthen and encourage you in many ways. I pray that these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day.
After a long 40 years in the wilderness, Joshua led Israel through some tumultuous times, as the people struggled to get settled in the Promised Land. Before he died, in his final speech, he challenged the Israelites to give serious consideration to their faith, values, and commitment. As they prepared to go forward into a new phase of their lives, they needed to decide, whom would they trust and whom they would serve? His speech included these now famous words, as applicable today as they were then:
Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness… But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
Josh. 24:14-15 (emphasis added)
When I (almost) lost my faith in God
One day, in the mid-1990’s, I suddenly realized that I didn’t trust God as much as I once did. I had just experienced ten years of one disillusioning, disappointing, heart-wrenching experience after another. My faith had been shaken. I still worshiped and believed in Christ, but something had shifted inside me. And the changes weren’t all good.
Let me back up to the beginning of the story. Disillusionment with God and ministry began setting in about one year into my first pastorate.
In the mid-1980s, my wife and I served as pastors of a small congregation outside Chicago. During our four years there, we lost one child in a miscarriage, and my roommate from college died at the age of 28. I was working up to 70 hours a week in ministry, but I wasn’t seeing the results I had hoped for. While meaningful ministry was taking place, forces much larger than I were keeping this congregation from becoming the growing, vibrant ministry I had envisioned. I didn’t know why God didn’t seem to be helping more.
Then I got sick. On June 24, 1986, the day after my first son was born, I received frightening news. My doctor called me on the telephone. We had been doing some testing, and now he had the results. He tried to break it to me gently. I had been diagnosed with a fatal skin disease. I had perhaps 10 good years left, he told me.
Hearing this prognosis was like being punched in the stomach. What was going on? God had not blessed our efforts at the church the way I had expected. He didn’t save our daughter from death, and now it looked as though my newborn son was going to be fatherless before he was 10, and my wife a widow.
Then my mother got Alzheimer’s disease, which completely took her mind away. My father was forced to retire early. We watched helplessly as his health declined faster than hers. There was little we could do to help either of them. As it turned out, the stress of caring for her took my father’s life in 1998, long before she eventually died in 2002.
None of this made sense to me. In retrospect, I realized that I had entered into full-time Christian ministry with an implicit contract with God: I thought that if I served faithfully, Lord would take care of me. Now, I don’t know what I thought “take care of” actually meant. Whatever I expected, though, I knew I wasn’t getting it. God had failed my parents, my family, my church, and me, so I thought, and my disappointment had begun to turn to doubt and bitterness.
An unexpected breakthrough
In January 1995, I chose to attend an eight-day spiritual retreat. We worshiped, we prayed, and we did some soul-searching. I was looking for some guidance from God about my future. I was completely surprised by what I received.
The second night I suddenly realized that I didn’t really trust God anymore. There had been too much disappointment and pain, and I blamed God. From my perspective, God had let me down.
I was at a crossroads, and I knew it. I realized that to go forward, I was going to have to decide: was I going to choose to trust God or not? I could no longer serve as a Christian leader and teacher while secretly doubting God’s goodness and activity in my life. I had seen the problem, and now I was going to have to choose: continue to be alienated from God and bitter about my mother’s disease and all the other losses in my life, or choose to trust that God was somehow still active in my life for good in ways that I could not fully understand or discern.
In a moment that felt like the equivalent of scales falling from my eyes, I could suddenly see what I had been blind to. I realized I would never be able to prove that God loved me and cared for me, or that he didn’t. Instead, I needed to make a choice. I was going to walk down one spiritual path or another (disbelief, bitterness, or trust), so which one was I going to put my faith in?
When all this became clear to me, I knew in an instant what I would choose. I was sick of carrying around bitterness in my heart, and I was eager to resolve the cognitive dissonance I had been experiencing. Instead of blaming God for my difficult life experiences, I could trust in the God of Jesus Christ and the writers of the Bible. This God was not a stranger to me, but someone I loved and had come to know in many meaningful ways over the years.
This painful, difficult experience taught me some very important lessons, which have served me well ever since.
It was my expectations of God that had failed me, not God. In other words, my false expectations that God would spare me from suffering, sickness, and death set me up for disillusionment and disbelief. According to Scripture, God promises to protect us and care for us in general, but not in every circumstance. We can be grateful for all of God’s provision in life, but we should not think that Christians will be exempted from human suffering.
Trust is a choice in the midst of life’s painful and ambiguous circumstances. We cannot determine whether God is trustworthy strictly on the basis of our experience. There are too many data points when we feel alone, neglected, abandoned, or at the mercy of other forces. No, if we try to add up all the reasons to trust God on one side of the ledger (plusses), and all the reasons not to trust God on the other side (minusses), we will never be able to logically draw a conclusion based on our experience. Instead we must conclude the evidence is inconclusive. Our options are either to abandon faith or “leap to faith,” as Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once famously argued.
The late professor and best-selling author on Christian spirituality, Henri Nouwen, wrote about the choices all of us have in the midst of life’s ambiguous circumstances. He said,
Where there is reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness. It is here we are faced with the freedom to make a decision. We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter.
Life of the Beloved. Spiritual Living in a Secular World, p. 61
When we look at our suffering, our losses, all that is wrong with the world, and all the problems and difficulties we must face, we may feel powerless at such times, but we’re not. We have the power to choose our attitude. We can decide to cling to the God we have known and loved, even with so many unanswered questions and hardships. We can look at our circumstances through the eyes of faith. We can choose to be grateful for how we see God at work in our lives, and let the rest go.
The answer to doubt and disillusionment with God is not ignoring your doubts. It is not pretending as if you do not have questions or pain in your heart. It is not trying to force yourself and others to believe by simply preaching louder and more forcefully.
No, the answer to doubt begins by acknowledging that there are many things you do not understand about God, yourself, and this life–and perhaps never will. Yet, no matter how dark it gets, how lost you may feel, or how much you have suffered; when you reach the end of your ability to reason your way to God, you can still choose to put your trust in your Creator and in Jesus Christ. You can still leap to faith.
And as you do:
You will experience more of the peace the surpasses understanding.
You will be freer to use your energy for constructive purposes.
You will be more gentle and kind to others, and more available emotionally to help and support them.
You will be able to listen better to whatever God wants to say to you in the midst of your uncertainty and suffering.
You will be on your way to experiencing the joy of a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
2 Thess. 2:16-17
Upcoming: A new series of essays on next stepsfor navigating the ongoing global crisis as Spirit-led followers of Christ.
CONTEXT: I CREATED THIS ESSAY SERIES IN RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 GLOBAL CRISIS. EACH ESSAY EXPANDS ON THE PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS OFFERED IN THE SPIRIT-LED LEADER: NINE LEADERSHIP PRACTICES AND SOUL PRINCIPLES (HERNDON, VA: ALBAN INSTITUTE, 2005), PAGES 184-90.
Photo of man at crossroads courtesy of Vladislav Babienko
Photos by Timothy Charles Geoffrion (www.thiswalkinglife.com): highway in Wyoming desert; sunrise at Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah; and Crown Jewel of the Continent, in Glacier National Park, Montana. Thank you!
Help us spread the good word! Please share these essays with as many people as possible. If you have been personally touched or encouraged by one or more of these essays, please help spread the word by supporting our efforts to translate and distribute them around the world bymaking a donation to Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries, today.