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 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.
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.
Spiritual Truth 7: Expect to be renewed, as you accept your limitations and wait on God.
In the waking dream that I wrote about in my last essay, I saw a huge wall of water that looked as if it were going to break at any moment and wash me away. I could see all my anxieties spread out on a blanket on the ground in front me. I wanted to fold the blanket around them, as I usually do, to lift them up into God’s hands. But I couldn’t. It was too heavy! When I looked more closely, I realized that there was a huge boulder in the middle of the blanket. How was I going to lift that up?
At first, I didn’t know what to do. Then, for some reason, I began to slowly approach the big rock. I cautiously put my hand on it, and much to my surprise, it began to shrink. It turns out that it was actually an earth-filled piece of ice, which began to melt with my touch. The smaller it became, I the lighter I felt.
Afterward, I realized what the dream meant. When our anxieties feel too heavy to lift to God, we may need to face our worries head on first. Instead of just reacting to them, denying them, running away from them, or simply being a prisoner to them, we can gather our courage and approach them directly. As we name (“touch”) them, we are likely to learn something about them and ourselves that will set us free from their power. They may turn out to not be as big or threatening as we thought, or we may gain insight as to how to handle them better. Or else, we may simply let them go.
The combination, then, of consciously addressing the nature of our worries and trusting God to act is freeing and renewing.
Spiritual Truth 7: Expect to be renewed, as you accept your limitations and wait on God. (Heb. 2:15; Isaiah 40:28-31; Eph. 3:20-21)
In one of the most often-quoted chapters of the Bible, Isaiah 40 offers words of comfort to the people of Israel, who were languishing in captivity in Babylon. They could do nothing to change their circumstances. They were stressed, afraid, and felt a huge weight of guilt. They were suffering the consequences of their sin and poor choices. So, Isaiah writes these now famous words:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Isa. 40:28-31, NRSV
There is so much hope and encouragement in these words. You and I get weary and exhausted. Yahweh (the LORD) never tires and his strength is inexhaustible. As we hit the wall or sag under the weight of our worries, we must look beyond ourselves to the Creator of the universe. The everlasting God is the one who can lift our heavy burdens and renew our spirits.
We must “wait for the LORD (Yahweh)” by admitting our limitations and human frailty and by putting our hope in what only God can do. And when we do, we will often feel lighter. We will find that we can open up our hearts and minds to the Spirit again. We will become refreshed and more energized. We will be better able to fulfill our purpose in life, to know, love, and serve God. In Isaiah’s imagery, we will “mount up with wings like eagles.” We will “run and not be weary.”
Let anxiety be your teacher
Anxiety is a normal part of human experience that often feels stressful and burdensome. However, if we let anxiety be our teacher, it can reveal something about our situation and our fears that could be helpful.
For example, when we feel anxious, it often means that something important is at stake. We, or someone or something we care deeply about, are threatened. If we stay in the anxious thoughts and feelings, we’ll be miserable. But if we let our anxiety guide us to a deeper understanding of our own values and needs, we may gain new insight into what’s going on and if, what, and when we can do something about it.
Practically, I have found it very helpful to divide my anxieties into one of three categories. First, I have to face and name them. Then, I need to first decide for each one, is there something I can do about this concern? Depending on my answer, I put it into one of three categories: Act, Wait, or Let Go.
Category 1: Act.
If there seems to be something I can do, the worry goes in Category One: Act. For example, when COVID-19 started spreading everywhere in the USA, I worried about whether or not my family and I were going to get sick or even die. I immediately realized that, while I could not control the spread of the virus, we could try to protect ourselves. As soon as we took action to do what was within our power to do (e.g., to wear masks, wash our hands regularly, socially distance ourselves from others, avoid crowded places, etc.), our anxiety levels started going down. The danger didn’t go away, but our anxiety lessened because we were doing something to help ourselves.
Category 2: Wait.
If the worry is something that I can’t do anything about now, because I’m waiting on information or someone else’s actions, then it goes into Category 2: Wait. For example, will I be able to conduct my scheduled workshops in Myanmar and Vietnam this fall? Will I be able to teach again at Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) second semester? When will it be safe enough for me to travel internationally?
I can’t know the answer to these questions now. I have to wait to see what the Myanmar government decides, whether the virus can be contained, and what kind of safeguards can be put in place. For now, instead of worrying about what I think the authorities should do or about what I’m going to be able to do, I need to tell myself, the time is coming when I will know the answers. Until then, I need to wait. I need to turn my attention to what I can do something about (Category 1) and to wait to see what God is going to do.
Category 3: Let go.
Finally, many times, the thing I am anxious about is completely out of my control, and there is nothing I can do. For example, I’m wondering, are my students and colleagues in Myanmar and my other global partners going to be O.K? Will there be an economic depression? Will the world ever fully recover from the pandemic? These kinds of issues are ongoing. They will probably remain as a threat indefinitely. Waiting for answers could go on forever. So, I tell myself, I will cross that bridge when I get to it. Until then, if there’s nothing I can do, I’m going to let it go. It’s O.K. I don’t need to hang on to a worry that I can’t do anything about.
How heavy is your load these days?
If you can gather your worries together and put them in God’s hands, do it! But if the weight seems too much, or your circumstances too overwhelming, try this: Muster your courage and move toward your anxieties. Name (touch) each one, and ask it, “What do you want me to know about you? What can you tell me that might help me to cope better?”
Is there something, anything, you could do to help alleviate your worries? If so, it is time to Act. Do what is within your power to help yourself. If, on the hand, there’s nothing for you to do now, then, tell yourself to Wait. Wait for the time when action is possible again and focus your attention on better things in the meantime. Finally, if the worry is completely outside of your control or the dangers are ongoing, then Let go.
The more you face your own human limitations and accept that you are only responsible for what is within your power to do, the freer you will become. You will stop trying to carry burdens that are not meant for you to carry. You will rest more peacefully in the Father’s immense love. You will spend your days living fully, being creative, and sharing Christ’s love and light with all those you most care about.
In your own strength, you are going to reach your limits. That’s why you get weary and exhausted. So, stop trying to lift what is too heavy for you, and stop worrying about things that may never happen. Put your burden into God’s hands and wait for him to act in his way and timing. Stop worrying so much about what you cannot control or do, and let the Holy Spirit renew your heart, soul, and mind. The old cliché, “let go and let God,” is actually quite biblical…and helpful. It’s also the way to greater peace and joy.
Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,
to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Next week: In the conclusion to this essay series, I will be sharing my personal story of how I learned to trust God again after personal tragedy.
Help us spread the good word! To reach more people who need biblical and practical words of encouragement in the midst of the COVID-19, global crisis, we are translating these essays into 10 different languages spoken in various parts of Myanmar, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If you have been touched or encouraged by one or more of these essays, please help spread the word by sharing it with others, andbysupporting our efforts to reach more people bymaking a donation to Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries, today.
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.
Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you….
[For this essay in Burmese or Mizo Chin dialect, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or see my Facebook page later this week.]
It was early March. The COVID-19 crisis was mounting globally. No confirmed cases were yet reported in Myanmar, but the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the world and heading toward my home state in Minnesota. I was in Yangon, preparing for a month of ministry to approximately 200 pastors in three weeklong workshops, in Mandalay, Kanpetlet (Southern Chin State), and Sittwe (Rakhine State), respectively. What should I do? Should I play it safe and get out of the country immediately? What was the most loving thing to do, as a husband and father? What was the most responsible thing to do as a minister and teacher? Should I press on to conduct these workshops for the sake of these pastors, who had been counting on this training for themselves and the benefit of the churches they serve—or get home, ASAP?
In retrospect, the answers seem clearer. But at the time, as is often the case in the midst of impending crisis and uncertainty, the “right” choices were not so obvious. In this situation, for me, the values of caring for my family, protecting my own health, and fulfilling my ministry commitments and responsibilities were in raging conflict within me.
For so many of us, we pray for guidance in such circumstances, but the answers don’t always come readily. Our inner turmoil makes us feel anxious or confused. If the crisis is big enough, instead of making a Spirit-led decision, a fight-flight-(or) freeze response might kick in. That is, we may boldly ignore the danger and attack the problem head-on but may do so blindly or foolishly. Or, we may run away as fast as we can, only to discover later that we had panicked. The danger was not as great as we feared, and we missed the opportunity to serve those who were counting on us. Or, we may become so anxious that we freeze, unable to make any decision; but by our indecision we fail to make a measured, wise, timely response. Any one of these fight-flight-or freeze instincts may be quite natural to us and common, and sometimes even helpful in times of danger; but Spirit-led decision-making relies on more than impulses, intuition, or personal intelligence.
Spiritual Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you; and act accordingly. (Proverbs 3:5-6; James 1:5-6)
What trust in God looks like
As my wife, staff members, ministry partners and I agonized over these questions, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I needed to trust God to guide us in our decision-making. Instead of having to bearing all the weight of these unanswered questions on my shoulders, I felt relieved remembering that I was not alone in this anxious time of uncertainty. God was there to help. I needed to believe it, and act like it. Solomon put it this way nearly 3000 years ago:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own
understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV
If we rely (exclusively) on our own wisdom and understanding in times of crisis or difficult decision-making, we may easily misread the situation or jump to the wrong conclusions. The biblical path of discernment, in contrast, leans heavily on God as leader and guide. First, we are told to “acknowledge” the Lord God in all our ways—that is, we have to slow down, humble ourselves, and surrender our will to God’s. Then, we must “trust in the Lord with all our hearts,” meaning, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide as we proceed with gathering information and weighing our options. Clearly, this kind of trust is not passive. It’s involves actively reaching out to God for wisdom to see things clearly and to better perceive what cannot be seen with our eyes or minds alone. It is only through this kind of God-centered discernment process that we can hope to make the best decisions. James talks about the process this way:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
James 1:5-6 NRSV
It’s not our circumstances that make us unstable, it’s our lack of faith. In times of crisis, Spirit-led decision-makers do not abandon reliance on God, who is often more silent than they might like. Rather, they both take responsibility to assess the situation, seek help in discerning the best course of action, and then make thoughtful (not impulsive) decisions when they need to and simultaneously trust that God is very much present and active to lead and guide them, often behind the scenes, so-to-speak.
This both-and approach requires creating enough space to quiet ourselves and take time to listen for the Spirit’s voice through Scripture and prayer. We will reach out to reliable spiritual guides, pastors, mentors, co-workers, and friends for input. We will not try to push our way forward, regardless of warning signs. Neither will we run away out of fear, unless we must protect ourselves from imminent danger. We also will not get stuck, frozen, unwilling to think things through and make a rational decision in a timely manner. We will fix our eyes on Jesus, considering his example of faith and sacrificial service in setting our priorities. We will trust God with our whole heart, and then take action when as the way forward becomes clearer.
March in Myanmar reassured me again that God does indeed lead and guide amid upsetting and confusing circumstances. I had to stay fully engaged in the decision-making process, and I had to manage my fight-flight-freeze types of impulses so that they didn’t take over. Yet, the more I kept putting the workshops and decisions into God’s hands, and the more I was willing to listen for the quiet voice of the Spirit and listen to the voices of others around me, the more I was able to hear what I needed to hear and to see what I needed to see. Over time, answers emerged.
The final itinerary was different from any of the scenarios I was first considering, but the result was 12 Spirit-blessed days in Myanmar and a timely return to my family afterward. Graduation week at MIT was full of meaningful connections and ministry. Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries staff member, Saw Newton, and I conducted the Spirit-Led Leadership workshop in Mandalay, as planned. Then, when circumstances suddenly changed again (civil war and unexpected crises), it was time to go home. I arrived back into the loving arms of my wife, Jill, three weeks early. I felt grateful for how God had worked through the ministry, peaceful about letting two workshops go for now, and equally assured that home was where I now needed to be.
In the midst of needing to make difficult decisions, do not expect God to necessarily give you the answer you’re looking for right away. Instead, fully engage in the process of decision-making while trusting God to guide you along the way. Face the crisis or important decision at hand, surrender your will to God’s, release your attachments to your plans and original desires, ask for the ability to see whatever you need to see. Then, when it’s time to act, don’t be afraid to make a decision or to change plans, if need be.
No, you will not always make the “right” decision, but your judgment is much more likely to be Spirit-led with a both-and approach. And, no matter what, you will learn from the experience. As you engage in the hard work of making difficult decisions, earnestly seeking God in prayer, and trusting God with your whole heart, your faith will grow, too. You will become stronger and more capable of making good decisions in the future. Ultimately, through this kind of God-centered approach to discernment and decision-making, you will grow closer to God and will become more capable of serving as Spirit-led elders in your community when they need you the most.
This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.
In response to the COVID-19 global crisis, a nine-part essay series on trusting God in troubled times.
I want God to stop the coronavirus immediately. I’m worried for myself and especially for all the people I love and care about. I pray for God to protect me, my family, and everyone everywhere. But as the numbers of sick and dying keep increasing, along with dire forecasts for the coming weeks, so does my anxiety. I’m obviously not alone in this.
What if God doesn’t help? Already, thousands have died and many more will. Given our experience so far, is it even reasonable to expect that God will do anything in midst of this COVID-19, global crisis? If so, what?
Spiritually, many of us are at the “Help me, God!” stage. We’re reaching out to God for whatever help we can get. Others of us are wrestling with profound theological questions right now as well: “Where is God? Does God care about our suffering? Why doesn’t God do more to help? If God won’t stop the onslaught, what can we expect from God?”
These questions have been and continue to be very relevant to me, personally. Ever since our first child died in a miscarriage; my mother began a long, debilitating, losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease; and I learned that I contracted a terminal disease the day after my first son was born, I have been asking more and more questions like these. Bottom line, I simply want to know, “Can I trust God? And if so, for what?”
I feel the urgency of these questions more in times of crisis, but ask them regularly in Myanmar, where I serve six months a year, where human suffering is so visible to me every day. In fact, the questions are always with me, because there are no answers that fully satisfy me intellectually or that completely assuage my grief and angst. There is so much we wish we understood about God, but just can’t. Yet, what we believe and how we act on our faith still makes a huge difference in our ability to cope with adversity and an uncertain future.
Over the coming weeks, I will be talking about seven spiritual truths for trusting God in troubled times.
Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.
Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you.
Expect God to build your character, strengthen your faith, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering.
Expect to share in Christ’s sufferings. Expect to share in his glory.
Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
Expect more peace, as you put your anxieties in God’s capable hands.
Expect to be renewed, as you accept your limitations and wait on God.
This series of essays does not attempt to answer all the questions any of us might have right now in the midst of the COVID-19 threat. Instead, they offer spiritual truths that so many have found helpful in any and all times of crisis and distress. They are insights that grow out of the Bible and have been validated in my own experience and by the experience of millions of Christians over the years. They are truths, not because anyone can prove them to be true by scientific testing. They are true because of how they have qualitatively improved the minds, hearts, and lives of those who believe and live by them. I hope you find them meaningful and helpful, and will share your own perspective, comments, and questions with the rest of us, each week.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your lives. Even though you have been in love for some time, today you are making a lifelong commitment to one another.
You’re in love. You are committed to each other. You’re excited. You have spent a lot of time planning not only for this day, but for your future together.
You’re ready to get married. Probably more than ready. So, the question for today is not, will you commit yourself to each other. You’re already ready to do that. No, the real question going forward is, what are you going to do to stay committed? What do you need to do to keep your love alive and growing?
Everything I’m going to say, you’ve probably heard before, but now is a very good time to remind you of what you simply must remember going forward, if you want your marriage not only to survive but to also thrive and be all that God intends for you.
In short, a marriage that both survives and thrives is one in which there is rock solid commitment. There’s a lot of grace. And God is clearly at the center of everything.
Let’s talk first about commitment. What kind of commitment is needed in marriage? Well, the minimum level is a commitment to stay together, come what may. In a few moments, you are going to promise to take each other as your spouse, and to hold on to each other throughout your lives…for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death. I think that’s pretty clear. Come what may, you will be promising to stand by each other until the end of your lives.
That’s the minimum. But our commitment should go deeper and further than the minimum.
The kind of commitment that helps a marriage do more than just survive is also a commitment to do all you can to work things out when things get rough or rocky. You have to keep talking, and be willing to face things in yourself and issues you might prefer to avoid.
It’s also commitment to keep growing as individuals, and as a couple, so that you have more and more to offer one another.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other when loving seems really hard or when you get preoccupied with other interests or concerns.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other as God love us—as much as that’s possible.
The biblical definition of godly love, also known as agape, comes down to putting the interests of others ahead of your own. Agape means acting in ways that are truly in the other’s best interest, even when it costs you something to do so. Even if you’re not getting all of what you want in the relationship.
Agape is the kind of love that led Jesus Christ to give up his life to bring salvation to the world. He didn’t do it because he felt all warm and tingling inside all the time. He did it the people he loved had a great need, and he alone could do something about it. He did it because he wasn’t thinking only about what was best for him. He was thinking about what was best for us.
In a word, agape is unselfish commitment. It’s not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to each other, commitment to treating each other in the right ways, commitment to believing the best things about each other, commitment to being there for each other.
Agape simply does not give up on the other person. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does. You need to focus more on what it is right than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.
Full of grace
The second ingredient in a marriage that both survives and thrives is grace. Be sure there’s a lot of grace in your marriage.
You know about grace because you’ve experienced it from God for yourselves. God’s standard for our lives and relationships doesn’t waver, but he continually remembers our frailty and limitations. He knows all our failings and weaknesses, but he loves us anyway.
God treasures and values us so highly, that even when (not if) we fail to be the kind of person he calls us to be, he is there to offer forgiveness if we turn back to him. And he’s there to help us to get back on our feet again, when we need a helping hand.
When I got married 35 years ago, Jill and I had no idea what we were getting into! Some things we knew, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. We had so much growing up still to do. And then, there was so much that life brought to us that we never could have imagined. Sometimes we were ready for the unexpected, and sometimes we were completely caught off guard. Sometimes, we handled challenges really well. And sometimes, we fell flat on our faces.
Yet, in the midst all our weaknesses, limitations, failings, and missteps, what’s helped us through has been grace. Commitment, to be sure; but also grace.
Grace accepts the other person as they are. Grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace forgives when necessary, and chooses to be patient and kind. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than what’s wrong. Grace believes in the other person, even when your spouse cannot believe in him- or herself.
In short, grace offers what the other person does not deserve, because the other person’s worthiness is not the point. Grace offers what love chooses to give. And once again, God is our example.
God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst. We find in Scripture several places where the writer praises God by saying, “You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).
That’s the kind of God we have. And he is our example…
Rock solid commitment and willingness to show grace to each other are critical ingredients to a successful marriage. But there’s something else even more important.
Keep God at the center of everything.
No matter what your intentions may be today, you cannot fulfill your commitment or become all of what God intends for you to be in your own strength or by just focusing on each other. Your love, as great as it is, is limited. Your relationship, as special as it is, cannot be everything. It can’t even be the main thing.
From a Christian perspective, what makes a marriage and a family thrive is God. God is the author of love. And it’s only by tapping into God’s incredible love that you are going to be able to keep loving each other in the face of all the demands and pressures ahead.
All this means that you need to build a strong relationship with God, and to make that relationship a high priority. As Christians, you also need to put Christ at the center of your lives, at the center of your marriage, and at the center of everything. It’s only when Christ becomes the reason for your lives, and God becomes the source and strength of your lives, that you can hope to experience all of what God intends for you. …that you could hope to experience the kind of marriage that God intends for you.
So many times in my marriage, I have noticed that it’s been our common commitment to Christ and our relationship with God that have helped us through the rough spots.
Individually, we each gave our lives to Christ, and that common spiritual commitment has given us a common language and purpose in life.
When we’ve been tempted to just focus on ourselves and what we want, our common faith has helped us to remember that we are here to serve God and others. Marriage is never just about the lives of the husband and wife. When we remember that we are here not to just serve ourselves, but to serve Christ in the world, that outward focus has kept us from turning inward and collapsing on ourselves.
And when we did not have the strength to face a particular trial, our common habits of prayer and seeking God’s help have led us over and over again to fresh perspective and strength to not give up.
We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; and it’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to know which direction to go. It’s been our common root, from which we both can grow.
If you continually pursue this kind of Christ-centered, agape filled, gracious and purposeful marriage, not only will your marriage survive when many others are failing; your marriage will thrive. You will see God use you to bless others in more ways than you can imagine now.
May God bless you both with this kind of marriage—grounded in a rock solid commitment, full of grace, and centered on God through Christ.