The Painful Price of Hope
For an extended period of time, I have been going through a variety of difficulties. Today I received two long-awaited letters which I expected to considerably alleviate several of them. I opened them with a sense of relief, which quickly turned to dread as I read. As it turned out, these letters brought further grief, and the promise of an extended stay in the land of suffering.
It’s not that I am at all indifferent to these circumstances. If I could, I’d make them all go away instantly, but in all honesty, if I had to break down my prayer life about these things over the past weeks, it would be about 10% for relief, and 90% for greater hope, joy in God, growing faith, endurance, and holiness. These are dangerous things to pray for.
Not that I’m trying to be “Mr. Super Spiritual”, but I realized a while ago that if all my circumstancial problems were fixed and the problems of my heart were not, I would be no better off.
The danger in praying as I have is that God’s main means of giving what I have been asking for is through suffering.
“…not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” – Romans 5:3-4
When I pray for hope, for greater endurance, and for personal holiness, I am essentially asking God to bring on the pain. What is remarkable, is that Paul says that we “rejoice in our sufferings”! The key word to understanding this seemingly backward way of thinking is “knowing”. Like the runner, fighting through the burn, knowing that he is gaining strength and endurance, we are enabled to rejoice in our sufferings because we know that all things come from God’s hand, and that all things that come from God to His people are for their highest good – in this case, endurance, character, and a kind of fixed hope that will not disappoint.
James tells us how faith is fashioned in the hearts of believers:
“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.” – James 1:2-4
Here again, joy is paired with all kinds of trials not for the sake of the trials, but for what we “know” they are doing in the hearts of believers. Trials test (prove, refine) our faith. They produce perseverance or “steadfastness”, which has to have time to simmer, so that it may gradually work perfection, and completeness in our hearts.
This is why Christians have the unique ability among all people to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”, according to Paul. We don’t sugar-coat suffering, or ignore it. Instead, if our desire is to have greater hope and conformity to Christ, we can rejoice (which is different from enjoying) in our suffering.
So this afternoon, I found myself with letters in hand, weeping and at the same time recalling promise after promise, praying psalm after psalm. As it happens, just earlier in the day, I was reading Psalm 37. To be honest, it was a pretty “flat” quiet time for me, but it all came bubbling to the surface through my tears.
I began reminding myself of the truths I had read earlier in the day:
“Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.” – Psalm 37:4-5
“The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand.” – Psalm 37:23-24
“The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble. The LORD helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.” – Psalm 37:39-40
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David was reaching across millennia to remind me to “Delight” most in God, not in the relief of suffering, and more delight in God is what I will receive. To “commit” my way (all the things that are happening in my life) to the Lord, to trust Him with the circumstances, knowing that He is not indifferent, but will act in the best way and at the best time. He reminded me that “salvation”, not just problems of life, or the penalty of sin, but from the power of sin in my life is from the Lord. Only he is a dependable safe place in times of trouble. This is important because my heart is so prone to look for other hiding places, or to come up with it’s own solutions – none of which can save. When I make God my refuge, I know that I am safe even in death. Other “refuges” are different forms of idolatry – the very thing God uses suffering to weed out of the hearts of His people.
God will have no rivals in my heart, and though the process is not pleasant, I know that I am far better off, far more joyful, and far more rooted in hope, when he has none.
I pray dangerous prayers, not because I’m better than anyone else, but because I know (though not as I should) that I am worse. I am a weakling who needs the strength of grace. I am an idolater who needs to have God as first in his heart. I am a despairer, who needs the certainty of the hope of God. I am a quitter who needs endurance. And I am a doubter who needs to have his faith purified.
God has taken me deeper into trials, because he knows that I need to go deeper into Him. It hurts, but there is joy in it, because I know, and am growing to know more that God’s incomprehensible love for me will not allow me to remain as I am, but will work whatever is best to make me “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” I may kick against it, or catch myself complaining, but I know when I am able to look back at this crucible of grace, I will be eternally grateful for what God is doing in my life now, no matter now deep it goes.
Please pray that I would be patient and submissive to God’s work in this season of my life, and that I wouldn’t waste my trials by wallowing or trying to squirm out of them by my own means.