Persevering in Painful Times
Some trials are fast and furious, occurring with lightening speed and ending before we know it. Other trials happen quickly, linger for a season, and resolve themselves gradually over time so that with each day we experience less difficulty. Still other trails come in with a bang and seem just as weighty over the days, months, and even years ahead. The long-lived, painful trials that seem unending are the ones that threaten to undo us. Like weary sojourners in the wilderness we awaken each day to the same dust, diet, and depleted strength. A remnant of hope remains as we peer over the horizon each morning awaiting deliverance. But, at the close of the day we find ourselves alone with God’s sustaining grace and no miracle of deliverance in sight. This might go on for years with a rebellious child, a troubled marriage, financial problems, health issues, depression, or loneliness.
Why does God allow these prolonged, intense seasons of suffering when all along we’re pleading for relief? We all know the answer, of course. Lingering trials have a way of bringing us to the end of ourselves and weaning us off the idols of this world. When we face extreme difficulties and hardships we become more aware of our desperate need for God’s grace in order to survive each day.
Before going through them, we have a tendency to compartmentalize our spirituality and live a good portion of our lives in our own strength and wisdom. When hardships come we cry out earnestly to God for deliverance. And our faith is strengthened when He answers. But, it’s all too easy to move forward into the next day’s challenges with our own agenda and a fleshly joy. All is well, or so we think, as long as God comes through for us, our bank account looks good, and other areas of our lives are under control.
When the trials come that are not easily resolved and our prayers seem to go unanswered for long seasons, we weary in our flesh and become tempted to despair. Depending upon our maturity and temperament, this may last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.
The spiritually dangerous transition occurs when we’ve prayed long and hard, persevered all we think we can and there’s still no relief in sight. At this point we usually make one of two choices, whether conscious or not. We either press into God in greater dependence and trust, or we determine to resolve the trial ourselves with our own wisdom and devices.
If we decide to deal with trials in our own strength, we cease abiding in the vine and thriving according to Jesus in John 15. Our prayer time becomes tedious as our heavy hearts dread dealing with unanswered requests. As a result, we go before God and quickly read a passage or devotional, then pray some half-hearted prayers. Getting through this time becomes the new goal rather than experiencing God’s presence and power. Before long, if we’re not careful, we’ll stop praying all together and find ourselves so busy with the tyranny of the urgent that we barely even think about praying. The more disciplined person might continue to pray, but his or her prayers become less personal and void of any sense of power.
How can we avoid these pitfalls and remain close to the Lord in the midst of intense suffering? GoHis gros and that He will keep us in perfect peace as we fix our thoughts on Him. Why does it often feel like there is not nearly enough grace, even when we cry out for it? And why is peace such an elusive goal for many of us just struggling to survive?
Scripture teaches that there’s only one way through the fiery trial that guarantees continued intimacy with God, growth in grace, fruitfulness, and the ability to live a life that glorifies His name. This way is one of faith and trust (Heb. 11:6). Though I’ve resisted it on many occasions, God continues to remind me that in order to persevere under suffering my life must be filled with praise and thanksgiving. They form the rails that keep me walking by faith and trust even when I’m completely out of strength.
Praise – This word elicits both joyful and painful thoughts. As I recount all that God has done in Scripture and in my own life, I’m filled with hope. He’s proven Himself over thousands of years to be the God who dwells with His people. And His creation alone shouts praise to His goodness, creativity, generosity, and love. Yet, pain comes to mind as I recount the cost of praise. Choosing by faith to praise Him in the middle of my painful circumstances means I have to give up the right to my own perceived happiness and declare that whatever He chooses for me is my ultimate good. Try telling a toddler that the cupcake he’s screaming for at bedtime isn’t good for him and that he’d really rather savor a juicy apple instead. We’re much the same as adults. We want what we want, when we want it, and incidentally we want it now! When God says “no” over an extended period of time through trials we must release our demands and our own definition of what’s best for us – if, in fact, we are going to praise Him. Though this is a painful process, it’s a liberating one.
I’ve found that if I wait until I feel like it I’ll never praise God. That’s because praise is a death threat to our flesh and a stench to Satan. We can’t live in the flesh and praise God at the same time, just as we can’t wallow in the mud and claim to be clean simultaneously. In our flesh we desire things contrary to what God desires for us in his Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Oftentimes, when we’re bitter or angry about our circumstances the only way out is through praise, which involves a leap of faith. It’s hard; there’s no denying it. And it’s costly – it costs us our pride and our right to be our own god. But, as we praise God for his greatness and love, the iciness of our hearts melts away, allowing the Sprit to warm us to the Father’s love through his Son. Like springtime, God’s Word once again blooms. The gray clouds of winter clear, and we see with greater clarity God’s good intentions for our lives.
Thanksgiving – Being thankful does not come naturally for us either – though for some it’s harder than for others. Thanking God is quite different from praising Him in that it focuses more on His blessings and provision. While praise gets our eyes off ourselves and onto God, declaring Him to be the rightful ruler of our lives, thanksgiving reminds our restless hearts of His abundant provision in our lives. The more we thank Him, the more thankful we become as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see the myriad of blessings we have in Christ.
An Attitude of Trust – When we praise and thank God, the Holy Spirit imparts to us a growing attitude of trust. It’s our responsibility, by faith, to guard our hearts by daily putting on the armor of God. Refusing to be passive ensures that we will fight off the enemy as he tempts us toward bitterness, discouragement, and despair. Part of suiting up includes praying and spending time in God’s Word. As we walk in the Spirit, resisting the pull of the flesh toward despair, we’ll experience God’s grace and peace to persevere.
God’s provision of grace is moment by moment, rather than something we store up for the future. And as we abide in Him, refusing to be anxious about tomorrow, He reveals His super-abounding love through the things we once considered mundane. An evening sunset comes to life as the handiwork of God, while daily food and provision are seen as gracious gifts from heaven. Renewed strength to accomplish a task is no longer attributed to self-motivation, but to God’s righteous hand upholding us. A much needed phone call or visit or letter from a friend can’t pass as mere coincidence, but rather the Father’s tender response to our lonely cries.
Those things we once ignored or took for granted become God’s instruments of grace that He uses to strengthen our faith. The trial we endure is still painful, and at times we’ll be tempted to give up. But as we walk in trust, we discover an ever-increasing knowledge of God’s intimate love for us. Knowing this love that surpasses knowledge is sufficient to sustain even the weariest sojourner.
“I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving” (Ps. 69:30).