I’m emerging from a brutally hard season in life. But even as I emerge with my feet on more solid ground than I’ve felt in a long time, I still face a life that, like many of my cohorts from Bible college, wasn’t the one I envisioned as an earnest Christian teenager in youth group and then college. And no amount of peeling off layers of myself to get to my core heart is going to rescue me from the twists and turns my story has taken.
Don’t hear fatalism in that last sentence. Like the woman diagnosed with terminal cancer, there’s a precious jewel hidden in the layers of suffering and self-sacrifice with what seems a permanent blight on one’s life. Among other issues, I struggle with multiple chronic illnesses. Though death is certainly not imminent, I think of spiritually dying to self as I face more and more physical issues that evidence the fact that my physical self is in fact dying. I am a jar of clay. Unlike a hard marriage or family relationship or ministry commitment, I can’t escape these physical symptoms no matter how hard I try. I can’t run from them, so I have to face them head on and figure out how to live abundantly in light of them.
And that learning has equipped me to persevere in the other issues in my life I could run from if I didn’t feel constrained by God’s instructions through his Word.
Learning to Endure
My dad has been a great encouragement to me. He has chronic heart failure, and we almost lost him last March. But he recovered enough to get out of the hospital, and after a day at home he drove back up to his farm to sit in the office and “tend to business.” He bought a Gator (a farm utility vehicle like a golf cart) to drive between the tractor shed and the Quonset hut, where he restores old tractors. His hip has been bothering him, and he moves slowly. But he moves. He gets a fraction done in a day compared to his prime years, and I fully expect to find him slumped over a tractor one day. But I applaud him for his perseverance. He models for me how I want to face both my physical limitations and my emotional ones.
Sometimes, obeying God is hard. Many days, submitting to his laws feels restricting. It’s one thing to honor our faithful God with faithfulness to others when the relationships are easy or affirming. But God is faithful to us when we’re faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He persevered with us when we turned away from him. Jesus followed through on doing the right thing, even at infinite cost to himself. And it was hard. Yet herein lies the great paradox Jesus himself taught us:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9:23–25)
God doesn’t need me to affirm Jesus’s words for them to be true. But I affirm them nonetheless, and can attest to them from my expereince. And this truth encourages me to persevere, stumbling physically and emotionally at times.
There’s much talk of self-love in Christian circles right now, the kind of self-love that promotes a perceived circumstantial happiness. When I hear of Christian bloggers or authors or even just professing Christians in my own private life diverging from orthodox Christian faith or values because it’s “too hard,” I feel a depressing weight on my shoulders. Their quest for happiness outside of orthodoxy demoralizes me in a way a combative atheist never could. They demoralize me in a way even my own particular burdens of suffering do not.
Don’t Buy the Lie
I opened up the Psalms Thanksgiving morning, in the calm before a horde of family descended on my home. It was Psalm 19, and David’s words resonated deeply with me as I contemplated yet another professing Christian author/blogger “finding themselves” in a manner markedly divergent from an orthodox understanding of Scripture:
The LORD’s Instruction is perfect,
reviving one’s very being.
The LORD’s laws are faithful,
making naive people wise.
The LORD’s regulations are right,
gladdening the heart.
The LORD’s commands are pure,
giving light to the eyes.
Honoring the LORD is correct,
The LORD’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey—
even dripping off the honeycomb!
No doubt about it:
your servant is enlightened by them;
there is great reward in keeping them.
Dear friend struggling with a weight on your shoulders, one that may seem lighter to bear if you just walked away from God’s instructions: Don’t buy that lie. It was the first lie ever told, and it remains Satan’s great summary temptation: “God’s instructions are a limitation. They will keep you from all you’re meant to be.”
No, it’s not true. Embrace the path of suffering in obedience to God’s instructions. Lose your life. Let go of yourself and your expectations. And trust God to meet you, redeem your story, and give you a place of import in his larger story. As you lose your right to your story, you emerge in a much greater one, and what you will find is worth it.
I’ve walked a hard path, and I continue to walk a hard path. But God gave me manna to sustain me at the hardest points and has blessed me abundantly even through the removal of things I thought I couldn’t live without. He has proven himself to me, and he has proven the goodness of his words. When others tried to encourage me by telling me I wasn’t constrained by God’s instructions, I found instead abundant grace and help when I felt convicted that I was.
It requires faith to stay in that process. I cannot produce such faith in you. You cannot produce it in yourself. But you can lean into the One who can.
May you one day look back in praise of the God who turns stones into bread, water into wine, and loss into life abundant.
Author’s note: If you’re wresting through such a losing and finding, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s booklet The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness: The True Path to Christian Joys. I love those mediations, and I can bear testimony to their truths.