There is no way to get through the Christian life unscathed, there is no immunity from adversity, no free pass from the frequent pain that living in a broken world brings to our door. Anyone who tells you that trusting in Christ brings protection from problems and pain and life shattering things is either sincerely misguided, or is the cruellest of liars.
And the Bible doesn’t give a false manifesto when it comes to the consequences of sin, and the nature of belief. While certain sections of Scripture (Psalm 91 for example) show the blessing the believer knows from the sweeping judgement of God, even here we are promised trouble which God will preserve us through, not from.
In terms of suffering the Bible speaks not of ‘if’, but ‘when’ we face hardship and disappointment and breakdown.
These ‘whens’ are so helpful in our hurts, they dispel so much of the crude thinking which puts an ‘equals’ sign between our deficiencies as believers and the difficulties we face. Sincere Christian people will suffer, at times enormously, and this pain is not automatically proof of disobedience, or God’s displeasure. ‘When’ we suffer is the Scriptures’ pastoral refrain, with neither footnote, nor small print, nor exception. And in that ‘when’ we find liberty to face our heartaches and trust our God, even when the squall of suffering is all around us.
The Psalms abound with ‘whens’, and these two captured my attention recently:
‘When I thought, “my foot slips”, your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul’
– Psalm 94:18-19 (ESV)
This nameless Old Testament songwriter had lived in and through the ‘when’ of Christian suffering, they had known those moments of internal mayhem where life’s co-ordinates seem hopelessly thrown, and they had experienced ‘who’ could help them ‘when’ trouble came.
I’m sure that all of us have had those ‘foot-slipping’ moments in our lives; those times when the ground seems to go from beneath us, where our stability and our integrity, our whole sense of being on the terra firma of faith seems undermined. The Psalmist had felt this slippage, they had come to question their standing and their strength, and in that moment, when all seemed chaotic and unsure they had found a rock solid certainty ‘your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up’. This loss of personal traction is followed by a moment of personal trust – they might fail or fall but God will not, God cannot. God is faithful by character and by covenant, his person is unchangeable, his purposes unbreakable, his commitment to us as long and sure as eternity. When the ground gives way, God doesn’t – and that’s enough to stabilise a stumbling believer.
And when care and concerns are legion, God is there, with a cheering voice. For every care there is consolation, for every burden there is strength, and just ‘when’ we feel at our most weak, God’s strength becomes most evident to us (2Cor 12:9).
I’m grateful for Scripture’s clear-eyed perspective on our broken lives in a broken world. It’s not if we suffer, but when – it’s not if God will sustain us, but when. It is in this tension that we live and thrive under a sovereign God’s care.