Looking at years past, how have you responded to difficult times? Many believers find their faith nourished and their relationships strengthened. The reminiscences of older people almost always view shared tumultuous times with a touch of nostalgia.
Crisis that Builds Strength
Ask a strong, stable family where they get such strength, and you may very well hear a story of crisis: huddling together in a hospital waiting room, waiting anxiously for some word of a runaway son, sorting through the rubble after a tornado, comforting a daughter after her broken engagement. Relationships gain strength when they are stretched to the breaking point and do not break.
Seeing this principle lived out among people, we can better understand one of the mysteries of relating to God. Faith boils down to a question of trust in both relationships. Do you have confidence in your loved ones — do you have confidence in God? If you stand on a bedrock of trust, the worst of circumstances will not destroy those relationships.
Abraham climbing the hill with his son on Mariah, Job scratching his boils under the hot sun, David hiding in a cave, Elijah moping in a desert, Moses’s pleading for a new job description—all these heroes experienced crisis moments that sorely tempted them to judge God as uncaring, powerless, or even hostile. Confused and in the dark, they faced a turning point, whether to turn away embittered or step forward in faith. In the end, all chose the path of trust, and for this reason we remember them as giants of faith.
Unfortunately, not everyone passes the test of faith with excellence. The Bible is littered with tales of others—Cain, Sampson, Solomon, Judas — who flunked. Their lives give off a scent of sadness and remorse; oh, what might have been.
One Christian thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, spent a lifetime exploring the tests of faith that call into question God’s trustworthiness. A strange man with a difficult personality, Kierkegaard lived with constant inner turmoil. Again and again he turned to biblical characters like Job and Abraham, who survived excruciating trials of faith. During their times of testing, it appeared to both that God was contradicting himself. God surely would not act in such a way—yet clearly he was. Kierkegaard ultimately concluded that the purest faith emerges from just such an ordeal. “Even though I do not understand, I will trust God regardless.”
Much can be learned from Kierkegaard and his unbalanced view of faith; unbalanced because he focuses so intently on the great ordeals of faith and has little to say about the day-to-day maintenance aspects of a relationship with God. He describes “Knights of Faith,” those few individuals selected by God for some extraordinary feat. They were tested as today we might test a jet plane; Not to destroy but rather to gauge the limits of usefulness. “Would it not have been better, after all, if he was not God’s chosen?” Kierkegaard once asked about Abraham. No doubt Abraham himself asked that question during his ordeals, but probably not it at the end of his life.
For the believer, faith revolves around a crisis in personal relationship more than intellectual doubts. Does God deserve our trust, no matter how things appear at the time?
What Does God Have to Do with It?
A Christian author, whom I respect, writes, “the way God arranges things sometimes seems uniquely designed to frustrate us: a tire goes flat on the way to the hospital, a sink backs up an hour before overnight guests arrive, your friend lets you down during a time when you most need support, you suddenly develop laryngitis the day of your presentation to important buyers.” These trials may seem obscurely insignificant, yet a series of annoyances exactly like these can introduce a seed of doubt in our relationship with God and undermine our basic trust.
I find myself stumbling over the phrase “the way God arranges things,” however. Does God indeed position a nail in the road so that I will run over it on the way to the hospital? Does he wind hairs around the sink trap so that it will clog just before guests arrive? Does God arrange computer crashes, and viral germs in my life as custom tests of faith, similar to the tests of faith that Abraham and Job endured? I doubt it.
If the book of Job teaches one lesson, especially noted in God’s speech at the end, it is that human beings have no business, let alone competence, in trying to figure out all the intricacies of why things happen. Instead, God challenges Job to do any better:
- Do you have an arm like God’s,
- and can your voice thunder like his?
- Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
- and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
- Unleash the fury of your wrath,
- look at every proud man and bring him low,
- look at every proud man and humble him,
- crush the wicked where they stand. (Job 40:9-12)
God restrains from continual interference with what takes place on earth. He declining to humble every proud man and crush the wicked where they stand, for reasons that continue to perplex their victims. Many, like Job, assume that God has somehow arranged all events, then draw conclusions that are patently false: God doesn’t love me. God is not fair. I can’t believe in a God that allows ___. Faith offers the option of continuing to trust God even while accepting the limits of our humanity, which means accepting that we cannot answer the “why?” questions.
When Princess Diana died in an automobile crash, Philip Yancey got a phone call from a television producer. “Can you appear on our show?” he asked. “We want you to explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident.” Without thinking, Yancey replied, “could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going 90 miles an hour in a narrow tunnel? How, exactly, was God involved?”
He could not make the television appearance, but the question prompted Yancey to dig out a file folder of things for which God has been blamed.
- At a press conference after killing a Korean boxer with a hard right punch, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini said, “sometimes I wonder why God does the things he does.”
- In a letter to Doctor James Dobson, a young woman asked this anguishing question: “Four years ago, I was dating a man and became pregnant. I was devastated! I asked God, ‘why have you allowed this to happen to me?’”
- Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who pushed her two sons into a lake to drown, and then blamed a phantom car jacker for the deed, wrote in her official confession: “I dropped to the lowest point when I allowed my children to go down that ramp into the water without me. I took off running and screaming, “Oh God! Oh God, no! What have I done? Why did you let this happen?”
Exactly what role did God play in a boxer pummeling his opponent, a teenage couple losing control in the back seat or a car, or a mother drowning her children? Did God arrange these incidents as tests of faith? To the contrary, they are spectacular demonstrations of human freedom exercised on a fallen planet. At such moments, exposed as frail and immoral, we lash out against someone who is all-knowing and all-powerful: God.
Having examined many instances of human suffering recorded in the Bible, Yancey is convinced that many Christians who face a trial of faith attempt to answer a different question then God is asking. By instinct we flee to the questions that look backwards in time: what caused this tragedy? was God involved? what is God trying to tell me? His question to us is do we trust our oneness with him.
The Bible gives many examples of suffering that, like Job’s, had nothing to do with God’s punishment. In all his miracles of healing, Jesus overturned the notion, widespread at the time, that suffering — blindness, lameness, leprosy—comes to people who deserve it. Jesus grieved over many things that happen on this planet, a sure sign that God regrets them far more than we do. Not once did Jesus counsel someone to accept suffering as God’s will; rather he went about healing illness and disability.
The Bible supplies no systematic answers to the “why?” questions and often avoids them entirely. A flat tire, a backed-up sink, a case of laryngitis—these tests, however minor, may provoke doubt in our relationship with God. Yet we dare not tread into the area that God has sealed off as his domain. Divine Providence is a mystery that only God understands. As time-bound humans, living on a rebellious planet, blind to the realities of the unseen world, we have no ability to understand “why?” which was precisely God’s reply to Job.
As an example of the inconvenient and frightening life situations that are not the fault of God but used to teach or strengthen us, read
As an example of how difficulties can form a greater bond with God, read
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Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey