And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me. PSALM 50:15
Tragic events uncover our deepest, most personal questions about God. Many observers noted, for example, that church attendance in the United States rose just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. People were looking for answers. Whether the difficulty is large or small, whether it strikes us personally or unfolds unemotionally on our TV screen, we tend to look for answers to our most profound questions in times of adversity.
Of course, some people are dismissive of God, even expressing anger at Him. Soon after the South Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, a commentator in The Herald of Glasgow, Scotland wrote:
God, if there is a God, should be ashamed of himself. The sheer enormity of the Asian tsunami disaster, the death, destruction, and havoc it has wreaked, the scale of misery it has caused, must surely test the faith of even the firmest believer. . . . I hope I am right that there is no God. For if there were, then he’d have to shoulder the blame. In my book, he would be as guilty as sin and I’d want nothing to do with him.1
An online poll that ran for many months following the tsunami on the website beliefnet.com asked the following question: “Does God have a role in natural disasters like the tsunami?” The results consistently showed that almost half of those polled agreed with this statement: “Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.”2
But just as headline news raises questions about God’s involvement, so does personal tragedy—perhaps even more so, because we often suffer alone with our questions and anxieties. While writing this chapter, I had seven friends who were battling cancer. Over lunch one day, a businessman friend confided that his company is perilously close to bankruptcy; another experienced heartache over a spiritually rebellious teenager. The truth is, all of us face adversity in various forms and at different times. One of the best-selling books in recent years, written by a psychiatrist, put it very well with this simple opening statement: “Life is difficult.” In fact, sometimes life is downright painful.
Adversity with its accompanying emotional pain comes in many forms. There may be the heartache of an unhappy marriage, or the disappointment of a miscarried pregnancy, or grief over a spiritually indifferent or rebellious child. There is the anxiety of the family breadwinner who has just lost his job and the despair of the young mother who has learned she has a terminal illness.
Others experience the frustration of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams: a business that turned sour or a career that never developed. Still others experience the sting of injustice, the dull ache of loneliness, and the stabbing pain of unexpected grief. There is the humiliation of rejection by others, the smoldering hurt of racial bias, the pain and confusion of demotion at work, and sometimes worst of all, the anguish of failure that is one’s own fault. Finally, there is the despair of realizing that some difficult circumstances— a physical infirmity of your own or perhaps a severely handicapped child—will never change.
All of these circumstances and scores more contribute to the anxiety and emotional pain we all experience at various times and in varying degrees. Some pain is sudden, traumatic, and devastating. Other adversities are chronic, persistent, and seemingly designed to wear down our spirits over time.
In addition to our own emotional pains, we often are called upon to help bear the pain of others, either friends or relatives. None of the illustrations I’ve used in the preceding paragraphs are just imaginary. I could put names alongside each one. Most of them are on my personal prayer list. When friends and loved ones hurt, we hurt.
In such days when we are struck by personal adversity—or when massive crises appear on our television screens—even the Christian is tempted to ask, “Where is God? Doesn’t He care about the thousands who are starving in East Africa or the innocent civilians who are being brutally murdered in many war-ravaged countries around the world? Doesn’t He care about me?”
On a much smaller scale, those whose lives are free from major pain still experience the frequently frustrating or anxiety-producing events of daily life, which momentarily grab our attention and rob us of our peace of mind. A long-planned vacation has to be cancelled because of illness, the washing machine breaks down the day company arrives, your class notes are lost or stolen the day before a major exam, you tear your favorite dress on the way to church, and on and on. Instances of this magnitude are numerous. Life is full of them.
It is true that such mundane events are only temporary and pale into insignificance alongside the truly tragic events of life. Yet for most of us, life is filled with such little events, little frustrations, little anxieties, and little disappointments that tempt us to fret, fume, and worry. In the crucible of even this minor level of adversity, we are tempted to wonder, “Can I trust God?”
Even when life seems to be going our way and our daily path seems pleasant and smooth, we do not know what the future holds. As King Solomon said, “[We] do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). Someone has described life as like having a thick curtain hung across one’s path, a curtain that recedes before us as we advance, but only step by step. None of us can tell what is beyond that curtain; none of us can tell what events a single day or hour may bring into our lives. Sometimes the receding curtain reveals events much as we had expected them; often it reveals events most unexpected and frequently most undesired. Such events, unfolding in ways contrary to our desires and expectations, often fill our hearts with anxiety, frustration, heartache, and grief.
People who follow Christ are not immune to such pain. In fact, it often seems as if their pain is more severe, more frequent, more unexplainable, and more deeply felt than that of the unbeliever. The problem of pain is as old as the history of man and just as universal. Even creation itself, Paul tells us, has been subjected to frustration and groans as in the pain of childbirth (see Romans 8:20-22).
So the question naturally arises, “Where is God in all of this?” Can you really trust God when adversity strikes and fills your life with pain? Does He indeed come to the rescue of those who seek Him? Does He, as the text at the beginning of this chapter affirms, deliver those who call upon Him in the day of trouble? Does the Lord’s unfailing love surround the person who trusts in Him? (see Psalm 32:10).
Is God really in control? Is He trustworthy? Will He help? Even the apostle Paul pleaded with God three times to take away the thorn in his flesh before he finally found God’s grace to be sufficient. Joseph pleaded with Pharaoh’s cupbearer to “get me out of his prison” (Genesis 40:14). And the writer of Hebrews very honestly states, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (Hebrews 12:11). During the time I was working on this book I experienced one of those periods of adversity when I found it difficult to trust God. Mine happened to be a physical ailment that exacerbated a lifelong infirmity. It came at a very inconvenient time and for several weeks would not respond to any medical treatment.
During those weeks, as I continually prayed to God for relief, I was reminded of Solomon’s words, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). God had brought a “crooked” event into my life, and I became acutely aware that only He could straighten it. Could I trust God whether or not He straightened my “crook” and relieved my distress? Did I really believe that a God who loved me and knew what was best for me was in control of my situation? Could I trust Him even if I didn’t understand?
Further, could I encourage others to trust Him when they are in the throes of emotional pain? Is the whole idea of trusting God in adversity merely a Christian shibboleth that doesn’t stand up in the face of the difficult events of life? Can you really trust God? Can you know He is in control of your particular situation? Does He care?
I have spent a good portion of my adult life encouraging people to pursue holiness, to obey God. Yet, I acknowledge that it often seems more difficult to trust God than to obey Him. The moral will of God given to us in the Bible is rational and reasonable. The circumstances in which we must trust God often appear irrational and inexplicable. The law of God is readily recognized to be good for us, even when we don’t want to obey it. Yet the circumstances of our lives frequently appear to be dreadful and grim, or perhaps even calamitous and tragic. Obeying God is worked out within well-defined boundaries of God’s revealed will. But trusting God is worked out in an arena that has no boundaries. We do not know the extent, the duration, or the frequency of the painful, adverse circumstances in which we must frequently trust God. We are always coping with the unknown.
Yet it is just as important to trust God as it is to obey Him. When we disobey God we defy His authority and despise His holiness. But when we fail to trust God, we doubt His sovereignty and question His goodness. In both cases we cast aspersions upon His majesty and His character. God views our distrust of Him as seriously as He views our disobedience. When the people of Israel were hungry they spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert? . . . Can he supply meat for his people?” The next two verses tell us, “When the LORD heard them, he was very angry . . . for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance” (Psalm 78:19-22).
Here’s the important point: In order to trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense. And just as the faith of salvation comes through hearing the message of the gospel (see Romans 10:17), so the faith to trust God in adversity comes through the Word of God alone. It is only in the Scriptures that we find an adequate view of God’s relationship to and involvement in our painful circumstances. It is only from the Scriptures, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that we receive the grace to trust God in adversity.
In the arena of adversity, the Scriptures teach us three essential truths about God—truths we must believe if we are to trust Him in adversity. They are:
• God is completely sovereign.
• God is infinite in wisdom.
• God is perfect in love.
Someone has expressed these three truths as they relate to us in this way: “God in His love always wills what is best for us. In His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has the power to bring it about.”
The sovereignty of God is asserted, either expressly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Bible. In my biblical research for this book, I never felt completely finished compiling the list of verses on the sovereignty of God. New references to it kept appearing almost every time I opened my Bible. We are going to look at many of these passages in later chapters, but for now consider just one:
Who can speak and have it happen
if the LORD has not decreed it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
This passage of Scripture offends many people. They find it difficult to accept that both calamities and good things come from God. People often ask the question, “If God is a God of love, how could He allow such a calamity?” But Jesus Himself affirmed God’s sovereignty in calamity when Pilate said to Him, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). Jesus acknowledged God’s sovereign control over His life.
Because God’s sacrifice of His Son for our sins is such an amazing act of love toward us, we tend to overlook that it was for Jesus an excruciating experience beyond all we can imagine. It was for Jesus in His humanity a calamity sufficient to cause Him to pray, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39); but He did not waver in His assertion of God’s sovereign control.
Rather than being offended over the Bible’s assertion of God’s sovereignty in both good and calamity, believers should be comforted by it. Whatever our particular calamity or adversity may be, we may be sure that our Father has a loving purpose in it. As King Hezekiah said, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish” (Isaiah 38:17). God does not exercise His sovereignty capriciously, but only in such a way as His infinite love deems best for us. Jeremiah wrote, “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).
God’s sovereignty is also exercised in infinite wisdom, far beyond our ability to comprehend. After surveying God’s sovereign but inscrutable dealings with His own people, the Jews, the apostle Paul bows before the mystery of God’s actions with these words:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)
Paul acknowledged what we must acknowledge if we are to trust God. God’s plan and His ways of working out His plan are frequently beyond our ability to fathom and understand. We must learn to trust when we don’t understand.
In subsequent chapters we will explore these three truths—the sovereignty, love, and wisdom of God—in greater detail. But the primary purpose of this book is not to explore these wonderful truths. The primary purpose is for us to become so convinced of these truths that we appropriate them—that we make them our own—in our daily circumstances; that we learn to trust God in the midst of our pain, whatever form it may take. It does not matter whether our pain is trivial or traumatic, temporary or interminable. Regardless of the nature of the circumstances, we must learn to trust God if we would glorify God in them.
But there is one final thought before we begin to explore the sovereignty, love, and wisdom of God. In order to trust God we must know Him in an intimate, personal way. David said in Psalm 9:10, “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.” To know God’s name is to know Him in an intimate, personal way. It is more than just knowing facts about God. It is coming into a deeper, personal relationship with Him as a result of seeking Him in the midst of our personal pain and discovering Him to be trustworthy. It is only as we know God in this personal way that we come to trust Him. As you read the following chapters, and as you relate what you are learning about God to your own situation, pray that the Holy Spirit of God will enable you to get beyond the facts about God so that you will come to know Him better and so be able to trust Him more completely.
1. What circumstances tempt you to question whether you can trust God?
2. Which, if any, of these three statements is hardest for you to be convinced of, deep down? Why do you think that is?
3. Why is it so important to learn to trust God, not just obey him? You might refer to Psalm 32:10; Proverbs 3:5-8; Hebrews 11:6; or other Scripture passages in this chapter.
4. Consider keeping a journal as you read this book. Record all the circumstances in which you see God’s control and guidance in your life. Ask God to open your eyes and ears to notice them. (Will you write down only pleasant circumstances?) Beginning this log now will help you see concrete evidence for truths in later chapters.