A friend emailed me this week with an article called A Forever Change in Perspective by Sara Hagerty, and I related to it in so many ways that it got me thinking.
In my own life, I have passed through a season that has been very hard, and going through hard things requires one to begin to learn how to deal with hard things.
It is easy to joyfully live the Christian life when nothing bad has ever happened to you.
It's different when you live the Christian life in the way you thought you were meant to live it, only to have everything come crashing down in a ruin around your feet, see the end of the desires God had planted in your heart, and experience the bewilderment of not understanding what went wrong.
Not only did my experience not seem to fit the pattern of what I expected the Christian life to be, I also thought that I was walking completely alone in the way things were taking place.
Reading this article, however, alerted me to the fact that my experiences are not a unique haphazard case of perplexity and mystery, but rather part of a general pattern of God's dealings with his children. And this blew my mind.
If this is a pattern, then Scripture must have led us to expect it--so the fact that I had not expected it must reveal that somewhere I have an insufficient view of Scripture.
Here is the beginning of the pattern:
God plants a desire in my heart, a desire that is good and beautiful, but one that has abundant propensity to bring pain; one that, if left unsatisfied, seems like it would be better not to have had in the first place; and one that has absolutely no guarantee of being fulfilled.
Here is the middle of the pattern:
The desire that was planted springs up and takes root, but rather than being watered and cultivated and sheltered by God, I find that it is crushed, it withers, it dies, it is uprooted, not even under pretense of negligence, but done as the purposeful action by His very own hand.
Here is the end of the pattern:
Life comes out of death, victory out of defeat, and the express fulfillment of the very same desires that God had planted at the beginning, in a way that is surpassingly beautiful and much more satisfying than anyone would have dared to imagine.
It was arriving at the stage in the middle of the pattern that knocked me off my feet and caused me to doubt the nature of God and become utterly bewildered as to what was taking place. What did I do wrong?
This deficiency and incomplete knowledge of what Christianity ought to be led to the formation of the conditions that allowed me to be hurt, to doubt God's nature, and to think that something was terribly, dreadfully wrong. But all along, it was right there in the Bible in plain sight. The real question is how I had ever missed it.
Seeing the pattern in Scripture: Joseph
There is Joseph, for instance. God gave Joseph the dreams. He didn't ask for them. And then God led Joseph down one dead-end road after another. Ridiculed by his brothers. Sold as a slave. Thrown into prison on an unjust accusation. This would have felt like a disaster, an increasingly hopeless nightmare, an unsalvageable wreck of the purposes that were supposed to happen. But one day, Joseph was allowed to clean himself up, walk into the princely station that God had prepared for him, get a wife and have children, get his father and family back, and see the fulfillment of all God had promised.
The pattern is there.
But even more obvious, front-and-center, and unmistakable, the pattern is at the cross.
Seeing the pattern in Scripture: The cross
Man is lost in sin, and so God plants in the human race the desire for a Savior, the Messiah. If God had never done anything to cause us to desire this, we would have gone on without this desire, oblivious to the possibility that we could be saved, and accustomed to the fact that we live our 70 years and then disappear off the face of the earth forever, to go we-know-not-where. Only after death would we each find ourselves in hell, too late for a remedy.
Man waits, and God increases the desire for this Messiah by developing a complex set of criteria by which we will recognize Him. The hearts of men of faith nearly faint within them, sighing over the evil as they wait for this Deliverer.
Jesus comes! The desire on earth heightens to its highest pitch. "He is here! Now we will see how He will accomplish it. Surely it will be soon, and He will deliver us."
Then--what is this? He dies!?
All that for nothing? Would it not have been better to have not desired anything in the first place?
How dare He lead us down a dead-end road?
What kind of God would toy with our hopes, manipulate our emotions, and heighten our expectations--only to dash them at the end?
Can we trust His nature? Dare we commit ourselves into His hand for anything ever again? Will we ever venture to follow His leadership after this?
(Imagine that at this very juncture, the voice of God speaks to the hearts of men to say, "If you never have a Savior, will you still love me?"
From this point in history, post resurrection, we can understand God's worthiness to still be loved right then, because we know what happened on the third day, and we know that their deliverance was accomplished and that the object of their desire was right around the corner.
But to the person who is still in the dark and yet continues to trust, what staggering amounts of faith it would take, what robust confidence in God, what a mind-boggling apparent contradiction it would be, for the man or woman then who joyfully runs to God and fixes upon Him a loving gaze and declares, "Yes! I will love you!")
Three days of darkness and sorrow and untold grief pass.
Then comes the glory and splendor of the Majesty on High rising from the dead, living to die no more, having vanquished death, crushed the power of sin, done away with the flesh, and defeated the enemy. His glory knows no bounds. The deliverance He has wrought is infinitely superior to anything anyone ever imagined. The kingdom He established is infinitely more glorious than a Roman-conquering battle-won world dominion. It was worth it to be done that way. It was worth the wait. It was worth desiring. And desire did not go unfulfilled.
The possession and increase of desire was worthwhile.
The death of desire was not the end of the story.
The accomplishment of desire was surpassingly glorious.
How then, do I think properly about suffering?
There is one type of suffering which a person brings upon himself. Painful consequences come as the direct result of incorrect action. The inviolable law of sowing and reaping takes effect, whether or not you expect it or admit it. This kind of suffering is one that an individual can hopefully avoid altogether. Live according to wisdom and righteousness, sow to the spirit, and avoid the spankings. Also, this kind of suffering is one that an individual should not be surprised at. The guilty conscience should expect and indeed welcome the chastisement that comes as a direct result of unlawful deeds. This kind of suffering I believe I had understood since childhood, and I had ordered my life, to the best of my ability, to minimize it.
There is another type of suffering which involves seemingly-random acts that produce pain which a person did nothing to directly deserve (such as the death of a child, or a Christian being persecuted for his faith, or being born in a country like North Korea). This kind of suffering, while it is a mystery, is ordained by the inscrutable wisdom of God for our good, and I accept by faith that it is in accordance with the nature of a loving God. This kind of suffering, too, I had been taught about since childhood, and I always hoped that when it came to be my turn to go through the fire, I would submit with loving trust, endure it with patience, and find out the results in eternity.
But there is another type of suffering which I am talking about, a category that is entirely brand new to me. It is the suffering of reaching "the middle of the pattern." It is not a mysterious "fire" of suffering that falls upon you in a random area of your life. It is the destruction of the very thing you thought God wanted you to desire, the collapse of the precise area that He had asked you to give your life for, the ruin of something you would have never even done if it were not for God, a ruin that comes, not randomly, but by the direct work of His own hand.
This was a staggering blow to my soul. I doubted God's nature, His ability to lead me, and my ability to perceive what He wanted. If all this could happen when I thought I was walking in the light and conforming my actions as completely as possible to His ways, then something must be dreadfully wrong.
I wondered, "How do I order my life from here, when the way I have lived has brought me to this?"
But recognizing that it has been in Scripture all along gives me hope. Seeing that it is a pattern allows me to place myself within that pattern, and therefore, understand what stages I have passed through and what stage is before me. In my own life, I see that I am in between the end of the middle of the pattern and the beginning of the end of the pattern.
I am at a juncture where I am looking at the wreck and seeming disaster of a desire, a long-held desire that was pure and admirable and surely from no other source than God. It was the desire to do missions. A lump comes into my throat and tears into my eyes just to think of it. I am living, as Sara Hagerty put it, "on the underside of mystery," and I find myself totally perplexed. The Lord allowed this good thing to be cut off. It was not that I was merely attacked and spoiled by the enemy--if it was just that, I could have borne it--but the Lord Himself took away from me the very offering that I made of my life to the Lord, until I felt that I was overlooked and abandoned by God.
What is this, and where do I go from here, and how do I even think properly about that?
I can do nothing but lie quiet and unresisting under His hand, accepting the loss of what was precious and sacred to me.
I am also at a juncture where the only stage before me is the resurrection! There has been death, but that death fits specifically into an area that none other than God himself brought to life in the first place. Therefore my expectation need not be a hopeless giving up of everything I had lived for and a pointless searching for another way to order my life. I fix my eyes upon the Savior and count these recent circumstances as an absolutely irrelevant factor in His ultimate ability to accomplish the purposes for which He placed that desire in me in the first place.
• • •
Is it possible that God leads us through the most preposterous, perplexing situations, simply to increase His glory when He comes through marvelously with the plans and desires that He planted in our hearts long ago?
And is it therefore correct for me--not to squash the desires and assiduously keep myself from wanting anything ever again--but to allow those desires to take root, and then to foresee and expect them to be crushed, to wither, to die, to be uprooted, and yet, undaunted, to expect God to bring the very fulfillment of those dead, withered, hopeless things?
Is this not the essence of faith?
Would this not drop the jaw of the observers in the heavenly realms, if they saw a believer whom they knew to be completely in the dark, acting upon a confident expectation of God's accomplishment of hopelessly impossible desires?
And will not I myself be "as those that dream" when I see the fulfillment of the absolutely impossible when God brings it to pass?
The possession and increase of desire is worthwhile.
The death of desire is not the end of the story.
The accomplishment of desire is surpassingly glorious.