Faith, Hope, and Promises in a Valley of Despair
Promises only hold their value as long as there is a realistic expectation of fulfillment. Human wisdom insists that waiting indefinitely is not only unreasonable; it is unacceptable, especially if the promise is made by God. We are not questioning God’s integrity – we are far too spiritual to demonstrate such arrogance. We only yearn to be set free from the utter hopelessness cast upon us by a human existence that infects life with all sorts of unexpected – and, in our minds – undeserved pain and suffering.
Many times the pain is so severe, so unjust that it seems unbearable. Where is God when we need Him the most, and why must we experience such anguish?
The Importance of Faith
Our understanding of faith relates specifically to those painful experiences. God uses them to challenge our faith, helping to shape and strengthen it.
King David viewed faith through the filter of his years in exile, waiting for God to remove Saul from the throne of Israel as he fled for his life. In Psalm 13 David cried out in despair: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” Yet in Psalm 40 David celebrated God’s gracious deliverance from one such challenge, stating: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings” (V. 1-2). In fact, God had delivered him on many occasions, and each time David’s faith increased.
Job was a man of impeccable integrity. Yet he lost everything, including his children. His despair had become so intense that he actually questioned the value of life (Job 3:1-13). When he later came to understand God’s sovereignty, Job realized that God is not unjust; that God has a purpose in every challenge, and that God always fulfills His promises. Job 42:11 says: “So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.” That understanding did not return Job’s slain children, but it did strengthen his faith.
The Apostle Paul faced overwhelming adversity in the form of a physical infirmity that severely limited the effectiveness of his ministry (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It was obvious that Paul felt that removal of the “thorn” would provide the greatest benefit to him spiritually. Yet God refused to grant his request. Instead, Paul was challenged to trust God for increased strength while dealing with the thorn. If Paul was to continue serving the Lord with any effectiveness, his faith would have to grow.
In each case God fulfilled the promises upon which those men built their hope: but always according to His purpose and in His timing.
The Believer’s Hope
Romans 8:28 says: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
That verse is the primary source of hope for every believer who is facing a desperate situation. We eagerly claim God’s promise, brace ourselves to endure the pain associated with whatever challenge we are facing, and wait for things to “get better.” But God doesn’t promise that tribulation will cease, that tragedies will not occur, or that pain and suffering will go away. Nor does He promise that things will “get better.” What He does say is that all things will “work together for good,” which usually means something far different than we expect.
What constitutes “good” in the life of a believer, and who gets to establish the limits of its benefits?
We assume good means that which makes life better for us. If we are sick, good means healing. If we are hurting, good means deliverance from the pain. If we are struggling financially, good means additional monetary provisions. In our minds, it is not unreasonable to expect God to do those things because of His promises to us.
A well-known gospel chorus begins by reminding us that our God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills,” and “the wealth in every mine,” along with everything else in this world. It follows that, since God is our Father, those riches also belong to us. The conclusion suggests that we can expect God to use those “earthly riches” as a resource when caring for us.
Does God actually promise earthly prosperity or temporal wealth to believers as a part of His commitment to provide for us? What about physical healing, or deliverance from tribulation, or persecution?
- Philippians 4:19: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” — What are our needs? – “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Timothy 6:8).
- Matthew 6:33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” — What “things” is He talking about? – “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).
These promises, along with many others, encourage us to view life from a positive perspective. We can, and should depend on God to help us when we face unexpected challenges, but the character of that “help” is determined by God’s purpose for us, rather than our desires.
We live in human, sinful flesh. Our flesh provides physical pleasure, fulfillment, and from a human perspective, purpose for our existence. But it is also the source of our pain, suffering, disappointment and confusion. It is our flesh that will cause our human death. Therefore, it is only reasonable for us to focus on the quality of this life, and it is not wrong for us to do so. We must, however, maintain an eternal perspective.
God’s concern for us has far less to do with the quality of our earthly life than the strength of our character. Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The ultimate goal for every believer is to be conformed to the image of Christ. He is our example. Earthly challenges help to shape our character and make us more like our Savior.
God’s concern for us has far less to do with the quality of our earthly life than the status of our personal relationship with Him. Jesus did not die on the cross to save us from pain and suffering in this life. If He had, then no man would ever have to die. In Ephesians 2 we learn that Jesus died to break down the “middle wall of partition” between us and God, reconciling us to Him and providing us with access “by one spirit unto the father” (V. 14-18). Our fellowship with the Father is often improved because of those unexpected and undeserved earthly challenges that seem so unbearable.
God’s concern for us has far less to do with the quality of our earthly life than the glory of our eternal home. Becoming too focused on earthly possessions encourages us to undervalue that which is most significant in our lives as believers. Jesus told His disciples to “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Is there ever a cause for despair in the life of a believer? It depends upon our focus. Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Job, Elijah, Paul and Peter, along with most of Jesus’ disciples had battles with despair – because they were clothed in human flesh. It is important, however, to remember that they did not stay there. Once they got their focus redirected, the despair gave way to faith, hope, and patience as they anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promises to them.
It matters not what we are going through. God is eagerly at work, and when His work is finished we will not only recognize the benefit of His work, we will be thankful for it, because at that point we will understand that everything was done specifically “for our good.”