One day last spring, I sat in a college classroom chatting with a fellow student while we waited for class to begin. We’d gotten to know each other over the course of the term, and for some reason she really took to me and began to tell me about her life. On this day, she told me about being diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier and how it plunged her into depression. She said that something really good came out of it, though:
“It finally did away with the last vestiges of the Christian faith I was raised in. I came out of that cancer battle knowing that either God didn’t exist or that He didn’t care about me because I was alone in my suffering! I got through that time, and I learned that I didn’t need that crutch of religion. That I am a strong person who can fight her own battles. It made me free from the oppression of religion, and that is a wonderful thing.”
As she spoke, I knew I would respond, but I wasn’t sure how. I wasn’t about to begin a discussion of apologetics and defend my faith! It seemed silly and unloving to do so when she was sharing her honest heart, and I don’t know how to do that anyway. I wanted to speak to her honestly, in love, of God’s goodness and the reality of His existence. But the teacher was setting up for class, which was scheduled to begin right then, so I didn’t have much time. I was aware that others around us were listening, which meant I was essentially responding to them, too.
All I had time to say (generally, because I can’t remember the exact words) was, “Oh, that’s really interesting because my experience was exactly the opposite! I’ve been through some very painful trials and have suffered hard losses, and while there were certainly some dark, difficult times when I couldn’t sense anything of God and I sometimes had questions and doubts about Him, ultimately, I believed He was there. And as I held on to Him, light eventually came again, and it came brighter than ever. By hanging on to my belief in God through those times, my faith was strengthened. Like you, I was changed by my suffering, but in exactly the opposite way. I became more certain than ever that God is real and loving and good.”
“And,” I whispered, smiling, as the teacher called us to attention, “I’m really happy you don’t have cancer anymore!”
“Wow,” she whispered back. “The contrast of our stories is so interesting.”
We never talked about it again. I could go on about whether or not she ever did really have faith or know the Lord, but that’s really beside the point of what I want to say this morning (and beside the point of anything, really). I got to thinking about faith and trials and darkness when I cheated by reading ahead in my devotional this morning. For tomorrow’s portion, there is a passage by C.H. Spurgeon that says:
“Our faith is the center of the target at which God doth shoot when He tries us; and if any other grace shall escape untried, certainly faith shall not. There is no way of piercing faith to its very marrow like the sticking of the arrow of desertion into it; this finds it out whether it be of the immortals or no. Strip it of its armor of conscious enjoyment, and suffer the terrors of the Lord to set themselves in array against it; and that is faith indeed which can escape unhurt from the midst of the attack. Faith must be tried, and seeming desertion is the furnace, heated seven times, into which it might be thrust. Blest the man who can endure the trial.”
Before going further, I need to respond to that last sentence, “Blest be the man who can endure the trial.” I’ve been through some tough things, but others have suffered much, much more. God knows what we can bear, but He doesn’t leave us alone to bear it. What He really knows is where our faith will break, where we will stop clinging to Him and flee. He is willing and able to get us through anything, but He stops where our faith will fail. We are stretched, but He will not allow the one who looks to Him to be overcome. And the enduring? It comes from Him. It’s not about our own resolve but about the faith He gives us. He will give it to us in abundant measure, but we seem to need to be stretched for it to grow.
Our trials prove whether or not our faith is real. And, for the one who never really did know God, this ends up being something of a gift because it takes away the pretense of faith or the rickety props of mere religion. It strips us of all that (frees us!) so that we are now wide open, unhindered by our religious notions, to seeing who God really is. So I think my classmate was right. She was freed. It was a gift. And I hope that now she’ll find the God who loves her enough to die for her—the one who says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And means it.
But I said I wasn’t going to get into that. I don’t know if I would have thought to have related the story of the woman in my class had I not run across some loose papers in a box yesterday bearing some quickly, very messily, scribbled thoughts of mine that coincided with today’s devotional and reminded me of my classroom conversation.
The papers told part of the story of my struggle to hang on when God seemed far away in the midst of my struggles. I want to share those jottings here because we all go through dark times (if you haven’t yet, you will), and we all have our faith stretched and tested, so that, as the Bible says, it can be proved genuine. Have you had times when you doubted or wondered if God was real or if He cared about you? Did you wonder if He really was in control, or if He was powerless to do anything about your situation? Have you doubted He was listening? I have.
Here’s what I wrote. It starts sort of abruptly and reads somewhat stilted throughout because I didn’t initially write this to share with anyone, and I want to leave it unedited:
When the battle begins, I am ready for it. I think I’m surrendered. I proclaim high ideals and trust. And I humbly mean it. I know that my hope is in Him.
And the war comes. And I pray. And I feel so buoyed and strengthened. I praise God. I am hopeful. I know He is victor!
And the fight continues, day after endless day. My feelings of conviction do not strengthen me anymore. I face the hard fact of battle. It is relentless. And God does not keep me floating victoriously above it. I’m in it. He’s there, too, but this is not so easy anymore.
And the battle, the struggle, goes on and on and on. And I become weary, begin to doubt. Where is the victory? Where is the glory? Where is God’s honor? Why do I hurt so?
And the battle goes on. Relentless. Hard. And I grow even more weary. Faith is tested. High spiritual ideals are smashed. All of my “readiness” is long worn away.
Now I am at the bottom. There is no end to this. This is not fun. It is not easy. I do not feel in any way strong, ready, or victorious. I have no battle charge left in me. I do not know what God is doing, and it does not seem to matter.
A choice: Will I trust Him? Will I walk on, believing that, in spite of all appearances, all lack of apparent victory, with no feeling whatsoever of battle-readiness or even battle-willingness, He is God? Even further, do I believe in Him at all? Is He really there? Is He paying attention? Does He care? Does He love? Is He really Sovereign? Even in my situation?
What if it never gets easier? What if this is the 100-year-war—a big one? A hard one? And there are 40 years left of my life? Am I willing? Do I believe? Is there any beauty? Love? Goodness?
Can I have joy in the midst of the war? Victory over my self? Will God do that? Can He develop my faith? Can He give me joy and strength?
From the humbled state where all is gone and my faith shakes, when I am reduced to doubt and questions once again, He strengthens and encourages, but it’s not once for all. It’s day by day, minute by minute. . . that’s how He works.
Psalms and coffee. (Dorothy Day: "My strength returns to me with my morning cup of coffee and reading the psalms.”) No joke. My strength returns. Without it, I’m empty. Discouraged. Battle-weary. Unable to fight. Unwilling. Apathetic.
Daily He arms me with strength. Daily, it is Him.
I thank Him for the struggle. I thank Him for the low place. I think I can’t bear more, but I trust Him. Either He is who He says He is, or He isn’t. I will believe Him, and I will trust Him to help me in my unbelief.
It’s all about Him. There is no fight for this battle left in me. No battle-charge. Just a willingness to walk straight into it every day, trusting in His love and goodness. And I can’t even be willing without His help.
Lord, help me!
: : : : :
And here I am now, probably a year and a half or so after I wrote those words, still on a path that is not always easy, that hurts often, that is somewhat lonely at times, and I still sometimes find myself in the dark, but I am also deeply and richly blessed. I have so much! And God has proved Himself to me again and again. Many, many times He has given me an especial, overwhelmingly sweet sense of His love and nearness. This is a gift that is given in the dark.
God is faithful, and He does love us. Amy Carmichael once wrote that God entrusts us with the unexplained. Faith keeps going. Don’t give up. Look to Him! He has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you.
I wish I could make everyone know, make everyone believe. But all I can do is say is what the Bible says, and what I know to be true--that He is there, and He loves you, even in the long, silent dark.
Blessings to you today.