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Suffering saints and wrong expectations

The biblical list of suffering saints goes on and on, yet we so often assume that if we come to God, we can have it all: money, lavish possessions, the esteem of others, personal fulfillment, and great happiness. We lose sight of the fact that, while eternal life begins when we meet Christ, we do a fair amount of suffering right here in this life.

Jesus said that if we love Him we will obey his commandments (John 14:15), and the Book of Hebrews makes it plain that Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Why should we expect less?

We aren’t guaranteed happiness. Heaven is the only real guarantee, that and a peculiar peace we can enjoy in this present time. The true peace of God transcends all the muck we endure, but that peace too often eludes us because we are overwhelmed with the details of this life.

Too often, we expect things God never promised us, and we are disappointed when we don’t receive them. Some become bitter, and some turn away from God completely.

Real life is lived in the course of everydayness. We hit the button on the alarm, go to the bathroom, shower, feed ourselves, work, dash here and there, sleep, and repeat. Days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years, and if we’re not careful, we can wonder where all the time has gone. There are golden days we treasure, trauma and pain we try to forget, and a whole lot that simply vanishes beneath a haze of routine.

At this point, I have a type of contentment that I can’t quite explain and a hope that is quite solid. Such has not always been the case. In the Book of Hebrews, this hope is referred to as “an anchor of the soul” (6:19), and far too many days I have spent with my anchor down while I was being beaten down by wave after wave of what I considered unrelenting BS, if you catch my drift. I was hanging on, not getting swamped by life’s grating routines and disappointments, but I wasn’t making progress either

I have had a problem where everyday life doesn’t measure up to what I expect of the abundant life that Jesus promised to believers. Let’s just say, I’ve had some wrong expectations.

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Smiley-faced Christianity?

I have come to a place where I don’t buy into a lot of those smiley-faced notions of the Christian life. Sure, I’ve received many God-given material blessings and enjoyed many wonderful relationships and pleasant activities, but there is a joy of the Spirit that defies all logic. In some of my bleakest times, I’ve been surprised by this joy that rises within me like the living waters Jesus promised (John 7:38), and I’ve had an otherworldly peace within which I could sense that, if nothing else, God was with me, and He was all I really needed, regardless of my circumstances.

On the other hand, my reading of the Scriptures has shown me that those who are serious about God aren’t necessarily happy.

Jesus Himself was known as a “man of sorrows,” and it’s no coincidence that the most concise verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He was despised, rejected, and endured a brutal death before being raised up and seated with His Father in heaven. All of his disciples were persecuted and physically abused, and all but one was killed for his faith. All that sounds like a fair amount of misery to me.

Modern psychologists would probably prescribe medications for many of the prophets. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, ate bugs, wore rough clothing, refused to drink wine, and called some religious leaders “a brood of vipers”(Matthew 3:7).

In the Old Testament, the prophets were even stranger. Ezekiel used a brick for a scale model of Jerusalem and laid siege to it with little ramps and battering rams (4:1-2). A grown man playing army in the dirt is mighty strange, indeed, but later he lay on his side for more than a year and cooked over dung because God directed him to do so. Hosea married a whore because God told him to do it, and then he took her back after she had done him wrong.

Sometimes God leads us to dark and strange places. Are we willing to follow, or have we made an idol of our own personal happiness?

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Expectations and delusions: Faith, sin, and the pursuit of happiness

While attending my twenty-five year high school reunion, I ran into one of the Christians who had been in a music theory class with me during our senior year. He was drinking a five-dollar beer, and I was sipping free black coffee like some kind of refugee from Alcoholics Anonymous. He said he was glad to see me and wondered if I was still writing because he always thought the music reviews I did for the school paper were good enough to have been in Rolling Stone.

I brought him up to date on my literary pursuits and told him I was wondering if he was still a Christian like he was in school. He told me he really wasn’t “into that” anymore, but was still spiritual, whatever that was supposed to mean. Of course, I shared some details about my own spiritual experiences since graduation.

He listened politely and then asked, “So, are you happy?”

I thought about his question for a moment and replied, “Is that even relevant?”

He seemed surprised by my answer. Perhaps he thought our personal happiness was the supreme test of the Gospel’s value. If we use that as a gauge, we’re all going to be disillusioned because the pursuit of happiness is very often a quest for novelty. Eventually the shine of newness wears off, and then we’re stuck with the everyday life we had before. Or, even worse, real tragedy comes our way. We find ourselves out of work, lose a loved one, or become gravely ill.

There’s a lot of unhappiness in this life, but in the midst of it all, we can seek God and commune with Him in our hearts. He is always unchanging, but He never becomes a mere routine. He Himself helps us get through this life and makes us well prepared for the next one. We are able to live good and decent lives, but we will be incomplete until we finally see Him in full instead of in part, and all our distractions and tribulations are put away once and for all.

Very often, we have to refuse opportunities that could make us happy or rich or that otherwise seem good in order to stake our claim on that which is unseen and eternal. Doing all this requires a lot of faith. The Bible states, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:27). Unfortunately, I’ve had my own hearing dulled by the clamor of this present age, and I really like pleasure, money, success, and happiness.

While God is not against any of these things, He doesn’t value them nearly as much as we do. The Apostle Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), so why do we expect an easy ride?

Even Jesus Himself told us we would have many trials, but to cheer up, because He overcame the world (John 16:32). We also are called to overcome this world and not let it put us down, but I must admit, it’s hard to do. After all, I’m blood and skin and bones like everyone else, and I don’t like to suffer. In fact, I try to avoid hardships as much as possible, but they find me just the same.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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