To my Christian friends who may be asking, ‘why me’? (Or to their loved ones who are asking ‘why them?’…or to anyone who’s part of the body of Christ, for that matter)…
At any time, there are followers of Jesus, who face hardship and suffer incredibly. I know that during these times, a lot of questions come up, and that’s a good thing. Because…God loves our questions and His answers always bring hope.
There are a couple families I know of who are walking through tough times right now. (They’ll know that this post is about them. *Be sure to read the update at the end of this post!)
In recent days, I’ve been praying for these families a lot. I keep hearing God whisper one word, three times, over and over again: favour, favour, favour. It’s been persistent. So, I’ve been meditating, contemplating, praying, and turning to my Bible to figure out why.
What does ‘favour’ have to do with hardship? I’ve been unpacking the topic of God’s favour during times when faithful people face trials. I want to share this, because I know it applies to both the families I’ve got on my heart right now, but also to so many more.
I hope I can put into words what makes sense in my own spirit. If not, there are enough Bible verses in here to count for something! (Isaiah 55:11)
Here we go…
I recently saw a post on Facebook that was being circulated widely. In this viral blog, the scenario was so similar in detail to a trial one of these families on my mind/heart is facing. Because of the similarities, and because I don’t want to ‘out’ the family or details I’d been praying about, I will not share the exact nature of the blog. There was one part that really caught my attention though. In truth, the specifics are not worth sharing because they are anything but uplifting.
I had assumed that a ‘viral’ blog would be a source of encouragement and hope; but it wasn’t. It had a chilling tone of despair and hopelessness. Yet, it seemed to resonate with so many people. It was being shared all over social media. I wondered why?
Sometimes hardship makes people want to punch ‘exit’ on their circumstances. Sometimes, people go ahead and do so. When life gets hard, the temptation to ‘quit’ whatever makes it hard, can be real. Then, it seems the world at large likes to applaud. I’m not hoping to demean others’ experiences or reactions, but this seems so backwards to me. This is often the case when Christians see the way the world responds to adversity. Where is their hope?
The Bible teaches that after Christ’s resurrection, He returned to heaven. But first, He made a promise to His disciples. He would leave behind a helper who would remain with us here on earth: the Holy Spirit. Not only would the Holy Spirit be active among us, but He would be active *within* us. Yes, the Holy Spirit literally dwells inside genuine followers of Christ. And while this life and world hurl hate, hardships, pain, unrest, calamity, temptations and shortcuts around us, the fruit promised by the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are evidence of God’s spirit at work – often in spite of the circumstances we face. Even in the midst of situations that look anything but joyful, we can find joy. It’s a paradox.
Our faith teachings are full of paradoxes.
So, when I consider people in the midst of very real trials, yet I hear ‘favour, favour, favour’, it may seem unfitting. But, in fact, these words fit – perfectly – and are an encouragement worth sharing!
The Bible tells us that the ways of the world aren’t God’s ways. “My thoughts are not like your thoughts. Your ways are not like my ways. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God’s ways often seem downright backwards. (…the last will be first…if you cling to life you’ll lose it, but let go of your life to save it…least will be greatest etc.). His ways are a mystery we spend our entire lives trying to solve!
Our own lives can have what looks like wrong turns. Sometimes we seem to be heading towards hopeless outcomes. Yet, these times are often when God’s hand becomes most evident.
The Bible is also full of circumstances that looked like an utter flop in the plot. There are stories when everything was going wrong. Some of God’s people seemed like they could never catch a break. But, time and time again, in these moments when it looks like everything was going wrong-God was at work doing the most marvelous things!
No example shows this clearer than Christ’s death. I try to understand what it must have felt like for Jesus’ beloved disciples, and for his mother…for them to watch Him get flogged. How must they have felt to see him tortured, mocked and spit on?… To see Him carry his own cross, dripping with blood, with torn flesh and a failing body, to the place where He’d ultimately be nailed to it in complete humiliation. His followers believed He was the Messiah. What a failure it must have looked like to watch His death play out before their very eyes. What kind of a Messiah surrenders to torture and death? Where was God in these moments? The disciples must have been wrong. They must have made a mistake. This man on the cross couldn’t possibly be the saviour that had been foretold in prophesy. His countless miracles must have been a farce. Why else would Jesus not use that same miraculous power to free himself from the nails that bound Him? I wonder how much despair they felt as they watched everything unfold.
The reality is that the darkest moment in all eternity happened when Jesus hung on that cross…when Jesus’ own father turned His face away, forsaking His only son. There’s no mincing the truth…unimaginable suffering and agony took place on that cross.
But…when it looked like God had turned away for good, when it seemed that all hope was lost, when everything was wrong in the eyes of the onlookers…the reality was that the most divinely orchestrated moment of history was unfolding. No one knew at the moment, but the harrowing death of their Messiah was not the crushing defeat it looked like from the outside in. Instead, it was the turning point in history for all mankind. The sky darkened. The earth shook. And within the temple…that curtain…the curtain separating everyday man from the presence of God was torn. This ripped veil made a way so that any and all who believed could have direct access and relationship with the maker of heaven and earth. Christ’s death itself became the way: the way for anyone to come to God.
It was this moment in time that gives Christians the ability to come boldly before the throne of God. We bring all our failures and flaws, and trade them for His grace, redemption and healing! We still endure pain. We are likely to suffer. Some of us may be called to lay down our lives, but we will never…ever…be forsaken by God. Jesus took any and every punishment we could possibly deserve upon himself. Of course, the resurrection followed the cross, and it bent history in a new direction forever! Without the resurrection we would have no salvation…no faith…no hope. But, without the cross there would have been no resurrection.
The pain was part of the plan.
What looked like defeat was a miracle unfolding. It was a blessing in disguise. Christ’s pain had purpose! (Is that an extraordinary understatement or what?!)
As disciples of Jesus, He tells us to take up *our* cross and follow Him. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (paradox!) (Matthew 16:24-25). Each person’s cross is different. On a day to day basis, every waking moment is an opportunity to bear one cross or another. Sometimes our crosses only feel heavy to us, and those around us wouldn’t even realize we’re struggling. Other times in life, the cross we’re called to bear is obvious; and, it feels like it will crush us completely. Perhaps, like the disciples looking at Jesus from the outside in, those around us will look at the crosses we carry, and wonder where God is. When people see our pain, they may ask why a loving God would allow something so awful to happen.
We may even wonder this ourselves.
We may feel as though we’ve been forsaken.
Truly, sometimes our suffering is from our own wrongdoing- a consequence of our very own actions. Sometimes we suffer as innocent victims of the choices other people make-as a result of the free choice each one of us has. Sometimes there’s no understanding about why we suffer. But, no matter the reason – it can always be an opportunity to reach for God! The Bible promises that when we seek God with our whole heart, we will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).
Sometimes though, people’s despair and suffering may actually be because they are favoured by God…
“Favour, favour, favour!”
2 Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him”. In some Bible translations, it describes God as “searching the whole earth”, or his eyes “running to and fro throughout the whole earth”.
In isolation, that verse has often made me a bit confused. It seems odd to me that God would have to search for anything. He is all-present. He is all-knowing. Hebrews 4:13 says “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” So what is up with the idea of God searching so hard for hearts that are fully committed to Him?
Clearly God already knows the depths of each heart, including which ones truly love Him. I have a feeling this verse is worded this way to emphatically drive home a point – the point I am going to attempt to make.
2 Chronicles 16:9 was spoken by the prophet Hanani, who had actually just dished out a huge rebuke to Asa, the then King of Judah (making emphatic points was was often a prophet’s job!). Hanani told Asa, in verse 7 and 8, “because you relied on King Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped your hand…yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand.”
At a previous time, when Asa was empty-handed and facing invasion from an enormous army, he sought God, and God delivered Judah from harm’s way. That was followed a period of the 3 Ps (I don’t know if the 3 Ps are a ‘thing’…I just realized that the three descriptive words I had in mind all start with ‘p’): peace, prosperity…and pride. Then, when facing another invasion, instead of turning to God as he had before, Asa entered into a treaty with Syria, and schemed his own way to protect Judah. Despite having seen first-hand how powerfully God had come through before, Asa turned elsewhere.
This habit was not unique to Asa, as far as biblical characters go, and it sure is not unique to people today. Time and time again, God’s people, despite witnessing astounding displays of His power and provision, turn away. Repeatedly.
Take the Israelites…they were held captive in Egypt for 400 years! Then, they witnessed plague after plague, the miraculous Passover, until ultimately Pharoh to let them go. Sure, their troubles didn’t stop there, but neither did God’s miracles. God led them by a pillar of smoke by day, and a blazing fire at night to provide them with light, heat and to assure them of His presence. When the Egyptian army was chasing them down with nowhere to turn but the gigantic Red Sea before them, they witnessed the water part completely before their very eyes. Then, they walked across the dry bottom to safety, with only moments to spare before the walls of water crashed down on the horsemen and chariots that were chasing after them. When they were hungry and thirsty, God made food fall from the sky…yet at every turn, the Israelites continued to doubt that God would actually save them. They murmured and complained repeatedly, even saying it would have been better to be slaves again! They couldn’t even wait for Moses to descend from Mount Sinai before they turned from God, instead fashioning a hideous golden calf to worship.
It was the same story with God’s children then, and it’s the same story with so many of God’s children today. Fortunately, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
The truth is, most of us are inclined to trust God when we have no other choice…when our hands are empty…when we can’t make our own way…or, when we feel like all of our needs are met (and there’s really nothing we’re obviously trusting for). Human ‘faith’ can be fickle. Really, really fickle.
Maybe that’s why that verse makes it seem like God has to look so hard for people who entirely trust Him. Maybe there’s a lot more room for most of us to grow in faith.
And so, God searches out those whose hearts are fully turned towards him; He looks for the hearts who are truly locked onto His promises such that nothing will cause them to waiver. Again, why does he do this? “So he can strengthen them!
So my next question is…How can God show himself strong, in the absence of weakness, or trouble? If God specifically seeks out people whose hearts are fully committed to Him, so he can strengthen them, then it must mean, that adversity, pain or weakness can truly be His purposes at work, especially when it comes to people of great faith.
Within the Bible, we see that many times our heroes in the faith faced the most daunting of circumstances, not because they lacked God’s favour – but actually because of it!
Joseph is one character who stands out in this regard. He was the youngest son, favoured by his father. But yet, he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. When he rose to a position of favour in the eyes of his master, the Egyptian official Potiphar, once again, major trouble came his way when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of rape. Joseph was thrown in jail, yet again, he ultimately found favour with the King when he was the only one who could interpret the King’s dream. Not only this – but Joseph’s interpretations forewarned Egypt that a time of great famine would follow a time of great prosperity. It was on Joseph’s advice that Egypt stockpiled masses of grain, so when this all came to pass, Egypt prospered despite the famine. And then, (as if this isn’t enough), Joseph’s very own brothers – the ones who had sold him off as a slave – ended up turning to Egypt for help during the famine. And Joseph forgave them. His entire family was brought to Egypt to prosper, instead of succumbing to famine. At many twists and turns, Joseph’s life looked like it was falling apart – yet, over and over again, we see the theme of ‘favour’. In fact, Joseph went so far as to say to his brothers, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7-8). Joseph understood that what his brothers had intended as harm, “God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Perhaps there were times when Joseph called out to God, saying “why me?…I love you…I am faithful…you know I am…how can this be happening to ME?”…and perhaps, these words Joseph spoke to his brothers were the very answers God spoke back to him. Joseph had a revelation about the purpose and plan brought forth because of his pain.
I could go on all day (or all month!…or longer) mentioning other stories of our Biblical heroes finding themselves in horrendous circumstances (take Job, take Daniel, take Mary…oh Mary, Mary, Mary!). We know that they honoured God, that as His eyes roamed the earth looking for hearts that loved Him, these were among the ones He set apart to bear these particular burdens. At various snapshots in time they looked cursed, but they were the ones who found favour with God. Favour happened to look like situations that forced their trust in God to become public, and very obvious to everyone around them. In these incredible times, God showed His strength to them, and through them. For the faithful, and favoured, incredible trials are when God can most obviously show Himself strong to build the faith of others!
Believers can be at peace, because it is His strength, not ours, at work!
I’m currently re-reading an old favourite…The Great House of God (trust me, this is on topic)…
In the chapter called, ‘The Foundation: Where Trust Begins’, Max Lucado mentions that he was currently writing from a late airplane, that was not the one he was originally supposed to be on. He describes a flight cancellation, mechanical difficulty, a transfer, and the many questions from fellow passengers:
“I heard many of my fellow passengers ask the attendant, ‘Is this plane okay? Any mechanical flaws with this 747?’ We were full of questions about the plane’s ability to fly, but the ticket agent had no questions about our ability to do the same. Not once were we asked, ‘How about you? Can you fly? Can you flap your arms and get airborne?’ Of course, these are bizarre questions. My ability to fly is not important. My strength is immaterial. I’m counting on the plane to get me home. Need I make the connection? Your achievements, however noble they may be, are not important. Your credentials, as starry as they may be, are of no concern. God is the foundation of this house. The key question in life is not ‘How strong am I?’ but rather ‘How strong is God?’ Focus on his strength, not yours. Occupy yourself with the nature of God, not the size of your biceps.”
…be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power! (Ephesians 6:10)
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)
God is our refuge and strength. An ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1)
The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him. The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one. (Psalm 28:7-8)
“…’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
So to my friends who are in the fire, so to say…I wrote this piece to encourage you that I believe you (particularly you!) are favoured. God’s favour is on your family! The eyes of the Lord have been set upon your hearts because you trust Him…that in this period of weakness, and whatever may follow, His strength will be made perfect. I don’t know why God’s allowed this to be part of your cross to bear, but I do know He is sovereign and that His ways are always good. I also know, as I know you do too, that we’ll never know the full story of how we bring light into this world and glory to God until we meet Him face to face, but in the meantime I am believing that the purpose in this time of pain will be made known to you, even if only in part, *for now*. I am praying that you would continue to stand unwaveringly firm on the promises of God. I am praying that, even though I already know you WILL!
One final thing…I can’t remember where I heard this said (it may have been Ravi Zacharias, but I am not completely sure), but it makes me think of you. The the gist is this question: If the Bible were still being written today: Would you be mentioned? And, what would it say?”
I’m sharing that because it’s easy to look at the heroes of the faith in the Bible and speak confidently about the fact that they were favoured by God in their most troublesome times…that His hand was certainly upon them…that they were hemmed in, and sheltered. As we read the Bible, we know the beginning, middle and end of their stories, though this isn’t the case for ourselves as we walk through life. But, we do know the One who knows the beginning, middle and end of our stories, because they are His stories. We are His. And He is trustworthy. I am trusting with you. Something so beautiful is coming from all this…hold on!
This blog was originally shared on Facebook in March of 2017. One of the families I mentioned had just received a childhood cancer diagnosis. The other family, had just received a life-changing diagnosis for their baby, still in the womb. Both of these families have unshakeable faith. At the time of re-posting, the child from the first family is now cancer free. The second child, now born, is thriving; while her diagnosis was accurate – she is perfect! She is so loved, and the world is already a better place because she is here. To God be all glory!