Is Your Faith Based on Circumstances?

“Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Matthew Henry tells us in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, “A truly religious life is a life of constant joy” (p. 1175). Paul was a living example of this. While under house arrest, he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Although he was living at home, he was chained to a Roman guard around the clock and was not able to go anywhere. He knew his trial was likely years away. Given that God had called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was stuck in Rome unable to plant new churches or visit with those he was nurturing by letter. Certainly, he had every right to complain. He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, and persecuted for Jesus. Instead, his letter to the church at Philippi was filled with rejoicing. He wrote, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12, NIV).

Eugene Peterson puts an amazing focus on Philippians 1. In essence, Paul is saying, “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah” (v. 12-14, MSG).

Paul essentially said his sufferings for Christ had furthered the Gospel by provoking others to zeal for Him. Paul focused on preaching the Gospel no matter the circumstances in which he found himself. He wanted nothing more than to worship God in Spirit, rejoice in Christ, deny his flesh, forge ahead toward the prize, looking only toward the Savior, striving to be an example for others. He added, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other” (v. 22-26, MSG).

TRUST REQUIRES PATIENCE

Trusting God always requires patience, because God doesn’t work on our timetable. Patience allows us to enjoy life while we wait. No doubt this is a difficult proposition. We are, after all, only human. We measure success and failure, happiness and disappointment, in terms of emotion first and then in actual results. When we feel bad, especially when we really, truly hurt, we want a way out right away. For many, including me, that can include drugs and alcohol. I ran from hurt and pain for decades. I simply had no concept of or capacity for patience.

Quite often the reason God is requiring us to wait is simply that He is using our difficulty to work patience in us. Learning to be patient is important enough to God’s plan—for us and for those whom we will touch with our lives—that I believe he ordains everything we go through. He is not going to short-change His plans by giving us what we want the second we want it. Sadly, however, the desire for instant gratification causes many people to make snap decisions. Some get high or drunk. Some spend beyond their means. Others have sex without thinking. Some marry someone who is wrong for them because they’re not willing to wait for the right someone. The false belief that we should have instant gratification is at the root of our unwillingness to suffer through the bad times.

It’s not easy being a Christian in today’s pluralistic society where moral relativism, hatred, distrust, bigotry, and fear run rampant. There seems to be an increasing tension between Christians and non-believers. When we focus on others rather than Jesus, we see them as enemies instead of children of God worthy of our love and respect. Admittedly, culture has taken a dramatic shift recently. Religion is no longer seen as a social good. Instead, it is considered an old, awkward, worldview that is no longer relevant.

GOD’S VOICE IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

As Christians, we all want to hear from God. I’ve often dropped to my knees and begged Him to say something—anything—as long as it was aloud. I wanted to know if He was there. Was He listening to me at all? Did He care about what was happening to me? What did He want me to do? It is even more challenging to determine what God is not saying in any given situation. He spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament. He appeared before non-believers. He sent angels. He told people what to do. He even told them what not to do. And He often accompanied these directives with promises—blessings and curses. He was often extremely clear about His wishes.

Today, we tend to expect the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, though, His voice comes through more subtly. God often speaks to us through the quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. It can be difficult to distinguish His voice from the chaos of our situation. In order to decipher what God is saying, it is important to know and understand His Word. Spending time in the Scriptures will help us hear His voice. He will never contradict Himself. He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a manner that goes against His written Word. The Bible must be our yard stick. And when He puts others in our path to guide us, we need to distinguish between those who practice seeking the heart of God from those whose ambition is to control and manipulate others.

It is extremely important to remember that one incident is not necessarily indicative of God’s intent for our entire life. One swallow does not a summer make. (Google it!) Never make a life-changing decision on one event or one set of circumstances because God may or may not be speaking through this particular event. We need to look over the span of months and years. It is critical that we ask ourselves, Where is God leading me? He chose us and ordained our lives even before we were formed in the womb. I met a recovered addict last summer while serving as on-site manager for a motel. He was working as an itinerant electrician at a new gas-fired power plant being built in my area. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” My ears always perk up when I hear someone say that! “God says everything you’ve been through from the moment you were born until you met me right now, all the good and the bad, was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill your calling.”

We must never put God in a box. He is much more infinite and all-knowing than we can ever grasp. No matter what the dire, dreary circumstance, God can turn each into a hopeful future. He can reverse, restore, revive, and renew. We need only look for His plans that are already in motion right now, even in the midst of our difficult time. Trust Him. He can take any circumstance and use it for our good and His glory.

Going Back Home

Kendall Rob once wrote, “Home is where you go to find solace from the ever changing chaos, to find love within the confines of a heartless world, and to be reminded that no matter how far you wander, there will always be something waiting when you return.”

When you think of the word “home,” your mind might go to a picture of the house you grew up in. It may jump through memories of your hometown from your first day of school to your first kiss to your first car. (Mine was a 1971 Chevy Van.) For those who were constantly moving, it may conjure nothing at all, images as black as the macadam roads you know so well. Yet in both cases, there is the idea of home, of a place you’ll one day return to or one day find for yourself.
Upon returning “home,” wherever that may be, it often seems entirely foreign. Your perceptions become refracted through the new feelings, insights, and personality you’ve acquired while away, and, upon returning, there’s the realization that the change you feel isn’t so much the place as it is you. After all, life is only the way it is on account of the way we feel. Remember, our emotions lie to us, telling us all is wrong, or we’re sad, or that we’ll never amount to anything.

When you look at your bookshelf from when you were younger, or the music you used to listen to, or when you return to that café in which you spent so many afternoons, you see that life isn’t so much a series of chapters as it is entirely different books. Each time you go home, the life you’ve been living begins to fade, becoming smaller and smaller in your rear view mirror, until it’s merely a speck, indiscernible as a life at all. The characters in your life begin to change, and past lives become like a dream until there’s nothing real about it. And that’s perhaps the scariest phenomenon.

Upon returning home, it seems that time has never passed. That the world has stood still waiting for you to return to this life. That somehow the place where you grew up is the default setting that’s constantly being reverted to even as you’ve worked so hard to leave. There’s nothing that instills the fear of death quite like seeing how quickly time flies, and there’s nothing that shows how much time flies as returning home.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy coming home, but it often feels like a return home is no different than sliding down a ladder I’ve worked so hard to ascend. The world has continued to spin, but it feels as though it has changed directions and begun to move backwards. Yet as we move from city to city, or friend group to friend group, or career to career, there’s the feeling that there’s actually no such physical place as home. That home is a feeling rather than a place. As much as we love our families, it doesn’t mean we belong where we were born. Instead, where we belong is something we decide for ourselves.

What does it feel like when you are back at your parents’ home after you realize you’re an adult? As you might know from reading my blog posts or my “About” page, I was facing homelessness in 2008 while in active addiction. I was struggling with alcohol and drugs, moving from job to job and apartment to apartment, divorced for the second time in my life. Mom and dad agreed to let me move in with them in order to help me get my act together. I attended AA meetings regularly, was seeing a therapist, and became involved in a local church. I managed to put together a number of years without drinking or smoking pot. Unfortunately, I developed an opiate addiction due to abusing Percocet I was taking for severe back pain.

My father passed away in December 2015 after a long battle with emphysema. I am ashamed to say I had started stealing narcotic pain pills from several family members. I was also abusing my anxiety medication. This was a time when my family should have been able to count on me. Instead, my behavior was becoming rather bizarre. My family held a family intervention. At the end of the intervention, I agreed to go to a drug and alcohol rehab for three weeks. When I was discharged, my mother said I could not return to live with her. She was very hurt, and said she couldn’t live through any more of my lies, my drug abuse, my drama. I lived with a friend from AA for four months. Amazingly, my mother recently asked me if I’d like to come back home. She needed help caring for and keeping her house. Just today I moved back home. It feels so good to be trusted again.

Now I realize that even if where you are isn’t the place you’d like to call home, it doesn’t have to be lonely or sad. Home is in the mind, and the only reality that can be truly counted on is your imagination. Whether you’re on a beach at the Delaware shore, or living in a tenement building,  working a dead-end job in a city you hate, your happiness isn’t decided for you. Home and belonging are inextricably linked to your sense of happiness, of purpose, of community, and it’s only you that can decide how you feel. You didn’t have a say over where you were born, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a say over where home is, even if it’s in your imagination. But I have to say, it sure does feel good to come back home and to be trusted again.