Adversity in life is a given. Whether it’s a broken-down car or broken relationship, declining health or declining bank balance, the loss of a job or loss of a loved one, adversity is no respecter of persons, visiting believers and nonbelievers alike.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus told his disciples, “In this world, you will have trouble.” And trouble they had, to the point of martyrdom.
For those following in their footsteps, the question is not whether we will experience adversity, but how we will react when we do. Will we give in to fear and doubt or move out in faith and confidence? To nudge his disciples to the latter, Jesus added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Faith has its reasons
One who did was St. Paul, whose post-conversion experience was, literally, a shipwreck, as he had been so “privileged” to experience on three occasions, together with imprisonments, beatings, and floggings.
And yet Paul writes about the adversity of being hungry, cold, naked, despised, and living the life of a fugitive, in beatitudinal echoes with beaming confidence, “In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Paul’s confidence was not based on blind faith—belief opposed to reason, contrary to facts, or absent of evidence — but on reasonable faith derived from a rational deliberation of evidence that goes beyond, but not against, the available facts.
For instance, when the author of Hebrews explains that “faith is the … evidence of things not seen,” he expends the rest of the chapter, presenting exemplars of faith and the evidence for God’s trustworthiness from Creation to the Diaspora. The Old Testament prophets did likewise.
Playing back God’s story
Reading the history of Israel is like listening to a CD stuck on “repeat.” Over and over, widespread apostasy led to divine discipline, provoking national repentance followed by a brief period of revival.
To break the cycle, Israel’s leaders continually played back God’s story, reminding the people of God’s benevolence toward the nation: the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, water from the rock, manna from heaven, deliverance from their enemies, conquest of the Promise Land, and the like.
The leaders also proclaimed hundreds of prophesies far in advance of the events they described. Centuries later, many of the fulfillments—like the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—were recorded and passed on to people contemporary with them.
Thus, Christian faith is not based on wishful thinking or hope in hope, but on the knowledge of what God has done.
A continuing story
God’s story is more than the biblical record of past and future works on behalf of mankind; it includes personal testimonies of his present work in the lives of individuals.
Daniel, who prophesied about events in the near and far future, gave witness to God’s faithfulness in the present — answering his prayers and delivering him and his friends from capital punishment. In the Psalms, David repeatedly praises God for guiding, protecting, and strengthening him. Jeremiah’s lamentations over the sins of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem include praises to God for comforting him during his imprisonment and rescuing him from his enemies.
Like the Old Testament writers, Paul also shared how God’s story had played out in his own life. He told the Corinthian church how God encouraged and strengthened him during a time of personal torment and, in his letter to the Romans, how Jesus freed him from the law of sin and death.
What’s more, the apocalyptic verses in the New Testament remind us that God’s story did not end at Golgotha, the death of the apostles, or the completion of Scripture, but continues on the cosmic stage.
They also remind us that Christians are to be an expectant people, living in the sure hope that as God “showed up” once, he will show up again. Until then, he is active in the lives of individuals who are waiting, watching, and working to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Part of that work is telling the story—the story, as hymnist Katherine Hankey puts it, “of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love,” including how his story has affected ours.
A personal testimony
Most Christians can point times in their lives when God “showed up” — maybe in an answered prayer, a healing, an encouraging word, a needed revelation. Throughout my Christian life, I have had a number of such occurrences, of which I’ll share one.
I had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. My timeline, according to the oncologist, was three weeks. But three weeks turned into three months, then three years, and now, twenty years after being declared in clinical remission, I remain cancer-free.
Prior to that declaration, however, two questions hung in the air like the scent of decaying flesh: “Why did this happen” and “How will it turn out?” I had a strong inkling as to the “why” (as I’ll explain in a moment), but the uncertainty of “how” lingered. Then, one night, both questions were answered to me and a room full of people.
My wife and I had joined a group of twenty or so intercessors for an evening of prayer. As we got ready to pray, someone suggested, off the cuff, that we read Psalm 118, which in my NIV bible has the rather inviting heading, “The loving kindness of God.” It was further suggested that each person read a verse, in succession, according to how they were seated. Since our seating was not prearranged, neither was the verse individuals would read.
As it so happened, my turn fell on verse 18: “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” The words left my lips and, for a moment, failed to register in my brain. When the next person seated failed to continue, I looked around. It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room: mouths were agape, chests were clutched, eyes were tearing, hands were raised, and praises were going up. Then, I, too, was undone.
Earlier in the year, I had confessed to a church class that the greatest obstacle to my spiritual growth was overconfidence in myself. Less than one month later, I was lying in a hospital bed tethered to IVs, listening to an oncologist talk around the hopelessness of my condition, and realizing that this “thorn” was beyond my ability and that of medical science to remove.
The shock of my utter helplessness was met, almost instantly, by a comforting word: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Privately, the message was clear: God was addressing my greatest need—total dependence on him—with his limitless love. Publicly, that message was confirmed to a small gathering of individuals who were watching and waiting for God to “show up.”
God’s story. It’s a story that Christians should be telling “in season and out of season,” through their lips and their lives.
“I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;— Katherine Hankey
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.”