The Upward, Inward Look
January 1, 2009 - Within the first few months of my landing in the pastorate, a young wife and mother came to see me and proceeded to tell me that she no longer loved her husband.
by Joseph M. Stowell
She told me that many of their friends seemed to have happy and fulfilling marriages, and it was her goal to somehow reclaim those same feelings that had at one time held so much hope for her. I scrambled for something meaningful to say.
That was the beginning of my regular exposure to the tyranny of trouble in people’s lives. I’ve filled many hours standing by people like a woman named Martha, who only weeks after she and her husband began their work as missionaries, watched her husband—my high school friend—die a slow, agonizing death. I’ve walked with men through the ego-wrenching pain of job loss and marketplace failure. And what hope can there be for a young mother who discovers sensual love notes passed between her husband and their high school babysitter?
All of life runs unsettlingly close to the ditch. Trouble is indiscriminate in its timing and its choice of target. Job, who bore the scars to validate his wisdom, said, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7, NIV).
From health to emotions, finances and relationships—trouble stands at the brink of it all, waiting to make its unwelcome, untimely and unexpected entrance. No one is exempt.
Given such inevitability, it’s no surprise that we spend great amounts of time, energy and money trying to overcome our problems.
Grinning and bearing it shows resolve but offers no solution. Getting mad brings more grief and anguish. Getting even starts wars and causes bitterness. Withdrawing leads to loneliness.
Is There Any Hope?
The right answers are found by asking the right questions. And the right question is not “Why?” Processing problems in the why zone too often leaves us cynical, hardened, angry and confused. The only right answer to why is “I don’t know why, and if I don’t know why, I need to suspend judgment until I do.”
Job’s devastating experience is helpful at this point. Only a brief part of his story deals with recounting his problems. The bulk of the Book of Job focuses on the advice of his wife and friends who try to answer the question why and who counsel him from that perspective. In the end God resolves the mental anguish by turning Job from the question of why to the question of who.
Hope begins when we start with the right question: “Who?”
The answer to who is three-fold.
Him—God our Father in all His supreme authority, presence and power.
Me—target of the trouble and in sole control of my responses and actions.
Them—the people around me who may have caused the pain, who may awkwardly try to help me in my pain, or who don’t understand and sometimes don’t even care.
We must immediately get them in perspective. Since we can’t control them, we are not wise to focus on them or expect much from them. If God sees fit to use some of them to provide hope, then let it be an added blessing.
That leaves two points of focus: Him and me.
It sounds simplistic to say that ultimately God is our only hope. Nevertheless, it is true that help and healing begin and end in all that He is and all that He provides. Our hope and eventual healing begins by looking in His direction. Through the work of the Spirit and according to the principles and power of His Word, He is the genuine Helper and Healer. Without Him, help is at best cosmetic, incomplete, temporary and sometimes misguided.
When Scripture speaks of hope it literally means to trust in a present and future help that is certain. Our English word lacks this element of certainty. It is little more than a wish, a “hope so.” Biblical hope is grounded in certainty. The only certain, steady reality when life takes a downward turn is our Father in heaven and the helping work of His Spirit through the guiding principles of His Word. God is full of certainties that provide something solid to hope in. Those certainties are like handles to which we cling: God is not slippery or inaccessible. He is real. Really there. Really here. Nor does He hoard His resources. He shares them. In time. In abundance. In wisdom and strength. He is more than words; He is wonder and power.
When we begin with who, we begin with Him. It may only be a determined resolve to look trustingly in His direction, but we must begin with Him.
For some, hope in God will conflict with thoughts of the damage He has permitted in our lives. However, if we are willing to open our hearts and minds, we will come to know how His certainties can become realities that bring hope and eventual healing.
The Other Side of Who
The other side of who is me. Me—with all my feelings, hurts, confusion and questions.
In trouble, the most strategic part of me is my will. It remains intact in spite of loose ends around my jumbled emotions. Our wills are the only entities we control and the only point of certain relationship with God.
Often, despair in pain is deepened by the thought that there is nothing we can do about our situation, that we are victimized by overwhelming and uncontrollable circumstances. Our every effort to protect ourselves has been frustrated. What do we do when there is nothing left to do? When life is out of control and even our trust in God seems shaky? When we doubt His goodness and that He actually does care for us?
When we begin to believe that He doesn’t care, we cross a threshold of vulnerability to the debilitating forces of anger and cynicism that bring us further distress and eventual defeat.
We must turn to the entity over which we exercise exclusive control—our wills. My thoughts, my responses and my decisions are always within my jurisdiction. I can choose to keep looking to Him even when all is quiet in the sky. I am in charge of my choice to seek forgiveness when I have failed; to forgive others when they have failed; to persevere in correct and productive responses; to love—or to hate, resent and seek revenge.
It is no coincidence that when Scripture speaks about trouble it never wallows in the despair of our hopeless circumstances. It always guides us to the Lord and then prescribes options that we by choice either embrace or reject. If we are to find hope and help when life hurts, we must be committed to controlling the me, so that within the context of what the Lord prescribes, we can respond correctly and constructively to our situation.
If we choose not to cultivate our hope in Him, where then will we place our hope? Will we hope in the gods of comfort, peace, pleasure and self-fulfillment? Or will we be children of the true and living God, who is indeed our ultimate and final hope?
Healing begins with a choice to place our hope in Him. The process continues as we choose to commit ourselves unconditionally to those certainties that are anchored in the bedrock of what we know to be true and sure regardless of how difficult the circumstances around us.
It is an issue of where we look. We can look downward in despair and outward in fear and confusion as we survey our circumstances. Or we can look upward to Him and inward to our choices.