3. When Everything Goes Wrong

7 01 2017


Chapter 2: The Message From Stephen and Paul — “Affliction” by Edith Schaeffer, 1978.

(Part 3 of 13 posts)

If you do everything right, will everything turn out all right? If you sow the right seed, if you are kind to a fault, if you tread very, very carefully upon this earth — will you reap only good from the good you have sown? If you see something sliding off to the side and catch it right away, can you avert disaster? Can you, my friend, dodge the bullet?

I think that I thought that I could; or at least, I used to think that. I know I not am alone in this, but I will just speak about myself since I can do that. I wrote myself a very good myth and I am still unlearning it. I hung a picture on the wall of what I wanted my life to look like. It wasn’t a bad picture, in fact it was amazing! It’s just that it was impossible and unrealistic and no one ever told me that I could have that life; I just assumed it. I assumed it because I was crafting it. I paid a lot of attention to what I was doing and how I was doing it, but in the construction of my story, I just didn’t factor in things like sin and brokenness and free will; these three things, mine and others, were and continue to be a wrecking ball.

But it isn’t just that.

I have always loved Jesus. I have always wanted to walk His way. Here too I have worked deliberately to do so. Here too I imagined what that looked like and I made assumptions. Here too I took this phrase and that phrase and wrote a doctrine. I wrote a version of the truth. It wasn’t all false, it was just incomplete: it didn’t include pain. It sang the hymn, “’tis so sweet to trust in Jesus” in the sunshine and didn’t account for the shadows and where God was then.

As I look back, in an avalanche I was so busy scrambling to get out of it, to be relieved of it, I often assumed the worst about it and didn’t see what Jesus says in John 9:3: “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed…” So many times I did not see the great, great presence of God in the very epicenter of my trouble but prayed like mad He would get me out of it instead.

And trouble discouraged me. I didn’t blame others for it, though sometimes I tried. It would have been easier if I could just say, “it was their fault,” but mostly I blamed myself. I suffered for it time and time again, blaming myself. How could this happen? What did I miss? Yes…what did I miss. What I ‘do’ makes this worse. I am the proverbial ‘pastor’s wife’ (a calling I have both loved and chafed at) so things can go wrong in a hundred-and-fifty ways. Hands embrace me until they point at me (and by me I mean the inseparable ‘us’), I am a friend until I am a role (depending on what people decide); did I fulfill it? Was it me? It probably was, if you trace it back…

To make matters worse, the thing I worked at the hardest has turned out to be the hardest. I said, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord…” but not everyone in the house has gone along with that. Not by a long shot.

What a journey this has all been. I want to pause and say, thank you God for your love and faithfulness (Psalm 92). You have not left this brown leaf stranded. You have always been at work in the storm and you have always said, “Come to me,” when I am feeling exposed to the weather. You have not been content to leave me with my notions, but have always put the truth in front of me — again and again — and have called me to walk in it. You have called me to redefine the word “good” and I am still learning this. Blessed be the Good Name of the Lord!

Edith Schaeffer, a timely mentor, begins: “We have had individuals come to us who have been crushed and discouraged to an extreme because of being mistakenly taught that the criterion of being in the Lord’s will, and in contact with Him through prayer, is to have everything go well…” (31). We don’t always say it out loud, but on some level we think it. I certainly hear from people that they believe God wants them to be “happy.” I certainly hear that people believe they are walking in the “will of God” when things just “come together.” I hear over and over that people feel “blessed” when life is going their way. “God is good” when things are good and when thankfulness is easy to come by.

If this is our theology, we best not read the Bible because “The Word of God is very fair in giving us realistic examples of God’s servants throughout history. The Bible not only tells us that affliction is an expected part of the lives of God’s people, but helps us to relate to others who have faced the same things we face, or much worse” (31). I think, as we read it is easy to skip over the verses about suffering. When Jesus says we will identify with Him in our suffering (1 Peter 4:13, as an example: But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed) we “google translate” that to mean: “Jesus sure did suffer. I am so glad I don’t have to go through that.”

For those of us who live lives of ease, relative to 90% of the world, we think we are doing something right. We are demonically deluded into thinking we are doing something right. Tell me, what do we say to our suffering brethren in other parts of the planet? Things are going to get better? It would be more realistic for those living in the “First World”, more Biblical, to comfort each other, encourage each other to feed more diligently on the Word and say, “Be prepared, things are going to get worse.”

1 Corinthians 4:9-14 describes the disasters Paul and his traveling companions have lived through (take a moment to read it). Edith responds,

“Do you think you have more faith, live closer to the Lord, know more of the power of the Holy Spirit, and have greater answers to prayer because you live a life that has more comfort, less illness or hardship, less persecution, less slashing criticism, less attacks from Satan in one form or another? If the apostles are fools for Christ’s sake, do you think you are more spiritual because you are counted as wise? If the apostles are weak and acknowledge it, do you feel comfortable in counting yourself as strong? If the apostles are despised on every side, do you feel pride in being honoured in so many ways? As you are well filled with food and drink and have wonderful homes to dwell in, can you look down upon the apostles reality of closeness to the Lord while they are hungry and thirsty and without a fixed place to live in?” (42)

What is our vision of what it looks like to be a growing Christian, walking in the favour of our God? “Is it a steady stream of deliverances from hardships, troubles, afflictions, and persecutions? Or is it more diverse and deeper than that?…Let us be warned in our practical attitudes and daily actions, as well as in the basic understanding of our heads and hearts” (42).

I wish I had really wrapped my head around this far earlier in my life with greater deliberation. Who do I think I am? Do I think I am better than Paul? Is my walk more consistent than his? Is my faith stronger? Has my impact been greater? Of course not!! Paul is a Giant! Yet, “Three times Paul went through a shipwreck. He was not saved from the ordeals of fear and stormy waves, of fingers wrinkling up from hours in the water, nor of feelings of imminent drowning. He went through it all — not as a dream, but as a part of the day-by-day history of his life…” (45).

As we turn the thin pages of our Bible and take in the stories of those who have gone before us, let’s not read too quickly. Let’s stop and really think about the actuality of it. Why has God given us all these examples?

“God means us to be encouraged by Paul’s experience and also to understand that our melange of difficulties — our mix of troubles, our flow of blows from right to left, our sorrows and disappointments, our dark surprises and crushing telegrams [emails and texts today!] is not some strange thing that has nothing to do with a Christian life. God is warning us to not ‘go under the waves,’ to not ‘give up the fight.’ We are in a war but we are also to understand that the ‘good race’ gives an explanation of what we are to understand as a natural clarification of the deluge of difficulties we find surrounding us. ” (45)

In the previous chapter Edith addressed our tendency to ask Why? and here she calls us again to consider what God is up to. At their root, difficulties do have an explanation as we already touched on in that chapter, but beyond that part of understanding them and to have hope in the middle of them is to recognize the fact that “God works in the midst of history” (47) in the best of times, and the worst of times. Think for a moment that while the Jews were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, Jesus was born at this very time.  In the middle of what was historically difficult, it was also a time when the Roman Empire made travel doable. Their system of roads meant you could travel by land and connect with cities far and wide. Edith notes, “These things did not come by chance. It was not by chance that Jesus was born in the golden age of the Roman Empire…His times are well chosen” (46) and from there, the Gospel spread along these roadways through Paul and the other apostles.

There is much more to be said about our present afflictions, but let’s not forget that God does not waste them. Your trouble may be carving a path for someone else to find new life or victory in some area of their own struggle. In my own life, I testify to the truth of that. But let’s not get hung up on just this, “Is affliction something that can be designated as an area having only one kind of explanation? Or is there a balance to be studied?” (48) As we will see, there is much more to be pondered on the topic in the chapters to come.

This chapter hit a soft spot in me when Edith approached the topic of the Church. Edith again refers to Paul where he says that, “he himself has experienced danger — not to the body, but to the continuation of preserving the clarity of true truth, without being ‘muddied up.’…Paul couples exhaustion, tiredness, fatigue, and weariness with pain [all the human ailments and physical illnesses and injuries that accompanied him]. He speaks of being ‘in watchings often’…praying that his little flocks of believers would not be devoured by false teachers described as ‘grievous wolves [who] enter in among you.'” (47)

For me, I have two houses I watch over and ache over. There is my own, and we have had plenty of joy and trouble within. And then there is the other house,  I love and ache over, that of my church family where we have also had plenty of joy and trouble within. This second house represents streets of houses, and it can be overwhelming. Over the course of the past 19 years, I have been able to identify with what Paul means when he says, “Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of [anxiety for] all the churches.” I am thinking of how I have also wrestled with this, thinking somehow it should be easier to tend. I have so often wondered when things would “even out” and be less uphill. I have been trying to figure it out, as if there is some key to it all. If the past 19 years are any indication, and if what I have learned over that time about Satan’s hatred of the Church is true, I don’t think things are going to reach a sweet spot…ever.

I am thinking of the church planters who our church prays for through the C2C Network and the possibly unfamiliar anxieties they are experiencing, the difficulties they are coming up against, the sleepless nights.

“This is an especially painful kind of anxiety and not something that God points out as wrong. It was something Paul rightfully suffered — to be anxious about the safety of the babes in Christ, that they would have the spiritual food and drink (without added ‘poison’) necessary for proper growth. He finishes by admitting his own weakness and his own ability to stumble (47).

In all this, Paul is giving us a more well-rounded picture of affliction. There is not one area of his life that remains untouched and through his honesty, he makes it clear “that no one suddenly arrives at the pinnacle of faith where all difficulties — every weakness, pain and stumbling — are at an end. No one arrives at such a peak of Christian faith and complete life of prayer that there is nothing to be seen but perfection within and without” (48).

Isn’t there a strange comfort in this? When we meet people we admire and then hear about their own wrestling with the harder questions of life, when they are honest about where they hurt, when they put aside privacy to publicly talk about how they are working it through? Paul gives us this window and we find “we can relate to him an all our variety of sufferings and know that he experienced far more loneliness, misunderstanding, and violence than most of us will ever experience” (48). And as we consider his life, we can debunk our own myths and be set free to experience our afflictions in a new way.

“If we were making a chart of ‘ups and downs,’ it seems to me that the ‘up’ of Paul’s hearing the voice of the Lord and seeing the blinding light was soon followed by the ‘down’ of blindness and going without food. In his hour-by-hour living, the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of his years were more frequent than the moments of coming close to being ‘too exalted'” (49).

Are there “good” seasons and “bad” seasons or do we just need to redefine those words?

Which of your stories will you end up telling at the end of your life? The vacation that went especially well? Or the time you thought you were crushed, done, broken, hopeless, but instead persevered in Christ and came away new.

— Teresa Klassen

P.S. “God I look to you. I won’t be overwhelmed. Give me vision, to see things like you do. God I look to you. You’re where my help comes from. Give me wisdom, to know just what to do.” — Jenn Johnson from Psalm 121 and other similar passages.




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