Editor’s note: This story was first published in 2013.
When I was going through surgery and then chemotherapy, the medicine made it really hard to concentrate on reading. My friend Sarah said, “Aren’t you glad you’ve spent years and years under good teaching? You have all these promises in your heart; you can just draw them up from the well.” It was almost impossible to look things up when I didn’t have the capacity, but like Sarah pointed out, I already had them in my heart. To spend years and years under good teaching, your mind is already renewed, and you have the resources to continually renew your mind when you’re suffering. Now is the time to know the truth. ~ Charity Singleton
My 10-year-old son flopped onto the hot sand and stared up at me, wild-eyed. “I can’t …,” he began before trailing off.
At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, our family had set out on what we thought would be a short climb up one dune to reveal a beautiful view of Lake Michigan. Instead, we reached the top and saw … more dunes. We forged ahead thinking the lake must be over the next rise, but when we reached the top … more dunes.
We naively continued, not realizing we’d embarked on a 3.4-mile hike over a series of dunes to the lake and back. We reached the lake, only to face the return trip without water or proper shoes. Sand gave way with each step, hot summer sun bore down, and my son was giving up.
“It’s so hot … and I’m thirsty.” My son’s eyes widened more, a hint of panic in his plea. “I can’t … I can’t take another step.”
Our situation was difficult but not dire. I looked straight at him. “Yes, you can.”
He started to cry. He expected us to rescue him, to minimize his discomfort. As he teared up, I realized how often I’ve bailed him out. This time, I couldn’t.
I knelt down and leaned in close. “We’re in a sandy wilderness. We can’t drive in here to pick you up. We can’t take a shortcut. We can’t make a water bottle magically appear. We can’t carry you.” I paused, locking eyes with him. “There is no other way to get back. You have to get up and walk on your own two feet.”
“It’s hard, but you can make it. We’ll be with you every step, but you have to keep going.”
He watched other people moving along the hilly path and knew I was right. Slowly, he stood up and sank a foot into that collapsing sand.
In a culture where comfort and convenience reign, relatively minor inconveniences can seem overwhelming. If we can’t cope with these “first-world problems” without a meltdown, how will we handle a serious crisis?
As we plodded, I thought about how easy our lives have been — we’ve dealt with rocky relationships and health scares, including a few surgeries. Compared with most of the world though, we’ve had it pretty easy. Our pantry and fridge hold an abundance of food, our furnace kicks out heat in winter, and our vehicles are running smoothly.
In a culture where comfort and convenience reign, relatively minor inconveniences — burned lasagna, flat tires, long post office lines, a lost Internet connection, or an unexpectedly tough hike — can seem overwhelming. If we can’t cope with these “first-world problems” without a meltdown, how will we handle a serious crisis?
A few steps ahead of my son, I could hear moaning. Hearing him complain, I concluded he would not fare well in the face of true suffering. Maybe none of us would.
Do Not Be Surprised
As believers in the Western world, we access conveniences that create easier, more comfortable lives; we take pills and shots to avoid aches and distress. When my husband underwent minor surgery not long ago, the nurse summarized his pain management by saying, “We don’t want you to feel any pain at all.”
Contrast that with Jesus’ brutal beatings and bloody sacrifice, Paul’s shipwrecks and floggings, and first-century Christians’ persecution. Modern missionaries often navigate dangerous settings in order to serve. They’ve all endured suffering. Hardship. Adversity.
What about us? How can those of us enjoying relative ease prepare for spiritual, moral, or physical adversity?
Adversity will come. Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). “[D]o not be surprised,” Peter wrote, “at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering is expected, they say, so don’t be surprised when it hits.
James reminds his brothers to “[c]ount it all joy … when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). And Paul told the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance … character … hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Trials, adversity, and suffering, they say, transform a person for the better.
John Calvin, too, suggests that suffering produces benefits, because prosperous times — the cushy days — may cause us to miss seeing God at work: “For in prosperity we do not experience the worth of his assistance and the power of his Spirit, as when we are oppressed by men.” Not only is adversity inevitable; it may actually deepen our faith as we see God at work in us.
“For in prosperity we do not experience the worth of his assistance and the power of his Spirit, as when we are oppressed by men.” — John Calvin
Knowing this can remind us to seek the Spirit amidst our trials and let Him work in us, even when we feel weak — because our weakness allows God’s strength to shine: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Trust the Father
In a Banner of Truth article Dr. Garry Williams, director of The John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, describes John Calvin’s strength. Calvin faced frequent illness, the death of his son and wife, opposition by natives and strangers to Geneva, incompetent colleagues who left him with an extraordinary workload, and the constant “shadow of death.”
How did Calvin cope? Williams points first to the fact that Calvin, rooted in truth, expected suffering as the Father’s will — a natural consequence of being united with Christ both in His life and death. As Williams quoted Calvin, “It is horrible that those who call themselves Christians should be so stupid, or rather brutalized, as to renounce Jesus Christ as soon as he displays his cross.” When times are easy, suffering can surprise us and mess with our minds so profoundly that we forget who we are in Christ. We can learn from Calvin and instead of being shocked by adversity, simply accept it, trusting that God is captain of life’s ship:
Although we may be severely buffeted hither and thither by many tempests, yet, seeing that a pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.[iv]
Calvin encouraged believers to embrace the simple joy of trusting in God’s choices: “[H]e who sees more clearly than we, knows far better what is advantageous for us. Now when he permits his children to be afflicted, there is no doubt but that it is for their good.”
This trust in a loving Father grows as our Scripture knowledge grows, so that when difficult days come, as they did for Calvin, the Holy Spirit could bring it all together. Trusting our Father as Christ did at Gethsemane frees the Spirit to work in and through us. Then we can truly believe “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The LORD your God will be with you
God sent Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan.. Under these daunting circumstances, God told Joshua, in essence, to be hardy. “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:6), God told him, adding emphasis the second time with “very”: “Be strong and very courageous” (1:7). The third time God repeated the phrase, He revealed how it would be possible for Joshua to be strong and courageous: “… for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (1:9). God’s presence served as Joshua’s source of strength and courage.
This promise of God’s presence is a truth for all occasions. Whether we are weak or strong, He is with us. Always.
In a lecture series on Joshua, Dr. R.C. Sproul observes, “[T]he Bible repeatedly describes the history of God’s people as a suffering people.” That is, God never promises that a Christian will go through life without difficulties or suffering. “[W]hat God does promise … absolutely to Joshua and to us through Jesus, is His presence: ‘I will be with you’; and the negative, ‘I will not forsake you.’” This promise of God’s presence — Christ in us, through the Holy Spirit — is a truth for all occasions. In the long post office line, while trudging through slippery sand, and when facing illness or death — whether we are weak or strong, He is with us. Always.
Give thanks in all circumstances
In The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom attested to God’s loving presence, even as she faced illness and death in World War II concentration camps. She contentedly trusted that nothing separated her from God’s love — not nakedness, beatings, starvation … not even fleas.
Corrie and her sister Betsie would huddle with women at Ravensbrück reading the Bible and living its truth. As the sisters processed the horror of this concentration camp, they came across 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and its command to give thanks in all circumstances. At first, they thanked God for the few things that seemed positive, such as the fact that they remained together in the same barracks or the Bible they smuggled into camp. But Betsie pushed her sister to thank God even for flea infestation.
Corrie balked. “Betsie,” she replied, “there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie repeated. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” With that, Corrie stood next to Betsie, and the two gave thanks for the swarming fleas in Barracks 8.
For reasons the sisters didn’t understand at the time, prison guards never stopped them from holding hushed services in that space. Betsie and Corrie took advantage to read aloud Scripture, pray, and sing hymns with the women. Much later, Betsie overheard some guards talking. One admitted he was afraid to enter the barracks. Why? Because of the fleas.[ix]
The women had thanked God for unthinkable suffering, not knowing how it would bring God glory. We can follow their lead, giving thanks in all circumstances. If we practice when life is relatively easy, we can more naturally give thanks later, when times are hard.
Meditate on it day and night
Every spare minute, Corrie and Betsie pored over Scripture that God then used to strengthen them. Joshua was told to do the same, to meditate on God’s word: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:8-9a). Commitment to Scripture was key to preparing for adversity.
During cushy days, we can commit to reading God’s Word, listening to quality teaching, even memorizing passages, absorbing truths so that when adversity hits, we’re grounded.
We can do the same thing. During cushy days, we can commit to reading God’s Word, listening to quality teaching, even memorizing passages, absorbing truths so that when adversity hits, we’re grounded.
My husband and I started an after-dinner tradition of reading a brief Bible passage and discussing it with the kids. At first we kept the interaction short and simple, but the conversation often grew and deepened. Regularly revisiting Bible stories together was a way to walk in the footsteps of those before us and remember God’s faithfulness throughout history.
The Israelites who stood on the Jordan River banks grew up hearing stories of God’s faithfulness; in particular, how He parted the Red Sea. Yahweh parted the water for their fathers; now He would do it for them. This surely helped overcome their fear as they were told to take the land. They would walk in the footsteps of those who went before them.
We, too, can find it easier to trust God today after remembering how He has worked throughout history. Reviewing God’s past actions strengthens us in the present and prepares us for the future, whatever it brings.
The Secret: Strengthened by Christ
Calvin knew the secret. Corrie and Betsie knew it, too. And so did Paul, who wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). The secret isn’t really a secret to those who know the Lord. Whether we’re lounging in the comfort of 21st-century homes or crouching in Ravensbrück, strength for every situation comes from Jesus, who promises His presence and power.
This is important to realize, because if we hear only “Be strong and courageous,” we might assume we are responsible to muster enough bravery on our own to succeed against adversity. If we succeed, we can fall into pride and self-reliance; if we fail, we can struggle with failure and doubt. Either can put us out of touch with the only One who can truly provide what we need.
Communing with God through prayer results in rich relationship. Jesus modeled this relationship with the Father in the relatively easy times when He slipped away to pray in solitude, all the way through His anguished hours at Gethsemane and those final moments on the cross. The practice of pouring out our hearts to the Father on ordinary days prepares us to do so on days of strife and struggle.
Paul advises the Romans to “be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (12:12) and the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Charles Spurgeon reminds us of the privilege we have as God’s children: intimate access to Him in every circumstance:
The dead of night is not too late for God; the breaking of the morning, when the first grey light is seen, is not too early for the Most High; at midday he is not too busy; and when the evening gathers he is not weary with his children’s prayers. “Pray without ceasing,” is, if I read it aright, a most sweet and precious permit to the believer to pour out his heart at all times before the Lord.[x]
As God’s children we’re invited to pour out our hearts at all times to experience the presence of God, who will give us exactly what we need.
Couldn’t do it without you
About halfway back to the parking lot during our long trek over the dunes, I found myself a few steps ahead of my husband and son. I called back, “Be strong and courageous! You’re in the wilderness, like the Israelites!”
My son shouted, “I’m not strong or courageous!”
“What’s the rest of that verse?” I asked.
He knew the verse. “Be strong and courageous … for ….” He thought about it, then finished with, “the Lord your God is with you.”
“He is with you, too,” I exclaimed, “just like He was with Joshua.”
We advised him to walk in the footsteps of those ahead of him. He tried it and found slightly steadier footing. Toward the end, he raced ahead. When my husband and I reached trail’s end, we found our son united with his sisters, slurping from a drinking fountain. He waved at us, grinning.
The next night while climbing into bed, he said, “Thank you for staying with me and encouraging me on the dune hike. I couldn’t have done it without you.”“Remember that hike next time you face something hard,” I suggested. “Remember how you made it through, even when you thought you couldn’t.”
He nodded, we prayed, and I kissed him goodnight. Closing his bedroom door, I thought about what he said. It’s what I want to say to the Lord Jesus, next time my cushy world is buffeted by adversity: “Thank You, Lord, for staying with me and encouraging me. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Ann Kroeker is the author of Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families (David C. Cook) and The Contemplative Mom (Shaw Books). She has also been published in such magazines as Decision, The Student, Christian Home and School, and Indianapolis Woman.