Troubles and the Life of Faith
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins (Psalm 25:16-18; NRSV).
Preachers on television constantly promise their viewers lives of health, wealth, and welfare. If you are sick, you will be healed. If you are struggling financially, a material blessing is headed your way. If you are overlooked and under-appreciated at work, a promotion is on the horizon. Naturally, the viewer only needs to call a toll free phone number and make a nominal donation to the television ministry in order to unlock these blessings from God. Even though many Christians easily see through the shallowness of the prosperity gospel, it is hard not to buy some of what the television preacher is selling. Christians worship and serve a God who is loving and just. Based on the goodness of God, it is logical to conclude that the life of faith is one of happiness and ease. However, the reality of the scriptures is that the life of faith includes many troubles.
Troubles in David’s Life
Psalm 25 is one of a number of psalms attributed to King David–arguably Israel’s greatest and most successful king. David’s reign was marked by a time of victory in battle, the expansion of borders, wealth and prosperity, and relative peace and security. Years after David, the Israelites remembered his time so fondly that they began to imagine that God’s future kingdom would look a lot like David’s ancient kingdom. If any man of faith could sing of God’s goodness and blessing, it would be David. Yet, the psalms are filled with David’s troubles and laments. In Psalm 25 especially, David speaks vividly of these struggles.
In his affliction David says that he is “lonely” (Ps 25:16). Here David speaks of something universal to the human condition. In the midst of trials, it is so easy to feel alone and forsaken, as if no other human being has ever or will ever endure the same trouble. Ironically, the sheer number of human beings on earth guarantees that thousands, even possibly millions, of people are enduring the same struggle at any given time.
When loneliness and affliction weigh heavy upon the heart, it is tempting to feel sorrow for one’s self and even to despise one’s self. David quickly moves from lament to confession in the psalm, pleading with God to forgive all of his sins (Ps 25:18). Earlier in the psalm, David even goes so far as to beg God to forget the sins of his youth (Ps 25:7). In the moment of David’s despair, he recognizes that his troubles may be due to his own sin, even to sins that he committed years ago. In David’s personal story this was certainly true. He endured many difficulties in life due to his sin with Bathsheba.
Yet, David’s confession in Psalm 25, which is true to his own experience, masks a larger truth. Believers experience troubles in life that are not the result of personal sin. Some troubles result from sin, but not all troubles are the consequence of sin. This is a truth Job’s friends struggled to grasp. How could a man suffer who had not sinned (Job 4:7-21)? Something in human nature struggles to reconcile this fundamental truth with the goodness of God: God’s beloved face many troubles in this life.
Troubles in Paul’s Life
While David created many of his troubles by his sins, the Apostle Paul’s life shows that troubles are not necessarily caused by sin. In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of the circumstances that lead him to Galatia to preach the good news. Apparently Paul did not intend to visit Galatia. Rather, he says, “It was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you” (Gal 4:13). Even though Paul does not explicitly name his condition, a number of commentators believe he contracted malaria prior to arriving in Galatia. This physical ailment forced him to stay in the town and receive care from the Galatians. Such a deep bond developed between patient and caretakers that the Galatians would have “torn out” their eyes and given them to Paul in order to assist him (Gal 4:15). This deep bond opened the door for Paul to share the message of Jesus with his caretakers, a message they gladly embraced.
This passage contains a frightening truth. God allowed Paul to contract malaria, a potentially life-threatening illness, in order that the gospel might spread to the people of Galatia. In this instance, Paul’s sickness was not due to any private or unconfessed sin. On the contrary, his troubles resulted from his faithfulness and obedience to God.
Reading Paul’s leaders, one can see this pattern repeated numerous times throughout Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-33, Paul “boasts” about the many ways he has suffered while serving Jesus Christ. His suffering included numerous instances of physical persecution, three times being shipwrecked, facing danger constantly, and having to endure a lack of sleep, food, water, shelter, and clothing. On top of all these physical struggles, Paul says he was “under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). Paul’s entire being–body, mind, and spirit–bore the weight of the ministry of Christ.
The Paradoxical Logic of Troubles
Paul’s letters do not simply recount his struggles. Paul also offers insight into why he and other Christians face so many troubles during this earthly life. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul compares Christians to “clay jars” (2 Cor 4:7). The reason for affliction and suffering is to clearly show “that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7). When the jar nearly breaks, it reveals the life of Christ that holds it together. The paradoxical way of God is to show God’s life through death and weakness (2 Cor 4:10). Even Paul struggles to grasp this truth. Later in the letter, Paul begs God to remove some trouble from his life–his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-8). Yet God speaks to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Contrary to the prosperity gospel and popular theology, the Christian life is not necessarily one of blessing and health. Rather, the Christian life is often one of struggles, trials, temptations, and troubles. Yet, there is a promise from God that God’s presence and life will sustain us through the journey of faith. Even more than that, though, there is the hope that God can redeem suffering to further his good purposes in Creation. When facing troubles in this life, Christians should always remember that God did spare his own Son from a life of difficulty and suffering. Yet, those troubles did not have the last word. Out of suffering and death, God opened the way to new life and new creation.
Image from Flickr user Charlie Jackson. Used under creative commons license. Original image can be found here.