You’ll be most able to grasp this challenging concept when you remind yourself that the single-most important desire God has for each of us is that we become, over time, a truly loving person. In fact, if you had to boil down the whole message of the Bible into one sentence, that’s what it would be – that God so wants each of us to spend ourselves in a quest to become extravagant lovers of Him and others. Well, the path to that very beautiful outcome is often filled with our learning to deal graciously with life’s stream of difficulties and adversity, because doing so teaches us so much. It reminds me of a simple, yet profound poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh! The things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me that day.
So, we can worship – which is giving God all that we can with all that we are – in hard times, because we can be confident that God wants the best for us, and we understand that all which comes our way in this life can help shape us into more loving people. In time, we can understand this axiom so deeply that we can strive to do what James urges us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
First, hardship and suffering is part of life this side of Eden, and it does not surprise God when it happens. We live in a fallen world. Jesus knew this. He told the disciples, when thieves break in and steal your stuff. Not if but when. Jesus knew that the nature of human existence would mean that the things we hold most dear would be subject to all manner of bandits. This includes earthly treasures, but also things we deem invaluable, like joy and peace. Not only did Jesus know this; he experienced it firsthand. At the end of his life and in death, Jesus faced a degree of hardship we cannot put into words. He acknowledged this in the account of the Last Supper, in Luke 22:28, when he told the disciples, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” We can take great comfort in the fact that Jesus himself has gone before us by suffering so much, in the quest to fulfill an act of love the world has yet to fully understand.
Further, God is near us in times of trouble, maybe even nearer than during good times. This is not because God moves away, but we often do. It’s a truism that we often become less dedicated, less passionate about staying close to God through prayer, reading God’s Word, and living a contemplative life, when things are going well for us. But when the tide of life brings us grief or pain or discouragement, we learn why the prophet Isaiah, in Chapter 30, came to understand how God uses the “bread of adversity” and the “water of affliction” to grow our faith, increase our wisdom, and expand our capacity to love.
Finally, we often want answers and explanations during seasons of turmoil, which is understandable, but God gives us something far more profound – relationship. Nowhere is this transformational truth more evident than in the Old Testament account of the story of Job. After Job had lost nearly everything dear to him, Job came to realize that God was there all the time, that He was listening, to the loudest of his prayers and to the most quiet of his sobbings. Everyone around him, including his wife, had told Job to curse God for what had happened. Job asked God time and again why he was having to endure so much pain and anguish. He wanted answers. And what Job learns is that God, the Creator of the universe, understood his pain and ached for him. In the end, Job is changed. And he is changed because he comes to understand a startling thing about the nature of God, that God loves him so deeply and is there with him. That God so much wants to be close to us. What happens between God and Job is also a beautiful example of what we most have to offer others who are going through life’s hard times – our presence, our compassion and our empathy. When we truly understand the dimensions of what’s happening when we face life’s challenges, when we realize how much God cares and how high His hopes for us are, we can worship with all our hearts, even in times of hurting.