2021 – for many of us – seems to be a continuation of 2020. We’re one month in and – while there are signs of hope – we are, for the most part, at home, distanced, and masked. We’re maintaining “new” feelings that have become old, and, well, many of us are ready to take on the world again.
In our immediate community, there have been deep hurts and big changes. There has been immense loss in the form of young lives from an accident, and a few more seasoned lives from COVID. There are questions about what’s ahead. There’s frustration over a vaccine distribution that is difficult to navigate. Friends have lost jobs.
Once again… we are in a place that feels, if we’re honest, dark.
For me, I’ve struggled with the feelings. I don’t understand them all. I’m an optimist: think of the frustrating “there’s a bright side” friend, and I probably fall close to that at times. And yet, something feels off balance more than I’d like to admit.
Beneath the Surface
As I reflected on this feeling, this “off balance,” this weekend and again this morning during time with devotions and just in the quiet, some of it started to come together for me.
Up until March of 2020, we lived in a world that told us that if we worked harder, focused more, set better goals, or just did more, that we could reach any dream we wanted. We could – and deserved to – have it all. Even for those of us who tried to stay grounded in scripture and truth, these messages were awfully appealing right?
And yet – we never quite accomplished them. Our homes didn’t look like those on Pinterest, despite ridding them of anything that didn’t bring us joy. Our kids did more crying and hitting each other during “picture perfect” moments than we cared to admit. And we (maybe it was just me) did a lot more yelling than we hoped we would, often settling into bed at night vowing to make the next day better than the one before. Maybe we made the promise to God, but, really, we were setting an expectation for ourselves, just like the world told us we should.
And yet… beneath the surface, if we’re super honest, we didn’t measure up, we fell short, over and over again. Still… we thought we had it good.
Then the wrecking ball entered our lives, we buckled down and things changed. Fear grew. Questions grew. Tensions that were easy to ignore (shame on us) before with our “run for the gold” mentality became impossible to brush beneath the surface and, in many cases, we needed to figure out where we stood with truths that were hard to swallow.
Now we’re coming up on one year in. We’ve seen more division arise after the initial wave. We’ve watched anger spread, and hate become commonplace. We’ve grasped for hope in things that seem to fall short…and, many of us have let discontent take over, whether we want to admit it or not.
Where We Went Wrong
While many of us were busy living in our bubbles before they popped, we listed to the messages around us, whether we wanted to or not. We started to think that we had it in control. Sure, God was on his throne, and it was great to worship him and come together with other believers, it was great to lean on him when times got hard – sometimes even greater because we knew that the hard times would pass. Things were measurable in that world. And so, we gave God our hearts…but, we kept some for ourselves as well. We kept the illusion that if we just worked harder, or prayed harder, or leaned in more, that we could keep going at the pace we were at: we could be achievers!
But that – friends – is not what we’re promised. It’s not what the people in the times the scriptures were written would want us to believe (in fact, they wouldn’t have been able to comprehend that way of thought). It’s sure not what we’re told to expect.
Hope in Scripture
I spent some time in James this weekend, specifically, James 1. I’ve always liked the book. Back in my Bible quizzing days I memorized the whole thing. And when times got hard, I’d lean hard on James 1:2: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of any kind…” I’d recite it off. Send up a prayer or two and move on.
But, that’s not what I think the chapter tells us to do. In fact, here’s a deeper look (ESV):
2 Count it all joy, my brothers,[b] when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass[c] he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.[d] 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
I bolded the parts that I’ve really wrestled with and dwelled on during this time, and wanted to share.
Yes, we’re told to count it as joy when we face troubles of various kinds, and we’re told that if we stand strong, we will be full and complete, steadfast in the Lord. There’s no disclaimer here. There’s no promise that the troubles will pass. In fact, the only promise seems to be that we sure will face them, and that when we do, we are to count it as a joy.
There’s also a warning here, and it has to do with our own desires (think: pre-2020 running into 2020 world). If we lean on our own desires, if we think we have it all together, or – maybe even worse – that we have it all in control, the result is sin and death. There’s no sugar coating this.
And yet – there is still hope! First, the fact that we are told to consider it joy when we are experiencing troubles – that it will help us grow in our relationship with God, means that it is possible. We can – with God’s grace and love and help – experience joy in affliction. Second, God promises that there are good things in the hard – maybe the only good thing is our relationship with him at times, but that is not a small only, it’s a giant, all-encompassing, all we need “only.” He has no variation. He has no shadow. In him there is no darkness at all.
Are We Only Seeing Darkness?
When we see the darkness – we are not seeing our God. That doesn’t mean the darkness isn’t real. It surely is. But, it means it is not of him, and that, if we look to him, there is a light in the darkness.
Maybe if we aren’t seeing the light, we aren’t looking in the right place. That’s a tough one for me to swallow. But, in times that I dwell on the hard, when I want to throw a computer against a wall in frustration, yell at the insolence of a child, throw all caution to the wind and bring community back into my home, cry because of the overwhelming “bigness” of all of it… maybe I’m resorting to past behaviors that told me I could have it all together if I just tried harder, instead of stepping back and looking up. Instead of leaning into promises instead of my own desires.
To be clear: this doesn’t mean we’re to ignore the dark. We aren’t to brush off troubles that aren’t our own. We are to dive in. We’re to work to build others up. We’re to build bridges and to be advocates for change. We’re meant to grow, to listen, to change. As bearers of light we are even more called to walk straight into the dark, into the hurts. Yet when we move forward, we’re to go with confidence knowing that nothing we face today is beyond his light. Nothing is bigger than him. That’s where the joy lies. That’s where the hope lives.
If we lean into scriptural truth, we see we aren’t abandoned. But, maybe we also see that how we were living before was an illusion that put the control in our hands, where it was never meant to be in the first place.
Perhaps this is the opportunity we needed to change that. To decide on what foundation we stand and build. To look out through a different lens that’s not dependent on our own accomplishments or goal-setting at all.
Instead, let’s break from that mentality and work together to look to our God for strength, to build others up, and to carefully consider how we move forward from here. We have an opportunity at this fork in the road to go a different way. Sure, we can hang on to our own desires, or, we can look up, abandon control and give it to the one who was meant to have it from the start. What hope! What joy!
Which path do we choose friends? How do we move ahead? I choose hope.