The fact that relatively small troubles can grind us down points toward the most important truth about trouble. Troubles will come. It’s how we relate to them that matters. In my book, I write about thinking about troubles correctly, becoming spiritually equipped to deal with them effectively, and, in the end, learning how to use troubles as a means of deepening our relationship with God.
The first step is to think about troubles the right way. The idea of trouble can give us lots of trouble. We latch onto the idea that things should be different than they are.
Christian Life as Utopia
Most of us know that sorrow and pain are part of our lives as Christians. But sometimes we have trouble believing that they should be such a large part of our lives.
This is especially true for those who have seen their life getting better after awakening to a new relationship with God. Most of us have had an experience like that. Life gets better when we get to know God better. We have a sharper sense of the Lord’s presence, a renewed confidence in the future, a greater awareness of the Lord’s love for us and for those we love. Perhaps you have turned away from bad relationships and serious sin and have experienced freedom and joy as a result. Although part of you knows better, it’s tempting to think that it will be smooth sailing for the future.
“It ain’t necessarily so,” to quote a line from a song of my youth. The Christian life is not a highway to utopia, nor is it a blueprint for perfection. There are many clouds in the Christian sky.
When trouble comes, as it will, it can wreak havoc in this perfect world. The family crisis, the bankruptcy, the serious illness, can look like a terrible mistake, a shattering exception to the placid, smooth, and cheerful course of perfect lives in a perfect world.
The truth is that trouble will come. Jesus means it to come. The Christian life is not supposed to be troublefree. Christians will never be perfect, and the point of growing as Christians is not to avoid difficulties and unpleasantness but to face them in the Lord.
The Comfort Gospel
Some Christians hold to what’s called “the prosperity gospel.” This is the belief that God rewards righteous people with material blessings —successful businesses and investments, nice homes, big new cars, vacations, and the other visible signs of worldly success. This idea even has some biblical support. The Hebrew people believed this for generations, until the facts of life and God’s fuller revelation of himself superseded it.
It is hard to believe in the prosperity gospel as a principle of faith. Facts conflict with it: God does not seem to always bless the righteous with evident prosperity. The gospels clearly teach a different ethic, an ethic of love and service and of living for another kingdom. Certainly Jesus our Lord, the man whom we imitate, enjoyed no blessings of worldly success.
But it’s not hard to slide into a “comfort gospel.” God will take care of me. I’m not wealthy, just comfortable. Things aren’t wonderful; they’re just very good. I’m not always at the pinnacle of success; I’m just serene, enjoying the good things of God. “God wants it that way,” we think.
It’s especially easy to equate comfort and God in our North American society, which combines great wealth with a high degree of religiosity. Nevertheless, the “good life” in America is not the Christian life. Trouble will disturb the serenity of our lives. “God can’t want it that way,” we say. The comfort gospel can prevent us from seeing that he does want it that way.
God Will Deliver Me
A subtler mistake is to view hardship as essentially something that we will be delivered from. When we are weary and afflicted, when we’re confronted with serious hardship, we say, “The Lord will deliver me.”
He will, and he does—but rarely according to our timetable. Weeks, months, years can pass. Our loved one keeps on drinking, our son does not come back to the church, the depression doesn’t lift. Prayer and fasting don’t seem to make any difference. Where’s the deliverer the psalms talk about? What’s wrong with God?
Something is wrong—with us. Our troubles are not occasions for God to display his power. One of the axioms of the Christian life, one which I will repeat often in this book, is that troubles have much to teach us. Often the lesson is patience; sometimes it is humility. The Lord will deliver us according to his schedule, not ours. And when deliverance comes, it comes from his hand—not from our fervent prayers and heroic fasting.
Satan’s Plan—For Me?
Often our thinking about trouble doesn’t take into account the reality of spiritual warfare. It’s not hard to believe that malevolent evil forces are at loose in the world when we ponder events like the terrorist attacks of September 11, the near-assassination of the pope, and the horror of crimes of sexual abuse. But, in my experience, we have a harder time seeing the role of evil spiritual forces in our own humble lives. We are disinclined to believe that Satan really has a plan for us personally, a plan that he tries to execute. We are more likely to believe that troubles are caused by our defects, by God’s lack of concern, or by circumstances.
But the truth is that the devil is real. That is the consistent teaching of the church through the ages. The church’s accumulated pastoral wisdom testifies to the influence of evil spiritual forces on individuals. Careful discernment is called for here. Not all troubles are caused by Satan. We can make serious mistakes by seeing the devil everywhere and attributing powers to him that he simply doesn’t have. But it’s also true that we are involved in spiritual warfare. We are both the battleground and the army. The enemy wants to rob you of your salvation—you, personally. He knows you—not as well as God knows you, but he knows you.
Many of the troubles in our lives are battles in a lifelong spiritual conflict. We have the weapons to fight this war successfully. One of them is simple awareness that many troubles are caused not by us or by God or by circumstances, but by an enemy.
The Cancer of Discontent
Discontent is common. It’s even admired. We think people are creative and energetic when they are not satisfied with things the way they are. Discontent leads to new ideas, hard work, greater productivity.
However, discontent in our spiritual lives can be poisonous. We get a certain kind of picture in our minds about what we want and what we’re aiming for—a certain kind of marriage, a certain kind of family, a certain kind of job and service. When the reality is different from the picture, as it always is, we get discontented. This can eat away at our faith just as cancer destroys a human body. Discontent can also leave us unprepared to face real trouble when it comes.
The antidote to discontent is the person of Jesus Christ. Discontent comes from living our faith without centering it on the Lord. At the center of our Christian life is a person, a man like us in all things except sin. Our faith is not centered on rules, a pattern of life, a style of prayer, or our expectations.
We look to Jesus, and we seek what he wants to do in our lives.
Excerpted from The Truth About Trouble: How Hard Times can Draw You Closer to God, by Michael Scanlan, TOR, with Jim Manney.
Michael Scanlan, TOR, was a former president and chancellor of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, and a leader in various Church renewal movements. His books include Let the Fire Fall, What Does God Want? and Appointment With God.
Jim Manney is a popular writer and editor of books about spirituality.