Yet I Will Rejoice
First there was a familiar song lyric which jumped out at me afresh, then a casual comment from a friend, and finally Piglet.
He was all alone on a park bench, matted, water-logged and bedraggled from the weekend’s rain, and shivering slightly in the chill morning air. All his circumstances said he should be feeling awful. He’d been forgotten; dropped by someone he thought had loved him, kicked around in the mud, then left behind. It would have been perfectly reasonable for him to have hung his head and cried with despair. Yet he looked, in spite of everything, as cheerful as could be.
The apostle Paul experienced the whole gamut of human experiences, from being lauded, honoured and celebrated to being beaten, imprisoned and even shipwrecked, yet he was able to say that he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil 4:11). Centuries earlier, the prophet Habakkuk had written a similar sentiment:
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. - Hab 3:17-18
How could they say these things? Were they just the human equivalent of stuffed toys, with their brains and emotions surgically (spiritually?) removed? Had they been brainwashed into thinking that all was well when it clearly wasn’t?
No. They were fully compos mentis, they just had extra information that wasn’t available to ordinary observers. First, they knew they had – and had learned to draw on – extra help: the next verse in the Habakkuk text says “The Sovereign LORD is my strength,” and Paul continues “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (v13).
Secondly, they knew that they had never been promised a good and easy life. ‘Coming to Christ’ doesn’t mean leaving the reality of a fallen world. Although God can and does protect, heal and provide for his children, the reality is that he doesn’t always, and we shouldn’t expect him to, or doubt him when he doesn’t. In his moving book God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, Pete Grieg has quite a lot to say on this topic, and includes several examples of people who would, by normal standards, be perfectly justified in raging at God or doubting his goodness, or even his existence, given all they were going through. He asked one friend how he made sense of all the (very significant) challenges that had been thrown at his family over the last few years. The friend answered:
I guess I used to think that I had some divine right to happiness. I mean, obviously I knew there was going to be the occasional rough patch but…well, to be honest with you…these days I find it easier just to accept that life’s tough…than to feel sort of hard done by as if I’d been robbed. (pp. 149-150)
I like that. We live in a culture that tells us we can get whatever we want – in fact, we deserve whatever we desire. Add into the mix a loving, all-powerful God, and the fact that he delights to give good gifts to his children, and it is easy to come away with an expectation that a ‘true’ Christian will have an easy, happy, pain-free life; a blessed life.
This wasn’t the reality for the prophets, though. It wasn’t the reality for the Apostles – even the uber-apostle Paul. It wasn’t even the reality for Jesus – God didn’t take the cup from him, but allowed him to be abused, humiliated, tortured and killed.
I’m sure Jesus wasn’t grinning like Piglet while he hung on the cross. I can’t imagine that ‘content’ was an adjective he would have picked to describe his feelings in the darkest hour on that Friday, but the fact that he didn’t call down legions of angels to fight for him illustrates that he accepted the pain as being part of God’s will, and submitted himself to it, knowing there was a bigger picture than anyone on earth could see at the time.
I am living with an unanswered prayer at the moment. It’s something I want, and have been praying for diligently for a long time. It’s something I believe God has promised me. It’s something I believe will equip me to serve him more effectively. And it’s something he has not yet given me. It hurts. It’s hard to be told to ask him for something and not to receive it. It’s hard to see others who I (arrogantly) think are less deserving, and less appreciative than me being given the answers to their prayers while I’m still waiting. It’s hard not to feel that it must be something I’m doing wrong, that I must have disappointed God in some way, that he is withholding blessing from me until I earn it. It’s hard and frustrating and painful (and incredibly minor compared with what so many others have to go through). But just recently, the process of wrestling with God and pleading with him, and crying out to him and choosing to trust him anyway, and to praise him and to believe that he is good, just recently that has started to bear fruit. It’s not bringing the answer to prayer I’m looking for, but it has started to bring a depth of relationship with God that I have always wanted. I’m beginning – finally – to hear from Him consistently and to feel his presence, rather than just intellectually knowing he’s there.
Given the choice, I’d have opted to have my prayer answered years ago. It’s still tough; it still hurts, but through the process I’m learning what it means to say ‘the Sovereign Lord is my strength’ in a new and deeper way. Though my prayer is not answered and there is no fruit (so far as I can see) in my life, yet will I rejoice in the Lord.
We haven’t been promised an easy, pain-free life. We may get dropped in the mud and abandoned by those who were supposed to love us, but we are called to praise God and even, hard as it seems, rejoice in him whatever our circumstances.
And in case you’re wondering, when I walked past the bench later in the day, Piglet had gone. Perhaps he was reclaimed by his family, perhaps adopted by a new one. Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s rejoicing still.