Fall, as usual, is beautiful but brief. The colors never last as long as you hope they will, the weather turns colder faster than you expect, and, once the time changes, the sudden darkness at 5:15 makes the days feel shorter than they actually are.
We almost always experience a storm or a bitter cold front mid-November that causes all of the leaves to drop their hold on branches, spilling like confetti across our lawn and patio. The leaves still on branches are shriveled and dried, just waiting for another strong wind to shake them down.
If you didn’t know anything about the cycle of fall–if you didn’t realize that dead leaves do not mean dead trees–you might despair at the quickly-disintegrating foliage. However, because most of us took a third grade science class in which we studied deciduous trees, we know that the trees themselves are not dying; they will make it through the winter, and they will again produce new leaves and fruit come spring. The determining factor for the health of a tree is not its branches, but its roots.
This is true not just for trees, but–on a spiritual level–for people.
How can we handle the storm fronts and the spontaneous freezes that we may encounter? How do we move forward in confidence when all around us seems to be fading, withering, and falling? Is “life” possible when what we are experiencing feels more like “death”?
I think Psalm 119:92 is a key answering those questions: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” A couple of other translations add depth to this statement:
“If your instructions hadn’t sustained me with joy, I would have died in my misery.” (NLT)
“If your revelation hadn’t delighted me so, I would have given up when the hard times came.” (MSG)
If you read the entire chapter of Psalm 119 (it’s a long one, so go slowly and savor it!), the Psalmist seems to be continually praying about and processing the affliction in his life within the context of his mediations on God’s Word. He looks to God’s Word for hope, comfort, security, strength, and life. He even says in verse 71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
What a bold statement! Most of us would probably prefer to “learn God’s statutes” in a context other than affliction and suffering.
However, as I reflect on the past few years of my own life, I would agree that, if God’s Word had not been my delight, I would not have made it this far. I don’t think my life has necessarily been one of tragedy and heartache, but our unexpected journey through infertility (and the stress of multiple major life transitions going on at the same time) has been the testing grounds for my own faith. There have been many moments when I see the results of the storm around me, the fallen leaves of grief and weariness and loneliness–yet my root system is strong. I say this not because I am exceptionally strong, but because the God who planted me has sustained me through the storms.
I can say with confidence that Scripture (and my relationship with God through his Word) has kept me rooted in the midst of storms of discouragement, disappointment, and despair, and there are three specific ways I have seen this play out.
- God’s Word teaches me how to pray about the storm.
There have been many times where I was caught up in grief and didn’t know what to pray, but looking to examples of lament and promises put words to the depths of my heart. Scripture has also given me a right understanding of both sadness and lament as well as joy and fulfillment. I’ve learned through the examples of Naomi and Job that it is okay to mourn loss, to come to God with frustration and unmet expectations in how he is working. My sadness does not mean I’ve lost hope or I don’t trust God like I profess to. I’ve learned through the Psalms how to acknowledge the reality of fear and trouble and yet remind my soul that my hope and my confidence is ultimately in God. I can see Jesus and Paul both asking God to change their circumstances, and yet surrendering ultimately to God’s plans and not their own.
As I read Scripture and see how others relate to God in the middle of their own storms, my heart moves toward my relationship with God instead of away from him. I know that I can come to him messy and raw and needy, even frustrated or angry, and he will listen.
Psalm 77:2-3, 9 – “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints… Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
- God’s Word comforts my soul, giving me life and peace in the storm.
When life feels out of control and the fog of uncertainty refuses to lift, we are reminded in Scripture that nothing is beyond God’s sovereignty. Nothing surprises him or stumps him. Nothing is beyond his ability or understanding. Scripture is a source of comfort and encouragement, even when things feel unresolved and unstable.
Even if there is resolution in one area of life, the reality is that it’s never final or forever; there’s always going to be something else, so looking to our circumstances to give us peace is never going to provide the security we are desperate for. Our security is only found in Christ and what he has done for us, which changes everything about our future. We have peace because he has made our eternity secure.
It’s important for me to clarify that this “peace” is not always a feeling, but rather a confidence and security as a result of being rooted in him. There are many times when I don’t feel “at peace,” and yet I know God is with me and God is working. Instead of waiting for the storm to calm in order to know “peace,” he is my peace while the storm rages.
Isaiah 26:3 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
- God’s Word renews my mind, changing my expectations about the storm.
If we don’t read the entirety of Scripture, we miss out on the breadth of an understanding of who God is and how he works. We need Scripture to tell us what God is like and what he is about, and this then allows us to consider who he is and what he’s about in our lives.
As I read the Bible and develop an understanding of what’s true, my expectation of how God works shifts. God is not about my happiness but his glory. He never promises “the good life.” He never says that my desires are always right and he will fulfill them in the way I want him to so that I can be happy. In fact, he tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” He emphasizes that the life of following Christ is a life of suffering, because we are called to be like Christ and suffering is one of the tools he uses to produce that in our lives. Scripture is quick to point out the ways I am thinking wrongly and correct them with truth.
When my way of thinking changes, no longer am I surprised by encountering hardship. I learn that God uses all things to work for my good and his glory–and this “good” is in light of eternity instead of the present.
Instead of exploring what I desire and pursing means to gain those desires, Scripture teaches me to align my heart with his. And the more I start to see through this new lens, the more I begin to see that a life centered on God is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than a life centered on self. My present hardships and discouragements don’t disappear, but they are no longer the center of my world or the barrier to my joy. God becomes the center. And it’s in beholding God’s beauty that I am fully satisfied. He gives me the desires of my heart because, in following him, he becomes my greatest desire.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”