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The fight of faithBelieving God in Difficult Times
By BRUCE W. MCDONALD
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Bruce W. McDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhere Is God?
We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. (Isaiah 59:9-10)
Who Would Dare Ask Such a Question?
In the 1960s movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays the part of prisoner Lucas Jackson. Twice during the film we are exposed to Luke's struggle with the person and reality of God. In an early scene, Luke stands out in the rain looking up at the sky and says, "Hey, Old Timer, let me know You are up there. Do something-love me, hate me, kill me, anything." He then shakes his head in amusement, and perhaps despair, continuing, "Just standing in the rain, talking to myself." At the end of the movie when Luke is escaping the prison guards, some of whom are really bad people, he hides in an abandoned church. Once again, he looks heavenward at the rafters and asks, "Anybody here? Old Man, are You home tonight? You got things fixed so I can never win." After some more dialogue he says, "All right, I'm on my knees asking." There is dead silence as he looks upward. "Yeah, that's what I thought ... that's Your answer, Old Man. I guess You're a hard case too."
Perhaps just reading those words causes you to cringe. But don't get hung up on the way he talks to God. Maybe you would never talk that way, but is there something in his despair that you can identify with? Have you looked toward heaven and wondered if anybody was listening? Have you asked for God just to do something, say something, or show some sign? Evidently C. S. Lewis had a similar experience:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms.... Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited?
The Advantage of Not Seeing and Hearing
There is a small branch of Christianity that claims to actually see and hear God. It is not my desire to question the authenticity of this, since the truth remains that the majority of Christians would not attest to seeing God or hearing His actual voice. As Scripture emphasizes, "We live by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). We may wish it were different. Indeed, we may think that if we saw and heard God we would have our questions answered and our faith strengthened. But Scripture seems to teach the opposite. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Peter also talks about not seeing and yet having faith: "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Peter 1:8).
As was mentioned in the introduction, it seems that in these days our faith is being stretched more than ever. However, the absence of outward signs and verification need not surprise us. "Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?" (Romans 8:24). The testing of faith is part of the Christian life. As we see when we look back through the centuries, the saints of God have always been called on to trust Him through some difficult and frightening times. Yet I believe that in many ways we are seeing the seeming absence or slowness of God in greater ways than any time in the past. Praise God that there are still wonderful stories of His moving and His power. But there seem to be many more stories (told and untold) of those who pray and trust for years without seeing an answer.
With every story of a mega-church's success, there are hundreds of stories about smaller churches' struggles. For every testimony of a Christian family's firing on all cylinders where each member is living for God, there are thousands that are fragmented. For every success story about a start-up ministry, there are dozens of failed and aborted attempts. The list could go on and on. What is happening here? Is God partial or showing favoritism?
Rick is a professional basketball player and a dear friend of mine. Rick loves the Lord and has recently seen his wife come to know Christ. He has been diagnosed with a serious nerve disorder of the foot, and the prognosis for his recovery is not good. Not only is there a possibility that he may not play again, but also his walking may eventually be affected. We have prayed and wept with Rick and his wife. He's had a sterling testimony for Christ in the NBA and in front of the public eye. Why are his prayers not being answered? To compound the stretching of his faith, a minister and some of the elders of his church came, uninvited, to his hotel room to anoint him with oil and pray over him saying that God had told them He would heal Rick. (God had not told Rick this.) After anointing him with oil and laying hands on him, they told him he was healed and said to him, "Now get up and run down the hallway." Rick could not, as nothing had changed. The men left that night saying that Rick did not have enough faith. Can you imagine the impact that this has had on his life? He wrestles with thoughts like, What did I do wrong? Why can't I believe God? If his struggles were hard before, they have dramatically increased now. Why does God choose to heal some and not others? Could it be the value of the trying of our faith? In later chapters, we will continue to look into these questions. But for now, consider Erwin Lutzer's teaching on God's purposes for us:
But how can we trust our heavenly Father when it seems so obvious that He does not give us the same care as most earthly fathers? For example, I know that my father would keep me from having cancer if it were within his power to do so; he would keep me from accidents, heartaches, and disappointments if all power were in his hand. But the actions of our heavenly Father are less predictable; He allows the most heartbreaking of circumstances. Does He really love us? The answer is yes; He does love us-even more than an earthly father could. But He has a different agenda. Our earthly father values our comfort; our heavenly Father values our faith. Our earthly father values happiness; our heavenly Father values holiness. Our earthly father values the blessings of time; our heavenly; Father values the blessings of eternity. That is why Paul wrote, 'I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.' (Romans 8:18)
The purpose of this book is not to address or answer the problem of pain. Several authors and books already cover the subject. This book seeks to present the possibility that our faith is being tested and stretched in a greater and more consistent way than ever before, and in presenting that opinion, also seeks to answer the question of why. I believe that if we understand the value of our faith and come to an understanding of the times in which we live, we will be prepared for certain tests of our faith. May we be encouraged to lead lives that have the potential for "cosmic significance."
Tough Times Call For Tough Measures
There certainly will be an increase of wickedness and sin before the second coming of Christ (2 Timothy 3:13). Let's go back for a moment to Jesus' words at the conclusion of the parable we examined. "However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Think what this woman experienced-continual refusal and indifference on the part of the judge. As far as receiving help and finding an advocate, all seemed lost. Now, God is certainly not unjust. He is the most just being in the universe. He is not uncaring or indifferent, but He is sympathetic and concerned for us. And here is where the power of this parable comes into play. He may seem to be indifferent. What is important-and do not miss this-is that Jesus acknowledges that God may seem not to care or be responsive to our cries and pleas. He gives this woman as an illustration of persistence, still believing that she will get her answer. In fact, our Lord says in verse 7 that He will hear those who cry out to Him day and night. This is intense, continual prayer. Jesus goes on to say, "Will he keep putting them off?" (all italics added to Scripture throughout book are mine). This indicates that there was a time, perhaps a long time, during which he was "putting them off." I know that, in God's timetable, He is never late; but for those of us who are earthbound, with limitations, it sure seems like it. We would all agree with the apostle Paul that God's plans are "beyond tracing out" (Romans 11:33-36). In the book of Job, we find Elihu describing the difficulty in trying to figure God out: "How great is God-beyond our understanding!" (Job 36:26).
So Jesus says He will not "keep putting them off." But why does God not answer immediately? Why does He not seem to be listening or concerned? Nothing is impossible for God. He has the ultimate one-two punch. He is all-powerful (so He's able) and all-loving (therefore He's caring). The answer to that question lies not only in the timing of the answer, since He knows when is best, but also what should take place and how.
As we will see shortly, the most valuable thing a believer can demonstrate to God is faith-and not just a casual, passive, comfortable faith, but a strong, vibrant, risk-taking, all-abandonment type of faith. Jesus asks in Luke 18:8 if He will find that type of faith, like that of the widow, when He returns.
I have to be honest with you. I want some help with my faith. I often approach God as if He were my servant instead of my master. You know, the old "genie-in-the-lamp" idea that God is here to meet my needs and respond to my agendas. My faith so often seems like anything but the widow's bold faith. Perhaps all of us can benefit by taking a closer look at what genuine faith is. But let me warn you, if you plunge into faith you might get wet!
That's telling me it's time to take the leap of faith. "Dive," from the Speechless album
Chapter TwoWhat Is Faith?
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." (Luke 17:5-6)
One of my favorite comic page characters is the preacher from the comic strip Kudzo. In one scene, he looks up to heaven asking God for a sign. "Please Lord, any sign," he says. Thunder crashes, lightning flashes, and a "NO PARKING" sign suddenly falls from the sky. No kidding, a literal sign that you would see along the roadside. The final scene shows the preacher with a bewildered look on his face.
Most Christians have heard and believe that the Christian life is a walk of faith. But just what does that look like? We read about the great patriarch of faith, Abraham, who "against all hope" believed "without weakening in his faith.... He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised" (see Romans 4:18-25).
I don't know about you, but that does not describe my usual walk of faith. In looking at great men and women of faith, we may desire to have a faith like theirs. To have more faith, we observe Bible characters such as Job, a man who lost everything-possessions, children, health, social standing, and the love of his wife. His initial response? We read in Job 1:20-21 that "then he fell to the ground in worship and said: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.'"
Not only the men and women of Scripture had great faith, but numerous Christians throughout church history also had it, and so do many people today. As I write this, several tragedies are still on the minds and hearts of many, such as the martyrdom of several Christians-the missionaries with New Tribes in Columbia, ABWE's Roni and Charity Bowers in Peru, and New Tribes' Martin Burnham in the Philippines. Testimonies from grieving relatives have been bold statements of faith. For example, Jim Bowers, husband of Roni Bowers, said at the funeral of his wife and daughter, "Most of all I want to thank my God. He's a Sovereign God, I am finding that out more now." Thanking God for his wife and daughter being shot down and killed in an airplane over the Amazon?!?
In 1546, George Wishart was burned at the stake outside Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. Wishart was a contemporary of John Knox, and his death by fire was the match used to light the fires of reformation in Knox's life. Listen to Wishart's words as he is bound to the stake: "Christian brothers and sisters, be not offended at the word of God on account of the tortures you see prepared for me. Love the word, which publishes salvation, and suffer patiently for the gospel's sake.... For preaching that gospel I am now to suffer. And I suffer gladly for the redeemer's sake." Shortly after uttering those words, this dialogue took place: "'Sir, I pray you to forgive me,' cried the man who was to light the stake. Wishart kissed him on the cheek and replied, 'Lo, here is a token that I forgive thee: my heart, do your office.'"
Excerpted from The fight of faith by BRUCE W. MCDONALD Copyright © 2004 by Bruce W. McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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