I know many things are true. I know God is close to the brokenhearted. I know I will be blessed in many ways when I’m generous with those in need. I know I will find my deepest fulfillment when I delight in God and in his word.
I know these things are true because the Bible tells me so. But I don’t always know them because my life does.
In the opening verses of his book, James tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” So I spent years of my life pleading for wisdom from God about jobs and relationships. I don’t mean that once, when things were especially dismal, I asked God to fix everything or bail me out of the consequences of bad decisions; I’m talking about spending entire lunch hours begging God for insight about whether to stay in a toxic workplace and months intermittently fasting and praying for a healthy dating relationship that could lead to marriage and years asking God to give me some small sense of calling or vocational passion.
And then I was downsized from that job, and I dated a series of guys including one I really liked who tried to set me up with his friends instead and one I really liked who happened to be an atheist and one I didn’t so much like who turned out to have a gambling problem, and I’ve eked out a living writing press releases and marketing copy but it’s not exactly fulfilling the Deep Longings Of My Soul and I still don’t know what would.
God has blessed me in many ways, and losing that job was actually an answer to prayer (“God, I just don’t know if I should stay in this bad situation and try to be part of the solution.” “Here, let me get you fired. Next question?”), and at the age of 36 I finally found the best guy in the universe and married him. God turned some mediocre things into good things because that’s what he does and who he is. But God redeeming the mistakes of my twenties is different from giving me wisdom. I seem to have made more mistakes after praying that prayer than before.
The book of James also assures us God will come near to us if we come near to him, and that the prayers of the righteous are effective. Am I the only one who feels like my prayers are bouncing off the walls, who consistently gets the opposite of what I’ve prayed for, who at my most brokenhearted has felt like God is nowhere to be found?
If this line of thinking makes you uncomfortable, let me tell you what I’m not saying: I’m not saying God isn’t good. I’m not saying he is unfaithful, or that I don’t believe in him.
What I am saying is there are many passages of scripture I assent to intellectually but do not usually experience personally.
This used to send my faith into a tailspin. Like many first-born fundamentalists, I took scripture literally and believed my interpretation of it must be right. So when I read God’s promise to give me good gifts (Matthew 7:11), I assumed that meant a fulfilling job, a handsome guy, a healthy paycheck, and general happiness. When those things didn’t happen the way I thought they would (and SHOULD), I became angry with God. I didn’t make this stuff up, after all—he’s the one who said it. Why won’t he do it?
Unresolved anger often leads to depression which led me to a therapist. “How’s all that working for you?” she asked me. Not very well, and slowly I’ve developed a different perspective on what it means to claim God’s promises and understand his character. Although I still find it frustrating to read a Bible promise in black and white but see it fulfilled in shades of gray, I no longer assume my interpretation of a scripture passage is the same as God’s—or that he owes me an explanation for it.
Here’s the hard truth, folks: God is just, but he may not always be “fair,” and we don’t get to control him or what he does or doesn’t do or how or when.
The slow class
Ah, the when. In addition to reframing my perspective on God’s sovereignty, I’ve also made peace with his seriously frustrating approach to time. (Which is unfair and which I would seriously like to control.) What do you mean a thousand years are like a day? God isn’t slow in keeping his promises, as some understand slowness? Well, mark me as one of the “some.”
The problem is we hear these stories about answered prayer and God working in someone’s life and it may take three minutes for the pastor to tell the story and three decades for the person to have lived it.
We read Acts 9 about Paul’s conversion and preaching in Jerusalem and time in Tarsus and Acts 13 about his first missionary journey and miss that there were at least fifteen years between the two.
The final promise Jesus makes us, the very last one in the Bible, is found in Revelation 22:12. “Behold, I am coming soon!” he announces. Depending on which scholar you want to believe, these words were recorded somewhere between 69 and 96 AD, so at the very least Jesus said this more than 1900 years ago. His definition of soon is obviously very different from mine, and this means the promises of God are always true but they may not be fulfilled for me right now, or next month, or in this decade, or even in my lifetime.
If all of this seems painfully obvious to you, congratulations—you are one of the many who have got me beat in spiritual maturity. But if you’re like me, perhaps it’s helpful to know you’re not alone in feeling more resentment than relief when considering the claims of God or seeing their apparent fulfillment in other people’s lives before your own.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that he means what he says—including that bit about his ways and thoughts being higher and better (and often less immediately understandable) than mine. I give him my trust because I believe he’s writing a story far bigger than me, and I keep hanging in because I haven’t found the words of eternal life anywhere else. This is the way I try to follow the God I’m trying to understand, and how I make sense of experiences that don’t make sense. It’s difficult and slow and therefore probably similar to the story of everyone mentioned in the Bible. And who knows? Perhaps, as the years pass, it’s even making me a little wiser.